Failure interview: Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards

Cult American alt-rock band Failure return and talk guitar and bass in an exclusive interview.

Failure © Ryan Daly
Failure © Ryan Daly

Failure are Los Angeles’ premier cult band. Active from 1990-97 but ‘rebooted’ live last year, their legend has grown via social media and the internet to the extent that a recent gig at London’s Garage in advance of the release of fourth album The Heart Is A Monster was oversubscribed. So their cult status is clearly under threat.

In further evidence, a Pledge campaign for the forthcoming release reached a six-figure (dollar) total in two weeks. Bands as varied as A Perfect Circle, Paramore and the Deftones have declared themselves fans, while when Wes Borland (ex-Limp Bizkit, now Queen Kwong) found out Failure were playing London he offered to support them for free!
Albums such as Comfort, their 1992 debut, 1994’s Magnified and final offering Fantastic Planet, released in 1996, have become secrets to share, and it seems Failure are, at long last, about to prove the unsuitability of their name.

Fresh from the band’s first performance on UK soil in 20 years, Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards, who share guitar, bass and songwriting duties (drummer Kellii Scott makes up the trio) talked exclusively to www.theguitarmagazine.com.

Q&A: Ken Andrews
How did it go at the Garage last night?
“It was awesome! A lot of people in their mid to late 20s have discovered us in the last 4-5 years through friends sharing our last album, Fantastic Planet. It’s got to the point that there’s an appetite for new stuff. I talked to a bunch of people at the US shows who didn’t even know we were a 90s band – they thought Fantastic Planet had come out in the last few years and we were touring it! It’s nice to find a fresh audience.”

The live line-up is back to a three-piece…
“We decided that early on. Troy (van Leeuwen, second guitarist) is in Queens of The Stone Age now and it’s bad enough with the three of our schedules, but with him it would have been a nightmare. The band was together from 1990-97, and only in the last 18 months were we a four-piece: Troy was added as we were starting to tour Fantastic Planet.”

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Does today’s technology give you more possibilities?
“Sure. We can tap all the guitar and bass sounds a lot more accurately because of amp modelling. The idea of putting the old rigs back together was not appealing to me at all, and I actually got Fractal’s Axe-Fx a year and a half ago when we were starting to entertain the idea of playing live.

“Everyone said ‘You’ve got to try the latest modelling technology see how far it’s come’, and Axe-Fx blew me away. To be able to cover all the sounds from the old albums and the new stuff in one box, and more accurately than a full analogue rig would be able to do, has been a huge facilitating feature of this whole reboot. We use Apple MainStage for keyboard sounds; I trigger a few samples off my pedal board, Kelli triggers some samples from his drum pad, but it’s all MIDI controllers running into MainStage on one laptop on my side of the stage.

“Another reason the Axe-Fx has worked so well for us as they do both guitar and bass pretty well. Greg and I switch live quite a bit.”

Which guitars have you been using?
“Live we have two guitars and one bass each. Greg’s Les Paul is my ’76 blond Les Paul Standard, and his single-coil is a 1992 American Standard Telecaster with a Seymour Duncan replacement pickup. It’s a little less twangy, but still has that single-coil tone and general presence.

“As well as my Les Paul, I have another humbucker-type thing, but it’s not a Gibson – it’s an Electrical Guitar Company aluminium guitar. I don’t play it for more than three or four songs cos it’s heavy, but the tuning is so stable. I really love the feel of the neck; it’s one size the whole way, it doesn’t have to be tapered for strength. Then my single-coil, a ’67 Jazzmaster, is my only real vintage guitar.”

What material do you play live?
“We played three new songs last night. We opened with the first song on the new album (Hot Traveler), and people last night seemed to know it because BBC’s Dan Carter has been playing it on his show for a while. The other two were Counterfeit Sky and Mulholland Drive; the rest were eight from Fantastic Planet, two from Magnified and one from Comfort.”

How does playing bass as opposed to guitar affect the song?
“I don’t know if I can really say. We purposely try to start the writing of each song in a different way, the actual functional aspect of it. The way we start songs is the thing that dictates where the song ends up.

“For instance, Hot Traveler came from jamming in the studio when we were filming for a PledgeMusic update. When I was looking at the footage later there were three little nuggets, guitar fragments I kept listening to and thought there was a song in there.

“I quickly learned the parts Greg played – he wasn’t even there – strung them together and started making a song. Kelli and I ended up recording the instrumental in one day. I took it home and wrote the vocal melody and some scratch lyrics, of which 20-30 per cent stayed in the song, then gave it to Greg to finish.”

Are down-tunings still part of your sound?
“There were a couple of songs, Counterfeit Sky was one, where we tuned down the two high strings a half-step each. When playing the chords, you let them ring and it gives a real nice harmony. Other than that we didn’t do any drop D. But as a band we’ve always been one half-step down in E flat – straight across the board, which makes things a little difficult for keyboards. I always imagined it helped me sing in tune because I struggle a little bit with the higher notes!

“At the very beginning we liked the sound of it better. We noticed straight away the chords we were playing sounded cooler… then we started using a little bit fatter strings and it just kind of all made sense. Then we dropped D to make it a little lower, a little heavier, and stuck with it.”

Q&A: Greg Edwards
How do you work out who plays guitar and who plays bass on a song?
“I still think of myself as the bass player, it’s the one instrument I can really play. I started playing bass when I was 13, pretty early. By the time I was 16 I was pretty proficient and by the time I was 20 I was as good technically as I would ever want to be.

“When Ken and I started writing songs and collaborating I found myself picking up a guitar and overdubbing a part or writing a chord progression for a song. I didn’t really think about it; it was a tool, a means to an end. I didn’t identify myself as a guitar player – I still don’t really, even though I’m playing guitar in half the songs on live shows.

“On the new album, Ken played a majority of the bass and I played a majority of the guitar – that’s how it worked out. I’d been playing predominantly guitar in my other band, Autolux, these last few years, so maybe that was more natural as we were writing. What Ken can play and sing comfortably is the main concern.”

You were a major Stateside advocate of the British-made Wal bass…
“I sold my Wal a while back and I regret it. It’s heavy – I don’t regret losing the weight, but that bass was so unique, the feeling of it and the way it makes you play. I didn’t find it especially easy to play. I liked that you had to wrestle with it, but if you did you were repaid with the tone.”

Didn’t you de-fret it… and then re-fret it?
“I took the frets out and then, soon after we recorded (first album) Comfort, I put them back in! As we kept writing songs and playing live, I wasn’t writing parts that needed a fretless bass – so I put frets back in in.

“Fretless, to me, is a little scary because there’s certain fusion jazz associations that are rather easy to make. There’s some great players, someone like Pino Palladino who brought fretless into a lot of pop recordings in the past 20 years, people like that who used it musically, and the reason I was playing fretless originally was Mick Karn, who played in Japan and Dali’s Car.

“He was unparalleled, a unique bass player – no-one ever played like that. Then there’s Percy Jones, who played with Brian Eno and did some really beautiful stuff. That was where I was coming from on the fretless. But then, as Ken and I started collaborating more in the songwriting craft, the sound of the band was transmitted more through song rather than the sound of the instrument and fretless fell by the wayside…”

You each have a Precision bass for live use…
“They’re very new, there’s nothing magic or special about them. They reliably do what a 60s or 70s Precision would do without that extra bit of tactile magic you get from an old bass. I would say there’s certain transference of power down the neck when you hit a low E that you feel even when you’re not plugged in. The Wal was amazing like that – you could feel the power of the open E ringing through your body. Certain older P basses have that too. I love that, it’s one thing I miss, but they do the job and when we’re all playing it’s enough. I miss the Wal, though!”

How do you react to Failure’s current modelling amp set-up?
“I am philosophically and emotionally resistant to it – for bass, the Ampeg 8×10 and the SVT-2 head are impossible to beat. But the reality is this virtual stuff is really, really good.
“This guy and his technicians have basically done the most meticulous obsessive modelling of cabinets, different heads, even different power amps and all the different basic effects he’s followed every parameter. And with heads and things he’s made things available that would only be possible by opening up classic heads and modifying them. He’s made those things variable just with a virtual knob. And it’s amazing how close they are.

“Right now we have one external pedal because it does something that can’t be represented by Axe-Fx. Other than that, it’s all coming from the box. It has all the basic modulation delay effects, all the classic stompboxes, heads and cabinets – any combination you want to come up with.

“You do lose all the air getting pushed around the stage and the natural feedback of the vibration into your guitar as you play – you hit a chord and feel it sustaining because there’s this loop happening even before there’s audible feedback. When there’s no amps on stage you lose that; it’s a whole undercurrent that’s not there. But it balances out in the convenience and the control it gives the sound guy out front.”

What are the plusses and minuses of the three-piece format?
“The plus of having another person on stage is if there is a song that has another layer, or there’s two guitars happening at once, you don’t have to choose between which to play or come up with a compromise. The downside is there’s something about a three-piece musically that’s just powerful. Think of a band like Zeppelin; that’s three musicians playing and their records were incredibly layered and refined production-wise, even when they were heavy and brutal. But, live, it’s not like anything’s missing.”

Do Failure have a greatest hit, or is the appeal catalogue-wide?
“I think it’s more the body of work. There’s a song like Stuck On You on Fantastic Planet, which is the closest we had to a radio hit, but I think the core Failure fan – which is all we have right now, I don’t think we have a lot of casual fans – would go for the deeper cuts songs like Heliotropic, The Nurse Who Loved Me or Small Crimes from the Magnified record. It’s all over the catalogue.”

What does the future hold?
“The new record, The Heart Is A Monster, comes out 30 June in the US and we’re touring July and August – more will be added from there, and were hoping to come back to the UK. What happened last night in London was really fun with your own show, your own crowd, but we’re definitely open to playing with another band.

“As we found supporting Tool, the great thing is to look out and see young fans – who may not have even been alive when we were going before – up in the front and knowing every word. That aspect of opening for another band and having access to a whole new audience is exciting.”

Finally, is there any chance you’ll get another Wal?
“If they want to give me one! I’m responsible for a lot of their exposure in the rock world, for sure – Justin Chancellor (Tool) and Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Beck) both played a Wal because of me. I’d love to have one again…”

The new Failure album, The Heart Is A Monster, is released in the UK on 29 June via Xtra Mile Recordings. Visit the official Failure website for more.

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