For those who know, Failure’s Fantastic Planet is the ultimate unsung masterpiece. It is the stratospheric final album of a band who ended too soon that was destined to fly under the mainstream radar. The true greatness of this band lays in the scope their influence on other bands, and the fact that, even after 18 years, their songs still sound incredible.
Unfortunately, in 1997, at the height of their efforts, it all came crashing down. Edwards’ drug experimentation was spiraling out of control, and issues with their record label left their careers in limbo. In the midst of completing Fantastic Planet, Slash Records was dissolved into their parent company, Warner Brothers.
Warner, unfortunately, didn’t have the vision to see what they had on their hands with Fantastic Planet and leant little support to the release. Failure didn’t sound like anything else, which was both their beauty and their bane.
From the outset, Failure’s music was sonically ambitious. They were able to take eerie, atonal key shifts and turn them into catchy hooks. They transformed noise and feedback into melodies, and the production of their albums was unlike anything heard before. It was a sound that was difficult to quantify, but has had a remarkable impact on bands that came afterward. Even today, bands who seek a “cinematic” quality to their music owe a significant debt of gratitude (whether they know it or not) to Failure’s work.
Because of their musical complexity and unique production, some of the loudest praise they have received has come from other rock bands. A Perfect Circle cites them as an influence, and even recorded a cover of “The Nurse Who Loved Me”. As a sign of this respect, they have toured with acts as well-known as Tool, Nine Inch Nails, and Queens of the Stone Age.
This year, to the astonishment of their ever-devoted fans, Failure announced a reunion show, then a tour, then new music. We spoke with instrumentalist and songwriter, Greg Edwards, who gave us a rare and in-depth look at the creation of Fantastic Planet, changes in the music industry, writing new songs, and why so many people adamantly insist that Failure is one of the greatest bands of their generation.
NYMM: Right now you’re preparing for Cinquanta: Maynard James Keenan’s 50th Birthday Celebration show, right?
GE: Yeah, I’m parked outside of the sound stage right now, just waiting for Maynard to get here. The show is Puscifer, A Perfect Circle, and us, along with some guests who will step in. It’s all three bands on stage, switching off back and forth. So it’s going to be a little spontaneous, no matter how much we rehearse.
NYMM: And you’ll be touring some with Tool again?
GE: Yes, Maynard has always been a supporter and a friend, so it just feels right.
NYMM: Since the reunion, you’ve started writing songs together as well.
GE: We have some songs. We’re pretty committed to making the next logical step from Fantastic Planet.
NYMM: Do you approach songwriting differently now that some time has passed?
GE: I don’t know that we really approach it differently. Actually, I don’t know that we “approach” it at all. We just throw ourselves in a room together like we did back in the day and see what happens. There’s not a lot of forethought in terms of that. Of course, we’re bringing some other things into the room with us because we’ve had careers in the interim, but in a way it also doesn’t feel like any time has passed. It feels like we’re picking up where we left off.
If anything, it feels more like the writing environment and process we had during Magnified, which is where Ken and I really learned how to arrange, write, and collaborate. Of course, that may just be because I have no memory of recording Fantastic Planet [laughs]. My memory of Magnified is fairly intact.
NYMM: Production always seemed like a pretty significant element in your sound.
GE: At the time, we were still students of production, although we knew some about the way things were produced. Whether it was Fleetwood Mac, Led Zepplin, or The Beatles, they were all doing things outside of the box to try and get particular sounds. It wasn’t something you talked about because you were always battling to get unique sounds back then. The technology was limited and you had to be more creative with microphone placement and all kinds of stuff. Even My Bloody Valentine, a band that was happening around the same time as us, had a huge production influence on music afterward.
Production was for us as much of an instrument or part of the process as anything else. The sound of the record was as important an element as the lyrics in the song or as the melody. I’ve always been like that, I mean, I can write a song and maybe the chords are right, the melody’s there, the lyrics are there, but if the production isn’t holding together in that certain way where everything is humming and interconnected and bleeding into each other, it doesn’t sound like a song to me. It sounds like a cover or something.
NYMM: You guys had a significant amount of creative freedom during that time. Is that still the case?
GE: We have even more freedom now. There’s no pressure from anyone, commercially. No one is putting pressure on us to make something that is marketable or sellable. You’re right, that wasn’t really a concern for us when we made those previous records. We were just making the best music we could – the kind of music we wanted to make.
We did some demos for the stuff on Comfort, which in some ways we like more than what ended up on the record. Then we did demos for Magnified after our first drummer, Robert Gauss, left. It was just Ken and I. Those demos were very fleshed out and had a lot of personality. When the record label, Slash, heard those demos, they were happy to let us just do whatever we wanted. That freedom carried through on Fantastic Planet, too, which was perfect for us, because it let us write in an insulated world.
NYMM: So they let you control every aspect of the production?
GE: Yes, we had spent years together, listening to music together, talking about production, and what we wanted to do. It was very easy for us to communicate with few words about all these different dimensions of production.
It was good that we had a label that had that kind of faith in us. That was during a period in time where if you were in a band, you “needed” to work with a big producer, who had some hit records in the same genre, in order to guarantee any kind of success. That was the mindset at the time. We rejected that idea, because it didn’t serve our needs. We knew that if we worked with a producer, even a great one, it would just end up sucking out the unique stamp that we were giving it.
NYMM: Although they gave you freedom, there were still some label issues, right?
GE: With Fantastic Planet, there was a long period of time between completion of recording and when it was released. At that time, Slash [the original record label] got taken over by Warner Brothers, and that put a lot more pressure on us. All of a sudden there were a lot of expectations. If the band had continued, I think that pressure would have continued as well. It would have been an influence that we would have had to fight against. That situation is never good for the quality of the music.
NYMM: Would it have been different if you were working in today’s music industry?
GE: I don’t think in today’s industry we have that sense of pushing against something. Back then, “The Man” was the record label, and no matter how much they were supportive, there was always the sense that it was just about their bottom line.
There were people, working at these labels, in these designated jobs, and they were all scared for their careers. It’s an industry of fear, because nobody really knows what the f@#!’s going on, and nobody really knows how to turn something into a hit, but a “professional” is supposed to be an expert on how to do it.
A lot of the entertainment industry is like that. Everybody acts like they know, but nobody really knows, and everybody’s terrified. If you’re an artist working within that, with that hanging over you, it can be a really bad feeling. That doesn’t exist for us at all now. The only pressure is from all the years we’ve had since Fantastic Planet.
There are all these fans who have stuck with the music, grown with it, and still listen to it. They’re going to be the harshest critics at all with the highest, truest expectations. They really want authenticity. In a way, that’s a tougher bar to clear, but it’s a much more preferable one than trying to navigate the pressure from the dinosaur industry.
NYMM: You have worked on a lot of other successful projects. What do you think makes Failure special?
GE: One of my main satisfactions with Failure is the vindication I felt when fans connected to songs that I felt strongly about, as well. When I would come up with the core of an idea and then work through it, if I really had a strong feeling that it had value, I felt vindicated because those have been the songs that people are the closest to. I have faith that as long as I get in touch with the substance of an idea from the beginning, and I protect that throughout the process, then nothing can really go wrong. It might not be a huge radio hit, but there’s not really any radio anymore anyway [laughs].
When we were making Magnified, I felt like we were making one of the more interesting records that existed at that time. I really believed that. When we finished Fantastic Planet, I knew we had made something that had some real high points and hung together as a whole record, and was cinematic in all the ways I love. The thing about Failure was that there was a certain sound, a counter point of dissonance and melody, chord changes, and production textures that all come together and create something that a lot of people have tried to imitate since.
At the time, that sound kind of came naturally, and that was the great discovery of playing together with Ken. That was the magic that you couldn’t quantify or qualify that hooked a lot of people in. I think that’s why a lot of other bands and musicians appreciate Failure.
Hearing other bands who had that sense of magic was one of the main things that motivated and inspired me to create music in the first place. They make me wonder how they got to that sound. How do you even get there, create that moment that has that unique strange feeling to it? How do you write towards that?
NYMM: You went through some pretty dark times near the end.
GE: I started getting into the dark times right when we started recording Fantastic Planet. That’s when I started getting in over my head. The honeymoon phase of being in over my head was good for the recording process. That was before it really began to take its toll.
In a way, it gave me a metaphorical context for lyrics and it was inspiring. But in the long run, it was a recipe for a downhill slide. There was a lot of time between when the record was finished and when it was released, so by the time we were actually touring and supporting the record, I was not in a good place at all. Then the band broke up, in some part because of the state I was in, and it took me a few years to get out of that. Pretty much by the time I started playing with Autolux, I had come through that phase, and I was human again.
NYMM: What is special or different about this reunion tour?
GE: The main thing is that we’re playing a lot of songs. We’re pulling out some songs that I think we never thought we would play before; songs that I always hoped we could play, but that just didn’t seem like they would be good in a live setting.
It turns out that they work fine. I also think that we’re really enjoying playing as a trio. Even though there’s a lot of layers and overdubs on the records that you can’t reproduce exactly as a trio, we are staying away from any kind of piped in tracks. We’re flying completely with our instruments only. That’s just fun.
It’s an organic animal. A long, big animal every night. It’s a lot of playing. I’m used to 45 minute sets, maybe an hour at the most, with encore, and this is considerably longer than that.
We decided not to have an opening band. For one, since it’s a reunion tour after so much time, we wanted the whole night to be all about this music and this vibe. These people have been waiting so long to hear it and see it. Also, we wanted to play a lot more of the songs that people want us to play. The only way to do that was to get rid of the opening band idea.
NYMM: Are there any songs in particular that you’ve enjoyed coming back to?
GE: The first time we played “Frogs” again, I really enjoyed that. I just enjoyed remembering the guitar parts, remembering sitting in the room with Ken on bass, me on guitar, and writing those parts. A lot of it reminded me of the actual composing process and that was fun.
“Undone” was surprising also, because I just appreciate how the arrangement and parts interacted. I was amazed to see how we had already reached such a level of sophistication in our writing at that point. I can’t really account for where it came from when I look back. There’s a few songs that are just tough, and don’t fall into place easily, but for the most part, everything feels great.
NYMM: You’ve started doing some writing together as well. How does that feel?
GE: It does feel the way it used to. We’re still at the beginning of the process, but the one thing I know is that we have some ideas that are as good and as profound as anything we’ve ever done. That’s what makes it easy to move forward with it. I had a few ideas kicking around that I always thought, “That’s a Failure song, too bad it wasn’t on one of the records.”
Some of those ideas were a starting place. If those ideas hadn’t been there from the beginning, and we were struggling to get at those ideas, I might not be having this conversation, and we certainly wouldn’t be talking about doing a record. We’re selling an EP on this tour, and there’s a new track on it – our first new studio track since Fantastic Planet. We’re playing another new song in the live show, so people will get a little flavor of what’s to come.
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