If I was in charge of the world, Failure would have been HUGE. The Los Angeles band boasted an adventurous musical and sonic profile that few other bands that flirted with the mid-‘90s mainstream could match. Though they grew tremendously with every album they released, and seemed to be perpetually on big tours with Tool, Failure only ever managed one minor radio hit, and then they were done.
My first exposure to the band was when their debut 7” “Pro-Catastrophe” somehow made its way to the midwestern college radio station at which I did a show, and a friend and fellow DJ there began proselytizing the song. Soon after, in 1992, no less a label than Slash—onetime home of The Germs, X, and Violent Femmes—released Failure’s debut album Comfort. The album was a Steve Albini production, and his typical sonic fingerprints intrude WAY too deeply into the band’s sound, but it’s still a really good record. The band ably explores everything from shoegaze textures to thick, noisy riffs to huge, soaring choruses, and the album points clearly to the band’s future.
It was in that early era that Failure treated me to one of the weirdest concert experiences of my life. They were on their first tour, and whoever booked them in my town really munged things up. Though they had plenty of college radio support in the area, nobody knew they were coming. Rather than get them into one of the small venues where an audience for their kind of thing already existed, someone booked them into FAR too big a room for a nascent indie band, and nobody seemed to have bothered with any publicity. I only found out about the show because a tiny mention of it in the weekly entertainment fish-wrap happened to catch my eye. As it turned out, I was literally the only paid audience member. It gets betterworse. The venue had two theaters, and in the other theater on the same night was that dreadful Laurel Canyon country-rock band Poco. Failure’s opening band prompted noise complaints from that show’s attendees, so Failure weren’t permitted to play until Poco’s last encore was over. Failure ended up playing their first several songs to a variously baffled and scornful crowd of dreary old complacent hippies who were filing past the room on their way out. I have to give them a lot of credit; they played to those people (and me, and their openers) like they had a full house of rabid fans. I think that right there cemented me as a perma-fan every bit as much as the excellence of their subsequent records.
The disappointing inadequacy of their debut’s production prompted the band’s principals, singer/guitarist Ken Andrews and bassist Greg Edwards, to learn production on their own. The move paid off. Their second album, Magnified, was a major leap for the band, sonically. But the third, Fantastic Planet was a bigger leap still, both in sound and conceptual ambition, and it’s the album that inspired the cult following that only grew after the band’s demise. It’s full of bold experiments, great guitar ideas, and fine songs like “Daylight,” “Heliotropic,” “Solaris,” and the luminous single “Stuck on You,” which finally won the band a modest place on MTV and mainstream radio’s rotations.
Sadly, though, by the time Failure were poised to level up, the corporate music sector’s throw-money-at-everything-that-moves approach to “alternative” had petered out. It wasn’t enough to have a foundation of consistent growth and a modest hit. All of Failure’s eggs were in the basket of “Stuck on You,” and since it was merely a minor hit, that spelled the beginning of the end for the band. Greg Edwards graciously took some time to tell DM all about it in a recent phone conversation.
It was a weird time in the music business. “Stuck on You” as a single did moderately well, but we didn’t have a follow-up that fit the format that radio was looking for. Everybody in the business just loved the cookie-cutter thing, funnel it into radio, make a big splash, and have a video—that was sort of at the end of those days. But if you didn’t follow that path then oftentimes you just sort of faded away. Luckily that didn’t really matter to us because we’d made a record that had a lot of substance to it, but it was still difficult to take, the fact that the profile of our career at that point hinged entirely on whether this ONE SONG really hit on radio.
So label support was pulled from the album, and after recording a covers album with Paul D’Amour of Tool under the name “Replicants” and contributing a cover of “Enjoy the Silence” to a Depeche Mode tribute album, Failure were through. Andrews’ production work on Failure’s albums made him an in-demand producer. Edwards has since played in Lusk and Autolux (who are still active and are really, really awesome, not incidentally). Second guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen has played in Queens of the Stone Age and A Perfect Circle, and has even been honored with a signature model Fender Jazzmaster. But as Fantastic Planet’s reputation only grew over the years—and seriously, I’m sure plenty of us can name a lot of 1996 albums that sold way better but don’t hold up for shit—the reunion bug bit. Per Edwards:
Ken and I didn’t have contact for awhile, then we came back together as two fathers. We both had children right around the same age, so we started hanging out in that context, and it just naturally happened that we eventually found ourselves talking about making more music. The reality is, if we didn’t have this experience of writing and creating new stuff that we were pretty excited about, we wouldn’t be doing the reunion thing. We’re not doing it to do it for a second and then fade away, it’s part of a longer term plan. We’ve worked on some new material that we’re pretty excited about, which gave us the momentum to do this. The thought of doing a reunion with nothing new fueling it is kind of unappealing. I can’t say for sure that there will be a fourth album, but right now there are a handful of songs that definitely seem to sound like the foundation for a fourth Failure record.
It really got into full swing in 2013. At the end of 2012 we were working on stuff, then the idea of a live show came up very innocently. Ken and I were having lunch and it just came up that maybe it would be fun to play a small club or something, and maybe some people would come who would enjoy it. We had no idea that the first show at the El Rey, we had no idea that it would be such a success. We weren’t even thinking we could DO a venue like the El Rey, so it was really gratifying to have that experience. We were aware that there was an intense following that still listened to the records, and that there were some younger people who’d discovered it, but that kind of stuff you can analyze from social media doesn’t necessarily have a direct correlation to what happens when you play a show. So we didn’t have any confidence, then the EL Rey show sold out in five minutes. That really blew us away. After that it seemed like it was worth it to do a reunion headline tour. The feeling we got from the fans at the El Rey show made us fell like maybe we were obligated to play these songs for these people who never got to see them live. We’re more connected as a band when we’re onstage, and so far it’s been a very positive situation with a lot of momentum.
That reunion tour begins this weekend with two sold-out shows in Los Angeles, with Puscifer and A Perfect Circle (those two shows are the 50th birthday celebration for Maynard James Keenan). Here are the dates. Check with venues for ticket availability:
May 10 Los Angeles, CA The Greek Theatre
May 11 Los Angeles, CA The Greek Theatre
May 14 San Francisco, CA Great American Music Hall
May 15 San Francisco, CA Great American Music Hall
May 17 Vancouver, BC Rickshaw Theatre
May 18 Seattle, WA The Showbox
May 21 Minneapolis, MN The Varsity
May 22 Chicago, IL The Metro
May 24 Milwaukee, WI The Rave II
May 25 Detroit, MI St. Andrew’s Hall
May 26 Toronto, ON Mod Club
May 27 Toronto, ON Mod Club
May 29 New York, NY Irving Plaza
May 30 Philadelphia, PA Theatre of Living Arts
May 31 Asbury Park, NJ The Stone Pony
June 1 Boston, MA Paradise Rock Club
June 3 Brooklyn, NY Music Hall of Williamsburg
June 5 Silver Spring, MD The Fillmore
June 7 Atlanta, GA Masquerade
June 8 Nashville, TN Exit In
June 10 Dallas, TX House of Blues
June 11 Houston, TX House of Blues
June 13 Phoenix, AZ The Marquee Theatre
June 14 Pomona, CA The Glasshouse
June 15 San Diego, CA House of Blues
June 18 Los Angeles, CA The Mayan
June 19 Los Angeles, CA The Mayan
If you’re on the fence about going, checking out the El Rey show from February might help you decide. Here it is:
Bonus: here’s a terrific interview with both Edwards and Andrews from radio.com.