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Better Off

A '90s alt-rock band that has stuck together and even ended up in the black.

New Orleans rock-trio Better Than Ezra is one of the few '90s alt-rock bands that have stuck around, through music industry ups and downs, coming out the other end as a group of independent artists in charge of their own career path. Because of a lucky deal they signed with the label, they own the master tapes of their first three albums on Elektra, 1995's radio breakthrough Deluxe, follow-up Friction, Baby from 1996 and How Does Your Garden Grow? from 1998.

The band tours almost nonstop, hitting major spots in the country year-round, and playing the House of Blues here in Houston at least once a year around this time. Latest EP Death Valley was released back in October on the band's own label, Ezra & Sons, and BTE members are currently putting together their own Mardi Gras party in the French Quarter, where they will play Friction in its entirety.

Drummer Tom Drummond has been keeping the beat for the band since its inception in 1988 and is now a producer in his own right, running the studio that BTE built in the '90s with a label advance, turning knobs for NOLA locals like Big Sam's Funky Nation. He's the only original member of the band who stuck around the Crescent City, with lead singer Kevin Griffin now based in Nashville.

Better Than Ezra takes the stage at the House of Blues.
Better Than Ezra takes the stage at the House of Blues.

We spoke with Drummond about owning your own music and the differences between making a record now and back in the early '90s.

Chatter: A lot of bands seem to be moving to owning their own labels, getting out of the big label machine...

Tom Drummond: We've done it both ways. You can put it out yourself, sell far fewer copies and make money, but a band like us still has to have a promo push at radio, pushing it to the trade mags. If you are not a critics' darling, where every music outlet will write about you, you still need all that.

Chatter: It's strange that the magic of hearing your song on the radio is going away for younger bands.

TD: It's kind of a bummer, isn't it? Radio is still powerful, it's just that there are fewer and fewer slots and times for artists. The competition is greater, and there is less airtime. It is kind of disappointing, because it really is special to hear yourself. Like I haven't heard our Death Valley EP on the radio, but my friends have.

Chatter: How much has production changed for you guys since the beginning?

TD: The first album, Deluxe, we did on hobby-quality, 16-track, half-inch tape. We just had them all digitally transferred at the Warner Archives, because we felt like we had to do it. They couldn't find a machine to play the tapes, because it was such an unusual format, before the days of Pro Tools, and even digital audiotape. For tape, we had to commit to the parts, the performances, rehearse and know the songs. It's much different when you use Pro Tools. As a producer now, I can make a really crappy drummer sound awesome. I guess I have a talent for doing that.

Chatter: Any plans on doing any Deluxe, deluxe reissues? For the 20th anniversary coming up?

TD: Now that we have it digitally formatted we could do something if we wanted to, and there are songs we recorded from that era that people could hear. We own the masters — they reverted to us — so we can do whatever. Most bands don't stay around to see that day. We had a good initial deal with Elektra to make that happen. Back in the day, we did it all ourselves, and Deluxe even now is free and clear to gain royalties, and has been for almost ten years. To be in the black at a record label, you have to sell millions. I think it is double-platinum now.

Chatter: If you came out with Deluxe right now in 2011, what would be the biggest hurdle?

TD: When we first put Deluxe out, the biggest issue was, "My friends can't find it because it's not in the store," and now you can just go to iTunes and you got it. People would come to shows back then and say, "We can't find the album." That's a big change from now. The reality back then was that if you couldn't find the album, you probably went and got another album. Now, though, with digital delivery, we don't have to lug around pieces of plastic.

 
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