BY DAVID JARNSTROM | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Though his resume boasts recording credits with megastars like Pink, Christina Aguilera, and Dr. Dre, Kellii Scott is best known for dishing out the muscular grooves that anchor beloved alt/space-rock institution Failure. Scott joined the L.A.–based trio—co-founded by multi-instrumentalists Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards—just in time to leave his indelible mark on the group’s 1996 breakthrough, Fantastic Planet. Failure dissolved a year later, but reunited in 2014 for a string of tour dates, ultimately delivering 2015’s The Heart Is a Monster.
Throughout 2018, Failure further delighted fans with a unique release campaign for what is arguably the band’s strongest and most diverse work, In The Future Your Body Will Be The Furthest Thing From Your Mind. As the band wrote and recorded over the course of several months, In The Future slowly revealed itself in real-time installments, culminating in a full-length album rife with Failure’s hallmarks: incredibly lush, multi-layered sonic textures; cosmic-sized songs dripping with dystopian sci-fi imagery; and, of course, an abundance of powerhouse drumming. We caught up with Scott to discuss the challenges—and rewards—of making and releasing a record in such an unorthodox fashion, as well as some of his personal philosophies about making music.
DRUM!: How did the plan for creating In The Future come about?
KELLII SCOTT: It was a couple years after The Heart Is a Monster, and we felt it was time for some new music. But taking six solid months to write, record, and release a new Failure album was off the table due to the demands of our personal lives at the time. We had this idea of creating stuff in smaller chunks, but our mainstay is making albums—we needed to feel like we were working toward something bigger. So, we came up with the album title and artwork first and decided that we would split those two things into four pieces—a section of the title and a section of the artwork for EP one, EP two, all the way through to the fourth one, which, combined with the prior three EPs, would make up a full-length record.
The scariest part was, we committed to the idea that the order of these songs as we released them would be the same order on the final record. We usually spend about two weeks just sequencing our records, so it felt like a looming disaster on the horizon. I don’t know what it was—maybe 20 percent divine intervention and 80 percent just a band that really works well together—but it turned out great.
Your bandmates have a reputation for being meticulous. Did they present you with fully formed song ideas, right down to the drums?
Ken and Greg created very polished demos, and their drum programming was amazing. Some of it was just placeholder, meant to be thrown away. On other ones, it was simply a matter of making it my own. I’m not one of those drummers who’s like, “I’ve got to come up with my own parts.” If I can embrace someone else’s idea, I’m just filling my arsenal with something new and cool. Like the pattern Ken gave me for “Distorted Fields.” I wanted to emulate what he had written verbatim, but everything was so syncopated, it was virtually impossible. I actually emailed Dave Elitch [The Mars Volta, Miley Cyrus] and was like, “Listen to this thing—can a person actually play this?” And he came back like, “You might be able to, but you wouldn’t because it just wouldn’t be groovy.” There were off-time hi-hat barks in the chorus; I moved them over to a trash crash, which got rid of this unbalanced thing that was going on between the left foot and the right foot in Ken’s pattern. As drummers, we think of the body mechanics of things, and they don’t. In some ways, their writing comes from a much purer place because they’re not restricted by that information.
The sheer breadth of drum tones on In The Future is staggering. Was this informed by the process?
Oh, yes. When you throw up a kit for a few days to track an entire record, there’s only so much you can do. By spreading it out over four sessions a few months apart, each batch of songs could be started totally fresh. It gives you a lot of time to switch out drums and cymbals and change mike setups from song to song. Ken and Greg have a serious suite of killer drum samples on their demos. Oftentimes we’d try and match their programmed drum tones, cause that’s what sounded best with the music. On the last song of the record, “The Pineal Electorate,” there’s actually four different drum kits on just that one song. It was just a blast being able to take it that far, you know? And Ken’s such a great mixer. He always makes the drums sound so incredible.
Do you leave much room for improvisation when recording?
I don’t think when I’m recording. I don’t believe music should be thought about. You can do a certain amount of pre-production and come up with a ballpark idea of what you’re going to do, but there has to be that element of surprise. You have to allow things to just come out of you as nothing more than a reaction to the music you’re listening to. Creating art is the closest we’ll ever get to God. It’s a very powerful thing, and I think most of that power comes from just letting go. Just be free and wild, like a kid. We spend 23 hours per day thinking. The thing I love about music is that hour where I just get to disappear and let this thing pour out of me, unimpeded by my brain. It’s the world’s greatest release.
Onstage, it can be a little different. I used to do a lot more improvisation. I felt every crowd should get a slightly different show. But there’s also something to be said about that dude in the front row air-drumming along with me, and when I play his favorite fill at the same time as him—just feeling the electricity and seeing the huge smile on his face when we both nail it.
You’ve been at this business for quite some time, both in Failure and as a session player. Is there anything in particular that you’re still striving for as a drummer and musician?
I realized early on that what made my favorite drummers my favorite drummers wasn’t necessarily how “good” they were; it was that when they played, it always sounded and felt like them. All these notes we play have been played a million times—they’re all the same notes. The only thing that’s different is the person playing them. I was never interested in becoming the greatest technical drummer. My thing is: How do I use my instrument—my drums—to express my inner voice? All the things I’m afraid to tell people about myself, only the things that I know—and maybe even some things I don’t know—about myself? When your instrument becomes your voice, all the things you don’t have words for come out when you’re playing. That’s your true instrument; the drums are just the thing you bang on. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still striving toward all the technical things that one can achieve by practicing, but I’m most concerned with having a voice that, when I play, you know it’s me. You know who I am.