Twenty years after “Good” topped the rock charts, Better Than Ezra is back to recording and hitting the road, all while keeping a fairly high profile thanks to several somewhat unexpected sources. Not only have the multi-platinum players from New Orleans been covered by current queen of pop Taylor Swift and landed on TV shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” but front man Kevin Griffin also notched songwriting credits as wide-ranging as Sugarland, Howie Day, Christina Perri, James Blunt and Missy Higgins. Most recently, the band dropped its eighth full-length “All Together Now” and is loading up the buses for the Under The Sun Tour alongside Sugar Ray, Uncle Kracker and Eve 6. However, as co-founding bassist Tom Drummond is quick to point out, this is more than merely a ‘90s throwback excursion, but an updated look at several era-defining bands still capable of packing the sheds and scaling the charts.
“Now everybody’s using streaming as sort of a benchmark as to how a song or artist is doing, and just as a side note, ‘Crazy Lucky,’ the single on this album, just surpassed “Good” for the most streams on Spotify. Now Spotify wasn’t around when ‘Good’ was released and probably would have had more streams back then if it had been, but still, it’s pretty cool.”
Tell us about your history with Chicago. What keeps you coming back?
Tom Drummond: We’ve had a lot of radio support there since day one. We started playing Chicago in the early years and really fell in love with the city. If I didn’t live in New Orleans, I would probably choose Chicago. I like the people, the food and the cosmopolitan aspect of it, plus everybody’s always really treated us well there. We did a New Year’s Eve at House of Blues one time with Train if I remember right, which was televised locally and nationally. But man, we love it and have always heard great things about Ravinia. One of the great things about this tour we’re on right now is that the venues are different than we’re used to playing. It’s really exciting for us and we’re getting along with everyone. There’s a lot of camaraderie.
How easy is it to get along when there are so many acts traveling together?
Drummond: It’s been a lot easier than I expected. Going into it, I didn’t really know what to expect because you just assume all these bands have had varying levels of success over the years. They’ve all had number one songs at one point or another, so everybody knows what they’re doing, and you just kind of assume going into it that there’s going to be some head butting, but it really hasn’t been that way at all. All the bands watch the other bands perform every night and it’s been great.
How did you guys get hooked up with Under The Sun Tour in the first place?
Drummond: We’ve known [Sugar Ray front man] Mark [McGrath] for a long time. I think it was [‘97] when “Fly” first came out and we came out in ‘95, so technically we’re the oldest band on the tour at least song wise, but we certainly don’t act it. We’ve known Mark ever since their second album blew up and we’ve played a number of festival-type shows [together] over the years. He’s actually been trying to get us to do this for a while but it just never worked out with our schedule or when we had an album coming out.
Is this more of a ‘90s show or simply a matter of bands that came up together presenting where they are now?
Drummond: We don’t view it that way at all. I mean yes, we’re playing our hits, but we’re also playing songs from the new album “All Together Now.” We just view it as an opportunity to play in nicer, bigger venues in front of people who maybe haven’t seen us before. I think all these guys are still putting out albums and they’re still viable at radio. I don’t think we view it as the nostalgia thing at all.
Give us a look at your new album.
Drummond: Tony Hoffer [Beck, Air, Fitz and The Tantrums] produced it, and man, he’s great. The band tracked live in the studio, so it’s like the core band- guitar, bass, drums, vocals- all tracked live and you get a different sound than piece-mealing it together. We spent a lot of time on the pre-production before we ever recorded a note figuring out tempos and arrangements and keys and that kind of thing. We probably spent more time on pre-production than we have in a number of albums and I think you can tell. It feels like a live recording with some really cool sounds that Tony brings to the table. I think songwriting wise it’s Better Than Ezra. It’s just sort of an updated version of that if you will… It’s more experimental and yet the songwriting aspect of it is really good. Kevin is really on his game for this. We did about 30 songs but 20 songs didn’t make it if you look at it that way.
Better Than Erza came out with a lot of albums in a row throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s, but then there was a little bit of a gap within your recording history for a few years and now of course you’re back. Any particular reason?
Drummond: Some of it’s just life- families, children and not wanting to be on the road as much- and then there are other aspects as well. I started a recording studio in New Orleans and Kevin started the singer/songwriter thing that he’s been very successful with over time. We wanted Better Than Ezra to be very important in our lives, but not be the only thing in our lives so we just took a little time to figure out how to balance being in a rock band that’s gotta go on tour every so often and still keep all the other things going at home. It’s just life and life happens. You have to figure it out. When you’re 26, have the number one song and you’re playing five nights a week, you’re not married and you can just go do that. You have no real responsibilities other than bringing a kick ass show to the next city, so that’s what you do. Then you get a little bit older and it’s not quite as easy to just go out and do that all the time. Also somewhere in there [Hurricane] Katrina happened in New Orleans [where everyone had lived for a long time], but now I’m really the only one who’s there. That’s been a bit of a change as well. You can’t just go “hey let’s get together tomorrow in a rehearsal space,” but you just roll with it.
To what extent do you think people connected the dots that you were the band behind “Breathless” when Taylor Swift covered it?
Drummond: That’s a good question. I really don’t know the answer to that but I’ll take it. Wasn’t that cool? I mean she could’ve picked any song in the world or one of her own and she picks ours? That’s like the hugest compliment there is and at the time [“Hope For Haiti”] was the most widely watched TV airing ever. To have the biggest pop star in the world now choose to play your song on the biggest television show, wow, that’s pretty cool! That’s something to tell the grandkids!
Out of the old songs, which are the ones that never get tiresome?
Drummond: We usually love “Beautiful Mistake” and I love “At The Stars.” We play “Desperately Wanting” every night and you can see on people’s faces how much they love singing the chorus. We’re not one of those bands that won’t play the hits because they’re tired of them. That’s why people came to the show! We’re fortunate enough to have some success with writing songs and recording them and there are so many musicians and bands that would jump at that opportunity. And here we are some 25 years later and feel like we’re as good as we’ve ever been. The live show is as strong as it’s ever been and it’s just getting better. We’re not getting up there going through the motions. We get up there because we’re excited and it’s what we like to do.
How was the band able to make the jump from being stars of the CD boom to having a prominent presence in the viral world?
Drummond: I think you’ve gotta listen to trends and use the aspects of some of the newer trends while still remaining true to yourselves. But like I was saying earlier about life, things change and you’ve just got to be able to roll with those things. When we put out “Deluxe,” we had cassettes and CDs, so I think the biggest change is probably digital distribution. Even when “Good” was number one, the record stores would be sold out, so when somebody tries to go to the store to buy your album and they can’t find it, well odds are they might not go back and buy it the next time. Now digital distribution on iTunes, Spotify and all of that, they can just get it immediately, and so that aspect has changed things a lot. Now everybody’s using streaming as sort of a benchmark as to how a song or artist is doing, and just as a side note, “Crazy Lucky,” the single on this album, just surpassed “Good” for the most streams on Spotify. Now Spotify wasn’t around when “Good” was released and probably would have had more streams back then if it had been, but still, it’s pretty cool.
In your opinion, what elements have allowed the band to last for so long in general?
Drummond: I think part of that is putting on a strong live show. I think consistent songwriting and not being too gimmicky, so hopefully the songs become more classic than they become an “in the moment” type of thing. I think that combined with a really fun show that people want to come back to and then they want to start bringing their kids to the show. A lot of these shows are outdoors and there are a lot of families. It’s a new generation for sure coming to see our shows now and it’s cool. It’s perpetuating the BTE legend (laughter).
Better Than Ezra perform as part of the Under The Sun Tour at Ravinia on Tuesday, August 18. For additional details visit www.ravinia.org.