It's been a hot minute since we've heard from '90s hitmakers Better Than Ezra, but they've reconvened over the last year, releasing their seventh album Paper Empire and embarking on a "Road to Mardi Gras" tour which winds down New Years Eve in the band's hometown of New Orleans.
While BTE has enjoyed a few years of down time after a successful run that included 1995's Deluxe ("Good") and 1996's Friction, Baby ("Desperately Wanting"), front man Kevin Griffin hasn't exactly been kicking his feet up in leisure. The band released two quasi-under-the-radar albums, Closer and Before the Robots, in 2001 and 2005 respectively.
After Katrina, the songwriter relocated to Los Angeles, penning songs for artists including Sugarland and Howie Day and has since moved yet again to the music mecca of Nashville. Rocks Off fired off a few email questions to Griffin to discuss Ezra's resurgence and future plans, in anticipation of their Wednesday night House of Blues show.
Rocks Off: What was the impetus that made you want to start the recording/touring process again after taking a few years off?
Kevin Griffin: It's a combination of things. To start off, we have an incredibly loyal fan base. Always have. This was apparent during our annual shows at New Orleans House of Blues and the great feedback we received from fans when we launched Paper Empire.
This particular tour (Road to Mardi Gras) really grew out of the idea for Krewe of Rocckus. We'd been thinking about doing our own take on the 'rock cruise' and we knew New Orleans had to be the place. We felt we could feasibly create a platform for us to launch a big event like Krewe of Rocckus, which is more than just an incredible vacation package. It's really something that ties all the things we're about together -- the fans, the music, the city, the food -- and it is set up to grow and progress down the line.
RO: In the years off, did you maintain contact between band members? Did you do any songwriting with BTE in mind?
KG: Absolutely. Not only do we play our annual Mardi Gras and New Years + New Year's Eve shows in New Orleans but our foundation (The Better Than Ezra Foundation) hosts a fundraising event each year. Our next event will be April 2 in New Orleans, where we are hosting a celebrity bowling tournament at Rock N Bowl followed by a concert/auction/party at Harrah's Casino.
Since 2005, we've raised over a million dollars and look to keep growing bigger and better events. Anyone interested in coming or with questions should check out the Web site and contact the director about getting involved.
As for songwriting, I'm always playing around with ideas and different hooks that could work for Better Than Ezra. That never stops.
RO: How did the band re-rev its engines to head back in the studio and go on tour?
KG: We haven't gotten in the studio yet but we've have a bunch of new songs that we are looking forward to recording. For this recent tour, The Road to Mardi Gras, we wanted to take the spirit of Mardi Gras to cities across the country along with urban funk powerhouse Big Sam's Funky Nation. Essentially, we wanted to create one big second line that would end in New Orleans with our Mardi Gras event, Krewe of Rocckus.
RO: It's hard to believe it's been 15 years since the release of BTE's major-label debut, Deluxe. You opted to release last year's Paper Empire sans the support of a record company. How has the climate of the music business changed in the past 15 years regarding the role a record label plays nowadays?
In this industry, the climate is always changing. It's also very cyclical. In 1995 we came out with the hit single "Good" which was off our Deluxe album and have released six albums since then. We have the most loyal and incredible fans, so as long as they are around, we will continue to put out albums and perform.
In 2009, we released our most recent album, Paper Empire, without a record label and now we have major labels that want to sign the band all over again. We are incredibly fortunate to be one of the bands to be part of this cycle.
RO: It's hard not to find humor in the irony that your label-less release is what prompted the potential opportunity to re-signing to a major label. But it seems like a win-win deal for everyone: You guys get backed by the label, they sign a band whose maintained a tour following.
KG: Exactly. I don't want to say who it is until it's final, but it appears that we'll be back on a major label. It's crazy. Labels realize that a band with a brand name is still viable at radio and still has a touring fan base. A perfect example is Train. Those guys are great and are back in full force.
RO: While fans still tend to associate BTE as a New Orleans band, you guys have actually been quite nomadic in the last few years. Kevin, you've bounced from NOLA to L.A. after Katrina, and are now settling in Nashville?
KG: After Katrina, My family and I moved to Los Angeles; that's where I had to be to do the pop and rock songwriting. But in the past four years there has been a topping point. All these artists are also going to Nashville. Not to mention if I can be an hour and a half flight away from New Orleans, still do what I love and have a big yard for my kids, sign me up!
RO: It seems like BTE's material over the years has almost been reflective of the environment you were in at the time. When you set up shop in L.A., you began writing more pop-rock tracks, like the co-writing you've done with Sugarland, etc. How has your relocation to Nashville influenced your songwriting? How does the music culture differ in Nashville from NOLA and L.A.?
KG: We just moved to Nashville so time will tell. But I love experimenting with new sounds and styles. Each of our albums has a distinct feel to it that is not like the others. Each is unique in their own way.
As far as the music culture in Nashville, that is the city to be in now. All these artists are going to Nashville and a lot of my peers that I compete with are living in Nashville as well. Obviously there is a strong country music scene, but a lot of country songs are also appearing on the pop charts.
Songs these days can be hits in multiple categories and not limited to just one. Taylor Swift and Sugarland are great examples of this. They are not only conquering the country music charts but also Billboard's Top 100 and even top 40.
RO: How does it feel no longer living in NOLA? What does the city mean to you?
I love New Orleans and am constantly coming back for shows, our foundation events and the Krewe of Rocckus event kicking off this year. There is no city like New Orleans. Between the food, culture and music, I can't go too long without a visit.
RO: BTE joins the company of fellow seasoned '90s musicians who have maintained a presence while continuing to write new material - like the Posies, Soul Asylum, etc. Do you think today's acts have the potential to enter the business and also maintain a 20-year presence in the industry?
KG: There is always potential to grow as an artist and to have a long career. We formed at LSU in Baton Rouge and have always loved performing. We have been lucky enough to do it for over 20 years. If you have the passion and dedication, go for it.
RO: Can you tell us a little about the Road to Mardi Gras tour and the Krewe Of Rocckus destination event? We hear you'll be playing host to some lucky fans during Mardi Gras.
We will! Fans can come down and experience Mardi Gras with us as their hosts the final weekend of Carnival from March 3-5. Tom Drummond and I came up with the Krewe of Rocckus concept about a year ago modeling it after the "rock cruises" we've done in the past. We're from New Orleans and that's our town. So we thought, why not do a three-day event during Mardi Gras with music, parades, food, Bourbon Street, hosted by Better Than Ezra?
The packages include a welcome open bar cocktail party at Harrahs, tickets to concerts at the House of Blues with us, Pat Green and Big Sam's Funky Nation. Private parade viewing on St Charles Avenue with open food and bar for Friday night's parades, Krewe of Hermes and Krewe d'Tat. Brunch with chef John Best at Besh Steakhouse. Private Balcony on Bourbon with open food and bar (which is very hard to come by during Mardi Gras).
All of this and a three-day hotel stay, it doesn't get better than that! There is also a no-hotel option should you be crashing at a friend's place.
Travel packages and details are available at www.RoadtoMardiGras.com.
RO: BTE has played Houston a handful of times, including our small-but-mighty version of Mardi Gras in Galveston in 2002. Do you have any memories of BTE's past Houston shows? Favorite venues to play, places to eat while here?
KG: Houston has always been one of BTE's best markets. Especially in the beginning we had to play places that were close enough for us to jump in the van and get to on a bi-monthly basis. We love going to the original Ninfa's on the ship channel. Domy books, the art/culture bookstore. Cafe Brasil is great from breakfast til late night.
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RO: What material can we expect to hear on this tour? Old/new/mixed?
We are playing a lot of our older songs that we haven't played in a while or maybe ever on tour. We are using our Facebook and Twitter [accounts] to ask fans what songs they want to hear so we are incorporating those into each city's show. Every city's set list is different.
RO: It's the last week of the year. What hopes do you have for BTE in 2011?
KG: Put out another album and give the fans another hit single.