Failure and the Enduring Mystique of 'Fantastic Planet'
The spacerock band talks about their upcoming album and getting more popular after breaking up.
Twenty years ago, Ken Andrews, and Greg Edwards, the creative nucleus of 90s alt-metal/spacerock outfit Failure, weren't in the most healthy of headspaces. Corporate restructuring at Slash Records threatened to prevent the band’s upcoming album, then still in the works, from ever seeing the light of day in spite of touring as Tool’s opening act and sparking a buzz with 1994’s sophomore effort, Magnified. In response, Edwards and Andrews—at the time fueled by big ambitions and a predilection for heroin—holed themselves up with recording gear in a space they rented from Lita Ford. With nothing to lose and drummer Kellii Scott in tow, they decided to go for broke.
Edwards and Andrews actually achieved their artistic goals with the resulting album, named Fantastic Planet after the English version of director René Laloux’s outlandishly tripped-out 1973 animated film La Planète Sauvage. Given the album’s epic sprawl, rich production, and haunting overtones of emotional disintegration, it’s no surprise that Edwards and Andrews felt like they’d made their ultimate musical statement. But the album sat on the record company’s shelf for a year and a half. By the time it was released in 1996, Edwards had succumbed to a debilitating heroin habit and Failure fell apart not long after participating in the ‘97 edition of Lollapalooza.
Much to the band’s surprise, though, Fantastic Planet sparked increased interest after the fact (a smaller-scale version of what happened with Weezer’s Pinkerton). While Edwards has put out two (soon to be three) groundbreaking albums as a member of Autolux, Andrews has maintained a prolific pace as both a producer and an artist. But the shadow of Fantastic Planet has loomed large over both of their careers. After much fan prodding, they finally relented and got back together in 2013 and are currently “about nine or ten songs” into completing their follow-up, due out later this year. Meanwhile, Alain Goraguer’s score for the film was reissued by Superior Viaduct in November. Over the past few days, I caught up separately with Andrews and Edwards for an update on their progress.
Noisey: How long after getting together to do shows did things start clicking creatively?
Ken Andrews: We’d actually clicked already by the time of our first reunion show a year ago. We wanted to come back as a fully-functioning band with new material. The first thing we did in the summer of 2013 was go into the studio, just the two of us, and start experimenting. After a few months, we came to the conclusion that we were having a good time and that we liked the results, and that we thought the results were definitely Failure. But we've been chipping away at a new album this whole time.
Fantastic Planet is defined by its thematic continuity. How much of a common thread does the new material have?
Andrews: The songs on Fantastic Planet appear more or less in the order that we wrote them. Whether we actually talked about that or it was just in the backs of our heads, I don't really know. I mean, we weren't going, "This is a concept album; it has to flow in this order to make sense." But I don't think we could've made Fantastic Planet in the standard way that rock albums are made, where you record the drums for all the songs first, and then build on that. Likewise, when we do a song now, we write it and record it soup-to-nuts without moving to another song, except in a couple of cases where we took a detour. It takes longer, but it makes more sense for us artistically to explore a song completely before you move on. I don't feel like songs get a fair shake unless you go all the way with them—or at least 90 percent of the way. Because a lot of the time, the song takes a turn in that last ten or 20 percent that puts it into this whole other place you didn't expect.
You’ve both spoken quite openly about how Fantastic Planet was shaped by the personal places you were in. How have recovery, parenthood, and improved health overall impacted the music you’re making now?
Greg Edwards: I didn’t set out to write a lot of lyrics about drugs back then. But I was certainly in a place where that was where I was operating from. My dislocation at that point became the inspiration for the metaphorical theme on the record, which was space—being away from the Earth and not being grounded at all. Ultimately, Fantastic Planet is an album about searching for love. That record was about feeling that your identity has been damaged in some way, where you would almost have to have a surrogate satellite version of yourself out in space disconnected from everything that’s painful. This record has become more about the nature of identity itself, and how when you go into yourself and you really look for yourself, you’re not there and there’s really nothing there. That becomes most apparent in sleep and when you wake up from sleep. It’s kind of like, every night we all completely lose our identities. We all essentially die, wake up, and are reborn. Sometimes you wake up and you don’t know who you are for a moment and you have to come back to your reality. That’s kind of the idea that we’ve been talking about lately: self-amnesia.
So where were your lyrics coming from on Magnified?
Edwards: Well Magnified has the first lyrics I’d ever written. So I was just discovering that I could write lyrics. Having a bigger thematic picture didn’t really occur to us until Fantastic Planet, where everything just seemed to fall into place—right down to having the poster that a girlfriend had given me framed on the wall in the studio. I just looked at it one day while we were working and said, “That’s the title.”
It’s clear that naming the album after the film wasn’t meant to be literal.
Edwards: I don’t even know that I thought of this at the time, but the whole idea in that movie is that the culture and life of these Draag creatures is based on this meditation that they do where their essence or souls meet on Fantastic Planet, which is a satellite planet of the one they live on. There’s this remote experience they have through the meditation. I’m not even going to say that that was in the music subconsciously, but it certainly relates to the space theme and being disconnected, this idea of having a satellite self out and away from everything that you’re invested in because you don’t want to feel all the things that are happening down on the planet, which is: down in the midst of your life. But mainly, I just liked the spirit of the movie. It had an interesting visual technique and I thought the score was really cool. It was kind of this groovy French funk thing that was almost like a porno soundtrack at times.
Speaking of feeling disconnected, you guys never identified with other alternative-era trends. How did you view the contribution that you were making to music?
Edwards: We felt like there was a lot more sophistication in what we were doing than the vast majority of what was out there. When Fantastic Planet was done, I certainly had the sense that we had created something really special. I couldn’t imagine that it was not going to resonate with people, at least in some way, at some point. It’s been incredibly gratifying after all this time to see that people are still living with that record and still getting new things out of it. There was a lot of dysfunction and psychic pain that was being exorcised through the creation of that record. It doesn’t have to be that kind of pain or dysfunction or drug problems—which is really boring—but when there’s something troubled that’s being transcribed into art, it has a much better chance of connecting people.
A sample from the score of Superior Viaduct.
You’ve said before that the band got more popular after breaking up—how have you measured that?
Andrews: Anecdotal things, basically. A lot of people would come up to me and say, “Fantastic Planet is my favorite album of all time.” Eventually, it got to the point where it was hard for me to meet a musician that wasn’t a fan of the band—which wasn’t the case back in the day. The knowledge of the band was way up just from random strangers coming up to me and talking to me. But it didn’t completely congeal until we did that show last February. That’s when we noticed that 70 percent of the room was people in their twenties. We don’t have any concrete numbers because within a year of breaking up, there were no more of our records in stores, and I don’t even know when Fantastic Planet got on iTunes. After we broke up, CD-burning was really popular. I’ve talked to so many people who have burns of the record. But how many people are out there listening to the album? We don’t know. It certainly wasn’t through sales, because the records were not available, and even iTunes never took off. The only metric we have is ticket sales, which on our most recent dates were basically double—maybe triple—what they were the last time we played those same cities in the late 90s.