Beyond the Tree of Stars: An Interview with Greg Edwards of Failure
It’s funny what we learn as we grow older, not just the general gathering of facts but the knowledge of ourselves. It seems that is the case for the members of Failure. Seventeen years after their break up, the band has reconnected and is embarking on a tour across the United States. Ken Andrews, Greg Edwards and Kelli Scott played their first show back together on February 13th, of this year, at the El Rey in Los Angeles, which sold out within two minutes of going on sale. Without Troy Van Leeuwen(Queens of the Stone Age), who was the touring, fourth member in the 90’s, the band is functioning as a three piece for the time being. However, from the shaky clips on YouTube, it hardly seems that the songs or sound is lacking.
In 1992, the band released their debut, Comfort, which was produced by the one and only Steve Albini. Unfortunately, it was not the best work by either party and failed to accurately capture the band’s unique sound. Two years later, Andrews and Edwards entered the studio to record their follow up, Magnified. The decision to produce the record themselves proved to be a wise one, as it captures more of the essence of the band. Despite glowing reviews from critics, Magnified was a commercial failure. Yes, I said it and I won’t apologize for it.
Eager to extend their creative streak, the band shacked up in a mansion in the hills of LA to begin recording the album that would become their magnum opus, Fantastic Planet. This time, the band approached the album in a way that was new to them, by going into the sessions with barely any material written. The resulting album was largely overlooked when it came out in ’96, but has since become highly regarded.
After the band broke up in ’97, the members went on to other projects(Andrews started many projects as well as doing production work, Edwards started the band Autolux and Scott worked as a session drummer), and left Failure behind. Throughout the years, fans hoped the band would reunite, but it still came as a bit of a shock, as if it were too surreal, when they announced that they would get back together in 2014. Failure’s Tree of Stars tour stops at St. Andrew’s Hall on Sunday, May 25th and co-founder Greg Edwards was nice enough to discuss with us the tour and the band’s future.
Metro Times: It sounds like I interrupted practice…
Greg Edwards: Well, no. (Laughs) We stopped so the driver could get some rest in North Dakota…Valley City, North Dakota, but we have a studio on the bus in the back lounge, so we’re actually writing and recording in the back lounge.
MT: You’re only a few dates in, but how is the tour going so far?
Edwards: Everything is good, so far. We’re only four shows in, but the crowds have been great. It feels really natural to be playing again, to be playing these songs again. I mean, in a way, it’s like we never really played these songs to begin with, maybe because I don’t remember much from that time. (Laughs) It feels really fresh, like the first time playing them. I think it’s because the audience is so much more familiar and so much more receptive than anything we ever experienced back in the first incarnation.
MT: When you were together in the first incarnation, did you play Detroit often?
Edwards: We definitely did. I think we played Detroit, because we were in Detroit. We all saw the Jesus Lizard at St. Andrew’s. So, the only reason we would have been there is because we would’ve been playing. Unless, it was one of the stops on the Lollapalooza tour. I’m sure we played Detroit. I just don’t specifically remember. We did this pre-Palooza tour where we would play clubs a few days ahead of the Lollapalooza tour in each city.
MT: Would that have been around the time of Magnified?
Edwards: No, that would have been Fantastic Planet era, but yeah, I’ve played Detroit a bunch with Autolux, but I don’t have any specific memories of Failure in Detroit.
MT: It’s been a long time since Failure toured, and many of your fans have never seen you, is there anything you expect from the crowds?
Edwards: We don’t really expect anything. We started off with two shows at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles for Maynard’s 50th birthday bash. He called it, “Cinquanta.” Those shows were amazing. The crowds were great. The first four shows we’ve done on our headlining tour have been great, great crowds, but I don’t think we want to expect that. You know, we go into each show feeling like we have something to prove, especially after all this time, and we’re trying to win the crowd over, which has been pretty easy. (Laughs) It’s also fun that way, because I think we get more deeply into playing the songs. Everyone knows the songs, so we can relax more and get into the music.
MT: Do you feel like you do have to prove something this time around?
Edwards: I think so, because one thing that we didn’t want to have happen with this ”reunion” is what I see happen a lot with reunions, where it’s basically just a nostalgic, money thing and there’s no real value in the band or the way they play together anymore. That’s what we didn’t want, so I think we definitely want to come off like this is fresh and spontaneous, which it is. So, that is one aspect we want to prove ourselves with. It’s also, a lot of the people coming to these shows are so familiar with the material that it’s a lot to live up to. They know the recordings so well and obviously there’s a live translation that goes on because, you know, we need five or six people to play all the parts. So, it’s sort of a selective arrangement when we come to the important parts. Hopefully, just the emotion and the volume in the room makes up for the missing elements from the recordings.
MT: Well, touring for Fantastic Planet, you had Troy Van Leeuwen playing as well. Do you guys plan, at some point, to add a touring member?
Edwards: I wouldn’t rule it out. I think we’re having a good time just the three of us though, because it’s very pure with just three people. Everybody has to stay on their toes all the time. You can really hear what each person is doing. The more people you add, it’s less about playing together. That’s why a trio, to me, is the most intense experience musically. Having said that, I’m definitely not against adding a member. I know we’ve said this before, but if we were going to add anybody, I don’t think we would want it to be anybody other than Troy.
MT: He was a big part of touring off of Fantastic Planet, so I’d imagine it felt like he was a member to some extent.
Edwards: He became a member very quickly in terms of, he was a great presence to have on the tour bus. Just personality wise, he was a perfect balance for the rest of us. So, yeah, when I think of Failure, I think of Troy. From the time he entered the band, he just became a part of it. If we really wanted to pursue adding someone else, it would be contingent upon his availability.
MT: What I’ve heard of you guys playing as a trio doesn’t sound light or lacking.
Edwards: No, there’s this thing where you think more speakers or more people on stage is going to make something louder or more intense but it’s actually the opposite a lot of the time. The more stuff you add, the harder it is to make any one thing really have that brutal impact. Once you start layering guitars, you might gain something harmonically or texturally but you generally lose something in the punch. I think that’s what was happening because a lot of the parts were arranged in such a way that they weren’t doing a lot of overlapping. It wasn’t just somebody doubling the other person. Still, in a live situation, you’re always battling against so much acoustically. The sound guy is trying to get everything to read. You know, a lot of stuff gets lost in a live situation. At least, with a trio, there’s more chance that what each person is doing will be readable sonically.
MT: It sounds like there’s a lot more breathing room to these songs.
Edwards: Yeah, and also, we did do extensive touring for Magnified where it was just the three of us. If this is connected to anything in the past, it’s connected to that period before Troy joined. Magnified is a record that has a lot of overdubs too, so we had to do that selective arranging before we went out.
MT: Does that take a lot of time in preparing for a tour where you have to rearrange every song?
Edwards: Not really, it’s more the individual player has to maybe practice some transitions or sometimes it’s like fusing two parts into one. It’s more of a challenge playing wise, but it’s just part of the natural process of rehearsing.
MT: Back in the 90’s, you never had a stage setup that properly accentuated the mood of the music. How is it different now?
Edwards: No, we never really did a tour where we had full-on, sort of control of the atmosphere on stage. That’s also what’s nice about this time around. We have our own sound guy, a lighting guy, you know, a good crew of people. So, we’re able to create the kind of atmosphere that we want. We’re trying to evoke whatever that elusive Failure mood is.
MT: I was ten-years-old when you guys broke up in ’97. How does it strike you guys to know that there is this younger generation of fans?
Edwards: That’s always been one of the more exciting things about reforming and getting to know what our fan base is made of. You know, you said it’s not just, I don’t want to say old people, (Laughs) but it’s not just fans that were around back then. It’s a lot of young people who couldn’t possibly have been old enough to even be listening to music recreationally yet, when we broke up. I think Failure has a very specific sound that no other band has really had. There are certain moments where everything comes together chordally, rhythmically, vocally and there’s only one place you can find that.
MT: Even if you explore other “space rock” bands, no one really comes close.
Edwards: Beyond the sound, we hung that sound on real songs. Actually, the sound and the songs were not really separate things. It’s kind of the chicken or the egg thing. They kind of came together. So, the songs are the natural expression of that sound that happens when we play together.
MT: I didn’t mean to lump you guys into space rock; I was just pointing out that others have.
Edwards: The whole thing with Fantastic Planet and naming the album that, and “Another Space Song,” that was all very ironic. When I decided to call it “Another Space Song,” that was because, even at that point, before space rock was even a thing, I was like, “Oh, no. Not another space metaphor.” There was “Major Tom,” and “Space Oddity,” and all that. There has always been an irony and a humor in Failure lyrics too. Then, space rock became this very serious thing. I think we have more in common with The Beatles than any of the space rock bands, but then again, I’m just another person trying to deny a label.
MT: Failure released “Come Crashing,” the first new song in eighteen years last week. What’s amazing is that, while it doesn’t sound like any previous album, it still sounds like Failure. How does that happen after such a long time?
Edwards: Well, that’s one of the few ideas that we’d been working on. The music for that song was something that I have had for a while and when I wrote it, I immediately thought, “Wow, this would be a good Failure song. This would be a good song for the fourth Failure record.” I think both Ken and I had ideas like that kicking around that felt like they should be on the next Failure record but they didn’t get that chance. That’s what is so great, when we decided to start writing again, we had these bits and pieces that were readymade for the situation.
MT: Aside from the issues with record labels and drugs, how much of the band’s break up in 1997 hinged on creative differences?
Edwards: I think to some degree, it was creative differences, or at least, perceived creative differences. I don’t know how real they were. (Laughs) There was a lot of stuff going on. It’s also hard for me to really put myself back there, because I was personally in a place where I, luckily, can’t reconnect with. There was a perception of creative differences. I have this theory that it’s better that the fourth Failure record is going to happen now rather than happening back then because I think that it’s going to be a much better record now than it would have been at that point. There were a lot of pressures and influences on us that would have steered the record in the wrong direction, and I think now, we’ll make a much purer record.
MT: How did the time apart influence how you guys are able to function as a band this time around?
Edwards: I think we’re all much better musicians. We’re all more focused. I think we play together better. We’re able to be kind of loose, in a good way. Aside from that, I don’t know, it’s different. We’re all married. (Laughs) So, you know, it’s different. I can’t really qualify how it’s different because it’s different in so many ways. As far as when Ken and I are working together and writing together, or when we’re all three playing together, it’s very much the same. It’s almost as if no time has passed and we’re just right back where we were. There wasn’t really any great effort involved in getting things to sound the way they do right now live. It was pretty effortless. Once everyone had learned and remembered the parts, it was very easy and if there were any slight alterations that needed to be made in the feel of something, that stuff just came much more easily than it did in the 90’s. It seems like we’re all more nimble musically.
MT: Are you approaching writing and recording the fourth record any differently than you have on past albums?
Edwards: It’s pretty much the way it was in the past. Either, each of us writes stuff on our own and we bring it in and finish it together or we all jam in a room together, record all of it and then go through the recordings and pick out the best moments. Then, we expand on those ideas and turn those into songs, which a lot of the songs on Fantastic Planet came out of that, that sort of arrangement, like with “Heliotropic,” or “Another Space Song,” songs like that. It would be very hard to write a song like “Heliotropic.” It’s a moment that we expanded on.
MT: Do the segues come that way as well?
Edwards: Yeah, the segues were very spontaneous. They all just happened at the house while we were recording. They were just spur of the moment things that we would record. In some of the instances, like with “Segue 1,” which comes after “Sergeant Politeness,” it was an intentional thing to have something on that last hit. The other ones, we’d recorded a bunch of pieces of music and when it came time to sequence the record, we had those to work with to bridge stuff together. When you have seventeen songs, you kind of need that palate cleansing, that sonic sorbet.
MT: Will there be segues on the new album?
Edwards: I always want to put in segues. (Laughs) I’d probably want the whole record to be segues. We always like to have that cinematic sprawl, even within songs, but definitely across the record. Whatever sequences the record in the best way, that’s what we’ll do. It actually started on Comfort. Maybe it comes at the end of the record, it’s been so long since I listened to it, but there is this piece of music that we played outside in Canyon Falls, Minnesota at Pachyderm Studios where we were recording with Steve Albini. We played it on the deck outside of the studio, with nature, with birds chirping and there were all these forest sounds because we were fifty miles outside of Minneapolis. That piece is weird because Ken was playing the guitar part from something very slowly and I was playing the bass line from…what is that song? “Swallow,” very slowly and somehow they just came together.
MT: That’s another thing that makes Failure unique, how you use that sonic soundscape or sonic sorbet, as you put it.
Edwards: Yeah, and I love what a band like Pink Floyd does where the segue is built into the songs, so they don’t need to have separate segues. We both love having segues. We like demanding that little bit of patience from the listener, to sit back, absorb and digest what you’re hearing.
MT: You’re in a much different place than you were at the time of Fantastic Planet. How does that effect writing the lyrics for the next album?
Edwards: Lyrics are kind of a black art and I don’t really know where they come from. Sometimes it’s so much effort; it’s so hard to find one line that you can live with and sometimes a whole song will just fill out. Obviously, it’s good when you have something to write about in the moment, which I guess for Fantastic Planet, there was something happening in the moment. If I am writing about something, I think I’m writing from a fictionalized version of things from the past and not something that is emotionally happening to me in the moment. With Fantastic Planet, I was writing about things from the past and in the moment, I was in this detached, kind of floating out in space on a tether looking back at the past and writing from a very detached point of view, but it was still things from the past. You go through whatever you go through and you’re not able to poeticize it until later and then it somehow gets internally digested and it just sort of comes out organically. It comes out in a metaphorical or poetic way, but you can’t force it. To me, the process of writing lyrics has always been the same. It feels exactly the same as it did back then. It’s still the same awful struggle. (Laughs)
MT: Do you have any ideas as to how you will release the album?
Edwards: We don’t really know yet. We’re just concentrating on finishing it and not really thinking about it. It’s such a totally different world. There are a lot of possibilities. The one relief (Laughs) is that no one is going to throw a shit load of money at us. Those days are gone.
MT: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Edwards: No, I think it’s a good thing.
MT: Does it help more from a creative aspect?
Edwards: I never liked the feeling of getting a big advance and then having the same company that gave you the advance have their representatives talking to you in code about the songs and what they needed to be. I always felt like there was a pressure there. I didn’t feel like it was pure patron of the arts. Not that you’re beholden, but it’s not the most creatively conducive situation and now, we’re much more free to do whatever we want and we know that there is a fan base that is ready for whatever we do next.
Failure plays at 7 p.m. on Sunday May 25 at St. Andrew’s Hall; 431 E. Congress St., Detroit, 313-961-8961; $35.