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MUSIC NOTEBOOK

Failure Finds Success in Rock Rumble

January 24, 1993|STEVE APPLEFORD | Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

Perhaps it wasn't so much that the members of Failure didn't quite belong , during those first days on the local club scene. The trio and its melancholy rock rumble just weren't falling easily into any musical niche.

They didn't particularly mind, says Ken Andrews, Failure's singer-guitarist. "It was never like the band was down in the L. A. trenches," trying to make a place for itself in the local music scene, he says.

But the crowds finally came with some regularity after KXLU-FM added the band's self-produced "Pro-Catastrophe" single to its underground rock playlist in 1990.

And now that Failure's debut album, "Comfort," has been released by Slash Records, Andrews and the others are finding themselves listed as part of the grunge rock scene, a movement they've never identified with.

It's true that Andrews was born in Seattle, that famed hotbed of the harsh guitar-rock-pop sound and home to flagship act Nirvana. But his family had moved away by the time he was 12, before music was a central concern, and he has only returned once.

He went to see his father, who had relocated there "two Christmases ago, and I got completely snowed in," says Andrews, who now shares a Sherman Oaks apartment with bassist Greg Edwards. "I couldn't go anywhere but his house."

Besides, the moody sounds of Failure--which performs Feb. 11 with Ween at the Whisky in West Hollywood--hadn't erupted from the usual underground rock influences, he insists. Back at his San Diego high school during the early 1980s, Andrews was listening to the Sex Pistols, but along with such radio-ready artists as the Cars, Van Halen, AC/DC and the Rolling Stones.

"I was just like a suburban high school kid, just listening to the mainstream rock thing," Andrews says. "It's almost by accident that this band's sound became associated with a more alternative scene. I never wanted the band, or ever thought the band was somehow dedicated to that."

Although the new album opens with the grim dissonance of the song "Submission," that's quickly followed by a couple of tracks that offer a subtle, darkly alluring pop structure beneath all the guitar-bass-drum racket. This first emerged during the four-track tape-machine experiments that songwriter Andrews was making after he'd moved from San Diego to study filmmaking at Cal State Los Angeles.

By the late '80s, a friend from San Diego, drummer Robert Gauss, also had relocated to Los Angeles and joined Andrews. Edwards completed the trio in 1990 after he was attracted to the rock songs Andrews was crafting at home.

"I tend to like music that has a kind of somber, heavy quality to it," says Edwards, who grew up in Encino, and had only been out of high school for a year when he was recruited. "I've always been drawn to things more melancholy than things that are more light and upbeat. But then I also like Paul McCartney."

That first year, Failure played such local clubs as Al's Bar, Raji's and Club Lingerie. The band also spent about $800 to press 500 copies of its first single, which were soon mailed to college radio stations across the country. "Pro-Catastrophe," which also appears on the new album, actually won some airplay, though Andrews says none of this had been done with any grand career plan.

"I don't know that we thought it was important to do," he says. "We just thought it would be cool. We just wanted to see if anybody would play our music on the radio."

The band's two early singles "weren't quite as raw" as what is on the Slash album, Andrews says. "They sounded more synthetic. We were in the studio figuring out how knobs work, basically."

The harder sound of "Comfort," self-produced by the band and engineered by Steve Albini (who has also worked with the Pixies and the Poster Children), is a better representation of Failure's personal style, Andrews adds. "Maybe it's the way I learned to play guitar. I didn't take any lessons. I mainly learned from watching my younger brother, who is a pretty good guitar player.

"A lot of the music is a function of my ability, or lack thereof, of playing guitar. But that's what I've always liked about other guitar players, just having some weird thing you can tell didn't come out of being taught."

Andrews was the key lyricist on the first album, with the full band composing the music together, but other members will probably provide material when the band returns to the studio by June for a fall release. And in recent songwriting sessions, the bassist and guitarist have even been switching instruments to test new ideas.

"For me, at least, coming up with words is more a function of the sound and rhythm," Andrews says. "Something hits you about it, and you're not quite sure why."

The bands Failure and Ween perform at 8 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Whisky, 8901 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Tickets are $12.50. Call (213) 480-3232.

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