Failure Finally Ready to Play ‘Fantastic Planet’ in Sequence
On August 13, 1996, L.A. space-rock trio Failure released their sprawling third album, Fantastic Planet. And nobody gave a shit.
OK, that's not true. A finite amount of Tool fans did. They watched Failure's multi-instrumentalist co-founders Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards open for their prog-metal heroes in the summer of 1994 (yours truly was among them), and were transfixed by the obtuse, distorted bass-driven heaviness of sophomore effort Magnified (sample lyric from the title track: "I'll show you a trick with ants when / The sun's high in the sky we can / Burn them up to crispy black shells / See them crunched by old, slow, slick snails"). It was obvious that they were on the cusp of something truly great.
But 1996 was a lame transitional period for rock music at large: Cobain was six feet under and the doors had long been blown open for post-grunge impostors and toothless adult alternative (both Bush and Counting Crows enjoyed number-one Billboard debuts) to permanently poison the well. Fantastic Planet may have been Failure's quantum leap forward, a meticulously sequenced 17-song odyssey about girls and drugs and space — and single "Stuck on You," with its arresting Bond-homage video, may have been the most clever single of the '90s, Andrews expressing unrequited obsession with ... a random hit single on his car radio — but it didn't matter. After a year and change of club tours — and, most disappointingly, internal issues with substance abuse — the band called it quits in November of 1997.
Fast-forward to early 2014. Fantastic Planet is well-ensconced as the cult classic it was always destined to be. Andrews and Edwards patched things up and reunited with drummer Kellii Scott for not only an enthusiastically received reunion tour, but a much-anticipated fourth album, The Heart Is a Monster, that picked up quite literally where Fantastic Planet left off, first track "Segue 4" nodding to FP's three interstitial "Segue" instrumentals. The trio's popularity ceiling is as fixed now as it was 20 years ago, but at least critics are starting to appreciate their commitment to epic, challenging Capital-A Albums. It makes all the sense in the world that Failure are taking a victory lap with the An Evening With Failure tour, during which they'll play Fantastic Planet all the way through for the first time (dates below). We talked to Edwards about what it takes to execute their 17-song crowning achievement.
Fantastic Planet is tailor-made to play in sequence. Why didn't you do it back in 1996?
I don't know. Back in the day, I think a lot of it was just kind of logistical, convenience-related — which guitars were being played, when Ken and I switched instruments. That kind of stuff comes into play a lot. Unless you have a whole giant road crew behind you tuning, getting everything together — a lot of times we had one guitar tech, really. We had to think about those kinds of considerations to make the set somewhat painless. Otherwise, there would be huge gaps, and that would kill the whole point of doing it in sequence anyway. But we're figuring out how to do that right now. It is interesting how different the songs take on different meanings when they're played live in sequence as on the record.
I guess the one thing that stood out for me is, when we hit "Sergeant Politeness" into "Smoking Umbrellas" into "Pillowhead," right at the top of the record, to me, that was kind of surprising that we had all these heavier songs just back to back. 'Cause when I think of Fantastic Planet and I think of the experience of making it, and the experience of coming up with the sequence, I think of a very eclectic set of songs, and the "Segues," and all the different moods and tempos and stuff. So, the truth is, there at the top there's a big chunk where it's all pretty heavy, driving stuff.
Yeah, "Blank" is the first real respite from all of that.
Also, I know that we were very happy with the sequence, and spent a lot of time on it. I'm kind of having a renaissance of appreciation for that now. Especially what happens during the course of the record: It really has a beginning, a middle and an end. From "Another Space Song" out, I think that's a pretty good last third of the record. "Stuck on You," I remember feeling I didn't know where to put "Stuck on You." That was a problem because once we hit "Another Space Song" ... "Another Space Song" and "Heliotropic" and "Daylight," I love those songs. In a way, I just wanted to have those three end the album, out, and not have any kind of big choruses or song-songs in there. Even though "Daylight" is pretty anthemic, it's still more of a mood than a continuous groove, a verse-chorus kind of thing. Having "Stuck on You" and "The Nurse [Who Loved Me]" in that last section of that record was tough. But now playing them live, I completely appreciate how that works. It's so seamless, that last portion of the record. You get a completely different perspective from listening to the album and actually playing it, which is completely different than playing all of the songs in different orders and next to other songs from other records. Doing it in sequence live is just, I don't know, it's good.
What are some of the obstacles that you've faced rehearsing?
Um, really, there aren't a lot of obstacles when we get together and figure stuff out. It happens pretty easily. We're pretty efficient like that. A lot of that comes down to how concise the parts and arrangement of the songs are. They just work. So, there's not a lot of gray area [for us] to fuck it up or lose the plot. But there are issues — I mean, there are more layers on the record than are possible for the three of us to play. We basically have to make the decision which part is more important, what parts the listener is gonna want to hear without it being jarring. Or sometimes you do a synthesis of two parts that are two distinct layers on the record — you find a way of playing both of them on one instrument at one time.
Related to that, I was just gonna ask if Troy [Van Leeuwen, touring guitarist] is going to be a part of this.
No. It's just a three-piece. It's great to have Troy because you have the ability to do those layers and for it to get really thick and have little overdubs and things that are missing from it, but ... I don't know. I always think the three-piece is really the ultimate for a live band, for a rock band, you know? Two guitars is just tough. It's really difficult live and at loud volumes. I think if you have another person who plays keyboard or something like that, you know, a completely different texture and often times taking up a different range of frequencies, that can be great; but when you have two guitar players, it gets just ... so much space gets taken up immediately, and everything gets crowded out. On record, you have so much control over the recording process and mixing. You can make it all fit. But live, less is more. The three of us, when we play together — we've been playing together for so long now over so many years that it's just like second nature. The accommodation of whatever kind of idiosyncrasies of feel and style that each of us have, we've all kind of absorbed and internalized that from the other, and we adjust really quickly. There's not a lot of fucking up going on. Or rather, there is fucking up going on, but a fuck-up just becomes a natural part of it.
I would guess there are no songs on this record that you haven't played live already, right?
Uh, I don't think. Maybe back in the day, we played "Leo" a few times, but that's the one, that's a song we sort of just learned two days ago. It's kind of weird tuning on that, where Ken is actually tuned a half-step off from me on his guitar, so to remind myself of the notes, I was looking at what he was playing on guitar. And he's a half-step off, so ... I didn't realize it, I was getting my notes a half step off. So, I was playing them confidently hearing it sound completely awful, and we went through it five or six times like that until finally I just stopped and said, "Just take me through the progression, like, note by note." I didn't realize he had tuned a half-step off. I have no idea how we even played through that many times before we realized it. That was the most salient train wreck of the process so far. [Laughs]
This album didn't have any B-sides, right? The only one I can remember from the era is the "Enjoy the Silence" cover [from the For the Masses comp]. Is that something you're considering bringing back for an encore?
I mean, if people want to bring us back out, they can force the issue [Laughs]. We can play a few more songs. With Troy, we were playing "Enjoy the Silence" some of the time [in 1997], or maybe most of the shows. I don't know. I think it's somewhat wide open for what we do with encore songs, if there is an encore. I never really liked to do the encore thing. The encore is such a silly convention in so many ways. I think it's great if the audience really brings someone back on, but the truth is a lot of bands, they get off stage and they hear that first rise of the audience applauding, and the second they hear it start to drop, they come back out. They're worried it's gonna drop down and not come back. That seems to me a little cowardly. You should let it drop, and then let them leave if they want to leave. Or let them build it back up.
For the initial Tree of Stars reunion tour, you had an introductory video, huge circular platforms, an intermission. What are you doing visually for this tour?
We're talking about something visually. It's something new that we haven't tried before, but it's ... there's a visual component. I don't want to describe it and do an injustice to it.
Can you say if there are animated elements, or a film, or ...
Yeah. There's gonna be an introductory visual component, which is like a film that will have some new, never-before-heard music from us in it. And then that'll be in place of an opening act or anything: It's just An Evening With Failure. Like the Tree of Stars tour. We're getting into production rehearsals starting Sunday, so the truth is I don't really know how well it's all gonna work or what it'll look like.
Would you ever consider doing Magnified in sequence?
Um ... yeah! I wouldn't not consider it. I'd like to go back and listen to that record again. It's been a long time. I don't even know the last time I listened to it in sequence. But yeah. I like Magnified. That was like a really richly creative time for Ken and I and writing and kind of stretching ... learning to write songs in an interesting way. The place Magnified has in my mind is there was more creative stretching; it's a more interesting record than Fantastic Planet. Maybe it's not as concise in that the songcraft is not as strong in terms of melodies and lyrics and the way songs sort of [form] a distinctive unit, but I don't know, I think there's a lot of interesting moments musically on that record.
FAILURE on TOUR
Oct. 5 — Pomona, CA @ The Glass House
Oct. 6 — San Diego, CA @ Music Box
Oct. 7 — Los Angeles, CA @ The Roxy
Oct. 8 — Phoenix, AZ @ Livewire
Oct. 10 — Dallas, TX @ Granada Theater
Oct. 11 — Austin, TX @ The Mohawk
Oct. 13 — Atlanta, GA @ The Masquerade
Oct. 14 — Nashville, TN @ 3rd & Lindsley
Oct. 15 — Baltimore, MD @ Sound Stage
Oct. 17 — Boston, MA @ Royale
Oct. 18 — New York, NY @ Webster Hall
Oct. 19 — Philadelphia, PA @ The Trocadero
Oct. 21 — Chicago, IL @ Double Door
Oct. 22 — Grand Rapids, MI @ The Pyramid Scheme
Oct. 23 — Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Ballroom
Oct. 25 — Denver, CO @ Gothic Theatre
Oct. 27 — Seattle, WA @ Crocodile
Oct. 29 — Portland, OR @ Star Theatre
Oct. 30 — San Francisco, CA @ Social