Q&A With Better Than Ezra’s Tom Drummond
Like many bands that count age in decades rather than years, the New Orleans-based act has experienced a few personnel changes since being founded by Louisiana State University students in 1988. Today’s BTE is Drummond, guitarist/vocalist Kevin Griffin, and drummer Michael Jerome.
Since Hurricane Katrina, Drummond is the only member still living in the Big Easy. Nevertheless, the band is committed to helping the city and continues its charitable work through its Better Than Ezra Foundation.
On April 12 the band will host its 12th annual Ezra Open charity event at the House Of Blues in New Orleans. Benefitting educational programs in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana, the evening includes a casino night patron party followed by a live auction. Capping the festivities is a benefit concert headlined by Better Than Ezra and featuring performances by Matt Nathanson and JT Hodges. The concert will stream live on Stageit.
Having raised over $1 million through efforts such as the Ezra Open, the Better Than Ezra Foundation has aided various causes in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. The Preservation Resource Center and its efforts to renovate and rebuild a first responder’s home that was damaged by flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina; New Orleans Center For Creative Arts to provide aid for students’ summer programs; and Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation to help rebuild homes in the city’s Lower 9th Ward are just some of the worthy causes helped out by the Better Than Ezra Foundation.
BTE’s first studio album since 2009’s Paper Empire arrives later this year on The End Records. Produced by Tony Hoffer (Fitz And The Tantrums, M83, Beck, Silversun Pickups), the album’s first single dropped this week. “Crazy Lucky,” which is described by Griffin as “a good example of classic Ezra with new influences,” is available via iTunes.
The 12th annual Better Than Ezra Open is coming up in April. Didn’t that begin as a golf tournament?
[That was] pre-Katrina. We lent our name to an annual event that was to help out the MS Society. We did that for a few years. … Katrina changed that. Living here, I just decided we needed to help somehow, someway, use the band’s presence in the city and in the South to help wherever we could. That initiated a more serious foundation. … Just recently, we’ve grown enough to hire an executive director (Delery Rice). … It’s a lot of work to do this stuff and pull it off the right way. While we have 12 businessmen on the actual foundation board, they’re all very busy. It’s great that we have their advice and input from all sorts of different occupations here and in the South. But to actually run events like this and be able to help the foundation, to be a participant with the after-school program we’re running, it takes someone quarterbacking this. We have an actual office and [executive director is] there from 8-5. She’s handling the stuff we don’t have time to do. But she’s following our direction. We’ve grown to that level. Which is pretty cool.
Did you ever imagine that a band’s success would involve so many factors other than playing and recording music?
No, I didn’t. It’s a great responsibility now. We have 100 kids enrolled in this after-school program. The principal has already told me there were a couple of kids that were heading down the wrong path and might not be here today if it wasn’t for this program. That’s very rewarding but a heavy sense of responsibility comes with that. Now we’re looking towards, well, can we afford to actually provide a summer school program? The school that we’re helping has a lot of families from underprivileged homes. A lot of these kids only eat at school. It’s a safe haven for these kids. The fact that we’re able to provide the after-school programs keeps them off of the streets, keeps them out of trouble and is a big help to them. We want to continue that. We don’t want to start something and not be able to finish it.
We’re starting to have more events throughout the year. Not as big as the Ezra Open. [That’s] our big event of the year. We’re calling them little satellite events. We did an event in Houston, and an event in Dallas. Which was really interesting because we tried to split the proceeds from those events with local charities in Dallas and Houston and we found that people were more interested in helping us here in New Orleans. We may continue to do satellite events but I don’t know if we’ll necessarily try to coordinate those with local charities. It seems like people are genuinely still interested in helping New Orleans.
It almost sounds as if Better Than Ezra’s success was merely a stepping stone to the foundation and its work helping underprivileged kids.
I have a firm belief that helping children and the education system is where everything begins. I don’t think anything is going to get better without that doing better first. It’s helping everyone if we can help them. And the band has the ability to do that. One of the great things of sort of being a big fish in a small pond is that we know everybody here. So we have that respect from people from around the city. They’re like, “Oh, we’d be glad to help Better Than Ezra to do this. This is awesome.” We have some great sponsors that come onboard to do these events because they know we’re going to do the right thing. The fact that some of the guys on our board are very influential people in the city is really cool. It feels like the right thing to do.
A big fish in a small pond? But New Orleans has one of the largest music communities in the country.
Not so much for rock music. [There are] lots of horn players [and] lots of traditional things, but not on the rock scene although there are a few bands from New Orleans that are making headway in that area. We’ve been around a long time, too. We played around with the idea of the new album being called Last Band Standing. I don’t think we’re going there, it was kind of a joke. But there’s something to that because … without the perseverance part of it, it doesn’t mean that much. We’re still around … and I actually think we’re about to put out our best album. Some of the songs on there are fantastic. We spent a long time picking those songs. It’s been almost four years picking the songs out before we even started rehearsing and recording them.
Your recording cycle usually had the band releasing an album every four years but this time it’s been five years since your last LP.
We decided that we were going to put this out on our own terms. Nobody was going to tell us we had to put one out right now and then we’d rush through a bunch of songs to put out. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to make the album we wanted to make. We’re not beholding to anybody. We can afford to do it, which a lot of bands can’t because they’re beholden to a label to finance it. We feel like we have the power to do it like we want to do it. … So we took our time with it, we hired the right producer and we’re very excited about it.
The members of Better Than Ezra are spread out across the country. Do you think that’s good for the health of a band?
Not necessarily. Again, that’s sort of a result of Katrina. [My wife and I] had a young child at the time of Katrina and we didn’t want to jump from school to school to school, that sort of thing. In the days immediately following Katrina nobody really knew what was going to happen. We had no idea New Orleans would come back better and stronger than what it was before.
It was sort of a gamble, kind of like the wild West. I came back immediately because my wife works with Tulane Medical Center. They were required to come back very quickly to help. So we were here three weeks after [Katrina]. We didn’t know where we were going to get our food, our water. … Our home was fine. I live on the other side of St. Charles, the oldest and highest part of the city. I had some roof damage but no flooding.
How do you think your life has changed since you were a student at LSU?
I get to travel a lot. … You get to see a lot of things, meet different types of people and cultures. I think I grew up a lot from growing up in Shreveport. I wouldn’t say I was insolated but I certainly wasn’t exposed to the things I got to see and experience being in a traveling band. I definitely learned a lot. You just have a more opened mind when you get to travel and see why people are the way they are or why the environment they live in affects who they are.
When we first moved to Los Angeles right out of college and pursued the making of Deluxe – that was a big shock for me. I had grown up in Shreveport and lived in Baton Rouge, both fairly conservative places. Then to live in L.A. all of a sudden, that was a big culture shock. Then to have success and be able to travel all over the world … I think it makes me a lot more forgiving of things. Everybody is trying to do the best they can and people in different regions have different ways of going about that. I firmly believe that if everybody could see the world from other people’s views, it would be a better place.
What’s the strangest place where you’ve heard your music played?
I’ve heard it in strip clubs a number of times. If your music is getting played in strip clubs you’re doing very well. “Juicy” gets played a lot in strip clubs, I think.
Probably the coolest thing is hearing your music in a foreign country – people who don’t necessarily know what the lyrics are but they’re singing along. … We played a bunch of shows in Germany over the years and it was always very cool to see how passionate they were. You never know if they’re getting what the lyrics were, but they sure were into it.
How old are your kids?
6 and 3.
Any budding musical talents?
The 6-year-old is already in programs to learn to play violin and French horn. She’s already writing songs. I work a lot in my home studio, I produce a lot, and often I am at home working on songs from various types of artists. I’m working with a bluegrass outfit right now. So she gets exposed to a lot of different stuff. She’ll start singing a song in the bathtub or something and I’m like, “Let me get that on my phone. That’s a good melody.”
She’s got a natural talent. I can’t tell with the 3-year-old yet.
If she came up to you one day and said she wanted to marry a musician,what would be your first reaction?
Absolutely not (laughs).
Here is what I know. I know how difficult it is to get to where you’re trying to be and then to maintain and sustain that for any length of time. You have to be A) be really good at what you do, B) Have perseverance, C) if you’re in a band, you have to get along with each other. Those three things are very difficult to come by. To be with like-minded people who … have the perseverance and guts to stick it out, it’s really tough. Then you deal with the sort of fickle nature in the music business. Things have changed so much since we started. Who knows what it will be like 20 years from now.
There was a time when rock bands weren’t expected to last 10 years let alone 50 like The Rolling Stones.
I think five years was like, “Oh, if you make it five years, that’s a career.”
So when Better Than Ezra was playing the Southern club circuit, did you ever think it would last this long?
It was always about the songs. The song melodies … not a gimmicky band. We weren’t out there with pyro and masks, something like that. It was always about putting on a fun live show people wanted to see and come back to. Just strong songs. That’s what we’ve been doing since day one.
You mentioned 20 more years. Do you see Better Than Ezra progressing for another two decades?
I’d love to see that happen. But I know how difficult it is. Yeah, I think as long as people enjoy seeing us, we’ll continue to put out music. There’s no question that we enjoy the performance side of it. I think every musician loves getting the opportunity to create music – that’s a given. To do it effectively and get it out there because you want to as opposed to you have to.
What is the creation process like for Better Than Ezra? Do individual members bring songs to the table or does the band work up the songs collectively?
It’s kind of varied from album to album. On this album I sort of insisted that I wanted to play it live in the studio. In order to do that we had to do quite a bit of pre-production. Kevin Griffin is our primary songwriter. We browsed a bunch of songs. He would send me demo versions of songs over the internet. It would be like, “I like this but maybe we’ll change that …” We did that for a couple of years until we felt we had a pretty good core group of songs. We went to Nashville and rehearsed for a couple of weeks. Then we did it again with producer Tony Hoffer in Los Angeles before we ever really got into the studio.
A lot of times you go straight into the studio and figure the parts out after the basic songs are kind of arranged. You get a different [thing] when the band plays together. … I do a lot of production on my own here in New Orleans and I always find I get the best results when the band plays together.
If you could step into a time machine and visit the Tom Drummond of 25 years ago, what advice would you give him?
Probably not to waste as much time in my late 20s. The band was doing quite well but in the downtime I wasn’t doing much. I think, in my late 20s, I would be further along in my production experience or songwriting if I hadn’t … I wouldn’t say I was wasting time but I wasn’t using it to my fullest extent. When it’s all said and done it’s time that you can’t get back.
Upcoming Better Than Ezra performances:
April 12 – New Orleans, La., House Of Blues (Ezra Open)
April 19 – Winston-Salem, N.C. , Downtown Winston-Salem (Winston-Salem Cycling Classic)
April 23 – New York, N.Y., Irving Plaza Powered By Klipsch
April 24 – Boston, Mass., Paradise Rock Club
April 26 – Westbury, N.Y., The Space At Westbury
April 27 – Washington, D.C., 9:30 Club
April 28 – Philadelphia, Pa., Theatre Of The Living Arts
April 30 – Atlanta, Ga., Variety Playhouse
May 3 – New Orleans, La., Fairgrounds Racecourse (New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival)
June 7 – Biloxi, Miss., Golden Nugget Biloxi
For more information please click here for Better Than Ezra’s website, here for the band’s Facebook page and here for its Twitter feed. To learn more about the Better Than Ezra Foundation please visit BTEFoundation.org.