No strangers to the music scene, Better Than Ezra have been performing and recording for the past 20 years. While the band admits that it's their engaging live show more than their record sales that have helped their longevity, latest release, Paper Empire, may change that. Their sixth studio album is a solid album with moving singles, "Just One Day" and "Absolutely Still," bound for radio airplay.
In perhaps the busiest (and hottest) Starbucks in New York City, I met up with the members of Better Than Ezra, singer-songwriter Kevin Griffin, bassist Tom Drummond and newest member, drummer Michael Jerome. BTE talked to me about their latest release, communicating with fans, and their live show:
"We really enjoy performing live and you can’t fake that sort of thing. We just have a good time; we try to mix it up every night," Drummond said. "I’ve been told by fans that a lot of them come to the show for the in-between song banter as much as the actual songs. That’s just who we’ve become over the years. We truly enjoy playing our songs, performing every night and playing live music and I think that’s a big reason why we’re still here."
How is Paper Empire different from your previous albums?
Kevin: I think every Better Than Ezra album is different because we’re a band that has always put our influences into our music and you can always hear what we’re listening to when you hear a Better Than Ezra album, for better or for worse. Also, a lot of it was done long distance. I’d have a part and send it to Tom, he’d put bass on it and Michael would come in and play drums. It was really using the Interweb, the Internet machine to do a lot of the album. The bulk of the album was done face to face. New influences, different recording process and this was the first time that we had a lot of different players come and play. On a couple of songs, I just told some of my favorite guitarists that I work with what I wanted. So, I got to sit back and produce a song and not have to beat myself up playing a part that a friend of mine could play a lot better and a lot quicker.
You’ve written songs for many artists including Howie Day, David Cook, Blondie. How do you differentiate writing a song for another artist vs. Better Than Ezra? Do you ever wish you kept a song for yourself?
Kevin: That’s interesting. Sometimes it’s easy writing a David Cook song. I know that a song like “Avalanche” is never going to be on a Better Than Ezra album. It’s too David Cook. There’s a song I wrote with Joshua Radin for his last album, (also featured in movie “Adam”) that just wasn’t going to be a Better Than Ezra song. But then there are the ones like, maybe “Collide” for Howie Day, which could have been a Better Than Ezra song, but at the time we were unsigned. We didn’t have any money to put it out and I just think, "Here’s this 22-year-old kid whose got Epic Records behind him, he needs this ballad." I know they’re going to put all that machinery and pump it behind him.
It takes a lot of belief to get a ballad to happen. A lot of times with a band like us, you need more of an up-tempo song that’s more received as a no brainer by radio people, so you have to make a hard decision like that. There are plenty of times when I’ve got from my band, “Thanks for giving ‘Collide’ away Kevin.” And I’d be like, “Yeah, I know. Sorry.” Most of the time, it’s pretty clear cut, but then there are some songs on this new album, like “Just One Day,” the new single that I wrote with Jeremy Lister. Warner Brothers did a terrible job of promoting that song and I called him up and said, “Hey, we both know that Warner Brothers did a terrible job with your EP. I’d love if Better Than Ezra could do a version of it, change it up and hopefully give it another chance to give it the life we think it should.” That’s happened with a few different co-writers.
I actually wanted to ask you about “Just One Day.” It’s my favorite song on the album. What is the inspiration behind it?
Kevin: It’s in part, just about losing people in your life. I kept coming back to our original guitarist, Joel Rundell, who committed suicide. It was almost 20 years ago. I had never written a song about it and as I was working on the lyrics for “Just One Day,” I kept thinking about Joel and all these things and other people. As you get older you start to lose different people in your life.
It’s basically about all the unresolved things that you have between you. Not only the good things, but the bad things too. It’s saying, if you had one day to spend with them, letting go of the resentment that maybe you have about the way you acted in a relationship or maybe the way you think they did. More, it’s a celebration of a fantasy that you have a moment to share with that person you loved. What I think makes it different than other songs that approach the subject, is that it’s not just about the good, it’s about the bad too. Too many people let resentment and past things really hound them. Carrie Fischer said it best about resentment, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” If you had one day to get rid of that, what would you do?
Do you ever hold back when songwriting? Are you ever afraid someone in the audience will hear and make the connection that the song is about them?
Kevin: I don’t know.
Tom: I’ve always wondered that too actually, Kevin.
Kevin: Really? You know what; I guess I’d only be concerned if that song was about something really bad that someone did. But more times than not, I do have songs that people know are about them on every album. It was girlfriends usually. A song called, “Cry In the Sun” was about this great summer romance as a counselor at a camp in North Carolina. That was on our first album. “Under You” was about moving to LA with another girlfriend. There hasn’t been that many. There have been three serious girlfriends. It was about being broke and eating Ramen noodles and barely staying alive, barely being able to survive. And those people know that. More times than not though, people make a song into whatever they think it is anyway. I’ve had people very happy or very miffed that they think a certain song is about them and I’m like, “It has nothing to do with you.”
Better Than Ezra has been around for 20 years now. Have you noticed a change in your fans over the years?
Tom: I think certainly, we’ve been a band that has been able to have our fans grow with us. Every time we put out a new record, I feel like we get some new fans that come along too. In fact, some of the people are starting to bring their kids. That’s how long we’ve been around I guess. It’s really cool because if the parents are that into the band and they start bringing their young kids to the show, they truly love the band. As far as teens go, I think every time you have a new single, that’s who you’re hoping to get. They’re the obvious record downloading crowd so that’s who you’re shooting for. But also, you can’t alienate the crowd you’ve brought with you for 20 years. You have to be true to them too, so that’s what we try to do.
Kevin: This tour, having been off the road for two years, a few times I’ve come off stage and Tom has said, “Man, this is the first time I’ve really noticed that our crowd has gotten a lot older.” It’s a new thing to us too. The experience of being a band, we’ve been around a long time. We have a lot of new fans and that’s refreshing, but I’d say the meat of it are our fans who were fans in the 90s when we started off. It’s just a transition, it’s cool though. These people really support us and feel like we’re part of their lives and come to us and say, “Man, when you play that song it reminds me of me and my girlfriend. We were taking a road trip across the country. I don’t want to bug you about that.” I’m like, “You are not bugging me when you say something like that. That’s the ultimate goal for a musician. To have their song be a part of someone else’s life, like your favorite songs are a part of yours.” It’s fun, but there definitely has been a noticeable change in our demographic.
Social media has a huge role on getting bands noticed today. You use Twitter to hide tickets to the show and backstage passes for fans. That wasn’t around when you first started.
Tom: You’re right. The whole industry has changed, I think four or five times since we’ve been a band. Bands that have the ability to exist for longer than five years, which is generally the lifespan of a band, they’re the bands that are business savvy and they're hip to the new ways. You have to be able to evolve or you dissolve. You have to be hip to MySpace and Twitter and Snagglepus.com — that’s the one we’re gonna start.
All the bands that have had longevity, you talk about the Rolling Stones, or anybody like that, they’ve always been on top of their game as far as the business side of things go. We pride ourselves on the fact that not that many bands can stay around as long as we have. It takes consistent songwriting, consistent live shows. It takes having an exciting, fun, live show, which I think is one of the key elements that’s missing in a lot of current bands. It takes all of those things plus being on top of your business to make it and be around for this long.
Kevin: You know, I think this is true. We’ve managed to stay around when a lot of our contemporaries who started with us when we did and sold a lot more albums than us. We’ve been able to stick around because of our live show at the end of the day. Growing up in the south and starting off as a bar band, then a band with a college circuit, you really had to be good to be asked back. We had bands that mentored us who were really just great performers. When people come see our show, they leave having a great time. Those other bands who were our contemporaries, just weren’t good live. They were shoegazers and that just couldn’t cut it. All the great artists put a lot of effort into trying to be the best they can be live. And that’s what we’ve done. I like to think that’s part of the reason for our longevity.
You have a very energetic live show. What’s going through your head while you’re performing?
Tom: I think the honest truth to that is that we really enjoy performing live and you can’t fake that sort of thing. We just have a good time; we try to mix it up every night. Kevin is one of the funniest people I know; he is witty, which is fun. It’s different every night. I’ve been told by fans that a lot of them come to the show for the in-between song banter as much as the actual songs. That’s just who we’ve become over the years. We truly enjoy playing our songs, performing every night and playing live music and I think that’s a big reason why we’re still here.
Kevin: I agree with Tom. We have a lot of fun doing what we do. Having Michael in the band, there’s a big part of Michael that’s a ham. He likes to ham it up.
Michael: Honey ham.
Kevin: He’s more of a honey baked ham. I’m more of a Boar’s Head smoked ham. Tom is more, what would you say you’re like?
Tom: [Laughing]. Why are we talking about ham?
Kevin: Then sometimes you’re onstage and you’re just playing and in your mind is a million . . . like, “Did I put that dark shirt in with the whites when I left the house? ‘Cause my clothes are screwed if I did.” And then Tom’s looking at me playing because I missed the lyric of the song. More times than not, you’re paying attention.
Michael: Being the new guy you take in a lot of new information and you’re trying to realize what has been done for the past 12, 15 years and you’re trying to emit that. The songs, the performance. You’re trying to appease fans that have grown to love what they’ve been watching for the last 15 years and what they’ve seen and what they’ve listened to from recordings and so on. I’m conscious of that. I’m a fan myself. So, if I fall in love with a band and their music, I don’t want it to change usually.
Tom: You get fans who just stare at you the whole show.
Michael: And I love it. The folded arms and the Simon’s out there that are just waiting and the comments you get. The really cool, kind comments that come from a lot of people and a lot of them consist of, “Well, I didn’t want to like you. I was ready to hate you.” For me, playing live is very enjoyable and making records is enjoyable, but it’s also a conscious effort to stay present when I’m playing. I tend to watch the show myself. I start having fun and I forget that I’m actually helping to make the show be what it is.
Tom: It’s a tricky situation because the fact that Travis [McNabb, former drummer now in Sugarland] was in the band for most of what the visibility of the band has been for the last 10 years or maybe a little longer, 12 years. We had to really pick the right guy to come in and not only be able play the parts well, but also fit in personality wise. We tend to go out and meet fans after the show and we could have very easily found somebody who was like, “I’m not doing that.” It’s been a really good fit.
Kevin: Our first couple shows at House of Blues in New Orleans, we have these fans, these two girls who are at every show and I didn’t see them. Normally they’re right in front of Tom, but I didn’t see them. We did two shows in a row and I didn’t see them at either show. Apparently, they were in the back by the bar and they were crying nonstop the whole show.
Michael: I just have to say, these particular girls, they’ve seen hundreds of shows. This was probably the first time they ever stood back side of the show instead of front and center in front of Tom or Kevin. After the show, I hear that they’ve been over in the back side crying, folded arms and they just refused. It was two or three shows later, they still hadn’t come up. I think we were in Baton Rouge and I went and talked to one of them. Folded arms, didn’t want to crack a smile. I tried to pour on the charm and really didn’t know it was them, but ever since that they’ve been letting me know how much they appreciated someone that they didn’t want to like coming in and sharing all this stuff. It was kind of funny to me, but it was also . . . that meant a lot and it makes a difference.
Tom: It just goes to prove that people are really hesitant to change in all aspects of life. Sometimes, if you just let go a little bit, you’ll find that really good things can come out of that. Evolve or dissolve.
You’ve survived the industry for 20 years. What is your advice to aspiring musicians who look up to you and want longevity like Better Than Ezra?
Tom: Currently, the technology that exists today is so different than when we started. There are so many great ways to write and produce your own music now and get it out there for people that before maybe would have never heard because you never got it into the hands of the right person at the right company. Now, you can do it yourself. You just can’t be lazy. Teach yourself about the music business and if you’re behind what you do, you can make it happen.
Kevin: When we started, unless you were in a music center, you really felt like you were in the provinces. You were so dislocated from what was going on. With the accessibility and the immediacy of the Internet, to get your music out where it is being heard by people who make a difference in the business and the ability to record yourself with GarageBand or Logic or Ableton or Pro Tools and make great sounded recordings for very little money. It’s all at your fingertips. It’s about how savvy you want to be, how hard you want to work. At the end of the day, it’s not only the person who is talented, but it’s equal parts talent and then hard work, great work ethic. There are so many good bands and musicians who were way more talented than us and maybe more talented than most of your favorite bands, they just didn’t have everything it takes. The get up and go, the drive, the savvy – you have to have all of that. Don’t think it’s just about chasing some muse through a meadow. It’s about capturing that muse, destroying anything that was good about it to begin with, selling it out, commercializing it and packaging it.