Members include Cary Bonnecaze (left group in 1996), drums; Tom Drummond (born June 30, 1970), bass guitars; Kevin Griffin (born October 1, 1966), vocals, lead guitar; Travis McNabb (joined group in 1996), drums. Addresses: Record company--Elektra Entertainment, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
After the so-called "revolution" of alternative or modern rock music in the early 1990s, the airwaves were flooded with new acts that slipped out of sight almost as quickly as they stepped into the limelight. Similar to the phenomena of punk rock and new wave in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the atmosphere of popular music in the 1990s has been one of frenzied record company executives and talent scouts ravenously signing myriads of new artists in hopes of finding the newest sensation. The result has been an often dizzying assault of one-hit wonders and mediocre records amidst truly talented gems. In such a confused setting, the New Orleans-based trio Better Than Ezra has toiled to prove they are not an overnight sensation or prefabricated trophy band of the record industry, but an outfit dedicated to quality songwriting, whether under the label "alternative" or otherwise. "We've been working in overheated vans for years, and I think we're realistic about the chances of success in this business," drummer Tom Drummond told the Los Angeles Times, "Playing night in night out is the only way to become a tight band. We want longevity ... We want to be in it for the long haul." With two favorably received major label albums under their belt, Deluxe and Friction, Baby, in addition to the independently released Surprise, Better Than Ezra has demonstrated the knack for well- crafted, if not truly innovative, rock.
True to the tradition of many independent rock bands, Better Than Ezra traces its origins to high school amateurism and garage rehearsals. In 1980, at age 13, future Better Than Ezra singer and guitarist Kevin Griffin found his first, although modest, success with his rock band Aces Up. After winning a local talent competition, Griffin and his band were awarded a chance to press their own record, "Seek, Find, Destroy." The record's flipside, a cover version of Kiss's "Cold Gin," demonstrated a love of 1970's classic rock, which Griffin carried over into Better Than Ezra's music. Despite a promising start, however, Aces Up quickly disbanded, leaving Griffin to tinker with his guitar alone for over half of the decade before forming a new outfit.
While in college at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Griffin began weaving the first true threads of Better Than Ezra. After meeting drummer Cary Bonnecaze, Griffin decided it was time to form another group. However, differences with the bass guitar player recruited by Griffin and Bonnecaze halted the project for a year. In 1988, Griffin and Bonnecaze again decided to launch a rock trio, this time advertising for an able bass player in the local paper. The first applicant, Tom Drummond, then 17, was adopted immediately. The band harvested its initial lineup, and needed a catchy name. From an apparently random passage in Ernest Hemingway's book A Moveable Feast, "anything was better than Ezra learning to play the bassoon," the threesome snatched their new name, ready to make their stage debut.
Throughout 1988, Better Than Ezra began making a name for itself. With benign trickery, Griffin booked his new band's debut performance at a Baton Rouge nightclub where he worked, slipping a bogus band name into an open slot in the venue's show schedule. Luckily, Better Than Ezra was received well enough by the audience so that Griffin was not fired. After a modicum of local live success, the band hastily assembled a five-song cassette and a press kit to precede them before they trekked to Boston, where they managed to play every possible club. In the meantime, the trio began writing and revising the songs that would comprise their first full-length album.
For the next several years, Better Than Ezra stuck to a routine of extensive touring around Louisiana, playing bars, fraternity houses, or parties. In the process, the band was able to shape enough material in a live format to round out an album. In the spring of 1990, just as Griffin was receiving his degree from Louisiana State University, Better Than Ezra released Surprise, which the band recorded itself and distributed to record stores across several Southern states. While Surprise did not exactly take the world by storm, its first pressing of six thousand copies was quickly digested by a local market whose appetite was apparently whetted by Better Than Ezra's saturation of energetic live performances. The band was rapidly pulling itself up by its own bootstraps.
On the brink of larger success, however, Better Than Ezra collapsed once again. In the fall of 1990, the band was struck by the death of close friend Joel Rundell, who had briefly played rhythm guitar with the group. Rundell's death marked a moment of reflection for Better Than Ezra's members, who questioned the directions in which their lives and careers were going. "You're twenty, you're out touring in a band, partying, and suddenly you've lost a close friend," Griffin remembered in a press release. "I think we were intelligent enough to see that there was a plateau there, the possibility of stagnation. Bar band purgatory was just around the corner." Attracted by a more conservative career path, both Drummond and Bonnecaze enrolled in programs at Louisiana State University, while Griffin headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Once again, Better Than Ezra had stalled out.
Slowly, but surely, the band regained its level of commitment. Griffin, who had moved again, this time to Colorado, received numerous letters from fans of Better Than Ezra--later to be called "Ezralites"--who tried to coax the band to reform. By the end of 1990, Griffin followed the fans' directives and was able to reunite the band's other reluctant members for a performance in their hometown of New Orleans. Still uncertain whether or not rock music was merely an adolescent pipe dream, Better Than Ezra opted to play occasional gigs when time allowed instead of being the touring machine they once were. Despite these doubts, the band was motivated enough to write fresh material, in tentative hopes of recording a second album. Haphazardly, the band recorded demos of their most recent creations, and forwarded the tape to a Los Angeles-based fan magazine. To their surprise, the trio was contacted by several interested record companies, and upon this reinforcement became a full time band once again.
It took several years before Better Than Ezra managed to congeal its energies into something as concrete as an album. Using ragged recording techniques in a friend's home studio, the band began recording demos in the spring of 1992. As Griffin recalled in a press release, "we had to mic the guitar amps from our ?19?'82 Dodge van parked two stories below. I guess the sound qualities of shag carpeting were such that we got great guitar tones." After a full year of tinkering and re-recording, Better Than Ezra finally released its second album, Deluxe, on the group's own Swell Records label, complete with cover artwork by the band's members.
Building on the style already established on Surprise, Deluxe was created as a solid rock album somewhere between 1970s classic rock and the earlier, folksier work of R.E.M. Covering diverse ground, yet never straying too far from a center of heavy guitar-driven melodies, the album's songs are more concerned with emotional conveyance than narrative or precise lyrical images. As Drummond told the Los Angeles Times, Griffin, the group's primary writer, "likes to leave every song open to each listener's personal interpretation. That's why we don't include lyric sheets with the CD. Just one word can totally change someone else's meaning of what a song is about."
Critically, Better Than Ezra was in a kind of netherlands. On one hand, the band's fairly traditional rock approach discounted them in the eyes of American independent, or "indy", evaluators, who valued experimentation and irreverence as hallmarks of quality. On the other, the band was technically still independent and only just attaining visibility outside the realm of industry talent scouts and "Ezralites." Nevertheless, the band gained momentum through increasing word-of-mouth buzz and touring exposure, and were approached with more and more contract offers. In late 1994, the threesome performed at the influential CMJ convention in New York City, a showcase for breaking talent. With Deluxe nearing the sizable 50,000 in sales, with no help from a major label and little advertising, it was almost inevitable that Better Than Ezra would soon invade a truly mass market.
At the end of 1995, the band signed a contract with Elektra Records, which decided to re-release Deluxe, this time with a lavish advertising campaign. After the single release of the song "Good," drawn from Deluxe, sales of the album topped half a million copies. A hastily shot video was produced for the track, and within months, Better Than Ezra had become modest celebrities. Ironically, the group was jeered by some critics and music fans who claimed that Better Than Ezra was little more than an overnight success pasted together by record companies eager to cash in on the success of alternative rock. "People who didn't know our history thought we were just another pop hit band. Nothing could be further from the truth," Griffin defended in a press release. "In one article we were called an 'MTV confection' and in another we were lumped in with another bunch of bands who'd `never spent one day on the road in an unheated van.'" Subsequently, Better Than Ezra has been assaulted with similar criticism, despite the fact that much of the band's success has been the result of their own hard work.
At the peak of its popularity, Better Than Ezra fell back into one of its integral old patterns --extensive touring. This time, the band included Europe on its slate of American gigs, now that major label exposure allowed the band to reach an international fan-base. Although the Deluxe tour had its share of disappointments for the band, the overall experience was positive. On the road, new songs were crafted and tested out on audiences to collect for a new album. "We definitely like to try things out on the crowds...," Drummond told Steven Batten in a Scene magazine interview. "It gives us a good indication of if it's good live or if people are into it." After the tour was completed, drummer Bonnecaze decided to part ways with the band. Although Bonnecaze remained friends with the group, his resignation created a void for the rising Better Than Ezra.
Luckily, the drum slot was quickly filled by Travis McNabb, also a New Orleans denizen, whose band The Beggars had just been deserted by their record label. McNabb, who was familiar with Better Than Ezra's music, quickly meshed with the band. "We couldn't have asked for it to be any better. He came in and nailed the new songs," Drummond told the Scene. "He's a powerful drummer, but he offers a little more on the finesse side. And he's a really nice guy. Everyone's a lot happier now." Unimpeded, the new trio invaded the studio in early 1996 to begin recording a new album.
Friction, Baby, released in August of 1996, became Better Than Ezra's first record made under a major label banner. With a large budget, a high-tech studio, and veteran producer Don Gehman overseeing the project, the band was able to make its most polished album to date. Accordingly, this only gave leverage to critics who claimed Better Than Ezra was not an "alternative" act but a major label puppet. Yet the band had never committed itself to such labeling and felt quite at home within the indulgence of rock. In Griffin's words, "[w]e wanted to record a big overblown, self gratuitous album and I think we did. But we got more ... a lot more." As with their earlier releases, Friction, Baby offered a share of straightforward rock numbers. In Los Angeles Times critic John Roos' words, "[t]he first few songs are hard hitting rockers that kick up a pile of dust but offer little that hasn't been heard before." However, as the album unfolds, songs like "Still Life With Cooley," "King of New Orleans," and "At Ch. DeGaulle, Etc.," reveal that the trio was trying to branch out, adding new instrumentations such as horns and strings.
Better Than Ezra saw Friction, Baby as its strongest, rawest work yet, and the album received a generally warm critical reception. Yet while the record's sales were solid and the band's older fans held fast, the album lacked a runaway hit single to carry it, as with Deluxe's "Good." In addition, the diverse nature of the album may have turned away fair-weather listeners seeking only the catchiness that made "Good" so popular. Nevertheless, it still could not be said that Better Than Ezra was a one-hit-wonder, and the band has continued to tour and write with the same attitude it has maintained from the start. "We've tried to learn and improve with each album, and I think we understand now--with input and guidance--the importance of how a song should feel," Drummond told the Los Angeles Times. With pathos as their guide, Better Than Ezra proved that a band's music does not have to change with commercial success.
Better Than Ezra's Career
Band formed in 1987 in Baton Rouge, LA, quickly disbanded, then reformed in 1988; released debut album Surprise, in 1990, after extensive touring; briefly split up in late 1990; released Deluxe, 1993, on their Swell Records; signed by Elektra Records, who re- released Deluxe in 1995; major label debut Friction, Baby, 1996.
- Selective Works
- Surprise, 1990.
- Deluxe, Swell, 1993; re-released on Elektra, 1995.
- Friction, Baby, Elektra, 1996.
- Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1995; October 11, 1996.
- Additional information was provided by publicity materials from Elektra Records.