Ken Andrews’ custom aluminum single-cut by Electrical Guitar Company has a thin neck profile that doesn’t get thicker as it approaches the body. “The upper fret access is incredible,” he says. Photo by Priscilla Scott.
The summer of 1996 should have been the breakout year that L.A.-based, space-rock band Failure had been waiting for. They’d just released their third album and magnum opus, entitled Fantastic Planet—an epic rock masterpiece featuring catchy songwriting with near OCD-levels of studio production. Written and produced by band architects Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards, the album’s 17 tracks contained otherworldly atmospherics and textures, driving riffs, and violently heavy bass dirges. Unfortunately, the band’s label was busy fighting financial collapse, and as a result, the record sold dismally. With mounting personal and professional issues, the band called it quits in late 1997.
Failure’s demise 18 years ago is what makes their new album, The Heart Is a Monster,so compelling. Despite the breakup, Failure’s fanbase continued to expand through word-of-mouth, by praises from their contemporaries (Tool’s Maynard James Keenan among them), and from subsequent generations of musicians citing their music as a major influence. Magnified and especially Fantastic Planet began appearing more frequently within lists highlighting the greatest unsung albums of the grunge era.
Several years ago, the trio decided it was time for a proper reunion. They entered Andrews’ Red Swan studio in Los Angeles to begin writing and recording the first Failure album in nearly two decades and one of the most anticipated releases of 2015. The result has the Failure hallmarks of catchy songwriting and exquisite production, and its brooding delivery makes it the darkest album the band has produced to date. We caught up with Andrews and Edwards to discuss what it was like to make music together again, the gear they used, and how their dreams and the work of David Lynch influenced the album.
The Heart Is a Monster is a pretty ambitious album. The heavy layering, lush-sounding textures, and varying segues makes it sound like it’s picking up where Fantastic Planet left off. Was this intentional?
Ken Andrews: It wasn’t in the plan initially, but it ended up being discussed about halfway through the album’s writing process. One thing that we decided early on, however, was that we didn’t want to do a reunion, go on a couple of nostalgia tours, and then call it a day. If we were actually going to put the band back together, we wanted to go all the way as a fully functioning band should, with new material and the whole nine yards.
Greg Edwards: Looking back at the time when we broke up, I’m glad that we didn’t make the follow-up then. The atmosphere surrounding us at that time was pretty toxic with a lot of pressure coming from the industry side of things. I’m not sure what sort of follow-up record that would have created. At the time, I was feeling like anything we made could have tarnished the whole legacy of Fantastic Planet. We were really fortunate to have left right after making a record that was a real statement and also really resonated with people, and continues to do so.
Most of The Heart Is a Monster was written in the studio, which gives you a lot more freedom to shoot from the hip when inspiration hits.
Andrews: There may have been a few parts that Greg and I brought in and kicked around, but yes, most of it was written as we recorded it. We started off a couple of years ago at a pretty slow pace, especially compared to the final days, when we spent long hours every day in the studio.
Ken Andrews is shown here playing the guitar used the most on The Heart Is a Monster—a 1994 Fender American Standard Telecaster with a Seymour Duncan Hot for Tele in the bridge.
Photo by Priscilla Scott.
Both of your lives have changed quite a bit since the band’s breakup in 1997. Was it difficult to recapture a moment in time when you “clicked” musically?
Andrews: We’ve all kept playing or working on music since then, so our musical capabilities have grown. It allowed us to jump into some good ideas pretty quickly without mucking around. And since our sound basically relies on how effectively Greg and I bat ideas back and forth in the studio, the added experience made the process a lot easier than it had been in the past.
Edwards: Yeah, for sure. A big part of what made it easier was that Ken and I first got back together just as friends and new parents. Spending time with our young kids as they were running around and making fun of us was a nice built-in distraction away from the elephant in the room, which was Failure. It was certainly in the air, though. The feeling was that we’d eventually do something together again, maybe a soundtrack or something—but not necessarily Failure.
Since both of you trade off guitar and bass duties in the studio and live, Failure has never really had a “designated” guitarist and bassist. For the new album, did one of you play guitar or bass more than the other, or was it an even split?
Edwards: Ken actually played the majority of the bass on the record, and I played the majority of the guitar parts. I was thinking that after playing guitar in my band Autolux, I would pick up the bass in Failure. I ended up playing mostly guitar, just because that’s how it worked out in the end. Live, I’ll play whatever instrument makes it easier for Ken to sing and play.
The new album revolves around the concept of “inner space,” rather than the outer space theme of Fantastic Planet. Can you elaborate on this in relation to the album’s title, The Heart Is a Monster?
Edwards: It’s really about the concept of inner psychological space. It’s a counterpart to the theme of Fantastic Planet, which was a metaphor for someone dealing with being detached in outer space, and their worldly concerns and humanity being out of reach. The Heart Is a Monster is about the lack of identity and how flimsy the idea of identity itself really is.
Andrews: Part of where we got the idea was from a recurring experience I’ve been having for the past couple of years. It’s sort of hard to describe, but there are some mornings when I’m waking up after a night of dreams that are so intense that they shake my sense of identity. The dreams are so vivid and disorienting that when I wake up, I don’t really feel like myself. For a split second, my surroundings, my home, and even my name seem foreign, and I feel completely disconnected from my own life, as if I woke up as a different person. It really made me appreciate the concept of what personal identity is, and now the whole philosophy behind it is really fascinating to me. It’s not like a nightmare in any way, but the realization of just how fragile it is can be very unsettling. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older, I don’t know [laughs].
Edwards: It’s pretty evident that everybody’s dreams—if they remember them—are just ape-shit crazy [laughs]. That’s what the song “Mulholland Drive” is about, which is a movie that really affected me. There’s a real strangeness and inscrutability to the narrative that compels you to try to pull it apart and make sense of it. David Lynch really captured something essential about dream reality with that movie. So it was sort of my goal to make the kind of statements that keep you listening, but the narrative doesn’t hold together in any way.