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Interview: Kellii Scott (Failure)

2 December 2021

Drummer Kelli Scott recalls the phone call he got from Failure’s singer/guitarist Ken Andrews in 2014 that gave new life to the band the two had been in together, along with bassist/keyboardist Greg Edwards, from 1992 to 1997.

“That fateful day, I was at a job and I missed a phone call from Ken. The message he left was, ‘Hey, give me a call when you get this.’ I just thought maybe he wanted me to play on a record because he produces and mixes a lot of stuff,” Scott says from his home in California. “I called him and he was like, ‘Hey man, what’s happening?’ and kind of slips into, ‘I don’t know if you know but Greg and I have been hanging out and talking a lot.’ Of course, my whole body flooded with all of these competing emotions. It was all slow motion, like the teacher’s voice from Charlie Brown. It took a couple weeks to settle into ‘Oh, shit, are we doing this?’ It quite literally came out of nowhere and we recorded 5 songs a month-and-a-half later.

While Failure’s first run produced three well-received, but not-so-well selling, albums and opportunities to tour with Tool and play Lollapalooza, by 1997, the all-too-familiar “creative differences” led the members to go their seperate ways. Andrews continued to produce bands and released music with a few different projects (ON, Year of the Rabbit); Edwards played with Lusk, Autolux and A Perfect Circle; and Scott kept busy by playing with Veruca Salt, Blinker the Star, Year Long Disaster, Hyro the Hero, Enemy and taking on a Monday-through-Friday studio gig working for Linda Perry on some of her projects.

Having taken a 17-year-break, Failure’s getting a second chance and, as of this week, have equaled the output from the first chapter of their career. After two albums – 2015’s The Heart is a Monster and 2018’s In the Future Your Body Will Be the Furthest Thing from Your Mind – that both topped the hour-plus running length, the trio reconvened during the pandemic and evolved to a world where people don’t necessarily have the time or patience to sit down with a 60-minute album that’s meant to be listened in full with each spin. The result, Wild Type Droid is, by Failure standards, a sleek and slimmed down 40-ish minutes, not a wasted second to be found.

Here’s a portion of the nearly 2-hour Zoom call Scott and I had a few days before the release of the new album.

It wasn’t that long ago that labels put a halt on releasing new albums after Thanksgiving, instead using the holiday season to release greatest hits, live albums and box sets by well-known artists. The new Failure album is coming out in December. Is that something you even think about, that it will get lost in the holiday shuffle, or does that not affect a band like yours?

KELLII: As a band today, we’re able to do what we do, we’re outside of the mainstream mechanics. Those are still in place, you can see it. There’s a big Taylor Swift bump going on right now, which, by the way, I’ve recently watched that documentary she put out and totally loved it. I didn’t know much about Taylor Swift, definitely nothing about her music, maybe I’d heard things here and there, but now I’m a total fan.

I noticed that I was just inputting a lot of stuff, we just did a Soundcloud and it requires release dates. The last record came out around this time also, it came out November 18, just before my birthday. And this one is coming out a week after my birthday, so I’m all for that. Christmas is a time when people, like me, save money because when Christmas comes up, I want to get things for people. Big record labels are smart, that’s their Black Friday. I’ve always wanted to have a Christmas record. I think it’s a very significant thing. Yet, if you’re on a major label, that’s something you’re deprived of if you don’t sell hundreds of thousands or millions of records. It’s not even in the discussion.

Failure’s always had good artwork. But, with so many people listening to music on their phones, and viewing cover art as the size of a stamp, is it something you spend a lot of time on?

KELLII: We have an aesthetic. When we make records, we’re making records essentially for ourselves. It’s an amazing byproduct that people buy them but, before a record becomes a record, it’s got to get through us first. What everybody else thinks is secondary. If you put out a record that you don’t like, who really cares what everybody else thinks? On the other hand, we’re so used to making records that aren’t becoming these huge blockbusters, at least we can walk away saying, “We love the record. We made the best record that we could make at the time and let’s just make a better one next time and maybe all that other stuff will come.”

We’re all within a year of age of one another so we all remember what it was like to clamor to the record store and get that new release that you were dying for and hold the gatefold, read the lyrics. You’re alone in your room listening to this analog thing that you physically touch and participate with. That’s our experience and that’s where we start with making our records. At the same time, the world has changed. What we love about making our records isn’t necessarily going to matter to everyone that gets turned on to listening to Failure.

At the end of the day, the music is the really, really important part. I would hope that, over time, anyone buying a digital download is going to have a physical record collection and get to have that experience because, for me, there’s nothing like it. If they don’t, and they have some other profound experience listening to Failure, things have changed, and that’s fine. I don’t think anything needs to stay the way it was. I do what I do and that makes me happy. Everybody is free to experience what we do in their own unique way. Whether it’s one song from this record, and one song from that record. There’s a lot of that going on too. That, to a degree, has influenced the size of this record. I think we were all definitely aware that we’re making these huge, sprawling records and the question of, “Do we lose a lot of people because we’re making these massive things that no one has time to sit down and listen to?” We were all really yearning for making something that would be shorter and really, really concise. Less of a trip and more of a hard hit over your head like you couldn’t miss the point of it because it came and went so quickly.

One of the many things I love about this record is I can put it on in my car and it’s over by either my destination or by going to that place and coming home. It’s a single listen record which is not unlike all the records we grew up on, they are all 30, 35, some even 27 minute records. People weren’t making 18 song albums when we got the bug for music and swept up in that whole thing. Maybe, as an experiment, this may be a way to have the people that love listening to our music and some of the people who have different ways of consuming music, maybe we can bridge the gap. I know there are a lot of people out there that don’t know who Failure is that would really love to know who Failure is. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it doesn’t care about how good or bad you are, it’s all about being at the right place at the right time, all of the things you have no control over. The only control you have is make a record that you love and hope other people love it too. After that, move on to the next one.

Does Failure get together and just jam to come up with songs or does each person write their own stuff and then come and present it to the rest of the band?

KELLII: That’s one of our secret weapons, the ease at which we get started and write records. We’re fortunate in that we don’t have to do it in any one way. I think we’ve proven to ourselves that there’s several different ways that we can approach the start of a record.

When we got back together for The Heart is a Monster, we got together at Ken’s and we were working out material because we were eventually going to be playing. We did a three-week writing sessions where we came in at 10 o’clock and worked until 5 o’clock and did nothing but jam and record it. We did that and then we tucked those tapes away and got ready to do that 2014 tour, learning all the songs and stuff. Then, when we got back to it, we decided we wanted to get to a place where we write and record everything from start to finish. When we got into a place, we would be informed by some of those jams. There’s a lot of single moments, like the riff to the opening track was just this weird moment that Greg did with all of his pedals and that became the genesis of what would be the first track on what would become The Heart is a Monster.

There were a lot of other intermingled things, sometimes there would be full jams where we’d take several parts for a song. There were also times where we’d start playing together in the studio and we would write and record a song that way. So, there was a little bit of everything.

On Wild Droid Type, during the pandemic we got together for 3 weeks and went out to this rehearsal studio and jammed every day and recorded all of it. All of this record is from those jams and some of the record is actually those jams, where some overdubs were put on top, vocal parts or extra guitar melodies or synth pad or who knows? It’s a combination of taking those jams as the demo and placing new overdubs on top of them as well as “Oh my God, I love that one bar idea” and that being plucked out and other parts subsequently being written around it or maybe taken from other jams. We had 30 hours of jams. It was whittled down to 3 hours and of that 3 hours is where the primary ideas were taken from. There’s still 27 hours of stuff from those sessions that all of us haven’t even heard. Only Ken has heard it. He whittles it down and then sends us a smaller version. First, there was a 5-or-6-hour version and then we whittled it down from there. I would make lists of the counter, “I like the section here” or “I like the section there” and then we would all turn those in through email and Ken would compare all the notes and grab those sections.

That being said, the last record In The Future Your Body Will Be the Furthest Thing from Your Mind was written completely different where Ken and Greg would get together and just start riffing off of each other and write out the demos for four songs. We would go put the drums on those and release them. And then the next four songs, we’d put the drums on them and release those. We did that every 4-to-6 weeks, releasing four new songs with a new section of the title, a new section of the artwork until the fourth section had the whole title and the whole album artwork and the double gatefold with the last four songs.

We’re not bound by anything. For whatever reason, the writing and creating music together, we’re unencumbered by ourselves. Unlike all the other things you have to do to make records that require people to make decisions that are based on how you feel and how you think.

I think of writing a song as the same way a chef can take all these different spices, flavors and ingredients and put them together to make something that you never could have imagined using just the raw materials. Do you ever listen to stuff that Ken or Greg might bring to the band and think, “I’m not sure how this is all going to sound?” and then be pleasantly surprised at the end result?

KELLII: That’s the uncanny thing. Generally, as a band, when we come up with a plan, we always see it through. We write and record a song at a time. We write, finish a song, move on to the next one. There maybe some ideas in there that never made it to, “Oh, this is something we can move forward with,” but if it exists at all, it’s very rare. When we make a record, everything we write and record is on that record. There’s nothing left over that didn’t make it with the exception of Fantastic Planet had that one song, that we released later on Golden, “Wake Up”. That’s a great song. The only reason it didn’t make it on the record is because it was a “Dirty Blue Balloon”-ish song. It was totally different but that mood was already represented on an already over-an-hour double record. That mood didn’t need to be reinforced, it felt like one too much to express something that was already there.

That’s it. That’s the one song that never made it on a record. That’s the kind of band we are. We come up with a plan and we start it and we finish it. That’s where we’re at. Fortunately, we have a very professional side outside of the creative side. You have to have a game plan and get this music into the public eye in some sort of articulate way, especially since we’re the ones doing everything. We have people within the band, Ken does the videos. Ken does the mixing. Ken does the mastering. It’s all self-encompassing within the band unit, we’re able to start and finish everything by ourselves. The game plan and how that’s going to be executed is all internal. There aren’t a bunch of people telling us how we’re supposed to do things. It’s extremely rewarding. The music business is the only business in the world where you open a store and you give everything to somebody else to run. That makes no sense. If I’m knitting socks and I open a knit socks store, I’m the one sitting behind the register, I’m the one knitting the socks, I’m the face of the business. I do the ordering, I do the accounting. It doesn’t make sense to me that bands don’t do the same thing because it’s in our own self-interest not to be lazy. We’re way more successful than when we gave all that power and labor to someone else and we’re scratching our heads and are surprised that we weren’t making any money? Well, yeah, we’re not making any money because we’re paying somebody else to do all this stuff that we should learn how to do.

How does a new Failure record start? Do you have a band group text? Do you meet regularly? Does Ken call and say, “Hey Kellii, what are you doing this weekend? Maybe we should get together, I have a couple of ideas”?

KELLII: A new song can start in any shape or form. That precedes us coming up with a plan, it’s like “Okay, it’s time to work on something new.” What that something new is, it may be a record.

We’ve been working on a documentary for a couple of years. Some friend of our previous manager, and our current manager, he was like, “We have this idea and I know these camera people and a director.” He got two of his friends involved. They started to get really busy and it wasn’t this fluid thing. There were all these life events that were going on with us individually that weren’t being captured. The story was falling through the grating. Then the pandemic started. We no longer work with that manager. When we don’t know how to do things, they generally start off being handled by somebody else and then the more we learn about those things, the more they start kind of getting into the fold and the control of the band. We eventually went to those guys, they love the band and we have a great relationship with them, and we bought the footage off of them and took control of that. Now we’re moving on from there. My wife is a photographer, she’s done a bunch of filming.

When we go out on tour next year, we’re bringing out a camera crew to film all of that. We’re going to start filming our individual lives, like “What’s it like to be at Kellii Scott’s house?” Who are these people? People are going to find out, we’re just people. I was a 12-year-old that fell in love with music and I learned how to do that one thing really well and refused to give up despite it almost killing me several times. You become good at things you work hard at. That’s the story. 23 hours a day, when we’re not being Failure, we’re just being people.

What are viewers going to learn about Kellii Scott in the documentary that might surprise people?

KELLII: I have a lot of plants. Hopefully they’ll see, for me personally, my guiding force is the word “yes”. I like to say “yes” to things. Living your life and experiencing new things, maybe being a little afraid at first. That’s the word “yes”. That’s where the beauty in life is found. Not unlike most people, I constantly have a struggle between saying “no” and saying “yes”. I say “yes” more often than I say “no”.

I’ve always admired that you take time to interact with fans on Facebook. I’ve seen you wish friends of mine “Happy Birthday” and while it takes just a moment of time for you to do that, it means the world to people.

KELLII: I’m very aware of what it would have meant to me, as a music fan, had Neil Peart reached out to me. Or, Keith Moon wrote, “Whoa man, that drum track is great.” I’m aware that it means a lot to people. But, I’m also aware that, at the end of the day, when all this is gone, what are you left with? I’m a human being. The most important thing, even more important than my creative legacy is, was I kind? Was I person who wasn’t completely bound by the perception of my existence. I’m just a person.

You have to go through life and you have this idea, “I want to be a good man”. There are these things happening all the time that are trying to take a chip out of your ability to just be a good man. But there are also constantly these small and large ways that you’re always surrounded with moment to moment to moment to fill in those chips. Life is life. It’s indifferent to what we want. Life does what it needs to do. It doesn’t have it out for anyone and it’s not rewarding anyone.

My wife pointed out something in the Beatles documentary. I think it was Paul saying to John something like, “You should have a goal. You should create something every day.” I get that. In my mind, you should have a goal and you should do something kind everyday. You get a lot of out this thing we call life and as a human being who knows that, you’re required to put some of that back in for somebody else. Your life has to be reciprocal.

With the album coming out on Friday, will you go out somewhere and see if it’s in stock or buy a copy?

KELLII: It’s not going to be available somewhere. The vinyl won’t be available until March. Unfortunately, everything is backed up for 6 to 8 months. There just aren’t any vinyl plants. We had to send some of the vinyl over to Czechoslovakia again, like we had to do last time with the previous record. Then it gets sent back on a slow boat and shipped from New York back to California so we can sign stuff, then we have to ship it to Arizona for the orders to go out. It’s really tedious and crazy. Hopefully they have the shipping stuff figured out that the pandemic caused. If it’s coming on a boat, there are boats already sitting out there for weeks. That’s just another mess we didn’t have to contend with before. The new record, at least, we’re having all that done in the U.S. and because there are so few plants, it’s 6 to 8 months.

Will you at least open up Spotify to make sure that it’s available at 12am on Friday?

KELLI: Because the whole world is connected now, we’ve noticed that with the release of these last two singles, people over in Europe and Japan and Australia, they get it like 9 hours before everybody else. I think if you’re part of the bigger machine, you can kind of control that narrative, but, as soon as someone in Europe gets it and places it on the internet, the genie is out of the bottle. Just like TV shows. You always see those people jumping on Twitter and tweeting “Spoiler alert!” and they’re just in New York, 3 hours ahead. It’s like, “Thanks, man.”

Are there any tour plans?

KELLII: June 2022. We were going to do it in March but then we had to push everything back because of the timeline of vinyl. We needed to have the vinyl album physically out and for those other people who hadn’t gotten it yet, we want to have some on tour to sell. And, here we go again, we have another variant popping up. So, that gives us plenty of time to see what’s going to happen in the next few months. Honestly, I’m not in any hurry to get out there and put people in danger or myself. I have enough pre-existing conditions to go around. It’s already going to be precarious enough today, which it kind of seems like it’s a lot better. As of this point, June 2022 is what we’re looking at.

You’ve done some pretty amazing packaged tours since getting back together. Is that the plan when you start touring again?

KELLII: Whenever we tour, the first one of the gate for the record is “An Evening with …” where it’s just us. Doors are early. We usually have some kind of film that we put together for people to give them a little insight and entertain them for 20 minutes and then as a band, we play a set, take an intermission and then play another full set. That’s likely exactly what we’re going to do for this first tour. If everything goes okay after that, and we start putting together other tours, that’s probably where you’ll start to see us include other people.