Failure's Ken Andrews on the Absurdity of Hair Metal

Failure is slated to perform at Riot Fest this Friday, September 19th. Though the band enjoyed a great deal of popularity during its first run before splitting in 1997, its influence has loomed large on a good deal of guitar rock that has come along since. If someone writes a book like Our Band Could Be Your Life about the '90s, Failure would certain deserve a chapter as a band whose impact continues to be felt and whose records have aged very well. The group got back together to perform for the first time in close to seventeen years in February 2014 at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles, its home town. We had the chance to speak with the group's affable vocalist, Ken Andrews, about how a noisy alternative rock band with space rock tendencies functioned in the glam rock era of Los Angeles, his role in contributing to Blink-182's 2004 self-titled album and how becoming fathers was the catalyst for Failure getting back together.

Westword:The time period in which Failure was getting started a lot of people's impression of L.A. is that it was that it was dominated by glam rock.

Ken Andrews: The hair bands. Yeah. It was like Warrant-type bands and Ratt and stuff like that. I actually sort of liked Ratt but most of it we really didn't like at all. Naming the band Failure was kind of in reaction to all the ads we would see for bands looking for musicians and/or musicians looking for bands in the classifieds in L.A.. They were all like, "must have pro attitude and pro look," "hair has to be like this" and just ridiculous requirements. We just thought it was funny. All those bands were super focused on making it and being a big success and just getting on a label as soon as possible. They rarely even talked about the music in a lot of these ads. It was more about being a pro and coming in and kicking butt or whatever.

We just thought it would be funny for those guys to see a band called Failure playing a show in L.A. "Why would someone do that? Oh my god, it's so ridiculous!" For us it was just that, a hobby and something fun to do. But then we started getting a bit of a following after five or ten shows. All of a sudden, people started showing up to see us play. Then it kind of became this different thing and labels started coming to the shows.

Then I was like, "Well, what's going to happen with this?" I was still in college and I was planning on doing that and going down that path. Right around my senior year in college we started getting offers from labels and stuff. I was actually already working as a music video director and kind of had to make the choice of pursuing the whole indie rock thing or not. I decided to go for it and went out and recorded our first record with Steve Albini and got in the van and started touring.

The Paisley Underground and punk was going strong in the '80s in Los Angeles but by the time the 90s rolled around were there other bands you were able to connect with and play shows with that may have been at least somewhat like-minded? Perhaps Medicine?

None really. We eventually did become friends with Medicine but our schedules never really linked up. We may have played one show with them but looking back, now that I'm super good friends with those guys and work with a couple of them as producers, we should have hooked up with them because they were really probably one of the only like-minded bands in L.A. at the time. I think that's what made it a little easier to get a deal. There were a lot of labels that were just not into the whole hair band thing and were waiting for it to go away. So if you weren't doing that you instantly got some kind of attention because you were outside the norm.

When we signed with Slash they were doing Faith No More, L7, Los Lobos and Grant Lee Buffalo. It was an eclectic label and creatively we were happy to be there. Their take on us was creatively pretty liberating. They let us do what we wanted to do. It was funny because they liked our demos better than our finished record on the first records. And we kind of did too, in a way, although the demos for the second record were all drum machines and it was really just placeholder because we knew we wanted live drums there but we didn't have a drummer at the time. They actually wanted to release the demos for the second record as the record because they thought it was a more interesting take on the songs.

When we got to the third record and they picked up the option I told our manager, "What do you think the idea of us self-producing it and not having a proper producer at the controls." He said, "I don't think the label's going to go for it because you guys have zero sales track record and they're going to want to have someone in there who knows how to make a record." I asked, "Can we just take a meeting and give me five minutes to make my pitch to the label." About two minutes into my pitch they were just like, "Sounds good. Here's the budget."

My pitch was, "Give us our budget. We're going to buy some equipment and rent a house and do it our way and you're going to have to trust us to deliver something cool." They went back to the demos and said, "Well, we liked the demos better for the second album and if you can make something as good or better than that, we'll put it out." That's what Fantastic Planet was.

Is the title of Fantastic Planet a reference to that 1973 animated science fiction film from France?

Oh yeah. We're huge fans of that movie and we were watching it while we were making the record. We sample from it liberally. The film poster was in our control room. As we were getting close to finishing the record we were talking about titles and he just looked up at the poster and said, "That's our title." When we went in we were going to do a regular CD with ten or twelve songs but we ended up doing more songs than that. Which is normal but you usually keep them to the side or don't ever release some of them because they're not good enough. But Greg was of the mind that the album was fitting together as whole with all seventeen songs on it. He also had the sequence all planned out so it became this big, sprawling planet of an album so the title seemed to kind of fit at that point.

It has three basic sections with an introduction and seems conceptually like a film with an opening part and the other parts.

The three acts. I totally agree. For sure the last act feels like a section. We didn't write and record the songs in that order. They were put into that order after the fact. I'd say the last three or four we had an eye to writing songs that could go at the end. "Daylight" and "Heliotrope" were done towards the end because we wanted to have really epic things for the end.

You have an extensive list of production credits. One that doesn't seem discussed extensively elsewhere is your involvement with Blink-182's 2004 self-titled album. How did that come about?

That was very random. Tom DeLonge actually became a big Failure fan after the fact, way after we broke up, and maybe 2002 or 2003 he discovered Fantastic Planet and while they were making that record with Jerry Finn, Tom got my number and called me at home and was like, "Hey, man, I'm a big fan and I want to see how we can get some of your mojo on our record. I'm not sure how to do that because we're almost done and we have our producer and everything. But why don't you come down to the studio and we'll have a chat."

They ended up giving me three songs and said, "Do whatever you want to do to these. Put more instruments on them, do a mix of them, do whatever you want to do. Then give it back to us and we'll sort it out. I put some additional parts on two or three of their songs and did mixes. I added extra layers of guitar and keyboards. If they really wanted to go down that route it would have been better to have me involved from the beginning.

But at the same time I can hear the influence of Fantastic Planet on that record in terms of that being one of their most sprawling records and they do have some segues and stuff in there. Format-wise they were checking out that record a lot. They were listening to it in the studio when I got there and they asked me how I did this and that. It was very cool.

What was the catalyst for Failure getting back together last year?

A combination of a lot of people asking us to do it. Friends that knew that Greg and I were starting to hang out a lot more. We didn't hang out at all for a few years after we broke up. Then eventually we mended the fences but still didn't really hang out socially. But then we had our first kids the same year and that brought us together hanging out a lot more bonding over the new dad thing. That's when the conversations started happening, "What about Failure? Should we revisit it?" It was kind of a long process of talking about what we wanted to do and did we just want to reform to do a tour. We kind of decided that we didn't want to reform just to tour, we wanted to reform to make new music.

So we started to do some experiments in my studio about two years ago. We started liking the results and we felt like there was still something there creatively between the two of us writing-wise. So we decided to book a show and see what happened. That was the L.A. show. Based on that show we decided that as much as we wanted to focus on making a new album and then touring we should probably do a reunion tour and play all the old songs just to kind of satisfy that in our following or whatever. As a band you want to play your new stuff but for a band that's been away for this long people have been listening to those old records a lot during the break so we did a headline tour of the U.S. and only played a couple of new songs. The idea is to finish up the new record this year and put it out next year.

• BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS • - Wolf Eyes' John Olson Talks About the Importance of Music Communities - The Ten Best Jazz Guitarists of All Time - The Denver Public Library Is Now One of the Best Places to Find Local Music - The ten best jazz drummers of all time

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.