For Greg Edwards, one half of the creative duo behind Failure, contrast is key. Quite simply, he says, if he and partner Ken Andrews come up with something that sounds uplifting musically, it needs to be offset with some lyrical darkness. And if the lyrics have any sense of hope, then the edges of the music need to be sharpened. And so it’s at first strange when, before we even begin an interview proper, Edwards has offered high praise for Blue Rodeo, who closed the same Bluesfest stage that Failure absolutely annihilated in a (much) earlier slot last month. He admits the Canadian mellow-rock heroes don’t seem like something that would be of interest but thankfully there’s very little about Failure that is predictable. A thirty-minute conversation with Edwards just before their August 18 set at Lee’s Palace in Toronto reveals that and much more. Read on to learn why he and Andrews work well together because of, not despite, their fundamentally different personalities. Also, a word on how they achieve, as Edwards describes it, a “magic ratio.”
When news that you and Ken had reunited first emerged, some of the stories focused on the fact that you had fatherhood in common, and that it was a basis for your reconnecting. I wondered how parenthood would affect the work. It doesn’t really seem to have changed the fundamentally dark world view that Failure expresses.
I am not at a point where I’m ready to write a song about parenthood. Not saying anything against that. I’d like to be able to write something that I poetically felt and could express about something like fatherhood. But it’s difficult to integrate it into the world view, the emotions, that I like to express through music. But I’d love to. I love people like Neil Young who are always able to do that kind of thing. But, yeah. Parenthood wasn’t a big subject on the record.
During your stint as guest editors of Magnet’s website, you talked about Big Star and the ‘ambivalence’ in Alex Chilton’s voice in particular. That sort of captures what I like about Failure: that seeming contradiction between the heaviness, musically and lyrically, and the big, anthemic choruses like ‘AM Amnesia’ or ‘Counterfeit Sky.’
Yeah. For me, there’s always got to be contrast. I wouldn’t say this is a hard and fast rule or formula, but I always like the contrast. So, if the mood of the song is somehow happy or uplifting or has any tiny intimation of hope, then the lyric should contradict that. Or vice versa. ‘AM Amnesia’ is as unsubtle a chorus as I ever hope to write [laughs]. But the lyrics are very psychologically ethereal and dark in a way; dealing with identity, or lack thereof. And ‘Counterfeit Sky’; very much the same thing.
It’s always amazing to me to look back and see how some things seemed so intentional but yet there was a haphazard way in which you came across those elements. It’s just because your attention is focused in a certain way that you’re able to pick the things that fit. It’s a lot easier and more effortless than it would seem.
I’m glad you mentioned identity. It’s a theme I definitely picked up on almost immediately. It seems to run through the record, like on ‘Otherwhere,’ with the lyric about forgetting who you were and becoming what you are.
That song came at the very end. We had already established that theme. The idea of ‘AM Amnesia’ [came when] Ken came in one morning and said he’d had one of those dreams where you wake up and you’ve been dreaming so intensely that you don’t know who you are. That resonated with me immediately. I was already toying with ‘The Heart is a Monster’ as a title and somehow that seemed to fit in and integrate with that larger idea. He was calling it ‘morning amnesia’ and we kind of kicked it around and it became ‘AM Amnesia.’ We wrote it up on a big dry erase board we had with a bunch of titles. One day I came in and was trying to turn a jam we had all done into a song and that dry erase board was there. I looked up and just decided, ‘Okay, I’ll use AM Amnesia for the chorus here.’ It’s just crazy; that’s always my experience, especially with Failure. We tend to write in a work-intensive period of time where we commit to finishing the record. But when you do that and get into a certain track you find the things that you need in the time that you’re given. They just seem to be there; like words written on a board. With ‘Fantastic Planet,’ a girlfriend had given me this promotional poster for the movie and we had hung that on the wall in the control room and that was just there. Bang. It’s sort of like found objects in art. To me, it’s very powerful. It’s always amazing to me to look back and see how some things seemed so intentional but yet there was a haphazard way in which you came across those elements. It’s just because your attention is focused in a certain way that you’re able to pick the things that fit. It’s a lot easier and more effortless than it would seem.
I just recently finished reading Nile Rodgers’ autobiography, Le Freak. He talks about finding what he calls the ‘DHM,’ Deep Hidden Meaning, in a song or album.
Yeah. And one of the things that’s great about my collaboration with Ken is that I think, even though we come from very different places as people, personality-wise, we throw out something like an overriding theme or a bunch of song titles, we both process it in the same way on the same page. And then once we’ve done that, we’ve sort of positioned ourselves, we don’t have to talk a lot. Same thing happened with ‘Fantastic Planet.’ It’s not like we sit around and just talk about the theme ad nauseam. We just sort of throw the emotional sense of these controlling ideas up for a few minutes and as the lyrics come out, the songs evolve, it just all seems to make sense. And then at the end of the process it seems like there’s more intention in all that than there really was. Except that we sort of both focused each other. Almost in an unspoken way.
‘AM Amnesia’ is as unsubtle a chorus as I ever hope to write.
It’s probably an oversimplification but, in light of Ken’s post-Failure work, it seems like he might bring the pop and you the weirdness. Is there any validity to that?
I don’t think there’s any validity to that. Not to make any comparison to Lennon and McCartney but they’re probably the greatest model for that. People like to make Lennon into this one thing at one end of the spectrum and McCartney this other thing and it’s just not true. Sometimes, McCartney is doing the punk-est, most rocking shit. ‘Helter Skelter’; the kind of thing you’d associate with Lennon and McCartney’s owning it as much as Lennon did. And then a lot of times the more beautiful stuff that you associate with McCartney, Lennon was doing. Songs like ‘Julia,’ ‘In My Life’. I think that people like to make cartoon characters, simplifications. And it’s just not like that. I think people would be surprised in a lot of cases.
I was going to bring up the topic of creative duos. It seems to me that kind of relationship is very rare and unique. I wonder if you can even begin to describe what it is you and Ken share.
When the personalities are different enough in the right way that’s when you reach that magic ratio. It just seems like Ken and I have that. We just fill in the blanks for each other. There’s not a lot of downtime grappling with where the song’s going to go because one of us will always just walk in and solve it. If somebody is banging their head against the wall, the other person will have the solution.
I definitely want to talk about the segues. My impression is that they bring a cinematic feel. Particularly on the new album; they’re almost like montages. Is that how you guys see them? Because film obviously looms large for you.
For the most part they’re a bunch of pieces that I had written. I knew they would be contenders but I waited until the end. Basically when Ken was doing final mixes in one room I was in the other room recording the segues. Once I knew exactly the songs on the record and we had kind of a skeletal idea what the sequence was going to be it was easier to figure out what the segues would be. And some of them were recorded sort of in the spur of the moment. [Fantastic Planet’s] ‘Segue 1’ was just specifically recorded in, like, 20 minutes just to be the intro to the record, which is sort of [the sound of] emerging from some sort of sleep or dream state and falling back into it. I love space in music and film. I love just to breathe a little bit. A band like Pink Floyd; they’re so good at incorporating that into what’s essentially a pop record. But I love that stuff. Talk Talk made these incredible records with space. In film, the same thing. A director like Antonioni, a film like ‘The Passenger’ or ‘L’Avventura.’ Just a lot of visual space; also sonic space, where there’s no dialogue. So to me, a record that has breathers between songs, I’m always a fan of that. If it’s the right thing. It repositions you emotionally going into the next song.
It’s interesting that you use the term ‘space.’ I’m really blown away by ‘Segue 9,’ especially. To me it sounds like a vast, dank, industrial space.
I recorded that a while ago. I was just in this strange room with an out of tune piano and this big Indian droning instrument. I just had one mic set up and a guitar amp. There was also a really bad hum; something about the power in the room. What sounds like a weird, distorted bassline is actually a loop of this terrible hum frequency that was running through everything. I was recording and there was just all this noise and all these problems and I just decided to say, ‘Fuck it. I’m just going to make the problem musical.’ I started to get really frustrated and then I just started recording it and cutting it up and making it musical.
I’m interested in the choice to put it at the end. Not to say it doesn’t work but, to me, ‘I Can See Houses’ could be a pretty definitive ending in that the plane is going down, right? Is it kind of, to stay with the cinematic theme, closing credits?
I guess you could look at it like that. In a way, the album is a circle; it wraps back around into that initial thing. If you’re transitioning into your identity, or into the questioning of your identity throughout the record, then that’s kind of descending again into having your identity erased; circling back around. Or maybe it’s transitioning to whatever the next record is.
Speaking of ‘I Can See Houses,’ it and ‘Petting the Carpet’ come from much earlier ideas. What made them a good fit on the new one?
Those two always stood out to us; to me for sure. The mood of ‘I Can See Houses’ is just so great. Ken’s lyrics, the simplicity of telling that story. It’s actually based on a real experience he had on a plane. He was taking off and a piece of the plane actually fell of and they had to return to the airport. He was, I think, in his teens. That’s what the song was based on; those tense moments, the mood in the cabin, looking at the stewardess’s face to see what she’s telling you. I just always loved the way that worked. We really only played it live; way back when we recorded ‘Comfort.’ The change that it went to [originally] was interesting but just didn’t really feel like what the song deserved. So we wanted to see if we could find the right change, which we did. ‘Petting the Carpet,’ I just always loved that bass part. There’s a really interesting, heavy dissonance in it and it’s kind of pretty and chordal too. I always felt sorry that it didn’t work out on ‘Comfort.’ So we brought it back and started jamming it. After the second chorus, I think Ken said, ‘It needs a bridge or something.’ And so we just wrote that bridge, which is a real departure that just came right out of a jam in the room. At that point we had already decided on ‘The Heart is a Monster’ for the title and so I just decided to pull that in and use it as a lyric.
Going back to those Magnet posts, I enjoyed your little piece on Neil Young’s ‘Vampire Blues’ solo. It made sense to me that you’d respond to that sort of minimal style. I was fascinated watching you play the leads on Another Space Song in Ottawa because there’s a lot going on there and yet you don’t really change your position on the neck much at all.
The ‘Vampire Blues’ solo just makes me happy. It’s such a silly, cool, ridiculous kind of solo. It sounds like the guitar is sick or broken. Like a vampire has actually sucked the lifeblood out of it. And also I love the fact that he says, ‘Good times are coming’ before he plays this very sad, broken solo. Love that. I always love when the least can be done to the most effect. ‘Another Space Song’ is sort if an example of that; where one element is stationary and repeating and then the other things move around it, modulating it and giving it different meaning as they move. In ‘Heliotropic,’ the bass stays stationary and the guitar moves. I always love the way that works out.
To wrap up, what’s next for Failure?
We’re going to continue touring until the end of the year and into next year. It’s hard to imagine that we won’t get around to making another record at some point.
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