The qualities that have kept the band from being a critic's darling helped make 25 years in the business possible.
“It’s a balance.”
Better Than Ezra’s Tom Drummond talks about “balance” a number of times over the course of our conversation, and balance is the band’s blessing and curse. It means that the band has consistently made well-measured, sensible music for 25 years, but our favorite rock bands have a little mayhem in them and Better Than Ezra’s the band least likely to go Gaga. When it incorporated a DJ into its sound on 2001’s Closer, it did so discreetly. Tony Hoffer’s pure pop production on the band’s recent All Together Now meets the band square in the sweet spot where ADD production techniques mesh just right with Kevin Griffin’s endless yearn.
Griffin and Drummond were probably always balanced, but less so when during the years that they recorded on Elektra Records. They were younger, had fewer ties, and could pack up the van and tour for as long as there were gigs. Now they have families and additional work. Griffin has written songs for Howie Day, David Cook, Sugarland, and recently participated in the Christmas supergroup Band of Merrymakers, while Drummond is currently producing a new Breton Sound album, and sessions with The Voice alum Amanda Ducourbier and singer Jake Nawas. With all that going on, “we simply can’t go out for six weeks anymore,” he says. “It won’t work. We have too many other projects going on.”
There was a time when Drummond couldn’t have imagined splitting time with the band, and maybe things would have been different if Ezra and Elektra hadn’t parted ways. But the Closer experience made Griffin and Drummond rethink the band’s big picture. It was their first album for Beyond Records, a boutique indie record label with major label distribution that was ahead of the trend by a decade. Unfortunately, Closer was released a month before September 11, 2001, and the disaster’s fallout in the business community took down Beyond and Closer with it.
“The time came when we decided that Ezra was very important to us, it didn’t have to be the only thing there was for us,” Drummond says. “To make that happen, we had to expand what we were doing and not be all Ezra all the time. But if Closer had been double platinum, who knows?”
These days, he estimates that they split their time 50/50—naturally—between Better Than Ezra and projects outside the band. Because Griffin is Ezra’s songwriter, his writing for others occasionally caused a little tension. “It’s a little bittersweet because a couple of songs got away that I think could have been Ezra songs,” Drummond says, but he, well, balances that that by looking at the big picture. “He’s very prolific. A lot of the songs he writes wouldn’t be appropriate for the band. Instead of him being frustrated trying to only write Ezra songs, he has an outlet where he can write other styles for people that they’re more appropriate for.”
Drummond also takes pride in his own work in the studio. He likes the aesthetic challenge of figuring out what’s right for a song, but he recognizes that being technically minded and detail-oriented is probably more helpful. “Half of recording with ProTools is file management,” he jokes. “Fortunately, I’ve been in a pop band that was very song-oriented, so I like to think I have a lot of the elements you need to be a great producer.” He’s particularly high on the work he’s done with Jake Nawas, and the tracks they’re recorded so far have people in the music industry listening in Los Angeles. “It’s just going to take the right song.”
Perhaps because of his affection for the studio, Drummond enjoyed the sessions with Tony Hoffer for All Together Now.
“This time we tracked it live, and you get a different thing,” he says. “You’re committing to a part and an arrangement. Then you can add the production on top. We rehearsed the songs with Tony Hoffer in a rehearsal studio for two weeks before we went in the studio. That makes a big difference, working through the tempos, working through the keys.”
Hoffer also produced M83, Fitz and The Tantrums, Phoenix, Beck, Belle and Sebastian, and Ladyhawke, and Drummond credits him with many of the touches that add contemporary, new wave textures to Better Than Ezra’s core sound. Through it all, Drummond’s priority stayed clear. “I wanted the band to sound like a band.”
Some of those priorities came into focus after Paper Empire, the band’s 2009 album, which found the band on yet another label and “a little disjointed, a little unsure.” The songs were cut piecemeal, built from demos with parts added catch-as-catch-can to indifferently selected songs. It was the first album cut with drummer Michael Jerome instead of long-time drummer Travis McNabb, and instead of sounding like a statement of what Better Than Ezra was, Paper Empire sounded more like a menu of possibilities, none of which engaged the band more than others.
“We were trying to figure where Ezra was going,” Drummond says, looking back. “We’ve come to realize that we’re going to be able to do this for as long as we want to, so we need to make the records that we like.”
His confidence is understandable. The audiences that followed alt-rock bands in the ‘90s still go to shows—not in the same numbers or with the same frequency, but Ezra and its peers still do solid business on the road. For Drummond, it’s the payoff for work done in the band’s early years.
“When ‘Good’ and Deluxe came out, we were hitting it hard on the road, playing five or six nights a week,” he says. “We didn’t see our video on MTV because we were out playing so much. We were out there trying gain a legion of fans, and a lot of them are still with us.” Now, it’s gratifying to know that when the band’s ready to play, it can still fill venues, and not solely with graying fans who could get a sitter. “Crazy Lucky” received good airplay on satellite radio and introduced Better Than Ezra to a new generation of fans.
“When you’re 26 and you’re out for six weeks and you don’t have a day job, that’s all you think about,” Drummond says. That single-mindedness may be necessary to find a following, but it has left a lot of bands ill-equipped to age in rock ’n’ roll. Better Than Ezra’s ability to adjust its vision is sensible but not sexy, and it has made it possible to grow up gracefully.
“It’s like any career really,” Drummond says.