A good band is easy to kill. Egos get in the way of a productive, creative environment. Addiction can cripple the ability to function. Or its members simply stop getting along, which has led to the implosion of too many bands to mention, including—at least temporarily—Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins.
In late 1996, Los Angeles alternative-rock trio Failure seemed on the verge of something huge. They'd just released their sprawling third album, Fantastic Planet, and its lead single, "Stuck on You," earned them airplay on stations like 91X and KROQ, while its James Bond-inspired video clip landed on MTV's 120 Minutes.
All signs pointed to 1997 being the year that Failure would reach the next level; it turned out to be the year everything fell apart. They finished recording Fantastic Planet in 1995, but business decisions by their label, Slash, kept it from being released until more than a year later. Meanwhile, the group's members—guitarist Ken Andrews, bass player Greg Edwards and drummer Kellii Scott—had begun a descent into heroin use that would eventually get in the way of their ability to keep functioning as a band.
In a phone interview from San Francisco at the launch of the band's "Tree of Stars" tour, Andrews says that after the album was done, things quickly went from bad to worse.
"Basically, after Fantastic Planet was done we delivered it to kind of a nightmare scenario," he says. "The label we were signed to at the time was trying to sell itself and was not interested in releasing records at all. So that record, which we poured our heart and soul into, sat on the shelf for almost two years.
"And drug problems that were I don't know if you can say that a drug problem is manageable, but it went from being somewhat manageable to spiraling out of control during that time," he continues. "By the time it actually did come out, we were already in a downward spiral that no matter what happened with that record, was not going to end well."
By last year, when Failure announced their first show together since 1997, an entirely new generation of listeners had gravitated toward the band's epic, cosmic rock music. And so when tickets for the Feb. 13 show at the nearly 800-capacity El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles went on sale, they sold out in a matter of minutes.
Andrews says that playing to these larger audiences now feels much different than it did in the '90s, and it doesn't feel like nostalgia for its own sake.
"We could kind of sense there's a new audience that discovered us way after we broke up," he says. "People have had so long to absorb the records and kind of make them their own, which is super-satisfying to play these shows now, and people just freak out when we play the songs and they know all the words. It's very different than when we were playing them in 1997 as a new album and as a relatively new band to most people.
"It doesn't feel like a reunion tour in terms of a bunch of guys getting together to play the old hits," he continues. "The material still feels pretty current."
When Failure released Fantastic Planet in the fall of 1996, it represented a significant shift for the band both in creativity and in scope. A concept album about addiction filtered through heavy space imagery, largely inspired by films like Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, Fantastic Planet was nearly 30 minutes longer than its predecessor, Magnified, and featured both the band's catchiest songs ("Stuck on You," "Sergeant Politeness") and their most sonically complex ("Another Space Song," "Heliotropic"). It occupies an unusual space in '90s alt-rock, somewhere between the epic crunch of Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream, the ethereal majesty of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and the abrasive post-hardcore of Quicksand's Slip.
It was an ambitious release by almost any measure, particularly considering Failure was still a relatively unknown band at the time. Not that that stopped them from pitching the audacious project to their label. After working with Steve Albini on their 1992 debut, Comfort, and mostly self-producing its follow-up, Magnified, Failure's vision with album No. 3 was to use their advance to buy their own equipment, rent a house outside of Los Angeles and record the album on their own—without any outside intervention.
This, Andrews says, made their management nervous.
"Our manager was, like, They're never going to go for it. You don't have any hits behind you yet. You don't have any credibility to be producing your own records, really,'" Andrews says. "So we went in, had the meeting, made the pitch, and the record-label president was, like, Sounds good. Get to recording.'"
Failure play Sunday, June 15 at House of Blues
That more or less began what became a fruitful career in production and engineering work for Andrews, which includes albums by A Perfect Circle, Tenacious D and M83. After the band broke up, Andrews also continued recording with projects like On and Year of the Rabbit, while Edwards joined Autolux and Scott worked with Blinker the Star and former Hole bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur. Even after their darkest period in the late '90s, the members of Failure still pursued music as a creative outlet, which is why getting back together means something more than just revisiting their old material.
"We talked about how, if we get the band together, we don't want it to be the one reunion tour, and just play the old songs, and that would be it," Andrews says. "That didn't really do it for us, in terms of something to sink our teeth into. So we actually spent a little bit of time on some new material to see if we could satisfy ourselves, in terms of liking the quality of the new material."
Failure recently released "Come Crashing," their first new song since 1996, and Andrews says there's more on the way— which is what makes this feel a bit different than so many of the reunions that have headlined festivals in the last decade. There's a new sense of purpose to the band. So maybe this isn't really a comeback—it's a new beginning.