Ahead of its San Antonio show, LA trio Failure talks about how it can't escape from space rock

The trio, known for its expansive sound and space themes, will play the Paper Tiger on Wednesday.

click to enlarge Failure is touring behind its new album Wild Type Droid. - COURTESY PHOTO / FAILURE
Courtesy Photo / Failure
Failure is touring behind its new album Wild Type Droid.
As we speak, Greg Edwards, guitarist and lyricist of LA-based trio Failure — or “your favorite band’s favorite band,” as he describes it — is on the other side of the country trying to figure out parts of songs he’s long forgotten.

He'll need have them top of mind for the band first post-pandemic tour, which will take it to San Antonio's Paper Tiger on Wednesday.

Like other touring acts, Failure waited patiently through the COVID crisis to hit the road again. This go-round, it's for the the band's most recent album Wild Type Droid, which has been touted as a breakaway from the post-grunge space rock that marked much of its 30-year career.

But that's not all the new material Failure will be showing off. In anticipation of a forthcoming documentary on the band, it also will preview 30 minutes of the film before its set nightly.

Before Failure hit the road, Edwards took time to detail the writing process behind the new album, talk about how the music industry has changed during its career and the personal challenges of creating a revealing documentary.

It must be a challenge to remember all those instrumental parts because you know so many songs. Does stuff eventually get lost in the void?

The old songs that you used to play so much over the years come back so quickly. Songs from the new record, like ones you’ve only played once when you were jamming and initially came up with it — maybe again on overdubs during the recording of the album, but never played it down as an arrangement as a live band — it’s kind of a challenge to know where your fingers go or where the voicing was played on the guitar. It can take a while to make it all work.

You stated that Wild Type Droid was a departure from the space rock concept. Was there a reason for leaving the theme? Did you feel you guys grew out if it?

It really started with Fantastic Planet, this space rock label being put on us. Our music is kind of spacey and expansive at times. There was a song called “Another Space Song,” and our album was called Fantastic Planet. For me, that title, when I decided to call it Fantastic Planet, it was ironic and another space song was also ironic. Like “Oh, another space song,” “another space odyssey.” Like do we really need another song about space as a metaphor for isolation? It was sort of humorous and ironic, and then all of a sudden people started calling us space rock. So I think I’m always saying we’re gonna get away from the space theme, but I don’t know. Maybe I can’t really get away from the space theme ‘cause we’re floating on a rock in space. Maybe it’s an appropriate theme.

It’s like we can’t escape it in a way. A lot of movies nowadays, like the Marvel movies, deal with space and time.

Yeah, I mean it’s just the phenomenology of our condition. Might as well surrender to it.

It’s funny because the new album still incorporates that theme with song titles that include words like “droid” and “moon.” If you say you’re leaving the theme behind, are those song titles sort of jokes referencing previous works?

It’s like the Godfather, it’s like the mafia. I just get sucked back in. That’s true, “Half Moon” even. I didn’t think about that. I just can’t get away from it.

You said this album is more like the human experience, correct?

I think that the whole record was conceived, written and recorded during these last crazy few years we had. It was just a very strange time of isolation for everybody, I think. Even if you weren’t isolated from other people or the people closest to you, you still were isolated from what was familiar to you, just even conceptually for what life was like. All of a sudden, the whole planet was concerned with this invisible threat. It was very sobering to experience — all the confusion and the unknown. Even all the leaders around the world, all the experts. Just there was no control, no consensus even.

I think that was the idea for Wild Type Droid. When everybody was talking about viruses, I heard about this idea of wild type virus. Wild type is basically the first version before mutations. I was thinking, the analogy for humans, we are the wild type droid. We’re the original artificial intelligence. We’re the original future droid robot. All of these levels of technology and communication and interconnectedness and the internet and social media and all of that — it almost seems like we are being subsumed by this kind of AI without any control of it. I mean, we’re not even aware of it.

There’s not even any intention behind the AI, it's just the mutations are happening. I don’t know, that seemed very earth-based, sort of the metaphysical side of evolution and just the analogy to the virus and its mutations was inspiring in a strange way. I guess the last two records, there’s sort of been a theme of just a sadness. Even when things happen, when we’re all so connected on this global scale and we can kinda all see each other at once — through social media and interconnectedness of technology — that when these threats happen, like COVID, we don’t come together. We just sort of break apart even more into tribes and divisions. It’s hard to be optimistic when you see that.

click to enlarge Wild Type Droid is the band's latest release. - COURTESY IMAGE / FAILURE
Courtesy Image / Failure
Wild Type Droid is the band's latest release.
This album does sound like it relates closer to nature and takes on a more atmospheric approach compared to previous albums. Was that your intention or just a product of the improvisation on this record?

Certainly the last record was a record where Ken and I just sat in a room together and wrote songs in front of a computer screen. A lot of times I would bring something in that had a structure or melody and some lyrics. Then we’d just start working on it and sculpt it into being a finished song. On this record, it was a very different process. We just went into a room and made noise — really without any great plan at all. The plan was just to turn off our minds and make noise and record it all, and then at the end of the process, let’s see if we had anything there. So we did about three weeks of that, four or five hours a day. During the process, it didn’t really feel like anything was happening, but then at the end of it, after going through like 30 hours of recording, there actually was a surprising number of good moments that could be expanded out into songs. And that formed the foundation for the whole record. So the atmosphere really was just a function of the way we were just improving those parts. We were in a room together and just trying to create that mood to kind of exist in, in that room. Those ended up being the moods on the record. I gravitate more towards atmosphere and moods. That’s the first place I gravitate before I think about a part or an actual riff. It’s always “What is the mood? What is the atmosphere?”

Sometimes a riff will come first. Like the song “Submarines,” that was a riff that I had, and one of the instances on this record where I had something before we were in the room. Then I just started playing it and we all jumped in, and it turned into something worth pursuing. In general, most of the ideas organically arose out of the void in that room.

Some of the best stuff comes from what isn’t forced and just flows through you.

Absolutely.

Was there anything else other than the different model of bass you used that helped create this atmospheric sound you were going for?

The baritone guitar, for me, was a new thing. In fact, on that song “Submarines,” I had originally written on I think an acoustic. I came up with the notes on acoustic and I thought that might sound like a cool riff on an electric. It was a kind of part that I don’t usually write, so I was kind of intrigued to see what would happen with it. But then when I transposed it onto the baritone, and the baritone has such a specific kind of sound, it’s got this jangly top end that mixes with the heaviness of it being voiced lower. It was such a unique sound for that riff. The song “Headstand,” that’s on the baritone too, but I’m playing way up high on the neck. Even though you can access all those notes lower down on a guitar, it would never sound the same because of the nature of the tension of the strings up high on the neck. It has a very specific sound. That really was inspiring. We’ve been doing this for a long time. When you pick up a stringed instrument and something sounds fundamentally different than anything you’ve done before, that’s pretty exciting.

You wrote most of the lyrics for this album, does that mean you also improvised them or actually drafted them?

It depends. I’m always writing every day — now into my iPhone. If I think of something, I just write it down. I have notes and notes and notes in the iPhone. Usually, when we’re working on a record, I just go back through the notes and look for a starting place. There were melody ideas that we would hum into the mic in the improv sessions but certainly no lyric writing going on at that point. That came later when we were arranging the songs. For me it’s the most anxiety-ridden part of the process, but I'm just always amazed that I end up with anything coherent. It always ends up expressing things that I need to express. It’s cathartic for me, but I just always think it’s gonna be a shit show (laughs). It’s gotta be, like you were saying, you just gotta let it flow. With each line that I write, and maybe it’s my own delusion, but it really does feel like on each album, it’s telling a really specific story in its own lyrical world. Then a year later I’m like, "How the fuck did I do that?"

Failure is transitioning from Spotify to Bandcamp. Can you tell me more about that?

That’s really just this record. Like most artists, we had some issues on how Spotify pays, and on top of that, there was some stuff with Joe Rogan and some crazy doctor that he had on. That was the frosting on top of the cake — which is how poorly Spotify pays its artists.

That fits into how your first albums were released independently decades ago. Is it easier to utilize the internet, apps and new companies nowadays to release music independently, compared to the way it was back in the '90s?

It was so different. How old are you?

I’m 25.

Okay, in the '90s, the record industry was this huge behemoth. It had so much money to throw around. They would say it was like throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. So they would sign all these bands and give all these bands outrageous amounts of money, by today’s standards, to go out and make their first record. Then the vast majority of them did nothing. One in 20 or 30 would make lots of money and make it really big. It was a comepletely different world. Now you’re more on your own. There aren’t these big powerful A&R people at the record companies who can just see a band on stage and throw a bunch of money at them. All of that’s gone,  which is a good thing. It’s a little more pure. There’s more self reliance and agency on the artist now. It’s just so different now. Even back then, we were operating at the indie scale for the first two records. Then for Fantastic Planet, we got bumped up to Warner Bros. and were operating more on that major level. Fantastic Planet didn’t perform in a way that made us a priority there. So we quickly fell off the radar there. Then we broke up for 17 years. We reemerged into this totally new environment that you’re aware of in your life. The feeling of it is so different. I think there were some positives to the old system. There’s good things about the new system too. It’s just so chaotic. It’s so hard to know what to do. There’s so much to do. Everybody can put music out. There’s so much music, whereas before, it was sort of curated. It was like gatekeeping by these big companies who decided what you were going to hear by what they put money into. At least it was mangeable to decide what you were going to listen to as a fan of music. Now it’s crazy.

We still love the format of the whole album. When you put it on and listen from the first song all the way to the last song. I don’t know, I guess vinyl's had a resurgence. That might be an indication that people haven’t really given up on the album format. Even on Apple Music, half the time you have it on shuffle and you don’t even know it. You’re never even listening to an album in the order it was intended.

Is Failure prepared for the upcoming tour after so much uncertainty?

I’m excited to just get out there. I’m not personally scared of the virus at this point. I would rather not get sick on tour, but I’m just looking forward to going out there and playing these songs for people who wanna hear them. I think that could have some degree of healing for both sides.

A portion of the band’s new documentary is going to be screened on the tour as well, right?

There’s gonna be a preview cut of the documentary. There’s still going to be a lot more we’re going to film and edit together. This is just to give fans a little idea of what to expect. It’s also to give ourselves a little idea of what to expect in the process of the production. I think it’s a good creative step, as it’s being made, to see it in this intermediate, cut-down version.

Does the documentary cover the span of Failure’s whole career or focus only on a certain period in time?

It’s about the whole thing. The idea is to have a lot of honesty in there, which I’m not necessarily crazy about. How open and honest do I want to be about my life? It’ll be interesting. You know what I don’t like, when I see a documentary on a band — I’ve seen a few documentaries on a few big bands with long long careers — and at the end of it, or as you’re watching it, you realize nobody is telling the truth. In that case, just don’t make it then. If you’re gonna put something like that out, then you’re gonna have to be brutally honest. I’m trying to get my head around that.

How did you come about making the documentary? You guys just felt like it was time?

Somebody that we peripherally knew, a producer, who kind of brought the idea up. It just kind of grew from there. This was a few years ago. This was close to when we first reformed after the 17-year break. It sort of slowly gained steam and momentum. We’ve always been known as “a band’s band” or “your favorite band’s favorite band,” sort of. You hear us described in that way, not that any of the public knows who the hell we are. All the people in bands know who we are. For that, in terms of getting perspective on the impact and influence we had on other musicians, that’s interesting.

The documentary comes out next year?

Yeah, I’m excited and scared.

$22, 8 p.m., Wednesday, June 15, Paper Tiger, 2410 N. St. Mary's St., papertigersatx.com.

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