At 4 a.m., good little rock 'n' rollers are going to bed with hazy visions of indulgence dancing in their heads. On Saturday, Aug. 27, the members of Better Than Ezra were awake at 4 a.m. in New York City, but lead singer-guitarist Kevin Griffin, bassist Tom Drummond and drummer Travis McNabb were also showered and shaved. They were there to perform live on CBS' The Early Show, and by 5 a.m., they were in the studio for a sound check.
"I'm going to call that 'Wanting,'" the director wearing a fleece sweater and reading glasses around her neck said after they played a minute of "Desperately Wanting."
"Is that a comment on the song?" McNabb joked. At a time when civilized people are still asleep, Better Than Ezra was not only awake but comfortable going through the mechanical, decidedly un-rock-like process of getting music on television. And they should be. It was hardly the band's first TV appearance; they appeared on Late Night With Conan O'Brien just months before, shortly after the release of the group's latest CD, Before the Robots (Artemis).
Better Than Ezra headlines House of Blues for two nights next week, the latter show serving as the club's New Year's Eve show, and the band has been a consistent crowd-pleaser since the debut CD, Deluxe, and the single "Good" were released 10 years ago. In this year's Gambit Weekly Best of New Orleans® readers' poll, BTE was named Best Rock Band, and its Christmas show last year was chosen as Best Concert of 2004. The band has never been a critics' darling, but the members have made peace with that fact.
"You always want to be as cool as Radiohead; Better Than Ezra isn't," Griffin admits.
A big part of that success comes from taking care of business. The Early Show appearance wasn't exactly a purely artistic endeavor as the band played snippets of songs, only finishing the new single, "Our Last Night." Host Russ Mitchell's interview was like "BTE for Dummies," and during the songs, a crawl ran across the top of the screen displaying "Fun Facts," telling people the band started in 1988, that it was influenced by Elton John and R.E.M., and that its fans are called Ezralites. It might be tempting to see the appearance as slightly demeaning, but that's not how Griffin saw it.
"That was good exposure," Griffin said, sitting in a hotel bar that felt like the interior of a plane. "The Early Show -- it's probably mostly a female audience who are up early, maybe moms making breakfast." Since young women are BTE's primary demographic -- the members know that sort of thing -- the appearance makes more sense than it might initially seem.
One song they play is "Juicy" from the new album. It is so reminiscent of the disco groove of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" that BTE often slips part of the hit tune into live performances of the song. "Juicy" was chosen by ABC as the soundtrack for Desperate Housewives commercials, which might lead many bands to pick it as a single. They, however, went first with "Lifetime," a song lost on Closer, then "Our Last Night." That choice was predicated by research from a service called Rate the Music, which theoretically picks hit singles. It predicted that people would love or hate "Juicy," and that "Our Last Night" was the hit. "It recently went from No. 35 to 31," Griffin says. "Apparently their research is being borne out in the real world."
That doesn't sound very rock 'n' roll, but taking care of business like that means no one in the band has had to work a job outside of BTE since 1993. It has made it possible for the band to survive being dropped by Elektra Records and having Beyond Records go bankrupt just as it was starting to promote 2001's Closer. It means doing alternative radio station parties and concerts, as well as playing parties for major corporations and doing television -- even The Tony Danza Show -- but Griffin contends it's necessary.
"You've got to do it if you want to stay in radio programmers' good graces," Griffin says. That might sound cynical, but it's more indicative of a band that believes in work more than inspiration. The band's music has never sounded miraculous, nor have the lyrics given us unprecedented insight into the human heart. No one is a Bono-like star whose presence changes weather patterns. Better Than Ezra's success comes from seeming like average Joes like us, just ones who worked at making themselves a good band instead of good nurses, waiters or lawyers.
Griffin considers his songwriting a work in progress. "I wasn't very good at [age] 20," he says. "I had to work and learn to become a better songwriter. "He hasn't received critical acclaim for his songwriting, but artists looking for songs are turning to him more and more often. He wrote the Howie Day hit "Collide" while Better Than Ezra was between labels. He has had songs cut by Meat Loaf, Cher and Australian Missy Higgins, and during Rock Star: INXS, host Dave Navarro announced that Andrew Farriss couldn't be at one of the shows because he was tending to business -- "business" was collaborating with Griffin.
After performing "Our Last Night," the band returned to the green room and watched weatherman Ira Joe Fisher on the eight monitors mounted over the spread of muffins, bagels and urns of coffee. He pointed out the remarkably large red, orange and yellow mass swirling in the Gulf of Mexico and traced Hurricane Katrina's course toward New Orleans. Then a correspondent in Miami talked about how the storm played havoc with the festivities surrounding the MTV Video Awards. Everybody made the obligatory contra-flow jokes, but shortly after noon, the band cancelled plans for a casual weekend in the big city and started booking flights home.
"We had reservations in these great restaurants," Griffin says, but prudence called everybody home. When they got back, though, they weren't allowed to enter New Orleans. "We tried to go on Airline Highway, but that was closed off." He ended up going to Monroe for a few days, while Drummond went to McComb, Miss., and McNabb went to Shreveport before they resumed touring for the next two months.
"It was not my most enjoyable tour," Griffin says. The feeling of distance from the situation and being unable to help his wife or his city was unsettling. Still, he says, "Everywhere we went, the radio station that was promoting the show had been doing a food drive or something like that for Katrina victims, and it would culminate at our shows. It was great to see everyday people stepping up to help people affected on the Gulf Coast. That was gratifying to see, but on the other hand, there was a certain gravity to the shows."
Griffin and his wife have settled for the near future in San Antonio, at least long enough to let their son finish the school year there. Drummond is back in town, but without power or gas, he had to move his home studio to a friend's house. McNabb's house took minor damage and his wife's store, Style Lab, was looted, but they're back as well. Like everybody else, Better Than Ezra are in the process of putting their lives back together, facing the same issues as everybody else.
"It's weird to find yourself in a situation where there's very little precedent," Griffin says. "How do you deal with it emotionally?"
- Better Than Ezra has outlasted other '90s pop-rockers such as the Toadies and Marcy Playground by taking every shot at exposure they can get even playing at 6 in the morning.