One of the great unsung bands to emerge from the alternative-rock explosion of the early 1990s, Los Angeles' Failure earned a fiercely loyal cult of fans over the course of three albums. Founded by guitarist and songwriter Ken Andrews in 1990, the group crafted its tersely tuneful, hard-hitting 1992 debut Comfort with producer Steve Albini.
But it wasn't until the songwriting relationship between Andrews and multi-instrumentalist Greg Edwards blossomed during the recording of sophomore effort Magnified that the band's signature mix of richly textured atmospheres, muscular riffs, and crafty pop hooks truly coalesced. Despite critical accolades and several tours supporting avowed fans Tool, Failure never quite broke through to a wider audience. The band's masterful 1996 album, Fantastic Planet, should have been the tipping point to bigger success, but distribution issues at its label, Slash Records, hindered the release to where even the minor modern rock hit "Stuck On You" couldn't salvage sales.
Failure called it a day the next year. Andrews would record with de facto solo projects ON and Year of the Rabbit while becoming an in-demand mix engineer, while Edwards went on to join psych-pop band Lusk and celebrated shoegaze/noise trio Autolux. Still, there was enough interest in Failure to merit the rarities collection Golden in 2004 and the two-disc greatest hits-plus-demos compilation Essential two years later. Last February, the classic line-up of Andrews, Edwards, and drummer Kelli Scott reunited at the El Rey Theater for Failure's first show in 16 years, to the rapturous response of fans. All Shook Down spoke with Edwards about the band's recent tour with longtime friends Tool, the new live EP Trail of Stars, and plans for a new Failure record ahead of the trio's two-night stand at the Great American Music Hall this Wednesday, May 14, and Thursday, May 15.
I was able to see you when you opened for Tool in San Francisco a couple of months ago. It was a short set, but sounded great. I know Tool's fan base can be pretty aggressive. It's not quite at the Slayer level where they're saying "If you're not Slayer, then fuck you!" but they are there for Tool. What was it like compared to when you toured with Tool back in the '90s? Was it easier to reach the audience?
Oh yeah. Relative to the earlier shows, we definitely were able to reach the audience [laughs]. When we first were playing with Tool, their audience was much more like the Slayer phenomenon you're describing. The best part of the audience - the most receptive part of the audience - just had no interest. It went from there to people aggressively wanting us to get the fuck off the stage. So it was much better. There were a lot of females in the crowd. It's a different crowd. Their audience is not just that one little core it was in the beginning, which it shouldn't be, since their music is much more than that.
I was kind of surprised at the crowd. I hadn't seen them in a long time and was thinking "Tool has become a date band?" That there were so many couples there surprised me.
Maybe all those guys finally got girlfriends. I noticed that, too. I also thought while walking through the crowd how it's amazing that everybody knows every lyric. And those lyrics are not easy to decipher from just from the records. The vocals are mixed fairly low on their records, so they've got to go study it. A Tool show is like nothing else.
How far back does your connection with Tool go? I guess you toured with them pretty early on after Comfort came out. Were you already friends in LA?
We were just friends. Maynard approached us first, and we became friends with him and the band through him. This was when they were just becoming a big deal in LA, but they certainly hadn't broken at all nationally or internationally. They invited us to go out on a tour with them right as they were breaking. So we went on this tour of Europe with them and did all these dates all through France in all these beautiful towns and some really nice clubs. It was great, but it was funny because in the U.S., "Sober" was exploding. And yet we were in this kind of idyllic, quiet surroundings in France playing these shows to maybe 300 or 400 people.
We continued touring with them a month later back in the U.S. It with us, Flaming Lips, and Tool, and that was when the whole Tool phenomenon really took off. But it was also a really cool, eclectic show, because the Flaming Lips and Tool together is not what you would think of, and it was certainly not what any of the core Tool fans were expecting or wanting to hear [laughs].
But I loved it. I loved seeing the Flaming Lips night after night at that point in their career before they had crossed over. It's so cool that the Flaming Lips have become a pop-culture phenomenon, in a way. Because they should have been; that's kind of how I felt about them as I watched them: that they should be the high end of pop. I didn't have a lot of hope that it would happen, but it did.
I wanted to ask about the collage effects that you used, especially for Fantastic Planet, on songs like "Blank" and some of the segues...
That's another thing I love. That's a loop we created with a dulcimer. And at the house where we were recording, there was a creak in the floor right as you walked out of the kitchen into the living room. And Ken put a mic on that and you can hear that creak in there. It becomes part of the rhythm of the loop. There are a few other things in there and they just interlock together in this great rhythmic, musical way.
When we moved into the house to record, the first night we were there Ken had mic'd up the different rooms. I just had an acoustic out in the drum room and I started playing and fooling around with those chords and Ken recorded a rough version of it right there. So "Blank" was one of the songs that developed through the whole recording. It was written at the beginning of being in that house to record the album, and it just evolved through the process. At some point we decided we wanted to put some kind of interesting loop that had a very organic texture to it underneath everything.
Honestly, I can't think of too many modern rock bands that used those kinds of field recordings and sound collages approaching the level of artistry of the Beatles and Pink Floyd the way Failure did on Fantastic Planet.
I think it's because all the bands and all the production examples that we loved had stuff like that in it. Also we love film and the kind of cinematic way the soundtrack and sound design all fits together. In a movie like Alien, for instance, where the visual atmosphere is not greater than the sonic atmosphere. The sonic atmosphere is almost more of a mood than the visual one; it just totally amplifies the visual and takes nothing away from it.
So I think that's sort of how we viewed the production being one element and the song being another. The production can either take away or add to the song; or I guess it can be sort of neutral and do nothing. But we always wanted to make sure we were adding to the song and expanding it and making it greater without losing what the core of the idea was.
For your headlining tour, is your set sticking to the three albums, or do you get into some rarities?
It's hard, because we're basically at the maximum of what we can possibly play, even after kicking out the idea of an opening band. We have talked about bringing in some more rare stuff and I think that may happen. With S.F. being at the beginning of the tour, to be honest that probably won't happen there, but we've added a bunch of songs that we didn't play at the El Rey and we're actually playing some new material.
At the shows, we're also selling a live EP, Tree of Stars, that's basically the first live thing Failure has officially done. But the sixth song on the EP is the first studio recording from Failure since Fantastic Planet. It's not a song we're playing live, but if you go to the show, you can go home with two new songs.
Cool! That was definitely something I wanted to ask about, if you were planning on doing new songs or a new record.
I think there's a very good chance there will be a full record coming next year. It really depends on if we can fill out an album and justify it. Starting with Magnified and to a larger degree Fantastic Planet, one of the hallmarks of Failure was the album experience and not having filler. As you listen to the record, the whole thing moves you right along through a narrative and you don't want to skip songs.
A lot of great records usually have that song or two you don't feel the need to hear again after you've heard it two or three times. If we do another record, we just want to make sure it's on the same level that way and that it's the logical, emotionally correct follow-up to Fantastic Planet. The one positive thing about Failure breaking up when we did and not doing a follow-up record to Fantastic Planet during that time period, in that musical environment, is that we would have had a lot of influences and pressures on us to make a record that wouldn't really have been true to what we were about. I could be wrong, but I sort of had that sense back then and we skipped over that by breaking up. What happens now is I'm feeling we can really make the record that should follow up Fantastic Planet.
Failure performs at Great American Music Hall Wednesday, May 14, and Thursday, May 15. 8 p.m.; $26.