Interview Date: 05/12/2009
Run Date: 05/26/2009
Better Than Ezra has been together for almost 20 years, and despite what many stuffy, ill-informed journalists might say, they are not a one-hit wonder. The band’s new album, Paper Empire, is their sixth studio effort, but singer/songwriter/guitarist Kevin Griffin has also been writing hits for artists like David Cook, Tristan Prettyman and Howie Day. We had the chance to speak to Griffin the day of Paper Empire’s release.
Bullz-Eye: So you guys have been together and around for almost 20 years. How fast has that gone for you?
Kevin Griffin: Yeah, it’s nuts. You know what? It goes really, really fast. It’s funny, one minute you’re in your 20s, busting it to try to get signed and all that kind of stuff. The next thing, you turn around and you’re like, it’s 2009 and you’re like, oh my God, we’re a ‘90s band. We’ve been around, man. We’re veterans. I just turned 40. So it’s funny. It flies by. It’s the cruel mistress of time, but at the same time, it does fly by. We’ve had a great ride. No complaints. I’ve had a great experience in this business thus far. No complaints. It’s been good.
BE: Well cool. And Paper Empire is on your own label?
KG: Yeah. Well, I guess it is, Ezra Dry Goods. But there’s a company called MRI and they’re a label services company. That’s how they bill themselves -- through Sony Red. And they put out the Black Crowes’ last album. They put out The Verve album and the Slightly Stoopid album. They approached us when we were looking. And we had a couple of offers from like Vanguard and some smaller labels and stuff. And they all offered us the same kind of deal we’ve always had. And MRI came along and offered us a great deal we really would do ourselves. We spoke to the managers of the bands that they’ve worked with. And they were all just thrilled with how things had gone. We kind of just did it ourselves and using them as a distributor and for marketing and stuff. It’s been great so far. A band like us that already has a name, and people know the name, it’s good because they don’t have to spend all that money breaking a band. You can really use a company like that and be successful.
BE: That’s really cool.
KG: It’s really fun. And the president of the company has been a real pleasure to work with. I think Third Eye Blind is putting their album out with them too. So bands that have been around, it works for them.
BE: Very cool. And how do you feel that not being on a major label has changed your approach to releasing music?
KG: You know, for the longest time it was: you’re a band, you want to get on a major label and stuff. But I’ve done that. I still write songs for bands on major labels. Really often our singles do better than the bands that are on the major labels, so really the whole idea of “oh, you’re not on a major label” is really and honestly an antiquated concept. There’s no doubt that the majors are going to hear a young artist and say they’ve got the good talent and looks. Well maybe not talent, but looks and charisma, and that they can pull out the big guns. But these days so many acts are happening on their own because of either MySpace or just the ubiquity of the Web and music and how immediate it is. The bands are able to do it on their own and able to turn down the lure of a major label. So to answer your question, it feels great. Better Than Ezra will actually make money for the first time from the sale of their albums for the first time since about 2001. It’s nice. And everything is transparent, so it’s good.
BE: You’ve written for plenty of other artists and still do. What are some co-writes or songs you’ve written that someone else has recorded that you are particularly proud of, and why?
KG: Well “Collide” (recorded by Howie Day) is a great song. That one was a song that was a title first. I found the title great, and it was a powerful title for a song. It was four or five different songs, or beginnings of different songs. One was this up-tempo rocker, and it was terrible. And all these different versions were terrible. And finally I came up with the one that people know and played it for Howie and we finished the song together. I’m proud of that one because the hardest song to write as you get older and you continue writing is a simple song, because you want to challenge yourself, and often you alienate your listener. My favorite songwriters are like Tom Petty and stuff since they are ones who can just learn -- it’s a very challenging art to know how to write a simple song. And that’s a simple song. It’s four chords. They don’t change in the chords; it’s all just the melody that changes. And those are the hardest ones to write. When it finally did feel right, it kind of fell out of the sky. What else? I love the song called “Human” that I wrote with Jon McLaughlin. And that’s just because it’s a different kind of chord progression than I normally would use. At the same time I’m proud of it but also disappointed that his label didn’t work the song like it should have been because I think it could have been a really big song for him. What else? I love the song I did with Tristan Prettyman, a song called “Madly.”
BE: That’s a great song too.
KG: Yeah, it’s just a great song. I love the production that Sacha Skarbek did. He’s the guy who wrote “Beautiful” for James Blunt. And I think they worked with Martin Terefe who’s worked with Jason Mraz and KT Tunstall. They did great production. So yeah, that’s three songs I’m particularly proud of.
BE: OK. In your view, how is Paper Empire different than previous albums? And what goals do you have for this one?
KG: There’s a lot of different things, a lot of different styles on this album. I think it’s more of a shotgun approach to an album. So I think that’s how it’s different. But at the same time, it’s got some of my favorite songs I’ve ever done. Like, “The Loveless” is one of my favorites or “I Just Knew.” Songs I’m really proud of are “Winded” and “Turn on the Bright Lights.” I think Ezra is mainly about the fans we have, and touring. The goals I have for this album are the same for every album. -- for something to happen for it to get out and be heard by people, because it’s so hard, whether something happens with radio, and we’ll see with “Absolutely Still.” I think “Absolutely Still” is number 41 on the Hot AC charts this week, I don’t know. Or we’ll have some great placement. That’s what we all hope for as a band, a “Grey’s Anatomy” placement that just becomes viral. As a songwriter, you just want your songs to be heard. So I have lofty goals, but at the same time I’m realistic. It’s hard while me and the band and our immediate circle are super excited and kind of consumed with the album coming out and the tour, the world at large is oblivious to that. You have no idea if a band comes out with an album unless it’s U2 or Coldplay or something. I have lofty expectations but at the same time it’s tempered with some reality. The last album, a month after the album was released, the label went bankrupt. Then we got “Desperate Housewives” to use “Juicy” in their campaign and suddenly it kind of gave a life to the album. And just different things happened. So, I just want the songs to be heard, but ultimately if nothing crazy happens and we go out and tour and do what we’ve always done, then that’s fine too.
BE: Sure, there’s nothing wrong with that.
KG: Not at all, man.
BE: Do you guys still live in New Orleans, and if so, how has the music scene changed there since Katrina?
KG: Actually the only guy that lives in New Orleans now is Tom (bassist Drummond). We have a new drummer, Michael Jerome, who’s from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. And he lives in L.A., where I live. After Katrina, I moved to L.A. just because my son’s school was flooded. My house was fine, fortunately, but my son’s school was flooded. I moved out to L.A. because I was working out there so much. So I really think there’s a ton of music coming out. Whether it’s bands like Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, or the guys from MuteMath have some New Orleans members. Still tons of great funk and stuff, The Soul Rebels and The Little Stooges are out of there. Other than that, I don’t know. I don’t have my ear to the ground in New Orleans right now.
BE: How many songs do you write in a given year, and how many do you record for Better Than Ezra before choosing what goes on an album?
KG: I think probably about 16 songs were recorded for Ezra for this album. For us, it’s usually the songs that stand the test of time. To this day, there will be songs; and by test of time I mean you record it and two months later, does anybody still want that song on the album, you know? To this day there are still songs that I just think everyone’s going to be crazy about, and then no one digs. And it’s funny. You’re never above writing a song that just does not resonate even though you think it does. That’s the curse of most songwriters. Even the worst songwriters think their songs are amazing. And the best songwriters, like the McCartneys of the world, they’re usually right, and then there’s the rest of us somewhere in between. So usually it is, does everybody in the band like it? And then does management like it? Do the people we’re working with, you know, like publicity and stuff like that, do they like it? And then we’ll play a few songs live, and does it get good feedback? Then you just kind of know. Like there is a song called “In Between Moments” that I thought would be a song everyone dug, and now it’s just a bonus track for iTunes. I have no idea how many songs I’ll write a year.
BE: It’s probably hundreds.
KG: I’m not one of those writers, man. I’d say probably 40 to 50 songs. I start a lot of songs. Finishing is another thing entirely.
BE: Quality over quantity.
KG: Yeah. I’ve got friends, Nashville guys that I write with, they write over 250 songs a year. They’ll do these three sessions in a day. I just don’t write good songs that way. But then there’s guys like Max Martin who’s the big pop guy. You’re familiar with his work, right?
KG: He writes one to two songs a month. But they’re amazing as far as that world goes. Inspiration just has to hit me. If I’m working with a couple artists, like this week I’m working with Jason Castro. You remember him?
BE: Yes, from “American Idol.”
KG: He was last year, the dreadlock guy. He’s a really cool guy. I think he’s going to make a cool album. And then I’m writing on Thursday with Drake Bell. There’s a show on Nickelodeon called “Drake and Josh.” And Drake’s a good musician. He’s got this real Beatle-esque style. He’s not a kid, he’s 22. Well it depends on what you call a kid, but he’s an adult. So I’m going to write with him on Thursday. So there’s two songs I’ll definitely write this week, maybe three. But next week we’re just rehearsing for Ezra, so no songs will be written. It really just depends. I’ve always been leery about songwriters that say, “I write a song a day.” And usually they’re terrible. So inspiration has to strike for me. Because when I force songwriting, they are just not very good songs at all.
BE: Speaking of songwriters, we live in Nashville. And my wife and I were at the taping of “Legends & Lyrics” here in Nashville with you, Monte Powell and Mark Farner. Admittedly, my wife and I were there to see you. But what was that show like for you?
KG: Well first of all, it started off bad because I introduced Mark Farner as Mark Farnsworth.
BE: (laughs) Yeah, I remember that.
KG: Dude, that was such a major screw up. I went to elementary school and still am good friends with a kid named Mark Farnsworth. So I was just mortified. Honestly it threw me the whole show. I thought I did OK, but…
BE: He probably didn’t notice.
KG: He is a legend. I mean, I grew up listening to Grand Funk Railroad. Actually I went backstage and apologized to him afterwards. He actually lives near where my wife’s family is from. So we’re going to hang out this summer. But it was cool. There’s a song call “Hey Love” on the new album that Monte Powell and I wrote together.
BE: Oh cool. I didn’t realize that.
KG: Yeah. And his contribution is so distinctly him. So I’m writing with him pretty often. His thing was at the end of the chorus goes, “Well that’s OK.” It’s just a very Nashville kind of songwriting tag at the end of the chorus. It’s like you think the chorus is over, but it’s really not. It’s really good. But I wrote with Monte. Monte’s amazing. I didn’t know he wrote “Sweet Thing” with Keith Urban, so when he started playing that night, I was like, “damn you, man” because that’s a great pop song.
BE: Absolutely. And who are the songwriters that kind of shaped your own career as a songwriter and a performer?
KG: I think, well I love Elton John. Elton John/Bernie Taupin. REM. I mean all our early songs sound like REM and The Pixies. “Good” is a combination of REM and the Pixies. Everyone said we were ripping off Nirvana, but I wrote “Good” in 1990 before Nirvana broke. We were all listening to the same stuff. I’d say Bob Dylan on just how to write a simple song, a simple but great song. The Smiths, you know those Johnny Marr chord progressions. Tom Petty. What else, who else do I love out there? U2. I’m a big U2 fan. I know he’s not a songwriter, but as a band I’ve done more -- you can definitely hear some U2-isms in some more songs. Off the last one, “Daylight,” is totally ripping off U2. And I’ve used a few of their chord progressions on occasion.
BE: Well I’ve got a few more really quick questions.
KG: You got it.
BE: Favorite city to tour in and least favorite?
KG: Favorite city? Man, I still get a rush when I play New York. It’s like, OK, the bus drops us off at a cool hotel. We’re playing down at Irving Plaza or at Hammerstein. And it just feels awesome. You go shopping in SoHo and you feel like a big rocker. Least favorite town?
BE: I know you probably want to be politically correct here.
KG: I don’t want to; a town where maybe we’ve just had bad experiences in? It’s Des Moines. I’m sorry, Des Moines. Sorry, we’ve just had shows. We had a show we cancelled, we cancelled this Chicago show years ago and did this Des Moines show instead on the Fourth of July. And it was a strip club out by the Des Moines airport. We didn’t know it at the time. That kind of stuck with us.
BE: Nice. How about favorite place to eat on the road?
KG: Favorite place? Let’s see. Cracker Barrel.
KG: Cracker Barrel. For touring bands Cracker Barrel is a place where you can eat and you can get something wholesome, some vegetables. Cracker Barrel is your friend on the road. (Editor’s Note: I think Cracker Barrel has their new slogan and spokesman).
BE: OK, and how about least favorite?
KG: Least favorite -- Krystal Burger. No, I like Krystal Burger! Least favorite, oh, Jack in the Box.
BE: Alright, Jack in the Box.
KG: You don’t have them over there?
BE: We do.
KG: Jack in the Box is nasty; the poor man’s McDonalds.
BE: And what are a couple of things you guys do in your spare time?
KG: For me, I think now, very rock and rollish, we play with our kids. We’ve got the kids. Try to take care of ourselves so we don’t become fat rockers.
BE: Yeah. That’s not easy.
KG: It’s not easy. And watch “American Idol.”
BE: You know what, dude, I was going to ask you that and I forgot. Who do you like?
KG: I like Kris.
BE: So do I!
KG: I think Kris is cool and he’s the one viable guy. Adam needs to go ahead and go do theater.
BE: Or some metal tribute band or something.
KG: Some metal tribute, kind of cross-dressing, you know, those Vegas things with like Cher. He could do the Cher look-alike thing. That’s his future. And I think America is going to sour on him in the next couple of weeks. Kris is good. I’ve come around to him.
BE: I have a blog on Premium Hollywood about “American Idol.” Check it out.
KG: I will man. Hey, they’re calling the B section so I’ve got to go. But come to our show at 3rd and Lindsley, man.
BE: I will. Absolutely.
KG: Thanks so much.