Better Than Ezra break new ground on third album
Web posted on: Monday, March 08, 1999 3:55:21 PM EST
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- After a string of radio hits and two successful albums, three may be the magic number for New Orleans alterna-rock trio Better Than Ezra.
"There's three of us, now the number three -- sounds good!" chortles bassist Tom Drummond.
And lead singer Kevin Griffin, drummer Travis McNabb and Drummond hope that after their breakthrough, album "Deluxe," and the respectable, if not phenomenal, success of their second album, "Friction, Baby," that their third release, "How Does Your Garden Grow?," will be the trio's definitive piece of work.
Conventional wisdom has it that if something works and consistently sells albums, you stick with it. But on "Garden," Better Than Ezra went from 1994's roots-driven "Deluxe" and 1996's brash, guitar-edged "Friction, Baby" to a deeply experimental, lush and melodious work that veers away from the solid rock that first garnered the trio major radio airplay.
"We wanted to make people turn their heads," says Drummond.
Without a doubt, they succeeded. Of all the quiet, textured, often spare and somewhat languid cuts on the album, perhaps the single "At the Stars," which just entered the Billboard Hot 100 charts at 78, sounds most like vintage Better Than Ezra. But otherwise, the album is a pretty major departure for an established band.
While working on their album, Drummond says the trio tried to banish past successes and failures. Instead, they aimed to produce something that sounded as little like previous releases as possible.
"We thought the third album was a very important record, because generally a band either makes or breaks on the third record," says Drummond. "We wanted it to be a record that didn't necessarily sound like what people expected."
Yet Drummond insists that the trio never hesitated to release something that sounded so little like their previous work.
"In the end, what counts is solid songwriting. We wanted to do something that re-inspired us, to experiment with new sounds and ideas," says Drummond.
But perhaps releasing something drastically different was in the stars for Better Than Ezra, who five years ago found themselves lumped in with such faceless modern rock successes as Weezer and Silverchair on heels of the success of "Deluxe."
"It took us seven years to get signed, and then seven weeks to get to No. 1," recalls Drummond.
They've been known nationwide for about five years, but Better Than Ezra have been together for more than a decade. They cut their teeth playing bar gigs in New Orleans and released their independent debut "Surprise" in the late 1980s. But it was 1993's "Deluxe," initially released on their own indie label, that grabbed the attention of radio stations and labels alike; in 1995, Better Than Ezra signed with Elektra.
The single "Good" became a smash, followed by the releases "In the Blood" and "Rosealia." The album ultimately went multi-platinum, and was followed by 1996's less auspicious "Friction, Baby," which yielded the hit "Desperately Wanted" on its way to gold.
Now, the band hopes to hit the jackpot with their third release, which Drummond says most encapsulates what the trio is all about.
"The first record, we had already been playing the songs for seven or eight years. The second record, we thought it didn't really capture our lives. The third record was about being in our studio and experimenting with sounds and really just taking our time and trying new things," says Drummond.
Better Than Ezra recorded "Garden" in their Fudge Studios, located in their hometown of New Orleans. They worked with producer Malcolm Burn (Iggy Pop, Peter Gabriel) and spent months hammering out a sound that veers between the gentle eeriness of "One More Murder" and dark ambience of "Beautiful Mistake." And the band employed such peculiar instruments as a harmonium and an Optigon.
"We wanted to work with a musician on this album. We wanted somebody with strong opinions," says Drummond. "Malcolm probably didn't own a Better Than Ezra record before he worked with us and it really worked out great. He models himself after Brian Eno and those were the exact qualities we were looking for.
"'One More Murder' was initially a hard-rock, guitar-oriented song, but Malcolm wasn't really into it. Now it's a piano-oriented song ... It took on a new life," he adds.
Better Than Ezra play more than 250 shows a year, so recording at home was a respite from the road and a rare treat, says Drummond. And being less driven by budgets and deadlines allowed the band to be more experimental.
"We were able to work in our home studio and experiment with sounds and textures, taking our time and trying new things," says Drummond. "It was very cool and comfortable."
And perhaps this album is indeed Better Than Ezra's good luck charm -- the single "One More Murder," for example, was recently featured on an episode of "Homicide."
Drummond is sanguine about the fate of "Garden," but insists the band is more focused on its longevity than cranking out standard radio fare.
"In the end, I hope people remember us for good songs."
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