"It was more of a struggle to stay alive than it was to continue to the band": How Failure found themselves at odds with everyone

Failure group shot, 2015
(Image credit: INgrooves Music Group, Failure Records LLC)

In mid-90s Los Angeles, alt.rock trio Failure found themselves at odds with everyone: The Sunset Strip hair metallers that preceded them, the grunge movement that would jettison everything else out of water… Even with the support of fellow LA wildcards Tool, they never ‘made it’ and imploded in 1997 – in a haze of drugs and exasperation.

Nevertheless, they produced three albums of increasingly high, psychedelic quality – Comfort in 1992, Magnified in 1994 and Fantastic Planet in 1996. And in 2014 they returned with an excellent new record, The Heart Is A Monster, and spoke to Classic Rock. It was a story of carjackings, Lita Ford's house, and the death of Sunset Strip.


Pre-Failure, what was going on in all your lives?

Ken Andrews (vocals/guitar): I was in film school, so I was pretty focused on visual stuff. But I was super into music, and I’d just discovered the darker British sound, like the earlier Cure albums. That was a revelation for me. I’d previously gravitated towards the harder stuff, AC/DC and things like that, but when I first heard The Cure it was like ‘woah this is a whole different way of looking at music’. And there was an audience for it. So I started demoing stuff in my room.

Greg Edwards (vocals/bass): I’d been playing bass since I was 13, but I was in school right before we began. I was studying literature and trying to find a band. I met Ken through an ad in a magazine called The Recycler. I was into older hard rock like Led Zeppelin, but not the newer, more metal stuff. Or even Van Halen, I couldn’t relate to that. But the Cure thing, that whole strain of music where evoking the mood is almost as important as the song itself – the song is the mood.

In the context of that whole West Coast world, grunge would come to dominate…

Edwards: Yeah back then [in our earliest days] that was really before grunge. It was right as grunge was about to happen. I remember we had an advance copy of Nevermind eight weeks before it came out.

Andrews: For us, it was a little too ‘Americana’. I know people don’t think of it like that, but Nirvana was very American-sounding to me. Simple chords, with that kind of simple American punk – but with really great songs, so in that sense it was an inspiration…

Edwards: The texture of his voice was incredible, and we loved his songwriting. But the movement it was part of, it wasn’t ‘us’ at all. Ken and I bonded over film as well, and the cinematic element was always there in the music, with the different moods involved.

What sort of films are we talking here?

Andrews: [Stanley] Kubrick films, definitely; the look, the darkness…brilliant. But no we loved everything from Ren And Stimpy to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Edwards: And a lot of cool foreign films that came out at that point, like do you remember that French movie Baxter, with the dog? Quirky off-centre stuff. And with bands like Pink Floyd and The Beatles, we loved the sheer volume of colours, themes, the varied sounds and drastic changes you’d find.

You were all pretty young when Failure got going.

Andrews: Yeah I was 21 and Greg’s three years younger.

Edwards: I remember I couldn’t drink for a while, when we were first playing clubs. There were a few gigs where I had to wait until we were onstage, I could be there because I was working, but after I’d have to go right outside.

What was it like living in LA and being a band there at that time?

Andrews: Now people can look back and say ‘oh you know Tool and Failure came from LA in the 90s’ but at the time…I think, especially us and somewhat Tool were outcasts really. The scene was dominated by the Sunset Strip and hair metal bands.

Kellii Scott (drums): Which I was part of when I first moved to LA. I was 17, so I was straight out of the bedroom with the hair and everything. It was 1987, and the sunset strip was the place I’d heard you were supposed to go. I was in two bands called Liquid Jesus and Dumpster. And it felt like the best thing in the world for a 17-year-old who had been living out of the pages of rock magazines. But when I first heard these guys, I knew it was something I felt really strongly about.

The Sunset Strip was just beginning to fade as Failure got going…

Edwards: Yes, that was before Kellii joined the band [for second album Magnified]. There was a scene that was pretty interesting; a little cliquey. It kinda centred on this club Jabberjaw, which was a great little venue round the back of a building. It was super-hip at that point, I guess the cool side of LA.

Andrews: Didn’t we play with The Melvins at Jabberjaw? Yeah we did, I remember. It was a weird place, very much in ‘the hood’. If you went there you could reasonably expect to have your car stolen.

Scott: Or get mugged…

Did you guys suffer in this regard?

Edwards: I was carjacked once. I had my car taken from me, at gunpoint I think – he had something under his jacket which he pushed into my side. But the Jabberjaw thing, I think Jane’s Addiction came out of the scene that was subterranean to the whole hair metal thing. And Nirvana played Jabberjaw a few times, before they were huge. So there were cooler strains of scenes going on, alongside and after the Sunset Strip. But we were still outcasts.

Andrews: It was that reaction of ‘this band is unique, I don’t know if they’re good yet, but they’re unique’.

Edwards: There was an interesting art music ‘scene’ going on when we were first playing shows. There was a whole world going on that got squashed when grunge came in…

From the outside, Failure seemed like innovators awkwardly sandwiched between grunge and nu metal. That must have been frustrating.

Andrews: It was awful. The press didn’t get it, sometimes, they’d just say ‘this is grunge lite’ or ‘this band wishes they were Nirvana.’ When we really didn’t! There were a few people that got it, but the number of them was too small to get any momentum going. When you have Rage Against The Machine and Pearl Jam and Nirvana going crazy at the same time, and Stone Temple Pilots even, we were on the side making this slightly weirder rock music. It just didn’t connect then.

Edwards: It was disappointing and frustrating, but especially when we got into Magnified, we were pretty confident. So in one sense we didn’t really give a shit.

Andrews: Yeah, when it came to making the music, we knew what we wanted. The promotion of our music was the problem.

Scott: Nobody could figure out how to market us.

Edwards: And that’s what was nice about the Fantastic Planet creative process. We lived in a house for six months just creating that record from scratch. That was a good escape from the reality of what was going on.

Wasn’t it Lita Ford’s house you worked in?

Scott: It was! She was trying to sell it because some of the foundation had been ruined in an earthquake. And she and her boyfriend, Jim Gillette, were building a house in Oregon. So they were only able to rent the place out, and the guys from Medicine [90s LA alt.rock band] had been there before us doing some work on their record, and they knew we were looking for a place and told Ken and Greg.

Andrews: It worked well for bands to record there because one neighbour was dead and the house went derelict, and the other neighbour was a deaf couple! We didn’t have too many visitors, so we could just concentrate on the music, the lyrics.

Speaking of lyrics, you’ve previously mentioned the role played by drugs in the making of Fantastic Planet: how much of that was drawing from personal experience?

Andrews: I’d say all of it!

Edwards: A lot of the foundation of Fantastic Planet came from my struggle, or my love affair with heroin at that point. But Magnified was more about anxiety, depression, despair… so it was always some kind of mental catastrophe I was writing about!

There’s a line in Pro-Catastrophe (1992), ‘this bomb’s so boring, I wanna see some blood’. It’s funny but dark as hell.

Edwards: Ha, that’s Ken’s lyric actually! I think in a way Pro-Catastrophe was a foundation for the humourous dark sarcasm that we ended up using throughout all our lyrics. There was always a humour, in all of it.

Andrews: It was just always on the shady side [laughs].

Scott: Our humour’s basically like that all the time anyway.

Edwards: It’s weird, there have been bands where you think of heroin, or ‘heroin music’. I think heroin was more of a metaphorical subject matter for Fantastic Planet, but if there were any drugs that really influenced us it was much more marijuana and the psychedelic side of things. On Magnified especially. We were smoking a lot of marijuana and enjoying music in that headspace, and being aware that we were part of a historical lineage of musicians that we loved, that had smoked a lot of marijuana while they created it!

‘Marijuana music’ versus ‘heroin music’…

Edwards: I would not recommend heroin to anybody, but marijuana I think just shifts your perspective. It can be very instructive, not that you should smoke it every hour every day.

Andrews: I think for us, to get the whole experience we were trying to create, it’s pretty time-consuming. It’s not like with a punk rock band where you get your song together, go to the studio and bang it out in under a day. So I think the pot was a way of getting a new angle from which to judge material.

Edwards: That’s why a lot of musicians love it. And a lot of professional mixers smoke a lot pot, I’ve noticed.

What other bands, besides Tool, were you hanging out with? Or playing with?

Andrews: We toured with The Flaming Lips and Tool, around Magnified. We had a bit of friendship with those guys for a little while. That was a weird combination!

Scott: It would be great today, it was weird back then.

Edwards: I loved seeing The Flaming Lips, in soundcheck and onstage every day. I’d never heard them before. Most people hadn’t back then; they were just having some sort-of mainstream success with that She Don’t Use Jelly song. It’s been interesting to see what’s happened with them since then.

How bothered were you guys about not hitting the same level of fame?

Andrews: The frustration of touring Fantastic Planet, because the drug problems were just getting really bad, and we were becoming less and less functional as a band. And then combine that with the frustrations of promoting the band, which like we said earlier was not being perceived the way we wanted it to be. It was a dark time, for me for sure.

You’ve been open about the role played by drugs in the split. How bad did it get?

Edwards: It was more my fault, in terms of the drugs. I was certainly becoming more and more of an organism that was based only around this drug, getting this drug, being on this drug. Whatever else was going on my life, that’s all I became. I felt a deep disappointment because I had this innocent, naïve view that we were making music that had so much value, that there was no way it wasn’t going to be successful and resonate with a large group of people.

Andrews: After we finished Fantastic Planet, the label wanted to cash out. And that put our whole project, our whole lives, on hold for 18 months. That record sat on the shelf for 18 months, and during that time things got a lot worse. By the time it did come out, we were barely functioning as a band. And then by the time the touring for it was over, it was more of a struggle to stay alive than it was to continue to the band, basically.

You were all so young when you started, it’s perhaps not surprising how susceptible you were to the rush of rock’n’roll life.

Edwards: By the time we were doing Fantastic Planet Kurt Cobain had blown his head off… not that that should be an advertisement for doing heroin! But it wasn’t that crazy for somebody to come across it… I was depressed before Fantastic Planet. And heroin became my muse, I started using it more, I started feeling very creative – I had a subject matter. It was kind of perfect, that honeymoon phase that Fantastic Planet came out of. But like Ken said, it was kinda doomed. There was one time when I was on my way to Ken’s place, and I fell asleep at the wheel coz I’d been up for days. I crashed into a parked car on the side of the road.

Andrews: We’re kinda sensitive guys I think, so when we poured all of our creativity into the band and it wasn’t getting the recognition we wanted, there’s nothing better than drugs to ease that disappointment.

And yet you produced a great album, that’s now being reissued. How much of your lack of success just came down to timing?

Scott: Timing’s everything.

Edwards: Yeah, we talk about the disappointment of not having success back then. But now in retrospect, that's all been completely healed because people continue to discover the albums. We look out into the audience now and see people who weren’t even born when Fantastic Planet was made, but they know every lyric.

Andrews: People have said that our sound just didn’t fit in back then. So maybe that’s true. But though it’s still left of centre of the current mainstream, they understand it better now. There is now this new audience for our sound, and it feels really good to be making that sound again. I do think that based on making this record basically sober, as much as heroin was Greg’s muse during Fantastic Planet, I still think that record was inside him and us.

It just took heroin to let it out…

Edwards: Yeah. It was about opening channels lyrically.

Andrews: The pressure from management and the label at that point was huge. They were saying ‘ok this is your third album, you’d better deliver, give us some hits…’ So I think the drugs allowed us to push that aside and just go ‘fuck it, let’s make an art record, let’s make what we know.’

What was it that sparked off the reunion?

Edwards: I think Ken and I started sporadically seeing each other and hanging out around 2004? That was the first time we reconnected. And then a few years later, around 2008, we both had children at the same time.

Andrews: Within six months of each other, coincidentally! It was huge.

Edwards: So we were spending time together over playdates, essentially. But there was always this gravity; you could always feel it in the room. But it took a while before we were officially doing it.

You’d been honing your craft with other projects [Ken worked as a producer for groups like BRMC and Tenacious D, Greg played in Autolux, Kellii joined The Campfire Girls], and you’re all basically better musicians now.

Andrews: For sure. This album was not such a struggle, because we could just get down to the material quicker. It was quicker to identify things we liked and didn’t like, communication between us was quick but more relaxed… We weren’t ‘discovering ourselves’ as much as we were on previous records.

Now that you’re all sober, where do you get your kicks?

Andrews: For me it’s my kids, I have two and they’re aged seven and four. They’re pretty all-encompassing.

Are they budding musicians yet?

Andrews: Surprisingly no! My son Ronan, the older one, he’s curious about it; he’s seen one show. And actually Molly, Greg’s daughter, and Ronan came to one show and their reaction was basically to run in circles. They’d never experienced volume like that! My son is very sensitive to the mood of music, and he’s not ready for the mood of Failure yet…

When is the best time to discover Failure?

Andrews: I think in your 20s. Not when you’re seven and innocent; you need a bit of worldliness to understand where we’re coming from. My daughter likes Katy Perry…

Besides music, what makes you happiest?

Scott: I just really get off on being present and adventurous. Other than music I don’t necessarily have anything in my life that defines my direction, other than my wife – we spend time together and do yoga. We got together eight years ago. She was a Failure fan but had no idea I was the drummer.

Edwards: My daughter is my thing, that never gets old. And I just feel like as I’ve got older, and maybe wiser, I feel like I’m hiding less. Back when Failure was making those first three records I felt like I was doing a lot of hiding.

Andrews: We feel redeemed as well. To come out at the Garage [in London] and play a show like that; there were a couple of songs in the middle of the set where I was almost tearing up. Everyone wants to be understood, and I feel like the band is finally getting that.

Since this interview, Failure have released In the Future Your Body Will Be the Furthest Thing from Your Mind (2018) and Wild Type Droid (2021). A documentary is in the works (see 2022 trailer, below).  

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.