In September, Better Than Ezra released their first album in five years, All Together Now, which includes the single “Crazy Lucky”. The band brings an extensive catalog that features hits like “Good”, “Desperately Wanting”, “At the Stars” and “A Lifetime” to Birmingham for the first time in nearly as long on Sunday.
Kevin Griffin, the band’s lead singer and prolific songwriter, spoke to Weld about the time off, his songwriting career and the evolution of the industry since the release of Deluxe in 1993.
Weld: We’ve waited five years for All Together Now. Why have you been so deliberate with the timing of your releases over the past 14 years?
Kevin Griffin: I think it takes time to — there’s a few different reasons. One is that it takes time to build up songs that you think are good enough for a project that sound like Better Than Ezra songs. I write a lot of different songs — that’s what I do on a daily basis. I’m writing mostly for other people and with other people and then there are songs that are just definitely a Better Than Ezra song. Nobody else could do them or they’re not right for anybody. So, there’s that. It’s time-intensive. But I think the biggest reason is because I do different things. It’s not just for me anymore. It’s not just Better Than Ezra; Better Than Ezra is one of the things I do. For the longest time, it was only Better Than Ezra. And the same with Tom [Drummond] our bass player. We do different things.
Every four years, we’re like, “Hey, let’s do a new BTE album. But, hey, it’s gotta be great! We have to love it and feel like it lives up to what we’ve done in the past and that it’s something out fans will want to go out and get and not say, ‘Oh they suck now.’”
I think it just takes time. Maybe if it was all we did, there would be albums more often, but you also want to make an album an event, especially these days. Album sales are down. The album doesn’t have the perceived value that it used to; there’s so many things vying for people’s attention. So if you can make it an event, at least with your fans, by releasing less often, that’s a good thing, too. We’re gonna — there’s also the touring thing. If we put an album out, we need to go out and support it, and we want to do that.
Weld: You’ve had an impressive songwriting career, with massive hits for other artists, notably Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue”. How do you remain committed to the band when you have a successful career outside of it? You don’t need it.
KG: I just love playing live. I love doing it. That’s what I’ve always done since I was 10 years old, and I never want to let that go. And I don’t like depending on one thing. If I was only writing songs — what if that went away for some reason? What if it just went dry? The business is changing; you make less money with songs. I like being able to go out and play live and perform, and we have such great fans that have stuck with us.
I think it’s just that the band provides something for me that just songwriting doesn’t, and that’s to get out there and share music. The best way to experience music is live; that give-and-take and that communication that you have with your audience. Our shows are very conversational. I just like it. The older I get, the more I value our fans and what we’ve been able to build. And also having gratitude for the career we have because you know, so often, you think — I know I do — “Oh, I wish this would have happened.” Or, “I wish we had had this kind of success or that this would have happened.” Then we would be like U2 or Green Day or Coldplay or insert more successful band — but now, I’m just like, “Gosh. We’ve got an amazing thing.”
We’re gonna go out and do our first amphitheater tour next summer with Sugar Ray. It’ll be half-’90s nostalgia, half current vibe. Matt Nathanson is gonna come out with us. We’ve never done that. Our band gets to do so many great things. … We have a foundation out of New Orleans that does so many amazing things and we had our tailgate event at — we’ve had 13 years of Ezra Opens, but we’ve started doing these tailgates in the fall and we do one before the Saints game, and we just did one where we had about 400 people that spent about $150 a ticket and we had us, an all-male dance troop called the Six Ten Stompers — they dress in 1970s-era coaching uniforms, high shorts and knee socks, lots of hairy legs. They do it during Mardi Gras, and now they travel all over to Macy’s Day Parade and the Rose Bowl. We had them, the Treme brass band, we did a second line parade all the way to the Superdome. It’s just great. Playing with BTE to me is just as valuable as writing a hit. It’s just a different kind of thing I get back.
Weld: When you’re writing, how do you know you’ve written a song for someone else and how do you know when it’s a song for BTE?
KG: If I’m writing for an artist, I know it’s for them. If it’s for a female artist, then subject matters. If it’s a pop kind of thing — if I’m trying to write for Demi Lovato or Selena Gomez, well, it’s easy. I was writing with Fitz from Fitz and the Tantrums on Wednesday and Thursday out in L.A. and we wrote, like, an EDM song called “Jungles” that is definitely not a Better Than Ezra song.
That’s the funny thing about writing. I love all kinds of music, whether it’s EDM or super pop or — just like everybody, you listen to all types of stuff and when you are writing, you get to write different kinds of stuff. As an artist, you pretty much have a lane that you’re known for and that you’re good at and that you have to respect a lot of times. You can swim around in that lane, bringing in different kinds of style. I usually know, it’s pretty clear too, “Oh, this isn’t a Better Than Ezra song.” But then there’s times that you think, “Oh, well, this could be a Better Than Ezra song.”
I wrote a song that was for Florida-Georgia Line and they didn’t cut it. Now I’m thinking, if we produced this differently, this could be a fun spring/summer song for Better Than Ezra.
Weld: It’s the second record with Michael [Jerome] on drums. Are you hitting your stride with him following his entry into the band a few years back?
KG: Oh yeah. We’ve been blessed with Michael Jerome and Travis McNabb and having two amazing drummers who overlap a lot in their styles. If there are two circles, there’s definitely a gray area where they are overlapping and share a lot of similar characteristics. That’s affected us. Michael’s such a great improvisational, dynamic player, and he brings something to us that we’ve never had before. Live, he’s just, man, he’s just so much fun to watch. That makes the live show that much better. And he’s the coolest of the cool, and a great person. When you tour with somebody in a scenario with not a lot of sleep, sometimes the potential to be cranky or to see the chinks in someone’s personality — if you can tour with someone and they’re just good and it’s smooth sailing — that’s the way Michael Jerome is. And really, we all are. That’s another reason that most bands don’t get together — it’s hard to find a group of guys or girls that get along through thick and thin. We’ve been able to have that. It’s very cool.
Weld: It’s the first record you’ve been able to do on vinyl…
KG: Well, actually, our second record, Friction, Baby, was on vinyl…
Weld: Oh, yeah? I didn’t know that.
KG: Yeah, yeah. I love it, man. You know, having a fan come up with vinyl and asking for it to be signed is just…amazing. Because there’s the ownership and the tactile sensation, it makes it feel more substantial. It’s a really cool experience, signing and looking at our blue vinyl. It’s really nice. Some things, in life, get better as time goes on. Things improve. Then there are some things that are lost, and you don’t realize it when you’re younger, but when you’re older you think, “Man, that’s gone. And that was amazing. And that’s too bad that it’s gone now.”
One of those was vinyl. Going to a record store and looking at the liner notes and how cool the artwork could be in a larger format for a 33 1/3 record. It was a shame to see it going away, but it’s so cool that it’s coming back and kids…they get it. They can look at the liner notes and have that ownership and put a needle on a record. It’s a cool experience. I’m thrilled. And the vinyl version of this album is so cool with the blue vinyl and the blue and pink label — it just pops, you know?
Weld: “This Time of Year” was a big part of the show back in the day — you’d always bring someone onstage to perform it with you. You’ve taken it out of the show now. Is there a reason why?
KG: Oh, you know. You do shtick. You do little different gimmicks live that are fun, and you just quit — you tire of them as a band. Maybe your audience — you don’t want them to see you 10 years down the road and think, “Ugh. They’re still doing that same thing. That’s them.”
There are some things we still do where people think, “Ugh, they’re still doing that,” I’m sure. But we try to mix it up. Maybe we should bring it back. Maybe we’ll bring it back in Birmingham.
Weld: Why has it taken you so long to get back to Birmingham? It’s been years.
KG: I have no idea. We always used to play — we played…where was it?
Weld: You played Five Points Music Hall a bunch.
KG: That was kind of our regular stomping grounds, and then last time we played there we played Sloss Furnaces. I don’t know. It’s been too long. I hear this venue is a really cool place.
It makes perfect sense, because it’s so close routing wise. It’s a mistake we hope to rectify by getting there more often.
Weld: Will Les Miles be the coach at LSU in 2015?
KG: I think he will, yeah. It’s so funny, man. Most of my buddies in Louisiana can’t stand Les Miles. I don’t know why he elicits such strong personal opinions. Yes, the answer’s yes. He will be the coach in 2015.
I think it would be his decision. I think LSU will want to keep him.
It was fun beating Ole Miss. Gosh, that was a great night. I kind of see it as end of days when Mississippi State and Ole Miss are one and three. It was fun to be the spoiler that Ole Miss has always been for us.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
KG: You immediately think of….I dig it. Okay. Beach Boys. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. R.E.M. The Pixies. And Green Day.
Better Than Ezra will perform at Iron City on Sunday, Nov. 23. Doors will open at 7 p.m., while the show will begin at 8 p.m. Seven Handle Circus will open. Tickets are $22.50 in advance and $25 at the door.