by Brian J. Audette
I remember it like it was yesterday. The time was right around Thanksgiving 1996. I was visiting family in Connecticut during my first semester at college in Boston. I was on my way back from the Connecticut Post Mall two towns over in Milford, driving down West Spring street and listening to WMRQ 104.1FM – our “modern rock” station at the time – when this song comes on the radio. It opened with a melodic blast of distorted notes that exploded into a crunchy, post-grunge, stoner guitar assault. It was the opening refrain from Failure’s “Stuck on You” off the album Fantastic Planet and after that, my life would never be the same again.
I went back to the mall the next day and picked up the sprawling 70 minute album that would come to dominate not just the rest of my year, but much of my musical life to come. I listened to it on my Sony Walkman CD player as soon as I got back to my parents’ house, then again, and again on the train ride back to Boston. “Stuck on You” was just the tip of the iceberg. Spanning 17 songs, Fantastic Planet was my introduction to the idea of a “concept” album and loose though it was, the construction, care, and artistry that went into the production of the album captivated me in a way that few recordings up to that point had ever done before.
I blasted “Stuck on You” in my dorm room after coming home from my first date a couple weeks later. The next semester I used “Dirty Blue Balloons” as the subject for a “draw a song” task in one of my foundation courses. I played “Heliotrope” for my friend Scott, trying to convince him that Failure were kind of industrial, though he had already moved on to his hardcore punk phase. I was all about this band and I wanted everyone to know it. Fantastic Planet scored a very formative time in my life, but my love affair with it was no mere fling, it endured. Even now, Fantastic Planet‘s melange of pop, grunge, and otherworldly sound and production scratch an itch that few other bands ever have.
By the end of my Freshman year I had acquired Failure’s first album (Comfort) as well and was on my way to becoming what you might call a “fan”. I wanted … no, needed to know more and during one of my early forays to the college computer lab (even in ’97 computers still weren’t as ubiquitous to daily life as they are now) I did some online research on the band and discovered that they had recently broken up. I was devastated. This thing that I thought held so much promise had gone away and I had never been able to experience them in person.
My love of Failure never waned however. The following year I acquired their second album (Magnified) while Fantastic Planet still remained on heavy rotation. I learned quickly through the internet that I wasn’t alone, that there were other Failure fans out there and more importantly that they were following the band member’s post-Failure movements. My fandom grew to include the band member’s post-Failure projects, some very different, but some maintaining that space rock thread. I accepted that I would never see Failure reunite and play live, but was satisfied that they had opened my ears to a plethora of new music, not just by them, but by those who were influenced by them (of which there were many). Failure were the definition of a cult phenomenon and then in 2013 something wonderful happened.
Opinions definitely vary on Failure. They’re the kind of band where it seems you either just don’t like them or you’re a die hard fan. Obviously I’m in the latter category and when I got the chance last week to chat with with Failure drummer Kellii Scott about the 20th anniversary tour, I jumped at the opportunity:
Brian Audette for Ovrld: So Failure are going to be playing Fantastic Planet live from front to back for the first time ever. Is tonight (Oct 6) the first night of the tour?
Kellii Scott: No, tonight’s actually the second night, the first show was last night in Pomona.
Ovrld: How’d that go?
KS: It went great actually! We were all pleasantly surprised. Especially with the production and scope of playing Fantastic Planet from start to finish, we were kind of expecting it to be a little bit of a rough start. But everything went off without a hitch and the audience was great and it was a perfect first gig.
Ovrld: Well I’m definitely looking forward to seeing you guys in Austin at Mohawk next Tuesday. This will be my fourth time in the last two and a half years seeing the band live.
KS: Oooh, so you’re a Failure fan!
Ovrld: Yeah, I’ve been a Failure Fan since Fantastic Planet originally came out and after the band broke up I always thought “Well, I’ll never get to see this band live” and then four times in two years! You never know what you’re gonna get right?
KS: Yeah, I have to say that I felt the same way. Had you asked me the day before I got the phone call from [Failure front man Ken Andrews], I would have told you … emphatically “Sorry for you and sorry for me, it’s not gonna happen”, but as fate would have it I did get that phone call and things really just picked up immediately where we left off.
KS: It wasn’t one of the first things we thought about doing when we got back together. At first it was like: “Let’s just go out and play some shows; let everyone know that we’re back” and the next major thing was that we had already previously started working on what would become [The Heart is a Monster]. So that was our main concern, just putting out a new record. Of course then it became 2016 and I think it was just a few months ago that we were all kind of reminded of the anniversary and that definitely became the major focus.
Ovrld: What’s it like playing the album from front to back?
KS: It’s a little daunting, because it’s just such a big piece of work. I mean … we’re on stage, non-stop for 75 minutes. Normally by the 50-60 minute mark you get to walk off stage, towel off, take a little breather, drink some water, and regroup and walk back on stage. But we’re like 75 minutes in before we get to do that.
It’s still early though. We’ve only been rehearsing for a week and for me the biggest obstacle to going back on the road is getting physically– my muscle mass and all that– back up so that I can blast through a 75 minute set. And with a week of rehearsal it’s really difficult to get ready for that kind of triathlon. I feel like I’m 80% there, but the crowd definitely gets me an extra 10-15% of the energy and the hype that I’m gonna need just to be so physical for such a long period of time.
Ovrld: Given that Fantastic Planet is such a long album, are there any songs that you guys are playing live for the first time on this tour?
KS: Um … let me think. No, I’m fairly certain. Back in the day we played everything from [Fantastic Planet]. Never in the order off the record, but mixed in there with stuff from the previous records. Since we’ve gotten back together, I think we’ve played most everything off the record. “Leo” I think is the only song that we hadn’t played since the 90’s. But playing it live now, I think it’s actually one of the funner songs for me personally to play.
KS: You know what? I think all of them.
Back in the day when I would play this stuff, I always had this theory of: the record is the record and when I play it live it’s going to be this completely new experience for people. Like I would stick to the nuts and the bolts, but I would definitely embellish. Like I was bringing it to life live and really making it a little bit more exciting. But that may have just been an illusion, that I didn’t have the discipline to really hunker down and play it exactly as it was off the record and that was just an excuse for me to sort of show off every night. I was still in my 20’s, so I think that’s probably what that was.
In starting this up again I’ve definitely made a concerted effort to really sit down and learn every nuance of every single song and for the most part play every single song the way it appears on the record. I’ve come around to the other side to think that that’s what people really want to hear. You know? You look out and you see people air drumming and the way people connect. They’ve been listening to this record for 17 years. They know it probably better than I do! In regards for that and respect to that I think really getting into it and learning it the way which it was recorded was a necessary thing and in doing that I came to greater appreciation for it.
I’ve definitely gained a greater appreciation [since Fantastic Planet] for recording records and knowing when it’s my time to become visible and that most of the time my job is to be invisible, because I’m creating a vibe for people to sort of sit in and connect to what they’re hearing.
Ovrld: At the same time there are plenty of moments both on Fantastic Planet and The Heart is a Monster where you get a chance to be up front or part of that as well. One part that always sticks out to me is on the song “Dirty Blue Balloons”. The mid point of that song where everything gets really tense. The drums get tense and the guitars get tense and then it just releases. It’s a beautiful band moment.
KS: I think that was probably [multi-instrumentalist/founding Failure member Greg Edwards]’s idea. That whole “flying by the seat of your pants, doing something really crazy that sounds like it’s going to fall apart, but doesn’t and comes out the other side to slip right back into the heaviness of that song.” I’m pretty certain of that because I know there were some moments on [The Heart is a Monster] when we were writing parts for it, that was the exact description: do something really insane that feels like it’s going to explode and fall apart. Yeah, that part [of “Dirty Blue Balloons”] is really … it’s difficult in the sense that it’s gotta feel like it’s in control, but completely out of control at the same time. That’s a really sort of fine line to weave …
Ovrld: Especially playing along with two other people. You all have to be really in sync for that.
K: Yeah. And it’s so exciting to not like, speed up or rush that part so when you come out the other side, the let down to get back to that really dark, greasy groove of “Dirty Blue Balloons” really hits with a greater impact.
Ovrld: Between the break up back in ’97 and the reunion a few years ago, Failure and Fantastic Planet have proven to be a very influential rock band, garnering a following among music lovers and musicians alike. What do you attribute that to?
KS: Well first of all I think that the record itself is a product of the personalities that made it and I think that that’s the thing that really resonates with musicians. I think that the work ethic and the single-mindedness that we bring to what we do is very rare, not in that there aren’t a lot of bands that aren’t serious about what they’re doing, but we have a very meticulous mindset to everything we do. I think that sometimes that can ruin a band, because they overthink it and they don’t still have that thread of experimentation and allowing things that are gonna happen to happen. We tread this fine line where we allow ourselves to be very meticulous, very thoughtful about what we do, but there’s still this element of surprise for us. And the second component is… I’ve been in so many bands, but I’ve never been in a band where we share this musical language. I can’t really explain it. There’s this intangible thing that when we get together there’s this chemistry that you can’t consciously reproduce.
I think all of those things that go into the music, I think they’re just there and they’re living and it just really connects with a very discerning group like the people that come to our concerts. Like they really know what they’re into and they really know what it is that they’re hearing. They’re a very unique group of people. They’re very smart and very open. It’s a great source of pride, both of those things. When you set out to play music those aren’t really the things that you go “Oh my gosh, I want all the musicians to love my band. Oh my gosh, I want people who…” well I guess maybe the latter part. You do want people who love music and understand to show up to your shows.
Ovrld: But you can’t play to that audience. They either show up or they don’t.
KS: Exactly. For most people, they’re not there. You usually get one or the other. That’s the thing that keeps us as a band coming back and excited about doing what we do.
Ovrld: And one of the unique things about Failure is that a lot of those people came along after the band had broken up.
KS: Yeah. I think with the advent of technology and the internet, it sped up something. Now someone can go on Facebook with 5000 friends and go “Holy crap have you heard this band Failure? Oh my god here’s one of their songs!” and that leads to tens of hundreds of people in a matter of weeks.
KS: We were as surprised as anyone. When we came back and did that first show [in February of 2014] our thinking was “Where is a place that we can do a show that’s not too big?” Because we had no idea how many fans we had or whether tickets were going to sell. So it had to be big enough but not so big if we only sold a hundred tickets– because nobody really cared anymore or they were just into other things or whatever. We wanted a place that we could sell enough that it wasn’t embarrassing. So we picked the El Rey [in Los Angeles] and to our surprise the entire thing sold out in less than 10 minutes.
Ovrld: In a way too the landscape has change so much in music where there aren’t really gatekeepers anymore and that brings more people to the music. People are more free and encouraged to explore what they want and to like what they want. When I saw you guys in Houston at The House of Blues a couple years ago I was in line behind a guy about my age (late 30’s / early 40’s) and his 16 year old son and they were both excited about seeing Failure and I thought “That kid, he doesn’t have radio or MTV telling him what to listen to anymore. His dad likes Failure and now he’s latched onto Failure.”
KS: Dude, I had… there’s this little girl – her name is Lilly – she’s 7 and a really good friend of mine is her drum teacher. I had started doing drum lessons a few months back, mostly Skype stuff, but every other weekend I give these personal lessons over at this rehearsal studio/gear rental place called SIR. I went in there and he’s like “dude, I gotta tell you a story. I just got this student, she’s 7 years old, she loves playing drums, she literally yesterday asked if I could teach her the Failure song ‘Another Space Song.’” So I said “OK, let me show you how to play it” because this particular beat it’s really simple, but every time I see it played on YouTube it’s never played right and it’s a very subtle thing. So I showed him how to play it and like a week later I got this amazing video. He texts me and he’s like “Can I give her and her dad your email” and they sent me this email of them playing– [the dad] is a guitar player- all of Space Song, like all 5 minutes of it in their garage. And over the last month I’ve been talking to him and Lilly and she’s drawing me pictures and writing emails about how excited she is to go to her first show and that she loves Failure. So she was there last night! Security let her on the other side of the barrier, so she sat right in the middle, with her little ear muffs on and watched me for like the whole hour and forty minute show. It was absolutely incredible!
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully express what those things mean to me because they’re always so over the top and so unexpected. Even though since we’ve gotten back together I’ve experienced some of the most overwhelming and over the top things and it’s just like “holy shit! How awesome is it to have my life?” That people really care about something that I love this much. They’re all like “pinch me” moments.
KS: As far as the making a name for yourself part, no one will ever know how, or if, or when that will ever happen. I learned that the hard way throughout my career. I think the most important thing isn’t whether you’re going to make a name for yourself, trying to do that is just going to create a lot of pain for you. It did for me certainly. I think the most important thing is to love what you do. Put everything you have into it. Try to hear who you are on the inside, not how you act to people, but that thing you are on the inside. Connect with that and stick with that no matter what. You might have to get a job. You might have to stop playing music at some point, but if you stick with that- which to me is the most and only true rewarding part of playing music- you can enjoy it for as long as you choose to do it. That is the success. Don’t believe all the stories you’ve heard from other musicians and the way that they did it. You’ve gotta do what you gotta do if you want to do what you love.
For me that’s the thing that has successfully gotten me through times when I wasn’t getting what I wanted.
Ovrld: I know what you mean. I had a friend in college who always used to say “you’ve got to do the hard work to make it easy”
KS: Yeah. You know, with some people it’s just easy and everything comes to them. I don’t know why that is. I don’t think it’s because they’re particularly more special than everyone else. I think if things do come easy, you have a different set of work to do in the motions of everything coming easy for you and that’s just as hard to own as having to work for everything.
It can be a difficult thing to negotiate. Not being afraid to let life do what life is going to do. You’re along for the ride.
Ovrld: One last question and this may not be a question you can answer right now, but: after this tour, what’s next for Failure?
KS: Oh yeah. I have an answer. We’re gonna do another record!
I would like to hope that we could start something new like maybe March or April. We’ve definitely already started talking about stuff – on how we wanna approach the next record and what we want the next record to be – and it’s going to be the most ambitious record to date in the process that we do and just the sheer amount of content. We wanna keep the good parts that we know work for us as a band, but we wanna just continue to push ourselves and continue to be excited about creating. It’s all about creating new stuff and being a little further in the creative process than when we started.
We share a lot with our listeners in that, like them we expect a lot from the music that we’re listening to.
Failure play tonight, October 11th at Mohawk.
Brian Audette lives somewhere in Austin within a pillow fort made of broken dreams. He only comes out to see shows and buy beer. He has a surprisingly well maintained lawn and is using it to breed an army of attack mosquitoes with which to take over the world. Brian can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @bjaudette.