After five years of hustle, the members of Better Than Ezra drive a fancy new van, live in a great house, and are trying to decide which major label will get to re-release their fine independent debut, Deluxe. For Cary Bonnecaze, Tom Drummond and Kevin Griffin, life is… Better Than Ever
It sits alone and quiet, an unsightly hulk on a manicured Garden District street.
Over five years and 218,000 miles, the battered Dodge Ram van was Better Than Ezra’s lowbrow chariot, hauling guitarist Kevin Griffin, bassist Tom Drummond and drummer Cary Bonnecaze to clubs and campuses throughout the southeast and Midwest.
First class travel, it wasn’t. The van’s soiled carpet is foul-smelling, its paneling badly scratched. The musicians were confined to four captain’s chairs in the front of the vehicle, their equipment piled up behind them — a common, and dangerous, practice amongst struggling young bands.
In the event of a front-end collision, notes Griffin, “we could have been decapitated by our guitars.”
That is no longer a concern. The old Ram has been retired, exiled to a spot across the street from the rented, three-story Uptown dwelling shared by the members of Better Than Ezra, their manager, and their dog, Ivy, until its fate is decided (“maybe we’ll drive it into some club and playa last show on it,” suggests Drummond).
The Ram’s replacement occupies the parking space of honor behind the house, protected by the property’s tall wooden fence; it represents a considerable upgrade. Better Than Ezra’s new, customized van (another Dodge — “you’ve got to go with the one that brung ya’,” says Drummond) boasts a plush interior with many distractions to help pass the miles on the road: A stereo system (with a CD player on order). A television. A VCR. A rear couch that retracts into a queen-sized bed.
And the gear? It now rides harmlessly in a separate trailer (which is also new).
“We had to get a new van,” explains Griffin. “We could have gotten one that wasn’t as nice as this one, but we said, ‘The hell with it. Let’s treat ourselves a little nicer.’ We’ve lived the life of the starving musicians, in squalor, eating Ramen noodles, and that’s just no way to live.”
Griffin, Bonnecaze and Drummond may never have to live that life again. For just as Better Than Ezra’s mode of transponation has been revitalized, so has its career.
The guitar pop band, born in Baton Rouge and currently based in New Orleans, is poised to follow other Louisiana rockers like James Hall and Deadeye Dick who have recently begun the path that leads from “local hero” to the wide-open, uncharted territory of “national act.”
The members of Better Than Ezra are currently riding out a full-blown, name-your-price major-label courtship. Thus, they have glimpsed both the potential rewards and pitfalls of operating at that level. The companies competing to sign BTE have bestowed much booty on the band, ranging from nickel-and-dime items (free CDs and T-shirts) to all-expenses-paid trips to both coasts (the most recent junket, to New York, involved first-class airfare, a first rate hotel, a limo, room service lobster, tickets to the opera “Tommy” — all on the smitten record company’s tab).
On the downside, though, are concerns that a big company’s vision for the band may not match the band members’ (a publicist from one prospective label assured the musicians that her company probably wouldn’t market BTE as a “cute band”). And it is easy, in the labyrinth of music business legalities, for a young band to lose certain rights — and thus money.
“As we deal more and more with [record company personnel), we become more and more comfortable with them, and we’re more inclined to ask them a direct question,” says Drummond. “This is our career …We’re to the point now where they’ve got to show us why they want us.”
What has attracted all these major-label suitors is obvious. Kevin Griffin writes four-minute slices of rough-hewn, hook-laden guitar pop and sings his lyrics — sometimes they are tongue-in-cheek, like “Teenager” (“if it feels good do it”), often they are the result of “taking personal experience and making a hyperbole out of it, like ‘The Killer Inside'” — with an appealing voice. His compositions are fleshed out and filled up by the Bonnecaze’s powerhouse drumming and Drummond’s big-bottom bass.
Live, BTE performs with the confidence and maturity of a band born to play the big rooms; for a trio, they make a huge noise, one that is deafening in a place like the Howlin’ Wolf, even when BTE fills it with 500 fans.
What actually brought the band’s music’ to the attention of the big-league scouts, though, was what BTE has accomplished, career-wise, on its own.
Better Than Ezra is an established road band, with a touring range stretching from Colorado and Missouri through Texas and the southeast, all of it anchored by a homestate fan base that rivals that of Cowboy Mouth, the reigning Louisiana rock draw (in Baton Rouge, BTE can sell out two consecutive nights at the 840-person Varsity, while the Mouth only plays one).
Equally impressive is Deluxe, Better Than Ezra’s 13-track debut CD, released !list fall. Recorded during a year-and-a-half residency in Los Angeles and produced by Dan Rothchild (son of Doors producer Paul Rothchild), Deluxe is chuck full of meaty pop songcraft with bite. Its sound quality and commercial appeal are such that the major labels vying for the band each say they will, if chosen, gladly re-release Deluxe nationally, in keeping with the band’s wishes.
Deluxe is deep with potential singles, starting with “Good” and moving through “Teenager,” “Southern Gurl” and “The Killer Inside.” In limited release-mostly throughout Louisiana and out of the back of the band’s van — it has sold 20,000 copies, according to band manager Jeffrey Levinson. The recent success of the Gin Blossoms, whose own brand of guitar pop is an oft-cited point of comparison (Bonnecaze’s father, upon hearing the Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy” in an airport, thought it was a BTE song), bodes well for Deluxe’s chances on the national playing field.
For now, the members of Better Than Ezra exist in that netherworld between the big-time and workaday reality. A weekend. in July saw both extremes: following a show in Atlanta on a Friday, they partied like rock stars until the wee hours, courtesy of the Capitol, Geffen and Capricorn reps on hand. Following a so-so Saturday night gig in Mobile, they drove home to catch five hours’ sleep before banging out a 3D-minute, bottom-of-the-bill, noontime set at Zephyrfest, the local modern rock radio station’s music festival. Afterward, the three members of BTE, all pouring sweat and bleary-eyed, hauled their gear down the stage ramp and loaded it into their nice, new trailer — a reminder that they haven’t found the promised land just yet.
The original version of Better Than Ezra was a quartet of Louisiana State University students, all Louisiana natives and veterans of high school cover bands (drummer Bonnecaze gained some local notoriety as a member of Reality Patio), who came together in 1989 to play music, basically, for the hell of it. Somewhat to their surprise, they found a fol-
lowing amongst the Greeks at L.S. U. and became increasingly popular at Tigertown bars like Murphy’s, even as they slipped more original material into their cover-heavy sets.
In the spring of ’90 they released a 12-song cassette, Surprise, and decided it was time to start taking this seriously. The audiences grew, and soon record companies were sniffing around.
But after a show in August of 1990 attended by a couple of major-label scouts, guitarist Joel Rundell committed suicide (Rundell had long exhibited signs of manic-depression, says Griffin, a friend of Rundell’s since they were adolescents). “We had so much momentum going, when that happened it was really a shock to the system,” remembers Griffin.
Immediately following Rundell’s death, the band splintered. “We didn’t know if we would enjoy playing, we didn’t know if people would enjoy seeing the band,” says Griffin. “Up to that point, our band was always about having a good time.”
Three months later, after much encouragement via letters and phone calls from fans, the three remaining members hesitantly regrouped for a few dates. But they eventually went their separate ways. Griffin, after earning his degree, hung out in Santa Fe and played acoustic guitar in Aspen before making his way to Los Angeles, hoping to land a job in the music industry. Bonnecaze went to work as a computer programmer in Dallas, and Drummond continued to live and take classes in Baton Rouge.
The Better Than Ezra name could still draw crowds in Baton Rouge, so Griffin and Bonnecaze would fly in for an occasional reunion show. But, as Griffin tells it, “We didn’t want to become one of those bands that only gets together to make money, and there’s nothing new or vital coming out of them anymore.”
After arriving in L.A., Griffin had put together a demo’ tape containing material he wrote for BTE. A rare positive review in a West Coast music magazine aroused casual interest from a few labels. So in May of ’92 Griffin, Drummond and Bonnecaze decided to reconvene as a band in Los Angeles to see what would happen. “I think that was always a big question for me,” says Griffin, “whether we were just destined to be a college favorite in the South, and whether the music would translate when we went out to LA.”
What followed was a year and a half enrolled in Music Biz 101. A reputation as the biggest band in Baton Rouge counted for very little in the cutthroat City of Angels; BTE was relegated to 40-minute slots on multi-band showcase nights, forced to work the streets and phones, campaigning for an audience like everybody else.
Life as a struggling musician in LA. had its moments — as when the BTE boys started mocking the crappy Cult cover band in the rehearsal space .next to theirs, only to discover it was actually the Cult having a bad day — but mostly they found it difficult to impress any-
one that mattered. “We had a show [soon after arriving in L.A.] where four different labels came out to see us,” says Griffin. “They weren’t bowled over.
“We got a lot of critiques, and it was a rude awakening: ‘Well, you sang flat here,’ or ‘this wasn’t right.’ On the one hand, that’s L.A. in a nutshell — all they do is critique, and there is no passion in the music. But on the other hand, they had some legitimate things. Rather than giving up, we went back to the drawing board and really started practicing.”
They learned how better to work as a three-piece. Griffin pumped up the trio’s sound by trading in the clean tones of his Telecaster for the grungier, fatter chords of a Les Paul.
“I know we became a lot better band, a lot more professional,” says Griffin. “Listening to live tapes made before and after we went to LA., [there is] a big, big difference.”
A few labels took note of this evolution, and offered BTE numerous “take it or leave it” recording and publishing deals that would have saddled the band with unfavorable terms. All were declined, as the musicians resolved to hold out for something better. They also put together Deluxe, a combination of two demo tapes “done very cheaply in a living room in West Hollywood on a 16-track.”
Around that time, they met Jeffrey Levinson, a music industry veteran who agreed to devote himself fulltime to BTE. The four of them decided to move back to Louisiana last August to promote Deluxe and maybe create a stir. Hopefully, the record companies would then come calling. “The place where Better Than Ezra needed to be was here,” says Griffin. “We had our own album we put out, it was time for us to come back here, play our asses off, get reported by the radio stations, get a buzz going. Because it wasn’t going to happen in LA.”
But it did happen here. After Deluxe was released and started turning up on Louisiana record stores’ best-seller lists, label execs took notice. The herd mentality of the record industry dictates that once one company is.very interested, soon many are. Thus, Better Than Ezra’s showcase at the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin this past March was thick with label. reps; suddenly the stampede to sign them was on.
Since then Griffin, Bonnecaze and Drummond have been wined and dined by the labels, all the while making sure they keep their guard up. Far from being naive, distracted artistes, the members of BTE have made it a point to educate themselves about the business of music. “It’s kind of hard to say, We want a record deal,’ and then not know the first thing about points, or percentages, or cash advances,” says Drummond. “We’d get screwed.
“This is one thing that [manager] Jeffrey always stresses to us-at this point in our career, we’re still in full control,” Drummond continues. “We haven’t signed away any of our publishing, we haven’t signed away anything.
That is something that we are striving not to have happen.”
Curiously, the BTE phenomena has flown under the radar of the local alternative-rock community. Because they started playing frat bars in Baton Rouge, they earned a reputation as a “frat band,” making it harder to win acceptance in alternative circles.
The band members point out that this is not the case in other towns, where they’ve never played a frat party and draw a trendier, more “alternative” audience to hip rooms like the Electric Lounge in Austin, the Trees in Dallas’ Deep Ellum section and The Point in Atlanta.
“I would not be surprised if maybe that crowd down here is a little turned off by us,” says Griffin,”because we’re a popular band. We’re not a heavy alternative band. We fall in the center and bleed over into ‘very accessible’ and ‘more alternative’-we’re somewhere in that area.”
And they are grateful for the local audience that has supported and sustained them over the years, Greek or not.
“Those type of people, just the average joe who goes out and buys music, that represents 80 per cent of the music buying public,” says Griffin. “And they’re very loyal. Hopefully we have a fan base where if we fall on our faces with the major label deal, we’re still going to be able to sell albums and make a living.”
Within the Harmony Street (how appropriate) BTE compound — which provides such practical amenities as office space for Levinson and a practice room for the band, in addition to luxuries like the jacuzzi tub-rapid-fire wisecracks serve to ease the potential strain of living and working together.
“How many guys in Better Than Ezra does it take to mail a letter?” asks Bonnecaze. “Three.” It takes three to do most things.’
“We’re on the road with each other four or five nights a week, where we do everything together. We go to the bathroom by ourselves, and shower by ourselves …sometimes,” quips Bonnecaze. “We find ourselves, as soon as we get home on a Sunday night, ‘Uh, is anybody hungry?’ And we’ll all go eat.”
Reclining in the livingroom of the recently renovated house, the polished hardwood floors below them, the high ceiling above, one of many tales from the bad ol’ days is brought up:
Early in its career, Better Than Ezra employed a scruffy young roadie named Randy,the epitome of the rock soldier. What he lacked in social graces he made up for In improvisational skills that enabled him to do his job under the worst conditions.
“We used to carry our own P.A. system-which I would suggest to bands never to do, because It’s a pain in the ass — and we would have to tie into [clubs’] electrical boxes, because the outlets weren’t enough [power],” says Griffin. “We didn’t have enough money to supply Randy with the [safety] gloves he needed to tie Into a 220-volt system, so every time he did it, one of us would have to sit there with our leg cocked, ready to knock him off [if he started to shock himself]. ‘I’m goin’ in, get ready to kick me!’ Sometimes it would be raining.”
It is stories like this that give Griffin, Bonnecaze and Drummond, all in their mid-20s, no qualms about enjoying what they have achieved thus far.
“We made a conscious decision, since we play so often, and we’re In smoky bars and less-than-desirable hotels on the road eating junk food, we said, ‘Why don’t we spend a little extra money to have a house we can come back to that is comfortable and nice,'” says Griffin “Improve your quality of living, and it Improves your spirit.”
Spirits are high — though heads are still very level — as the musicians narrow down the field of major-label bidders, and they hope to chose a winner by the end of summer.
“In the meantime, we’re just. going on with business as usual,” continues Griffin. “We already have a tour booked for this fall. All that could change.
“It’s going to happen. But I don’t want to give the impression…we made the mistake when we were in L.A. of kind of waiting for someone to sign us. We fell Into that trap a little bit. I think we’re smart enough now to know we’re just going to do our thing, and play music.”
“We’ve already planned it as business will be normal,'” says Bonnecaze. “Even though it’s gonna happen, we’re playing it to where it’s not.”