Better Than Ezra gets fresh start with new label
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Six years and four albums later, the members of New Orleans-based Better Than Ezra still aren’t talking about the inspiration behind their name. While their fans are left to wonder about the mysterious Ezra – the trio’s first musical collaboration? A one-time opening act that didn’t live up to the band’s expectations? – lead vocalist/guitarist Kevin Griffin, bassist Tom Drummond and drummer Travis McNabb are ready to talk about a new recording label, a new tour and a new album.
If you’ve turned on a radio anytime since 1994, you’ve probably heard Better Than Ezra. Though critics predicted a one-hit wonder after the release of their debut album, “Deluxe,” and their first, guitar-laden, chorus-sticks-in-your-head single, “Good,” the group followed up with a second single, the softer “Rosealia.” Both tracks helped propel “Deluxe” to platinum status, ensuring a sophomore album.
With 1996’s “Friction, Baby” and 1998’s “How Does Your Garden Grow?” BTE continued in its “alterna-pop” vein with a few notable radio releases – “King of New Orleans” and “Desperately Wanting” were downers about love and loss, but frequent airplay meant further attention. There was a bit of shuffling in the lineup – McNabb joined the group in 1996 after the previous drummer’s untimely exit – but BTE hardly wavered from their own personal brand of alternative rock.
Unfortunately, the band’s last two efforts were never as appreciated by BTE’s label, Elektra Entertainment, as the the trio’s debut album, McNabb said.
“It really got to a point with them that it felt like the higher-ups there, the people that held the purse strings, didn’t really believe in the band anymore,” McNabb said. “We still have a lot of friends there … but people started to invest less time and money in us.”
One particular single from “Garden” – “At the Stars” – broke into the Billboard top 15, but Elektra decided against making a video, McNabb said.
“That’s the best example: No matter how good the albums might have been, they weren’t going to spend the real money,” he said. “That got frustrating for us – with each one [album release], it seemed to get more and more that way.”
“Creative differences” like that eventually caused the band to break off from Elektra and strike out on their own. The trio found their own studio space in New Orleans, began recording a new album, and finished nearly half of a respectable new release before they were picked up by independent label Beyond Music, a division of Universal.
BTE has hit the road to promote “Closer,” their fourth album overall and the group’s first since their break with Elektra. Working for Beyond creates a better atmosphere, McNabb said. The group now enjoys the laid-back management styles of an independent company, as well as the distribution power of a larger force in the entertainment industry.
A conducive atmosphere provided by the new label shows on “Closer.” Rock and pop influences are still evident, but BTE has tried to introduce a few new elements into their standard formula – for instance, club DJs (“injecting studio-driven turntable work,” band-promotional materials boast) have been invited onto tracks such as “Extra Ordinary,” the album’s first single, as well as the edgier “Recognize,” which some reviewers have likened to a Kid Rock tune.
Play for the feel-good “Extra Ordinary” on area radio stations has faded somewhat, but don’t expect the song to drop off the charts anytime soon: McNabb said McDonald’s has picked up the song for use in a few advertisements.
Better Than Ezra has always allowed outside influences to leak into its musical projects, McNabb said. “Extra Ordinary” refers to bands on completely opposite ends of the music spectrum – AC/DC and Barenaked Ladies both earn mentions – and Madonna’s name even comes up once or twice.
“We’ve always allowed ourselves to allow whatever music we’re listening to currently to seep in and be an influence on whatever music we’re making,” McNabb said.
A new wave of British acts, including Coldplay and the recent debut of Travis, have started to make an impression on McNabb, and could show up in BTE’s work, he said. Even cuts by Macy Gray and the little-know French duo Air have popped up during BTE recording sessions, McNabb said.
“People who have had any success, they feel like they have to deliver a certain kind of record, and often wind up making the same record over and over again,” McNabb said. “We’ve been fortunate that our fans seem to be going along with us as we go down different paths and pursue different types of music.”
But fans (and reporters) also want to know who (or what) the hell Ezra is.
“That’s the one little secret we have,” McNabb said.
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