Though born in the blues and baptized in brass, New Orleans can still rock. Case in point: longtime stalwarts Better Than Ezra. The band broke onto the national scene with 1995’s Deluxe, your typical overnight success story that was years in the making. Singer-guitarist Kevin Griffin puzzles at the paradox, noting, “It took us seven years to get signed and then seven weeks to get to No. 1.” Despite diminishing airplay and changing trends, the group—which includes co-founder and bassist Tom Drummond and current drummer Michael Jerome—has outlasted most of their ’90s peers by cultivating a loyal following, “Ezralites,” through catchy, literate albums and energetic live shows.
Rather than blend into the mainstream, BTE has always been a band of New Orleans and the South. Whether waxing wistful on “WWOZ” and “Southern Girl” or standing defiant on “A Southern Thing,” BTE wears its roots on its sleeves. They don’t shy away from the complexity of their beloved home, either, mourning the ubiquity of violence in “One More Murder” and tackling the “gutter punk” issue head-on with “King of New Orleans.” They’ve also given back to the community, forming the Better Than Ezra Foundation in 2000 around the Ezra Open, an annual bowling (and formerly golf) tournament. To date the foundation, which after Katrina’s ravages redirected its efforts to cultural and structural renewal of the city and Southern Louisiana, has raised more than $850,000.
Ever ambassadors of local culture, BTE started Krewe of Rocckus in 2011 to offer fans an accessible way to experience Mardi Gras. This year’s Rocckus, running February 7-9, is built around two nights of music—including special guests Sister Hazel, Big Sam’s Funky Nation and Emerson Hart of Tonic—and features a brunch, second line parade, private parade viewing and a cruise on the Creole Queen.
OffBeat spoke with Griffin about what it’s like to host a Mardi Gras party for your entire fan base.
What inspired the band to form your own Mardi Gras Krewe and destination event?
We’ve had the opportunity to play all over the country and world, and we found that when we’d mention Mardi Gras so many people had a lot of misconceptions. Most people’s response was, “I did it during college,” or, “I should’ve done it during college.” We saw a need for an event for people who hadn’t necessarily experienced Mardi Gras past college age: the pageantry, the food, obviously the parades, and the debauchery—though there’s so much more to Mardi Gras. … When you think of New Orleans, you’ve got the casino, the French Quarter and everything in a concentrated walkable area. It’s almost like a cruise ship on land. We were like, “Let’s sponsor a three-day event where people from all over the world can come. We can be their hosts and show them the insider’s guide to Mardi Gras.” The germ of that idea formed four or five years ago but it took us a while to get it together.
Was it intimidating for you guys to go from inviting a few friends to inviting your entire fan base?
It was a lot more work than we thought—the logistics—from getting the site up to figuring out packages and making it affordable. We don’t make money from this thing though we’d love for it to blow up, but right now it’s really more a labor of love. Suddenly, it’ll be here in six months and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, is the site ready? Do we have the bands in place? Are the venues all in order? The Treme Brass Band, are they committed?” We have a great staff in New Orleans and they do a lot of the footwork. I just get to come in and rehearse and have fun.
What are the advantages for a newcomer to joining KoR over blindly diving in?
If you’ve been to Mardi Gras, you know there’s a ton of stuff going on. Just like anything else, it’s great when you’ve got a guide, a local someone who knows where to go. We’re from New Orleans. We know where we enjoy and where our friends enjoy and we have many years of experience we want to share.
What does this event offer locals who may already know the parade routes and have favorite viewing sites?
Fun kind of stuff. Like last year we did a New Orleans scavenger hunt with all these classic New Orleans things, whether it’s the statue Ignatius J. Reilly or the Marie Laveau shop—things you know about but have never been to. A lot of locals did the scavenger hunt. Also, I think most locals haven’t been in a second line parade. Most locals haven’t gotten on the riverboat and gone up the Mississippi or watched parades from a raised private viewing stand. It’s the music and the access—the listening parties at sound check for Better Than Ezra and Sister Hazel and Tonic. That’s why I think local packages and out-of-towners split right down the middle.
I know the two shows are the centerpiece of KoR, but how are they different than your typical BTE show?
Friday night is going to be at the Joy Theater and we’re super excited about that show. Number one, because the newly renovated Joy Theater is incredible. It’s just a stunning room and something New Orleans should be proud of. Also Friday night we’re going to go on before Sister Hazel and play our 1998 album How Does Your Garden Grow? from start to finish. So that’s something you won’t get from a normal show. The first year we did Deluxe. The second year we did Friction, Baby, and this year we’re doing our most difficult album to reproduce live. Then Saturday night [at House of Blues] we always try to wear new costumes—something different to have fun. In the two- or three-day rush before the shows we’ll be finalizing whatever stupidity we’re going to do.
You alluded to this a little, but what are the challenges and advantages of recreating a studio album live on stage?
Well, the first two albums were easier because they’re pretty much straight up band rock ‘n’ roll. On our third album we were really getting into electronic music, whether it was DJ Shadow or Bjork or Daft Punk. That was so exciting for us when electronic music sort of blew up so there’s a lot of tracked stuff, mainly compression loops, and a lot of syncopated keyboard tracks. We did those samples and assembled them live when we were doing it all the time, so the challenge this time will be rehearsing and relearning all these parts.
How do fans react to this structured, predetermined setlist?
Friday night we do How Does Your Garden Grow? the first hour, then after that we’re going to play “the hits” or songs people have come to expect. It’ll just be in a more concentrated form. So you’re going to get to hear the stuff you’re used to but also songs that we’ve never played live like “Everything in 2’s” or “Je Ne M’en Souviens Pas.”
But I’m assuming you’ve gotten a positive reaction since this is the third year you’re doing it.
Oh, yeah. All I can say is that the attendance has gone up from the first year to the second year and, knock on wood, we’re going to do that the third year. But even if we don’t, we have a long-term goal to showcase the city, and we just have such a blast. We’re there at every event enjoying it with everybody. We bring our families and our friends bring their families from out of town, but on Sunday we’re just wiped out. Still, we’ve got a long-term commitment to doing the Krewe. If it starts sucking, of course, we’ll stop! But right now people enjoy it and we have fun.
With all the competition out there in the information age, do you see Rocckus as important to your efforts to connect with fans and generate continued interest?
Our first rehearsal was in ’88, which is nuts, so if you want to continue being in a band and have people continue to give a damn, you’ve got to do fresh things to keep people interested. … We have a new album coming this spring, but we’ve done new albums before. It’s always trying new things. People love the band. How do we keep them engaged? We saw the success of those cruise shows and were like, “Hey, the city of New Orleans is a cruise ship on land and it’s got 24/7 everything.” It was definitely a light bulb moment.
You keep going back to the rock cruises. Are you finding for your peers that these alternate revenue streams are important to keeping a band together, which is always a challenge?
I think they are. Luckily we’ve been fortunate as far as touring and the use of our songs for commercial use. Singing the right thing at the right time has always happened for us. The foundation we’ve had for 12 years now has raised money for the city and Gulf Coast, so for us it’s not always just about incoming revenue streams but about outgoing ones, too. How can we raise money for this foundation and help the city? When you do anything for a long time, you get bored. And as cliché as that sounds, you really do find yourself like, “This is great but what can we do to help?” It’s [about] evolving, getting older, figuring out what not only keeps your fans interested but you interested as well.