Hands on Instruments: Failure's Ken Andrews on What's Missing in New Music

Failure was one of the most inventive and underrated rock bands of the ‘90s. Unfortunately, the group never quite got to enjoy the success it truly deserved in its initial run, relegated to the status of a cult favorite and cruelly lumped in with the rest of alternative rock and grunge movements, despite exhibiting a far more mature and creative sound than the lion’s share of its peers.

The band split in 1997 while wrestling with various addictions and the typical drama bands succumb to when members are involved with such things, but have been fortunate enough to come out on the other side in time to catch the wave of nostalgia propelling the current ‘90s revival into every contemporary musical genre and fashion trend.

But there’s more to Failure than nostalgia for the ‘90s: The band came back with something new to say and a serious desire to tend to the unfinished business it left in ‘97. With the release of The Heart Is a Monster, Failure is back with a proper vengeance.

We spoke with the band’s frontman and guitarist, Ken Andrews, about picking up where the band left off, avoiding the trap of becoming a legacy act, and why the time is ripe for real rock bands to take the airwaves back.

New Times: Do you feel like the band has successfully picked up where it left off when things ended with the new album?
Ken Andrews: Oh yeah, definitely. The whole concept of the Failure sound just came back! I think it’s kind of inherent to this combination of people getting into the studio and writing together, but as long as we’re not actively trying to not sound like Failure, we usually sound like us — so that part of it wasn’t too hard. And it felt really good, actually.

Was there a specific focus when writing it to ensure that the record was immediately identifiable as a Failure album, or at least in the vein of what fans might expect from Failure’s past efforts?
It was pretty natural, honestly. I think the only thing that we were wary of — and a few ideas were jettisoned because of this — is that we’ve all done a lot of our own music over this fifteen year break, so sometimes when we were writing things would sound a little too close to one of our other projects, and someone would raise a hand and say, “That sounds a lot like that record that you already did.”

As related as all of our other projects are, there are some major sonic differences between them, and sometimes it would sound too much like an Autolux thing or something. But outside of a handful of times, it felt really natural. 

"It’s so easy to kind of learn the old songs and go out there and make a check. That was something that we were never interested in."

tweet this
With all of the reunions happening these days, it’s easy to come off disingenuous. How important was it to focus on creating something new and avoiding becoming a legacy act?
Really important! In fact, it was the first tenant of the whole reboot; we didn’t want to fuck up what we had already done in the ‘90s. We were really proud of Fantastic Planet as an album, and even more so as time went on and it became more respected, so we felt we creatively something to lose if we just came back and didn’t make a full effort to be a proper band again. So it was a very big deal and something that we decided early on.

There’s something to be said for harnessing the posthumous hype and respect Failure has enjoyed.
Yeah, exactly. That played a part in the initial discussions of us getting back together. We’ve been hearing for so many years now, “You guys don’t even know how much your fan base has probably grown since you broke up! You should get back together and see what it really is!”

It’s so easy to kind of learn the old songs and go out there and make a check. That was something that we were never interested in.

Has your relationship with the classic tracks changed at all now that the band has made new album? Do you ever tire of playing those old tracks?
No, because now we have enough songs to change things up if we’re getting bored with something. The real takeaway for me is that the old stuff feels pretty contemporary. We played a show last year where we shared the stage with Puscifer and A Perfect Circle, and both bands were playing songs they’d written a few years earlier, and we were playing songs that we had written sixteen years ago, and you never got the feeling that we were playing dated material, and that’s something a lot of people mentioned to us after our set. When we mix up the material from the new album with the old stuff during a show, it flows really well and it’s actually really fun to come up with set lists now and see how it all comes together and flows.

You can tell when we’re playing a really old song, like something off of Comfort, because they’re simpler and almost more naive in the writing, but it still sounds like us, and it certainly doesn’t break up the flow of a set.

"A lot of stuff that’s on alternative radio now is very electronic and not played by hands on instruments, by musicians feeling something and playing real music, and I think a lot of people are getting tired of that."

tweet this
How do you feel about the uncanny resurgence of ‘90s rock sounds in younger bands?
I think for a lot of new bands that are actual bands — as opposed to electronic musicians — there’s a lot more for them to sink their teeth into from the ‘90s. There was a lot more songwriting craft and musicianship and sonic experimentation back then. A lot of stuff that’s on alternative radio now is very electronic and not played by hands on instruments, by musicians feeling something and playing real music, and I think a lot of people are getting tired of that. The younger bands seem to want to hear people making the sounds with their hands. I’m not trying to bag on electronic music, but I think there’s an appeal to hearing the sound of three/four/five humans actually playing and touching their instruments at the same time, and there’s a thing that happens there that you can’t get with electronic music, and it’s a different appeal.

Have you kept up on any of the young bands aping your band’s sound?
I haven’t kept that much track, really. I will say one of the bands that we’re taking on this next run has a touch of ‘90s shoegaze to their sound. They’re heavier than that, but they’re really melodic and have interesting note choices — especially in the vocals — this band Torche. I love them! I really like what they’re doing, and I think their sound is an interesting combination of things I haven’t quite heard before and it’s really cool.

Failure with Hum and Torche, 7 p.m., October 10 at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $25 to $27 via
KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, 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.
David Von Bader