Failure’s Greg Edwards Talks New Album The Heart Is A Monster: The lyricist/guitarist/bassist discusses the concept and execution of band’s first album since 1996’s Fantastic Planet.
One of the most eagerly anticipated rock albums of 2015 is The Heart Is A Monster (out June 30th via INgrooves) from iconic L.A. space-rockers Failure, who reunited last year for the successful Tree Of Stars tour.
I recently had a chance to chat with band member Greg Edwards, who gave fascinating insight into the creative process behind the band’s new album, and what fan’s can expect from the long-awaited follow-up.
Enjoy the Q&A (edited only for length and clarity) below:
SLIS: The new album feels just as ambitious as Fantastic Planet. You have 18 tracks, with careful attention to sequencing. Given we live in an age of short attention spans and shuffling MP3 players, were you worried this might intimidate some listeners or just had confidence that your fan base would get it?
Greg Edwards: My perspective on it is that’s just what an album is. That’s just how you do it. It’s a statement. It’s a piece or art or whatever you want to call it and that’s the completed thing. And however it’s taken apart and experienced in bits and pieces…I can’t control that, nor do I really want to.
But at least people can experience it its intended form if they want to. But…if people hear a song out of context, and that’s the only song they hear and it’s the 8th song on a record, I’m fine with that….and I’ve had that experience too where I know one song and then I finally I hear the whole record and it has a different meaning hearing it with the other songs on the record…but it’s not going to change anything I do, because to me an album is always going to be an album, no matter what the trend or technology or how people consume it.
SLIS: I feel like sequencing is a lost art, and obviously it’s important to you, and I know you worked each song to completion on The Heart Is A Monster before moving on to the next. Why do you prefer that work method and how did that influence the sequencing process?
GE: It’s good for momentum to just commit to finishing a song. I think a lot of bands get to a certain point that if they’re stuck or if there’s overdubs to do, they kind of leave them and put them off to do something else. And you can just get a backlog of little bits and pieces and loose ends that just sort of sits there in the back of your mind and that’s just not a great creative state to be in.
And that’s why we do it this way is to just finish an idea completely and then move on the next…and by having each song finished completely, you really have an idea of what role it will play in the larger picture, and then when you move to working on that next idea you just naturally mold that idea to compliment what you already have. And it’s much easier to keep it all together in your mind than having a group of songs that are only finished to a certain degree-but there’s a lot of unfinished stuff that could really change the nature of the song.
SLIS: I’ve always wondered how the songwriting process works with you guys given you and Ken Edwards are multi instrumentalists. How do ideas come in the early stages and who generally starts off on guitar and bass, keyboards, etc?
GE: Yeah, it just depends. A song like Mulholland Drive I had completely written beforehand and brought that in at the beginning of the concept for this record. I had that song for a few years and when I first wrote it I always thought this could be on the next Failure record but also thinking there’ll never be another Failure record.
But that was the thought process I had when I came up with the initial chords and the vocals. A lot of songs on this record came from Ken and Kellii (Scott) and I jamming and recording …and then going back and picking out the best moments…and that would go on a “best of” compilation…that might’ve had 20-30 ideas on it and we’d listen to them together and come to a consensus on the ones that we all thought had potential and try to expand it out into a song; the verses for Counterfeit Sky came directly from that.
Or a song like Petting The Carpet, which is an old song, but we added another verse and we changed the lyrics and inserted a new bridge. Same with I Can See Houses. That was an old song that was never released…we basically dealt with the original like how we dealt with the ideas on the jam tape. There was just something about it we liked and we just expanded into a complete vision.
SLIS: Now as I understand it, you were the primary composer on the album’s “segue” tracks. What do you like about doing instrumentals and what purpose do they serve for the album in setting its tone and mood?
GE: It just gives you a chance to breathe when you’re listening to a record. When it’s just song after song after song it can get a little relentless. It gives you a break from the human voice and it gives a kind of mental space…it’s like sonic sorbet.
SLIS: By starting out the record with Segue 4, you’re acknowledging a direct connection with Fantastic Planet. Was there ever any intention to write songs that were direct continuations of that sound, or on the flip side, did you ever approach the songs trying to subvert potential expectations fans of Fantastic Planet might have had?
GE: I don’t know if sonically I was trying to reference anything on Fantastic Planet but I definitely wanted it to feel like this chaos of sound coming together and having some vague sense of music and melody to it…I guess I was thinking it was the sonic intro/stand-in for all the time that’s passed, and a bridge to lead you in without starting out with a song.
SLIS: Going back to Mulholland Drive: that’s a great track and it’s somewhat atypical for you guys in that it’s very “classic rock” with elements of Pink Floyd and Beach Boys. How did that song evolve and did it strike you as being something different from your usual style?
GE: Yeah that song really stands out to me in the writing of it. There’s a few songs like that I can think of, like Blank and The Nurse Who Loved Me, where the song just spilled out and there wasn’t a lot of effort involved.
And the progression as I was playing it on piano…I was really pleased with it, because to me it had sort an Heroes and Villains era Beach Boys complexity to the length of the chord progression because the chords just keep moving through. It also had a strong Beatles thing there, and a strong Pink Floyd thing, and as I was playing it…I was also taking note of all these things…but it happened so naturally…that even though it sounded derivative in a way, it didn’t bother me, because these were all things I loved and I felt like it was the appropriate homage I would like to make to this music that had such a big effect on me.
So that was really the musical statement that song made for me. Like something I needed to get out. I needed to write that song that evoked all of those bands that had such a huge influence on me from when I was very young,
SLIS: And I have to ask about the lyrics before you get this question repeatedly: was it inspired by David Lynch’s film or just the geography of the area?
GE: It definitely inspired it…I love that movie and I love Naomi Watts in that. She’s brilliant in that. And actually I had just watched that movie and I was looking for just…probably dummy lyrics, but the crazy thing about how it all fits together…because I was watching the movie and amazed by her performance…I looked her up on Wikipedia, and came across this information that her father actually worked for Pink Floyd’s road crew during the Dark Side of the Moon era, and I think he died of a drug overdose when she was young.
But he worked for Pink Floyd and he’s actually heard laughing on Dark Side of the Moon (the song Brain Damage), because he was around during those sessions and they recorded a lot of people around Abbey Road for all the voices you hear, so one of the original lyrics I had because I was just filling space was Mrs. Potts pop was laughing on the shady side of everything…obviously I didn’t keep (the first part of) that lyric, but the shady side of everything came from a silly little reference to Dark Side of the Moon. But I actually hadn’t thought about this, so I’m actually remembering it as I’m telling you.
SLIS: That’s awesome!
GE: So it’s funny that song that evoked Pink Floyd also had this strange connection to the movie, the actress in the movie and her father. And that’s the kind of stuff that I like because there’s levels of resonance that are completely out of my control, but work into the meaning of the song and make it more meaningful to me. And that’s really what the song is about actually; all the strange coincidences and meaningfulness in life that you just can’t put your finger on: a feeling you can’t extract into an intellectual thought.
SLIS: And the lyrics on the album all have a very mysterious Lynchian or Twilight Zone quality on songs like Snow Angel or I See Houses. In a press release you stated that you’ve moved from outer space to inner space and the dislocation of identity as well as dream states. Did that lyrical concept start with Mulholland Drive?
GE: Well the song, and the film Mulholland Drive, identity is the central element…what is real and what is authentic. So that idea was in there. And Ken came in one day and said what do you think of this idea of morning amnesia? Like sometimes when I wake up-for a moment I’m in such a deep dream state…like you don’t really remember who you are.
And I liked that idea immediately…I just said that’s it. That was sort of the working concept for the record. And it immediately hooked up with Mulholland Drive…and I was able to make it work with all the songs that had already been written…and soon after Ken came up with that concept, we took it from a jam idea and expanded it out into a song. And I went in one day and worked out the chorus and the bridge and then started putting lyrics to it.
A.M. Amnesia was just a title that was up on the board, that concept. So when I was writing the chorus I just grabbed it and used it and made the song about that. So that was the first song specifically geared towards the concept of the record.
SLIS: Speaking of A.M. Amnesia and Petting The Carpet: there’s a sonic signature to what Failure does-you’ll take a big melodic hook but throw in some dissonance or unusual chord structures, and those songs are great examples. Was that always a conscious decision to add those left of center elements?
GE: It’s just trying to keep yourself interested you know? There’s got to be some little twist, because music can be so conventional…there’s so much that you’ve heard before, so even if you’ve written something good and compelling, it can be so derivative and not have any of its own sprit…and you wouldn’t want to pursue it. I just get off on dissonance (both laugh). I have a fetish for dissonance and just a little moment of it, even in a very normal chord progression can drastically alter my view of an idea and make me want to pursue it.
I think we’re always looking for that thing that gives it a little emotional twist that makes you wants to hear it again.
SLIS: With Failure, it seems like absence really made the heart grow fonder for your fan base. Fantastic Planet wasn’t a big hit when it came out, but it’s cultivated a cult following among musicians and fans, many of which are millennials. Why did it take the world awhile to catch up to Failure…do you think you were ahead of your time?
GE: I don’t know if we were ahead of our time. I mean we weren’t trying to be groundbreaking, that wasn’t our goal at all. We were just trying to make music that we loved and that was essentially built on the backs of all the music that we had enjoyed growing up…so I don’t think we were ahead of our time or anything like that, we just didn’t let ourselves slide into the groove of whatever trends were going on, so we weren’t easily digestible in the environment that was happening when Fantastic Planet came out.
I mean there was the song Stuck On You that was on the radio. And there were things about it that were appropriate for a single for that time, but it was also off kilter in a way. I don’t really know how to answer that. I hear that a lot, that people say we’re ahead of our time. But I think what is enduring about Fantastic Planet (and what’s still compelling about us now) has nothing to do with that part of our sound that you could maybe tie to something in the 90’s, it has more to do with the essence of the songs and the concepts and the mood that the music is invoking.
SLIS: When it comes to creating a set-list, are you as meticulous about putting together the perfect live experience as you are about sequencing a record, and how are you balancing the new album material amongst Fantastic Planet and your earlier albums?
GE: I mean to be honest about myself personally? I will spend like ridiculous amounts of time doing the sequence for an album but I’m extremely lazy and kind of get annoyed doing set-lists.
I can’t really give a lot of time to it. I don’t know why that is really? Maybe I should change that. But I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. We switch it up a little bit…it’s just a balance between having a group of songs that compliment each other and not having too many lulls. And not willfully withholding what the audience wants to hear but also to fulfill yourself while you’re onstage to keep things interesting.
SLIS: Do you change it up often?
GE: Well different shows have different running times…like festival shows we have to change it up And it just depends. We might feel like let’s add this song tonight, or let’s play a shorter set, or let’s do a different encore. It’s pretty fluid and spontaneous.
SLIS: So a lot of your fan base will invariably compare The Heart Is A Monster to Fantastic Planet. What would you say are the greatest similarities/departures between the two?
GE: It would be hard for me to quantify, even like Magnify vs. Fantastic Planet, and it’s just as hard for this one. The time passed is kind of irrelevant. I think the difference between Comfort and Magnified or Magnified vs. Fantastic Planet and The Heart is A Monster…I’m almost tempted to say they’re all equally distant from each other. There are familiarities that they share, but Heart is a very different record.
But one thing I would say…after just watching all the Star Wars movies with my daughter, I would say that if Fantastic Planet was the original Star Wars (1977’s A New Hope), then Heart would be The Empire Strikes Back.