Words by Kris Poland
Nearly two decades passed between Failure’s Fantastic Planet released in 1996 and their next full-length album The Heart is a Monster dropped in 2015. Longtime fans were delighted that their wait for the next Failure release would be much, much shorter. 2018’s In the Future Your Body Will Be the Furthest Thing from Your Mind first appeared as a series of four EPs before its combined release in November. OffShelf spoke with Failure’s Ken Andrews about what was and what’s to come for the veteran space rock trio.
OffShelf: What brought the three of you back together for this album?
Ken Andrews: Once we decided to reboot the band and we did some touring and made the last record The Heart is a Monster we didn’t feel like we wanted to stop. We were enjoying it, and it seemed like there was an audience for it. We did take some time off to regroup in our personal lives, but I don’t remember if we ever a discussion about it. It just seemed like we were going to make another record for sure.
OS: Did you organically fall back into step with each other afterThe Heart is a Monster?
KA: Pretty much. We made it a little differently this time. Structurally we made it more like we made Magnified in the ‘90s. Greg (Edwards) and I were in the studio writing and recording the album, and then we went into sort of a tracking studio to do drums as an overdub with Kellii (Scott).
OS: Does this album feel like a throwback to you in terms of both content and construction?
KA: Yeah. Our goals in the studio have been pretty simple in terms of what we’re trying to achieve. We’re trying to make something that is for sure a Failure record. We’re pretty capable of making music outside of the Failure sound or whatever, but if we ended up doing that we weren’t going to release it as Failure. We’d do something else. That’s already happened a couple of times where either one of us has come up with a beginning of a song idea and the other person has been like, “It’s not really Failure. It sounds like something else that would be good for another project.” So it’s got to have something intrinsically about the band in it.
The other thing is a bit more elusive. We don’t want to repeat ourselves. It’s kind of a balance trying to do something that has a known identity but also pushes the boundaries a little bit so that it’s fun and challenging for us.
OS: What was it like attempting to maintain that identity that was established so long ago while also verging into new territory?
KA: When you get two people together and they collaborate, that’s just how Greg and I write songs. Failure’s kind of what happens without coercing it. It’s not like we have to talk about things too much. We just do it, and it ends up being that. If we don’t finish a song it’s because one of us didn’t like something about it. So if you have both of us finishing a song it’s going to sound like the band.
OS: Is that based on a close personal friendship or a shared creative vision?
KA: Probably a little bit of both. There’s something about the way we work together that’s unique to the two of us. I haven’t had this sort of creative partnership with anyone else. Now that we’ve known each other for this long it’s almost like an old married couple. We kind of finish each other’s musical sentences.
OS: Does that type of closeness make the recording process any easier?
KA: I don’t know. Every album in a way gets easier for us because we get more familiar with working with each other. We know how to take advantage of each other’s strengths more every record. In that sense it’s a little easier.
At the same time, since we’re trying to do something that we haven’t totally done before there’s some arguing and there’s some disagreements. It never gets out of hand at this point, but there’s definitely creative tension. That’s part of what makes the sound of the band too.
OS: Speaking of trying something new, why was this album initially released as a series of four EPs throughout 2018?
KA: There were a couple of different reasons. When we started making this record, because of other stuff that was going on in our lives and other work, we didn’t really have a good, clear schedule for when we would be able to complete a full record. We thought that kind of sucked for fans who got back into us since we rebooted, so instead of putting all this pressure on ourselves to make a whole album as quickly as we could with no clear schedule we thought we could just do it in chunks and release the chunks as we go. My argument was that we would still end up making a cohesive album because we’ll make it like we made the rest of the records. We would write and record the songs sort of one at a time. So there’s a cohesiveness to it in terms of a linear line through us working on the album. We finish working on one song and ask what would be good to follow that song. We’ve been able to do that on almost all the records.
This is opposed to other bands who may have a group of songs written in a certain period of time and then they get revisited sometimes like a year or two later. Then they start compiling songs to make an album. We actually just kind of create the album in one go. It’s a long period, granted, but theoretically it’s unbroken. We’re continually working on it.
OS: Do you see that continuity running all the way from Fantastic Planet through this album? For example, the sequence of the segues keeps counting up.
KA: Yeah. We enjoy being an album-based band. It’s something that we like as fans of music. All of the bands that we looked up to as we were starting out were album-oriented bands. It’s a lot to sink your teeth into when you’re doing a project. It’s something we slip into very easily, thinking about sequence and tempo and how things are going to fit together.
OS: With these recordings being released throughout the year, did you have the entire album’s title laid out from the beginning? EP titles like Your Body Will Be and The Furthest Thing somehow stand on their own.
KA: The title was known from the get-go. There’d be no other way to do it. When we started talking about the details of releasing something in chunks like that Greg had already been mulling over that title for awhile. We already had a few songs recorded, and it was fitting.
OS: Is this title meant to be taken literally?
KA: No, I don’t think so. It’s like any of our lyrics. We love the fact that a lot of our favorite lyricists write lyrics that are open to multiple interpretations. That’s something we love about song titles, lyrics, album titles, all of it. Creating something that’s interesting and makes you think about it in different ways at different points matters to us.
OS: I get that. When I go back and listen to an album from my youth I hear it differently today.
KA: Exactly. That to me is the ultimate. Creating something that maybe someone can enjoy the first time they listen to it and be excited about it, and then over time it can really change its meaning musically and lyrically. The whole feeling can change for you.
OS: Is the content of your music independent of what’s going on in the world? Failure has a dystopian aspect to me. Do you feel like we’re accelerating toward an unpleasant future?
KA: Possibly. If you want to get concrete about it, I know one of the themes that we talk about in the album is the depersonalization of society because of the internet and digital devices. People are talking about that a lot, but I think part of that is because all three of us have faced it directly in our own lives. It’s not feeling good. It’s something new that’s going on in the world that is troubling. That’s why it comes off as lacking a positive vibe lyrically.
OS: It’s so bizarre to me to think that there are millions of people on this planet who will never know a world without computers in their pockets. It’s a difficult transition.
KA: Yeah. It’s happening so quickly. It’s hard to know what the real effects or price we’re paying. I have two kids ages ten and seven, and it’s a big subject that we’re tackling right now.
OS: Fatherhood must provide you a different perspective as well. You’re at a far different place with different concerns in your life now compared to where you were in 1996.
KA: The real story of the reboot is that having kids was part of the reason why we got back together and rebooted the band. Greg and I both had our first kids within six months of each other. That was just random, but suddenly becoming fathers actually rekindled our friendship and created the environment where the idea of rebooting the band would come up in conversation. It weighs heavy on both of our minds all the time, and it seeps into the music and lyrics.
OS: Parenthood seems to be an odd balance of love and sheer terror.
KA: After the ‘90s there were a few years when we didn’t really have any communication other than a few contacts here and there. After we had the kids there was this unconscious fear. We were just frightened fathers looking to commiserate! It’s scary. It’s totally scary. We found some camaraderie in that. That led to the music.
OS: What’s the scariest part of being a father?
KA: What we were talking about. The whole social media thing. Also, being a musician and being a parent is challenging. Both Greg and I live in the freelance world. Being freelancers financial security becomes an issue.
Everything about raising kids now, from trying to figure out why so many kids are experiencing the problems of bullying, internet issues, health issues. Even trying to figure out something as simple as what kind of food to feed your kid – there’s so much contradictory information out there on simple things like that that it’s tough to navigate sometimes.
OS: But the digitization of media has also brought some benefits. For example, there’s the format for releasing this album. Do you guys entirely self-publish now?
KA: In the ‘90s I was way more on top of all of the various deals we had. Record deals, publishing deals, and things like that. Now my plate is a little fuller, and I have less time to devote to that. We are not signed to a record label, but I do think we use some companies to help us get the material out there. You can’t just sit in your house and upload music to iTunes. You have to use some sort of aggregator to get your stuff up there. I know we have a company doing that and maybe some physical distribution. With The Heart is a Monster we sold 50% digital and 50% physical, and that physical was divided half vinyl and half CD. I was told that was one of the highest physical percentages that people see these days because it’s almost all digital between streaming and selling digital files. We do sell quite a bit of music on the road too.
OS: It’s surprising to me that your CD sales made up such a significant percentage of overall sales.
KA: That was three years ago, so we’ll see this time. I think physical is going to become less for us with CD going down and vinyl going up. Even older people now are going digital in their lives. They don’t have time to keep track of discs anymore. I don’t. I do vinyl, and I do digital. I don’t even have a CD player anymore.
Vinyl is a whole different thing. When people listen to music they do so in a couple of different ways. One way is you put it on and you’re driving and maybe talking. It’s there. The other one is when you’re really actively listening. You put on a pair of headphones, and you’re really focused on it. Vinyl forces you to do the latter because you have to change the sides every twelve minutes. That suits the type of band that we are. I think people like the album flow that we are really interested in creating. Vinyl is a satisfying thing. You put on side one, you put the needle down, and then you sit down and listen to it on headphones or speakers or whatever. It’s more of a commitment. It gives the music a little bit more reverence.
OS: Your last few albums have been quite lengthy, so you probably have to do double vinyl releases.
KA: Double vinyl, uh huh. So it’s a gatefold, and you get to see the artwork bigger. Because there’s more space we can put the lyrics in the vinyl too.
OS: To me there’s something worthwhile in that tactile experience of engaging with the art.
KA: Totally. It’s a thing. Our crowd when we go on tour is half older people who discovered us in the ‘90s and maybe saw us play, and then there’s the younger crowd who got into us well after we broke up. It’s kind of cool when you go walking past the merch line and you see a nice mix of old and young buying the vinyl.
OS: Is there a pressure to live up to the expectations of the longtime fans?
KA: Yes and no. I do think there’s a sound of the band, and we have to stay within those parameters to a certain extent. I remember when we were finishing Fantastic Planet and listening to the whole record, even though Failure has a sound, if you look at the types of songs we do it’s pretty varied. From mellow to really heavy or dark to not so dark. Lots of different tempos. I remember saying to the band, “If this record does well for us it’s going to be really cool because it means that our fans are going to let us have a certain amount of creative freedom.”
It opened up a big door for us so that we’re not so pinned down in the studio in terms of types of songs that we can do. This record in particular really shows that. There are light songs, quieter acoustic things and some heavy, aggressive stuff as well. We’ve worked hard to be able to do that.
OS: The opening track of the new album has vocals that are closer to spoken word than any previous Failure songs.
KA: I felt it was a new thing for us. I was super into it, and the other guys were too. We decided to open the album with it as a statement. We’re still here, but we’re trying some different stuff. Thinking about that song in particular, the way it came together was so natural and so not thought about. It was an afternoon. The whole idea got fleshed out.
OS: It has to feel good when things can come together that naturally.
KA: A lot of times it’s a sign that it will be something that will last. A lot of times for us when something is belabored we abandon it. If it’s something that hard then you feel like you’re polishing a turd.
OS: How do you know when to let it go?
KA: You come in after working on it for two or three days and you’re just not excited to work on it. A few bad reactions and eventually you’re done. You hope that the other person is going to be agreeable with you. That can be tough at certain points. It’s our fifth album. In terms of the musical partnership that we have it’s a little less headbutty and a little more appreciation for each other in terms of the stuff the the other person can do that you can’t. Part of that’s just getting older, being more mature, making a lot of other records outside of the band, and coming back to it being appreciative of the uniqueness of the combination of people.
OS: You don’t just share singing responsibilities but also both play multiple instruments on each recording, right?
KA: Oh yeah. That’s the same as it’s been since the second album. That helps us creatively writing-wise so we don’t get stuck. It’s really easy to get stuck on something, but it’s nice if you can just hand the instrument of to the other person and say, “Why don’t you take a crack at it?” Instead of thinking, “I’m the bass player so no one else can play the bass,” it’s a much more open creative environment.
OS: There’s always been an element of looking to the future in Failure’s music. Do you have strong feelings about what lies ahead for humanity?
KA: Ambivalence. Completely. It depends on when you ask me. If I’m with my kids I’m more positive about things. I see their excitement for life. But when I look at politics or this whole technology conundrum I don’t feel so good.
OS: Is there a political element to Failure? The record ends with a song called “The Pineal Electorate”.
KA: That song was Greg’s baby, so I don’t know if I can say. I would not say that we’re a political band in general, but living in this time in particular it’s hard to not be somewhat concerned about it.