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Band Interview: Better Than Ezra

Grant Walters Grant Walters Band Interview: Better Than Ezra
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Celebrating their 30th anniversary as a band and looking back a quarter century on their major label debut album, "Deluxe," the New Orleans alt-rockers will be in Columbus Wednesday night with the Barenaked Ladies and KT Tunstall on the "Last Summer On Earth 2018" tour

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Author’s Note: This article is the second of a three-part series profiling each of the artists on the tour. Stay tuned for an interview with the Barenaked Ladies tomorrow, and read my conversation with KT Tunstall from last week. 

“Grateful,” the latest single from alt-rock veterans Better Than Ezra, coruscates with the same engaging electric fizz that first drew audiences to their 1993 major label debut album, Deluxe.

“It’s a really good tune,” co-founder Kevin Griffin affirms in a recent phone conversation. “I had an idea in the fall of last year. I had a melody and then, ‘Grateful…I’m gonna be grateful every day.’ And the lyric is, ‘I’m gonna be grateful every day, we’ll make a little wave and we’ll ride it…I’m gonna keep shakin’ off the shade, make a little ray and we’ll shine it, shine it on.’ And while I was singing grateful, I was with my co-writer, a guy named Mark Scibilia who’s just a great performer and songwriter — he’s a Nashville guy.

I was like, ‘Man! Can we get away with a song named ‘Grateful’ because it sounds too preachy? The word is so powerful and it’s so great, and it’s important to be grateful, but at the same time you don’t want to sound too new age, you know? So I went into it with a little trepidation, but with the way the music was set up, it just balanced out the lyrics. And it was like, ‘Man, people need to hear this, people want to hear this. This feels good, it feels honest and not pandering.’ And when we finished it, I was like, ‘Oh my God. We’ve written a great song!’

“It really is just about…if you wake up every morning like I do and you watch MSNBC and CNN — so, I’m that guy, I’m on that side of this line. You know, it’s just easy to get a sense of futility sometimes. Or just dealing with stuff like family or your career or other things where it’s easy to spin out and get bummed out sometimes. But at the same time, you’re like, ‘Man, I wouldn’t trade my problems for anyone else’s! I have so much to be happy for.’ And I wanted to share that vibe with other people and we were able to that with this song.

And that’s me being a southern gospel preacher! I was looking for a sample and I was like, ‘I’m gonna make my own.’ I kinda manipulated my voice and made it lo-fi.”

And for lead vocalist and principal songwriter Griffin, bassist and background vocalist Tom Drummond, guitarist/keyboardist and background vocalist Jim Payne, Jr., and drummer Michael Jerome, the gratitude continues to flow as they celebrate their career-defining opus Deluxe‘s quarter-century anniversary with a vinyl reissue scheduled for later in the year. They’re also in the midst of building on “Grateful”‘s momentum with additional new tracks that will comprise BTE’s first studio album since 2014’s All Together Now.

The band has been recording and touring since 1988 when Griffin, Drummond, former bassist Joel Rundell, and former drummer Cary Bonnecaze met as students at Louisiana State University.

Joining close friends the Barenaked Ladies (along with Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall) on their Last Summer On Earth 2018 tour ticket is a sizable feather in their cap which, according to Griffin, has been several years in the making.

“Well, you know, we’re as excited as anybody else about this package because it’s just a great look for Better Than Ezra. We love the Barenaked Ladies and their fan base, and there’s a lot of overlap with ours. And KT, she’s just a force of nature. She gets up there solo with all of her looping pedals, and it’s just like a whole band. It’s a great package. You know, I’ve been working on Ed {Robertson] for a few years. I was like, ‘Hey! I’m writing a lot of songs with you. It’d be nice to have a little quid-pro-quo! Better Than Ezra would like to go out on a tour!’ [laughs] And then they had Violent Femmes that went out with them, and I couldn’t argue with that. I was like, ‘Okay. Alright. Next year!’

And then they had OMD and Howard Jones, and I said, ‘Now look, I love the 80s just as much as anybody, but come on, man!’ And so this year finally, Ed caved and brought us on, so we’re thrilled. As you know Ed and I have been writing together for almost 10 years and had a lot of success, and we’re pals and we hang out. But at the same time, you have to start with what’s best for the band and best for the tour. And that’s always understood, so you always tease and mess with somebody, but business is business. But this makes great business.”

The Wednesday night tour stop in Columbus at Express LIVE! will be the band’s first since they played a double bill with The Wallflowers last summer at the Columbus Zoo amphitheater.

I want to pause and acknowledge your accomplishments as a songwriter for Better Than Ezra and just this massive list of other artists. I’m a bit embarrassed at the number of songs that I’ve listened to over the years that you’ve written or co-written and had absolutely no idea. You contributed to a significant portion of the new Barenaked Ladies album, Fake Nudes, as well.

“You know what? It’s crazy. And thank you so much. I’m still just…I’m so grateful and just blown away that I get to write with these amazing artists, and continue to be seen as relevant and that I have something to contribute. Because you always feel that way, but lots of times how we feel about ourselves isn’t necessarily how other people feel, you know? That’s just life. So, it’s nice to be asked to write with people and get to do it, because, you know, you’re always competing against a whole pack load of writers, because writers aren’t just writing with you, they write with a whole bunch of people and then they cull together what they think are the best songs. So to keep having my songs cut and show up on albums is great.”

Considering your dual role as a full-time performer and a consistently active songwriter, where do you feel most comfortable musically? Is it solidly in one of those hemispheres or somewhere in between?

“They all serve each other. The writing of the songs keeps me creative and keeps me in touch with what’s happening in music, because it’s incumbent on me to always know what…I’m just a voracious consumer of music. But it’s also by design, you know, because I know it’s going to keep what I’m writing current. At the same time, you want to go out and perform the songs and you want to keep remembering what people react to. Because when you’re in the studio, you kind of…it’s just like a yin and yang, and the writing and performing balance each other out and they serve one another. So, you know, I call myself a songwriter first because that’s where it all starts before anything else. Nothing works without the songs. I’m a songwriter first and then a performer, and I love it all, you know?

I spoke with Tom the last time you were here in Columbus and he hinted at a new Better Than Ezra record seeing light of day at some point this year. Is that still in the works?

“This fall, I’m going to release a solo album, and then in 2019 will be a Better Than Ezra proper album, and ‘Grateful’ will go on that. We’ve never tried a standalone single, but that’s kind of the norm now.”

I’ve listened to you guys since I was in college, and I remember Deluxe coming out just before I moved to Vancouver. Tell me a little bit about the vibe that was happening 25 years ago when you were assembling it. How do you and the guys feel about it now looking back?

“It’s funny, this year is the 25th anniversary of the independent release in 1993. We made that record from ’91 to ’93, and we did it in an apartment in West Hollywood, California just peace-meal here and there. We did it with a guy named Dan Rothchild who produced the record with us, and he’s a great musician and producer. His dad’s Paul Rothchild, who produced the Doors. Yeah, they have a rich heritage. You know, it was $15 an hour in a little analog studio with a half-inch tape and 16 tracks, so when you listen to that record sonically, it’s a very lo-fi recording because that’s what we had. It has this very cool analog sound.

We made that record as a series of demos at first, and then we just kept going and went, ‘Oh my God!’ and we kept making it into an album. And there was something magic for sure happening in those sessions. It was…there was no automated mixing, and there were two or three guys on the mixing board making moves, synchronized moves for the mix to happen. We were out of tracks, so we played live while we were mixing the album, so that can never be re-created, you know — the stereo mix. So there’s a lot of magic that went into that, the whole…we did that part ourselves in the yard of our apartment we lived in in Beachwood Canyon, and we went to East Nashville and got the trinkets on the album cover.

And everything Tom and I really did and all the recording and the first 2,000 CDs I think cost about $8,500, and it went almost triple platinum. So it was just nuts. Speaking of being grateful — that little record…we recorded the drums all in one night in a meat-packing plant in East Nashville. There are just a lot of great stories to go along with that. To look back and say, ‘Oh my God. 25 years. This album that changed our lives, and since then we’ve had these kids and it’s allowed us to travel around the world.’

And also, this is the 30th anniversary of our first rehearsal, too. To be playing and doing the tour with the Barenaked Ladies and doing Red Rocks and the Greek, and then you guys [in Columbus], and some of the finest outdoor amphitheaters in our country — it’s just like, ‘Whoa!’ So it’s not a coincidence that ‘Grateful’ is the single, because we’ve got a lot to be grateful for.”

You’ve been touring constantly, but recording a bit less frequently as you all pursue side projects and work on charity events, among so many other things. When the four of you eventually do reform in the studio to make new music, what sort of artistic intersection takes place that gets you back into a creative mode?

“We’re always doing shows, but when we get back in the studio everybody kind of brings new influences from what they’ve been doing and what they’ve been listening to, and you sort of catch up. Then it’s kind of like putting on a flannel shirt. It fits and feels comfortable and feels so familiar, working with Tom and working with Michael. There’s so much history there. And we’re always doing new things, that informs the new stuff, that sort of long heritage we have from playing together. Then our new influences are what’s turning us on and that shows up in the music.

And it’s me singing and writing, and Tom and Michael playing, but the goal is that there’s always something new and fresh that we’re not rehashing. We always try to bring our new influences in, just like when we were a new band, we were playing what we were into, you know? Our music sounded like R.E.M. and Nirvana and the Pixies and The Smiths. It was put in a southern blender, but that’s what we were listening to. And why should that stop? Our music is always influenced by, ‘Hey, man! Did you hear this new song? This new Dawes song? This new Coldplay song? Or this Father John Misty record?’ So when we get together it’s always like, ‘What are you listening to? What do we want this to sound like?'”

I was at your last show in Columbus, and since I was snapping photos I was focused on how you all moved on stage, your facial expressions, and body language. And all of you just emanated this joy, like you wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world than in front of that audience. 

“Not every band can say this, but we just genuinely love what we do. And I can speak for Tom and Michael and Jim. We get on stage, and whatever we were doing, good or bad, was just kind of put to the side. We’re like, ‘Wow! I’m getting to perform live!’ It’s really a transformation that happens. I go into this mode, and I just have a blast — we all have a blast. And you discover something unique or funny about where you’re playing and you weave that into the show. You know, if it’s the zoo, we’re going to be doing really bad zoo puns or something.

And, yeah man, I’m on a high. I really am. As hokey as it sounds, music has always been that escape and that high for me, and when I’m on the stage I’m just on another planet.”

Better Than Ezra joins the Barenaked Ladies and KT Tunstall on the “Last Summer On Earth 2018” tour, which stops in Columbus at Express LIVE! on Wednesday, July 11. General admission tickets (the show is outdoors) are $39.50, plus applicable fees and taxes, and are available via Ticketmaster. More information about BTE’s music, including downloads and purchase links, can be found on their official website.

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