Interview – Ken Andrews (Failure)
So Failure are barely a metal band, so what? The power trio’s '90s output remains some of the best hard rock that decade produced. I count the band alongside The Afghan Whigs and Queens of the Stone Age as groups that would be the Foo Fighters of today if rock were a meritocracy.
Sadly that’s not how history works. The group released a genre-defying third album (Fantastic Planet) and then broke up in the mid-'90s; think of them as the alt rock At The Gates. Like many other gone-too-soon bands, they’ve reunited and written a new record, The Heart is a Monster, and unlike most '90s rock reunion albums, I actually like it. Failure singer and multi instrumentalist Ken Andrews and I discussed the band’s intricate marriage of writing and production
I love the new record. I’ve been listening non-stop pretty much since I got it, which is actually not good because I’m supposed to listen to lots of music in my job. But, it’s a good problem to have, you know?
Yeah. I’m the same way. If I get something new that I like, I just burn it out.
That’s the thing that people really praised about Fantastic Planet at first. It’s got a lot of layers, nuance and things that people can burrow into.
Mhm, yeah. That’s what we decided to keep doing, that direction. There were a few conscious things that we talked about prior to committing to making a full-length album and one of them was, “You know what? We are now a band.” That’s the kind of stuff that we listen to. All of our favorite bands were kind of album-oriented bands. Even though the prevailing industry thing is the singles market or whatever, there was just kind of no point in denying that we were going to go the other way. So, yeah. It feels good. It feels like we made something that’s satisfying for people who are into meaty albums.
Do you think the album is going to go the way of the dodo? This is a conversation I had with a friend last night regarding the prominence of streaming, et cetera. The idea came up that I said. maybe if you don’t have a good album in you, you shouldn’t make one: Just drop a single whenever it’s done.
I think that’s cool. I think that’s totally cool. If that’s not your strong suit, then you’re in a good spot. But again, for us, it feels fine to just keep going with the album as the format. It’s something you can really stick your teeth into. Even though streaming is going to become the primary way that people enjoy stuff, you can still stream an album. Also, I just saw something the other day — something like more than twenty percent of our sales so far on the new album are vinyl. So, people obviously still like the idea of listening to something all the way through.
Well, you guys sort of make it easy to do that because it’s clearly very consciously sequenced and flows in a particular way. The segues are pretty integral to that. Out of curiosity — so, the segue sequence starts where Fantastic Planet’s segues end. Do you see The Heart Is a Monster as Fantastic Planet disc three? How did you want people to interpret that?
Not too deeply. It was basically just kind of an acknowledgement. Like, “We’re continuing with the concept of segues and the concept of a longer album.” In our minds, it’s just a more pleasant experience to have a little bit of breath every few songs from everything being so worked out. It’s just letting something briefly segue to clear the palette. So, no: It’s not like you need to listen to Fantastic Planet and The Heart Is a Monster in order or like it’s all one big piece. It was just more like us acknowledging that we’re picking up where we left out. I think if you listen to the record you realize it’s not totally a sequel to Fantastic Planet. It’s more of, like, I don’t even know how to explain it. One thing I was thinking of the other day was the Ridley Scott new Alien movie.
Prometheus. The way that fits in with the previous Alien movies is it’s related to it, for sure, but you can’t exactly slot it in between any previous Alien movies and say, “Oh, this is exactly where it fits in.” It’s based on the whole story of the aliens or whatever but it kind of exists on its own at the same time.
It’s an interesting comparison, also, because Ridley Scott’s direction is in some ways a good echo for your guys’ music in the sense that it’s slick, technological and intimately constructed. The ghost notes and the pauses, they feel deliberate.
Mhm. It’s all tightly controlled. I’m not so sure that it really is but maybe it does give that feeling. Part of that is, I think, the fact that we’re kind of seasoned in terms of making records. So, the level of craft is pretty high. But, I have to say: At the same time, we don’t overdo the performances — the actual takes. We don’t edit them to death and we don’t actually spend too much time getting the takes. Once we’ve sort of laid down the framework for a song and have worked out what the parts are — the guitar parts, bass parts, vocals and whatever — usually the first or second take is what’s on the album, which is what makes going back and actually learning the songs to play them live somewhat of a challenge sometimes.
A lot of times, just when you’ve got it down enough to play a decent take of it, you’re done. You’re moving on. Whereas the other way around is: You’ve written the song, maybe you try it out live a few times, then you demo it and then you go into the studio and record it. By then, you really know what you’re doing. We try to keep some spontaneity in the process. Some people say cultivating the happy accident. We try to keep an environment where there’s a lot of experimentation going on with sounds, ideas and stuff. If something cool happens, we can just capture it and not lose it.
That reminds me of a documentary about David Bowie. He was talking about the difference of working with different guitarists. The dichotomy he drew was Stevie Ray Vaughn versus Robert Fripp. Robert Fripp came in to record “Heroes” and said, “Look: You’re going to get three takes with me, and that’s it. But, I’ll nail it in three takes because I’ll fuck it up with more than that.” Stevie Ray Vaughn had to do like a hundred. He was never satisfied with his performance. He had to go over and over and over again. It seems to me that, interestingly, you guys have more of the Robert Fripp idea.
It is more of the Robert Fripp idea. In fact, especially when we kind of listen to the more sound design-y elements on the record — I’m talking about, obviously, the segues, but also within the songs. There’s a lot of little sound design things going on. Most of that stuff is taken from sort of errant guitar takes, you know? Just repurposing, essentially, mistakes for little moments. I don’t even know what you call them. There’s a lot of that on the record. In that sense, we did use modern technology and the idea of non-linear editing to write.
Is there a specific instance of that on the record that you can think of? Just for the readers, so I can, like, put the video down there.
Yeah, sure. Even in the first song, “Hot Traveler,” there’s several little guitar [takes]. I don’t even know what they sound like to someone who wasn’t there when we were making it. It’s kind of feedback guitar going up in pitch.
That stuff is all little, weird, in-between-takes stuff that was just happening with the crazy guitar chain that we had going. I just recorded a lot of, not even against the song, because I just thought it sounded really cool. Later, after we got the actual guitar takes in, and the song was structured and pretty much done, I kind of grabbed all those little bits and peppered them over the song in certain areas just to kind of add interest and fill things out a little bit. So, yeah: That’s about as far as we go in terms of editing performance. We try to play the actual played parts with as much humanity as we can. We try to keep that intact. We try not to perfect performance too much in that sense. Does that answer the question?
It does answer the question. Bands acquire a narrative. Especially bands that people care about. The Failure narrative — at least as it was related to me, as I usually read about it — is a lot about perfectionism. That’s like a really intimate part of the band identity and you’re sort of running counter to that with what you’re saying to me.
Well, yeah. Part of it is that we’re older now, in terms of making this record. We were pretty decent musicians in ’97 when we broke up and all of us basically kept doing music. Granted, I played a lot less than the other guys because I probably spent the majority of my time working on other people’s albums and not as a musician, even though I did do a few records. So, we can kind of do records in this style where we’re writing and recording as we go. A lot of bands would be uncomfortable with that situation of being under the red light when they’re just figuring out their parts or kind of committing to their parts. So, in that sense, the recording and writing process for us is really quite exciting.
I would say, instead of perfectionism, it’s more about kind of reigning in and manicuring randomness, in a way. How we built most of the songs on this new album is pretty similar to what we did on Fantastic Planet. What we do is, before we really get into recording the album, we do a lot of jamming where just all three of us are in a room and we’re just improvising ideas. Most of it’s instrumental. Some of it, if someone has a vocal melody while a part is being played, we’ll throw it in and sometimes some of that stays. But, basically, for this album, we were looking at somewhere around fifteen to twenty hours of jams. I would mix them down to stereo files. I had hours and hours of jams to go through. You listen for, like, fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes and all of a sudden a little moment will go by that we might not have recognized at the time as being that interesting. But, when you’re listening to it later in a more editorial way, you go, “Hey! That’s kind of a cool moment.” Basically, we go through the jams, pick out little moments and say, “Hey, do you think we could turn this into a song? This soundbite maybe could be a verse, chorus or something.” Then, we try out some vocal melodies and eventually we commit to it. We kind of say, “All three of us have a fairly good confidence that, if we pursue this, we will come out with a song on the other end.” Seventy percent of the album comes from that.
That’s interesting. I deal with a lot of extreme metal artists. That’s sort of what the website focuses on.
The de facto writing style in that genre is that, usually, there’s a sole songwriter who comes in with a bunch of riffs and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of improvising involved. Sometimes, I think that some of the inherent staleness of extreme metal is that the artists don’t attempt to really mess with the outline very much.
Yeah, I totally agree. That’s what catches our ear — the unusual. The unusual that still has a thread of musicality in it and isn’t totally noise. It still has some musical value.
There’s sort of, like, three different things. There’s, like, normal stuff that we’ve kind of heard before or maybe even done before as a band. Then, there’s stuff that’s just not working — it’s just too atonal or too dissonant or it’s just kind of crazy noise sounds. Then, kind of between those two things, we find those little magic moments where it’s like, “Whoa. That’s actually really interesting. We haven’t heard that before, either coming from us or whatever rock music that’s out there.” It’s a pretty fun process. It can be pretty nerve-wracking sometimes without having the map of demos to see it through. But, at the same time, it’s a very creative space to be in.
Lyrically, the record’s got a lot of reference to sleeping and dreams. That kind of effects me, speaking as a person who has a lot of difficulty sleeping. I’m a chronic insomniac. Insomniacs do frequently suffer from strange dreams. That was the thing about the record that sort of drew me into it. I wanted to know where that’s from. Is someone in the band a bad sleeper, too?
It kind of came from me in the sense that I brought it up to Greg early on in the process as a concept for a song. It was the idea of, as you’re waking up and you’re in some kind of crazy, vivid dream where maybe you’re not even yourself — you’re, like, someone else — and you’re kind of waking up but you’re not quite waking up. I would get these overwhelming feelings of the randomness of identity. That feeling of, like, how the hell did I end up in this person? I don’t know. It’s a weird feeling. I don’t know that I had it that much in my, say, twenties. As I’ve gotten older, I think maybe my dreams have gotten stranger or something.
Greg identified with it and we kind of wrote “A.M. Amnesia” explicitly about that. But, it also found its way into quite a few other songs. It was just a topic we were talking about a lot and it seemed to fit with some of the other songs, as well. So, that’s where that came from.
Do you keep any sort of running log of your dreams? I know that some people do that. Literally the only reason I’m asking is because I’ve thought about doing that myself.
You know, I haven’t. Every night I’m like, “I’m going to write down whatever dreams I remember.” There was a week where I had two or three of these “A.M. Amnesia” things where I woke up and was like, “Who am I and where am I?” I definitely wrote that down. I wrote down some of those dreams. By the second one, I wrote down the song title, “A.M. Amnesia.”
There’s an echo of that in the album art with the insemination of the egg cell. At least, I think it’s an egg cell. It’s this smaller significant piece inserted, almost at random, into this larger significant piece. You know? That’s what I take away from that.
Delving sort of deeper into the themes of the album lyrically is probably more Greg’s territory. It sort of started with Fantastic Planet and I basically kind of nurtured it and continued with it on this record — I just really like his lyrics. So, I kind of let him do his thing more on this record than any other record before. He had a good explanation of the difference between Fantastic Planet and this record. Outer space is a metaphor for isolation on Fantastic Planet. This record is more like going internally and going into the kind of infinitely small and infinitely personal side of things. We use that as a metaphor for questioning identity. I don’t know. It’s a little early for me to be completing explaining it the way I’d like to.
I’ve been talking with a lot of people about the nature of music criticism, speaking as a young music critic. I wanted to ask you something because Failure’s a band that’s known, sort of among other things, as a band of producers — of people who are interested in music production. I think that the conversation around music — this may be the influence of hip-hop — is shifting a little bit away from songwriting and toward production as sort of a central value. I’m not certain how comfortable I am with that, but I’m not certain that I can do anything to stymie it, either. As an older person who actually is a producer, give me some insight. What do you think?
Yeah. I think, as time has gone on and you have a flood of music out there to be consumed, the whole idea of the presentation of the material has definitely become more important. You can kind of hear it in a lot of music or just in general. The chords, a lot of times, are very similar between some songs. Partly, maybe lazy songwriting is to blame for that. But, some of it is the kind of nature of Western music. There’s really only seven notes and if you want a song to have any propulsion to it rhythmically, you’re generally trying to stay in 4/4. There’s certain, like, structural things that kind of harness you into a certain framework. To get your material to seem more original than maybe it is, presentation can get you a long way.
For sure. For Failure as a band, it’s always been a kind of a one-to-one thing. We try to be conscious of not just getting completely mired in the presentation or the production and also to have, like, actual, meaty content — lyrics that can be looked at from different angles and hopefully some challenging new harmonic information that maybe you haven’t heard before. We add on top of that the hopefully somewhat experimental production values. We’re not afraid to use a lot of effects on everything from vocals to guitars as long as it’s kind of leading towards a place of, “Have I heard that before?” So, does that answer your question?
I certainly think it’s a signpost on the way. There may not be an answer to my question. Sometimes there’s more value in just asking.
I have to tell you, we’re definitely conscious of that. There’s probably times when maybe we do feel, “Oh. This is sounding a little familiar here.” We’ll lean on the presentation a little bit to get us through a section or something. We’re definitely aware of it. But, at the same time, we try to make sure that it’s not only the presentation that’s drawing people in.