Better Than Ezra have had one of the more interesting career arcs of any 90’s rock band. The band formed in 1988 — its four members all students at Louisiana State University. They would not find mainstream success for a full seven years with the smash hit Deluxe (featuring the iconic single “Good”). Subsequent albums did not match the runaway popularity of Deluxe but still sold quite well (all of Better Than Ezra’s six albums have reached the top 150 of the Billboard chart) and produced radio staples such as “King of New Orleans,” “Desperately Wanting,” “At the Stars” and “A Lifetime.”
While they no longer get many inches of coverage in Rolling Stone, Better Than Ezra is still remarkably relevant in the mainstream music world as well as their local community. Singer Kevin Griffin has co-written some of the biggest songs of the past 10 years, including Howie Day’s “Collide” and several singles by country band Sugarland (ex-drummer Travis McNabb is now a full-time member of Sugarland). On the road, Better Than Ezra still routinely packs venues such as New York’s Irving Plaza and 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. while, in their native New Orleans, the band are bona fide rock gods — playing the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival seemingly every year and jamming with local hero Eli Manning.
I had the pleasure of chatting with bassist Tom Drummond about All Together Now, Better Than Ezra’s highly-anticipated upcoming album, 90’s rock, the band’s more irreverent recordings and much more.
Dead Curious: You just announced a new album. In the meantime you have been very busy with charitable endeavors and outside songwriting. What made you decide to record this new material as a band?
Tom Drummond: Well it’s been about 5 years since we’ve put an album out. We actually had been working on stuff for a couple of years. We really wanted to make something that is undeniable. We had the ability to sort of do things on our own time frame because we’re not beholden to anybody at the moment. Whereas a lot of times you’re pressured to put something out immediately after you’re done touring the last effort but we decided this time it was more important to really pick through the songs that we wanted to work on as opposed to just having a couple of singles and not being as sure about the rest of the songs.
My point being that we’ve been working on [All Together Now] all along…we decided we’d wait for the right producer, wait for the right songs and just do it right from start to finish. We’re really excited about it — it’s fresh sounding. From a production standpoint it’s new and something different for us to be inspired about.
DC: For the hardcore ‘Ezralites’ who have followed the band for the past 26 years — what is going to be different or surprising about the new album?
TD: Well certainly some of the sounds — the sonic-scape is a new thing for us. The songs, to me, hearken back to Closer (1993) or even Deluxe (2001). The songs are what you think of as Better than Ezra melody-wise or hook-wise. That being said, one thing that we really wanted to do on this was play all of the songs live so that they are tracked live as a band. You get a different thing when everybody’s in the room playing together. That’s one aspect that’s maybe a bit different from the past couple of records.
DC: By now, its probably difficult to change people’s perceptions of you as a band. That being said, are you ever tempted to do anything completely off the wall and shake things up?
TD: You know, there will probably be some of our hardcore fans who think that [All Together Now] is off the wall. It is pretty different than anything we’ve ever done. Of course we felt the same way at the time when we put out Garden [How Does Your Garden Grow], our third album and to this point that’s been one of the hardcore fans’ favorite albums of ours.
Our thought is — if we’re not inspired by it, then how are they going to be inspired by it? It’s gotta be fresh, fun and interesting for us in order to want to go out on the road and support it. It’s a lot more difficult for us to just pick up and go out on tour than it was when we were 20-year-olds who didn’t have any responsibilities. Now you’ve got families, businesses and all that other kind of stuff to maintain and you can’t just leave for 6 months.
There’s no reason for us to keep on making the same album that we’ve been making. That’s one of the reasons we chose Tony Hoffer to produce it. He’s produced some of our favorite records of all time [for artists such as Belle & Sebastian, Beck and Phoenix] and he was really into the songs. It was one of those times when all of the things come together at the right moment and magic happens.
DC: The past few years have seen a huge wave of 90’s nostalgia. Have you noticed a change in the makeup of your crowds in recent years?
TD: I was talking to someone this morning who said that their kids were really excited to come see this band and didn’t know that their parents were in the band. I think there is a certain piece of nostalgia associated with past decades and I guess now you can look back with perspective and see that the 90’s really did have a sound. I don’t think anybody really thought it did at the time which is interesting in and of itself. It is cool and there aren’t too many of those bands still around and still doing it.
We consider ourselves lucky but we also don’t really consider ourselves a 90’s band. We just happened to be putting music out in the 90s because that’s how old we are. It’s not like we were trying to have a 90’s sound and that’s what people sort of miss.
DC: What are some contemporaries of yours that you would like to see get back together? Any bands that you felt didn’t really get the attention (critical or commercial) that they deserved?
TD: You know, one of my favorite bands from back then was Nada Surf. They’re still around and I really enjoy their albums. I always thought they should have been a bigger band than they were. Fountains of Wayne is the same kind of thing.
DC: Fountains of Wayne sort of have a cult, critical following.
TD: Yeah, I guess that both of those bands do but they probably not retiring, if you know what I mean. You just have to understand that there are so many great bands out there and so few of them actually make it through the haze, rise on top and stay on top for a long time. It’s actually easier to get there than to stay there.
DC: Your music has been featured on the late, great HBO show Treme. Being New Orleanians, did you guys watch the show?
TD: I watched the first couple of seasons. I thought it was interesting. I liked how they used a lot of what was really going on in New Orleans — it makes for good TV, I suppose. They didn’t actually feature our music that much. I’m not bitter about it, I just feel like they kind of missed the boat on some stuff. I thought they did an okay job.
DC: The focus was definitely more on the jazz
TD: They made a few references during the show to other stuff going on but didn’t really go into it. Some of that other ‘stuff’ that was going on was a pretty big deal.
DC: One of your more unusual recordings was the version of ‘Conjunction Junction’ that you contributed to Schoolhouse Rock Rocks — how did that come about? Are you ever tempted to dust it off at shows?
TD: That came off of the success that we were seeing right off of Deluxe. It was actually the first thing we did after Deluxe. We had just finished touring and were starting to search for a new drummer. Of course we grew up with Schoolhouse Rocks and its a song everybody knows. That’s the sort of way that success breeds more success. We were hot at the moment, Atlantic Records approached us to do it and we did it. It was cool.
DC: What’s your favorite album of all time?
TD: That’s a hard question. When I was in high school, it was Rush’s Moving Pictures. More recently, as an adult, it’s Bjork’s Post. So my musical range is wide [laughs].
DC: Let’s say hypothetically that someone has never heard of your band and you’ve got to hard sell them on you and your music. How would you do this?
TD: We’re a band that emphasizes strong melody, not too gimmicky that puts on an energetic live show. Those are elements that can ensure a long career. If you can bring all those things, you have it.