Becoming a Lead Dog

With its third major label CD, How Does Your Garden Grow, Better Than Ezra has stretched well beyond the guitar/bass/drums trio sound of its previous CDs, Deluxe and Friction, Baby.

Fans accustomed to such songs as "Good," "In the Blood" and "King of New Orleans," built around melodic vocals and straight-forward pop guitar riffs, may be startled by several songs on the new CD. For instance, "Je Ne M'en Souviens Pas" is a textured, electronic soundscape. "One More Murder" is another techno-edged tune constructed on a grooving, looped drum pattern and pulsating keyboards. "Waxing or Waning?" is a quiet, intimate ballad marked by brushed snare drums and shimmering acoustic guitar.

Such songs came out of a search to discover new dimensions in the standard guitar-based rock trio, according to Better Than Ezra bassist Tom Drummond.

"We also wanted to break away from the pack, so to speak," says Drummond. "There was a whole slew of bands that came out when we came out, and even after we came out, that sort of get lumped together. A lot of people don't know we've been together for ten years, and there's a lot more to the band than probably what most peoples' perception of the band is. So that's another reason why we kind of went in the direction we did.

"We feel fortunate enough to be around for this record because there are so many bands who came out when we came out that aren't around," Drummond says. "Like we're playing all these shows now and we're being asked to headline. And that's because we're the only band around that has more than one [hit] song off of one record. All the other bands we're playing with now have one song on their first record. That's just kind of the way the radio is eating up bands and chewing them up and spitting them back out. We feel real lucky just to even be in the position to have a third record."

This latest album came in the wake of somewhat disappointing sales for Friction, Baby, which followed the million-selling Deluxe.

Deluxe, released in 1994 on Elektra Records after the CD had originally been issued on the band's own Swell Records label, represented a high-water mark for the original members of the group: singer/guitarist Kevin Griffin, Drummond and original drummer Cary Bonnecaze.

Since the group's inception in 1988, the trio had grown close through high points such as the 1990 release of their homemade debut cassette, Surprise, and the popularity the band enjoyed on the New Orleans music scene. They also shared the sadness and uncertainty when the band's original guitarist, Joel Rundell, committed suicide in 1990. That tragedy caused the trio to split for several months before slowly easing back into performing and recording and discovering they still wanted to make music together.

Friction, Baby opened a new chapter with Travis McNabb's replacement of Bonnecaze in the lineup and the group's pursuit of a harder-edged sound. "We were definitely proud of Friction, Baby. We hoped it would do like double platinum or something, and it didn't," Drummond says.

The band clearly didn't need to make another version of Friction, Baby. But Drummond says he, Griffin and McNabb knew they might be taking a chance by changing.

"It's a little bit scary in that you don't want to upset the fans that you have, but the idea is you try to gain new fans," Drummond says. "There were a lot of songs that we had that were a lot more electronic, and we just felt like if it's not happening, it's not good. We could have forced the issue, which is what I think U2 kind of did on their last record [Pop]. We didn't want to do that. We left songs off because we felt like they're not working."

In the end Better Than Ezra struck something of a compromise in reshaping its sound. While the songs "Je Ne M'en Souviens Pas" and "One More Murder" are radical departures, other tunes such as "At the Stars" and "Everything in 2's" mainly just put a new wrinkle in their sound. On that last tune, a midtempo ballad, the group shifts its sound with keyboard textures and some programmed rhythms. "At the Stars" uses strings in a section where in the past the band might have simply plugged in a guitar solo.

"A song like 'At the Stars,' that song is very traditional, sort of a Better Than Ezra-type song," Drummond says. "But we wrestled with it for a long time trying to get the arrangement just right. In fact we tried it in different forms for over a year. Finally, I think it's -- of all the Better Than Ezra songs on all the records -- I think it's the best song on any record we've had. But for instance on 'One More Murder,' that song originally was much harder, sort of guitar rock classic kind of a song. And we had been working on another song that involved a drum loop.... Suddenly Kevin started playing these same chords on the Rhodes piano at a much slower tempo. So it came about completely in the studio, a completely different vibe to the song. And what we sort of tried to do with this whole record was to use these sort of dressings when they worked. In other words, we didn't just use some electronic sounds or any sounds just to use them. We used them when we thought they worked well and it made the song better. I think that's hopefully what will separate this record from other sort-of-electronic-sounding records that people just buy because they sound cool."

One of the reasons Better Than Ezra could tinker with a song over the course of a year was the players' decision to build their own studio in the band's hometown of New Orleans and record How Does Your Garden Grow there. Another factor in stretching the band's sound was the collaboration with producer Malcolm Burn, well known for his ability to create CDs with plenty of mood and atmosphere.

"One major thing that we kind of wanted to have in a producer was a producer who was a musician, because we had had that on Deluxe," Drummond says, referring to the producer, Dan Rothchild. "For the second record, Don Gehman came more from like an engineering, technical side. All of his stuff sounds great, but he didn't necessarily have the opinions about the music itself that was kind of what we were looking for. So that was our first concern. Then we were hoping we could get somebody who was from a different background, who would have a different perspective on 'Well, what is Better Than Ezra, a guitar rock band?' I think we felt all along that we were more than that, but we didn't know how to bring that out.

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Alan Sculley