Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin Talks New Album, Vinyl + More
In early September, New Orleans premier alt-rock outfit, Better Than Ezra, released their eighth studio album, ‘All Together Now,’ via The End Records. While the record has some familiar sounds to it, the band explores new territory with producer Tony Hoffer, creating 11 stand-out tracks that ebb and flow perfectly over the course of 36 minutes.
We had the opportunity to catch up with frontman and founding member Kevin Griffin while he was in New York City celebrating the release of ‘All Together Now.’ We covered everything, from working with Hoffer to the lasting impact of Better Than Ezra to why vinyl still matters.
Let’s start this out by saying congrats on the new record.
It’s our eighth studio album, right? [Laughs] It’s kind of cool because doing an album is really labor intensive. It takes a lot of time. This one was no exception, there were a lot of man hours and traveling and set-up and radio visits and promotional tours. It’s nice to kind of come home and have it done.
What was the writing and recording process like?
With this record, the motivation was to reinvent the band — try to reach an audience that we haven’t before, or we haven’t in a very long time. We know we’ve got our fans, the ones that have been with us for a long time and we want to deliver for them, but we also want to get new ones, maybe people who have never listened to Better Than Ezra. So, from the get go, two years ago, the songwriting started for this. It was all about writing a bunch of songs. Some of them were going for radio; I do a lot of songwriting for artists outside of the band, and you always get asked to write the single — when you’re lucky. So that’s what we were doing for Better Than Ezra, something that could get us on the radio, knowing it would probably be Hot AC [Adult Contemporary]. We kind of went with that, started off with that intent, songs like ‘Crazy Lucky’ and ‘Gonna Get Better.’ Then, we started getting into rock, ballads, mid-tempos, you know? That’s when you flesh out the album and give it weight.
So, next, we needed a producer who realized what the goal was. The goal was doing something true to Better Than Ezra, but creating something fresh and relevant. We’ve co-produced a lot of our records and I got to the point where I realized I didn’t have perspective when it came to Better Than Ezra. I can fall into the same routines that I have in the past, and if I do that, it’s not going to give us the record we want. So, we went for the brass ring as far as I’m concerned, that was going after Tony Hoffer. He’s just one of my favorite producers having done Beck, Goldfrapp, Belle and Sebastian, the Kooks, all of those albums sound different but I love them all. The rock, the textures, the restraint. And then, he produced the most recent Fitz and the Tantrums. We have mutual friends and we got together and he loved the songs.
I knew he was a guy who wasn’t necessarily a Better Than Ezra fan, but he still liked the music. It was a meeting of the minds. We got together a year and a half ago. So we started with specific songwriting and then finding the producer. We’re going to sound like Better Than Ezra with my voice, with my songwriting, with bassist Tom Drummond and you know, our old drummer, Travis McNabb, played drums on this record. It was really thought out and then you start getting goals fulfilled, then you just see what happens. That’s when your album gets depth.
What sets this album apart — what does Tony bring to the table?
Tony is not a guy who grew up making or listening to ‘90s guitar rock. Better Than Ezra’s foundation, we first started being influenced by R.E.M., the Pixies, the Smiths, then we just became more distorted, you know, that typical ’90s sound. He brought the idea of using less instruments and having each one of those instruments have a specific role and purpose. Our normal M.O. would be to double-track all of the choruses and guitars, a very typical ‘90s approach. Tony’s thing is, no, let’s do one guitar through the whole song, and then lets add a cool synth pad. It was just about less is more and then mixing the s–t out of it to where you don’t miss the guitars. On our own, we tend to put too much s–t on our records. [Laughs] I love his synths, I love his analog sounds, I love how he makes the drums sound, everything sounds fresh and good, it’s uniquely Tony Hoffer. He likes more left-of-center music than the typical Ezra fan would like. But because we all have strong personalities in the band, and he does as well, we met in the middle and this is the result.
So did you butt heads all the time?
We butted heads in the first week because saying you want to turn the reins over to a producer and doing it are two different things. I kind of realized, a week in — the first week, the first 10 days, you’re just like, this is a mistake, this isn’t working. Maybe I didn’t think that exactly, but a week in I thought the problem was me and I was second-guessing everything. I was worried about getting my ego hurt because he didn’t like my ideas. I finally said, this guy makes my favorite records, I should just let him do what he does. Just f–king let him produce, that’s why I hired him. Then, it got awesome.
So when you wrote the songs, you had Hot AC radio in mind, not alternative?
Yeah, even though some songs sound like Neon Trees and other bands that are lighter or not as left-of-center as Better Than Ezra. We’ve just been around a long time, so we’re not in that world anymore. We don’t have that illusion.
With a lot of the tracks on ‘All Together Now,’ I hear MGMT, I hear Broken Bells, you know, you mentioned Neon Trees. I definitely hear those influences on the song ‘Undeniable.’
I love how you say Broken Bells because they are one of my favorite bands. I’m a huge James Mercer fan and Danger Mouse, I love his production. ‘Holding Onto Life,’ f–k, that song! I wore the first Broken Bells album out. ‘Undeniable’ was one of the last songs written for the record, and it was totally me wanting to have that sound. Good call on that one.
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That track definitely stands out, and while it sounds fresh and new and different, it still seems to fit you. Especially in the sequencing of the album, it’s great where it falls.
It’s perfect as track three. It’s my favorite song to listen to. I love in the second verse — so many things. Tony did some amazing s–t on that song. The guitar part that comes in, it’s compressed and really delayed. The melody notes in the second verse are amazing. The synth stuff he does in the bridge and the outro, it’s just really, really cool. Good call, that’s my favorite.
And while we’re talking about sequencing, track five, ‘Sunflowers,’ is right where it should be — and it definitely harkens memories of ’90s guitar rock.
Totally. If we’re going to be on the radio, we’ll be on Hot AC. But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re all Queens of the Stone Age fans and we love the Arctic Monkeys and love that. We haven’t had a song just for some unexplained pointless riff in it. We wanted that, so we did this bizarre turn-the-beat-around riff. That happened five minutes in the studio and now it’s our favorite song to play live. That’s a good example of how a lot of these songs were in various stages of completion. I’d work on these songs in Nashville, I’d have four or five different guitar tracks, and I know Tony just wants the sound of the guitar to be the one that is plugged right into the board. Nothing fancy, it’s a guitar with s—-y sound and it just sounds like Queens of the Stone Age, really lo-fi and really cool.
And it doesn’t alienate fans.
It fits in the canon of Better Than Ezra. ‘Sunflowers’ is one of my favorites just because I love the lyrics. Some of the best songs are the ones where you’re not thinking about anything other than making something fun and cool.
‘Deluxe’ was a big part of my life. Assuming I haven’t listened to ‘All Together Now,’ how do you think this album will appeal to lifelong fans?
What I’ve realized is no matter how much I think we’re doing something different, we still sound like Better Than Ezra. I definitely think it will appeal to them. This record has more in common with what a lot of Ezra fans’ favorite record, ‘Closer’ from 2001, has. I can think of parallels with ‘Deluxe’ songs and this record, too. But, you know, if we put out a record to just those fans, it’s like, we already did that. We did ‘Deluxe.’ That was our best effort and we don’t want to do that anymore. We’re in a different place and none of us have any interest in doing something we’ve already done, because we’re not going to do it as well. So far, all our fans are just really loving the record and digging it. Sure, there are people who think we sell out — seriously, though, who could we sell out to? We’re just putting out our music! [Laughs]
Your fans have changed, too. You’re not the only one in a different place, you know?
Yeah, so you hope you can get some new fans or reinvigorate fans who have lost interest. You’ll always have your rabid fans, but maybe some will think, f–k, this is really good and they’ll start listening again. It’s hard to do, though, just being a fan. Music is weird. Some people have something from their childhood, but then, you don’t love it anymore. But you know, I still listen to Neil Young, I still listen to the Smiths, I still listen to the Pixies. My son loves the Pixies. It’s so crazy. He’s into all of that. That Joey Santiago guitar work, it’s so good. We were totally copying the Pixies, even on ‘Good’ and ‘Summerhouse.’ That’s all me trying to do the Pixies.
Why do you think Better Than Ezra has a lasting impact that still resonates with fans?
Our band was together, I think it was ’95 when we got signed. We were together for seven years when that happened. Nothing has ever come easy, we started with cassettes in vans and soliciting the audience for floors to sleep on. That’s what you do when you’re a young band. I think we’ve just kind of, you know, I always knew we’d have our moment when we’d have our video on MTV, but I knew that would fade fast. I just wanted to be a band that has our fans, and that kind of happened. People know our band, some people like us, some don’t. Some will buy our albums, some won’t. You have to make the best music that you can, but then you do some other stuff, too.
We have this foundation that we’ve raised almost $2 million for the city of New Orleans over 13 years, we have this after-school program, we’ve adopted an elementary school, we’ve built playgrounds, re-built homes, we do stuff for battered women shelters. It’s crazy, it’s really below the radar, that we have this ongoing thing that certain people know about. It’s a big world out there. It’s a cliche, but it’s been perseverance and appreciating the success we’ve had. It’s so hard to do that in music and to stick around and stay relevant. I realized a long time ago that, f–k, I will never not be a musician. I’m going to do this whether I’m successful or not. If that’s the case, why not do it the best you can. Somehow, that translates.
Fans appreciate that.
People get it, you know? It resonates with people. They know there is a lot of heart that goes into what we do. We don’t take it for granted.
With this album, you’re pressing it on vinyl. As a musician, why is vinyl important to you?
It’s the only sector of the psychical music industry that’s growing. You know, it’s small numbers, but it’s still cool. Teenagers are into it! When you’re younger, you always think that things are going to be better. But when you’re older, it doesn’t always get better. You know, you might have a restaurant that you just think is the s–t, but it’s not like it gets better, because that restaurant lost its lease and it’s gone. Sometimes things go the way of the dinosaurs. With vinyl, you get the artwork, you pour over the liner notes, that s—t is magical stuff. When you’re a teenager, that’s one of your thrills, and the fact that it’s still cool and teenagers are rediscovering it today, that’s really heartening. That’s part of the music experience. I think it’s really cool, I think it’s really cool.
Do you collect?
I don’t, but my son is so into it. We just got a new turntable and now I have to start it up again, especially with this new record on the blue vinyl. I gotta get back into it.
Better Than Ezra — ‘All Together Now’ Vinyl Edition