The year-end Billboard singles chart in 1995 was off the hook. It reads like the greatest pre-Internet-boom summer playlist of all time, back before Spotify and Pandora were even a bunch of hypothetical ones and zeroes.
No. 1 is Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise.’ Below it, buckets of awesome: TLC’s ‘Waterfalls,’ Blues Traveler’s ‘Run-Around,’ The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Big Poppa,’ Sheryl Crow’s ‘Strong Enough,’ Collective Soul’s ‘December,’ Del Amitri’s ‘Roll to Me’ and Tom Petty’s ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels.’
Oh, and let’s not forget Better Than Ezra’s alt-rock classic, ‘Good,’ which hit No. 1 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart and propelled the New Orleans trio—consisting at that time of Kevin Griffin (lead vocals/guitar), Tom Drummond (bass/vocals) and Cary Bonnecaze (drums)—into the national spotlight. What set the song apart was simply how upbeat it sounded. In the mid-’90s, scads of alt-rock acts were getting all angry and disillusioned, going off on Dave Coulier (Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’) or raging like a rat in a cage (The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’). ‘Good’ was something different: an ode to a breakup that, instead of going all ‘High and Dry,’ recounted the good, better and best side of things.
“The ‘WAH-ah, it was good,’ that was supposed to be a lyric. We started playing it, and I didn’t have a lyric, so I started doing the ‘WAH-ah.’ ”
After that breakout hit, BTE just kept pumping out winners: ‘In the Blood’ and ‘Rosealia’ from Deluxe; ‘King of New Orleans’ and ‘Desperately Wanting’ from Friction, Baby (1996); ‘At the Stars’ from How Does Your Garden Grow? (1998) and ‘Extra Ordinary’ from Closer (2001). Despite a few drummer changes throughout the years (Michael Jerome, their latest, has been with the band since 2009), Griffin and Drummond have stuck together since they formed the band at LSU way back in 1988.
And as if the primitive radio gods were listening all along, Griffin’s knack for penning a punchy pop song returned this year, when ‘Crazy Lucky’ hit a respectable No. 37 on the Hot AC charts. The song sounds like old BTE but tweaked just so, for a younger generation of listeners (the album it’s on, All Together Now, is out now via The End Records).
We caught up with frontman Griffin in New York City to talk about the band’s new material—and the song that made them famous nearly 20 years ago.
Your sound has completely transformed from alt-rock to pop on the new album. Was that a conscious decision like Train’s ‘Hey, Soul Sister’ or Hootie & the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker going country-pop?
Yes. It was a total conscious decision. I’ve written a lot of songs with Train for their albums, with Pat [Monahan], and so I’ve seen their success. The reality is, Better Than Ezra [is] not an alternative band anymore. We’re not going to get played on alternative radio; it doesn’t matter if Steve Albini produced our record, and it was fucking hardcore. We are a Hot AC band, [and] if we’re going to get any play on radio, it’s going to be on Hot AC. So the idea was, ‘How do we compete, but do it on our own terms, where we’ve got cool, interesting lyrics but neat production?’
That was a challenge, and the producer [who] does that in such a great way is Tony Hoffer. You know, [he produced] Beck and Kooks and Fitz and the Tantrums and M83. I kind of like that electro-pop thing—less guitars, cool analog synths, neat drum programming. We went into a room and for the first time in years, we played live. Then he goes and starts stacking cool samples on drums. So it has this ‘Is it live or programmed?’ [feel]. The end result sounds pop-ier but fresher and just different Better Than Ezra.
We have fans that go ‘Why don’t you make [another] Friction, Baby or Deluxe?’ and we’re like, ‘We did that. And I don’t listen to that music.’ That was influenced by the Pixies and R.E.M. and the Smiths and Guadalcanal Diary and bands like that. That’s not where my head’s at. It’s gotta turn us on, and maybe we lose some fans, but hopefully, we gain them, too. Whether it’s delusional or not, I still think that there is success out there for Better Than Ezra beyond just being a nostalgia act.
We went to an AC/DC show awhile back, and as soon as the band pulled out the new material, people rushed for the bathrooms. How have your fans responded to the new stuff? Have more teenyboppers been showing up to your shows?
I was at an AC/DC show four years ago, and [they played] new songs off that Black Ice record. It was horrible. It just stood out like old guys that just … it was terrible. That was the time when you went to the bathroom. This is the most singles we’ve sold in 12 years, this is the highest charting position we’ve ever had, our tour numbers are up, [and] our normal fans that we expect to see are there. We were on that [tour] run we did on the East Coast a couple months ago, [and] there was this group of kids over by Tom [Drummond] our bass player, and I was like, ‘These kids … do they want to be here?’ And they weren’t responding to ‘Good’ or ‘Desperately Wanting.’ And we played ‘Crazy Lucky,’ and they went apeshit. It was like 1995, playing ‘Good.’ So all these people that haven’t heard our band are now hearing us.
I like a great pop song. I loved ‘Hey, Soul Sister,’ ‘This Love’ [by Maroon 5], or ‘Sleeping with a Friend’ by Neon Trees. I love that shit. Because to write an up-tempo pop song and do it with conviction and not [have] it seem like a shitty AC/DC song is the biggest challenge to me. I can write a mid-tempo, serious, weighty songs all day long. It’s just like most writers and actors say, ‘It’s harder to do a comedy than it is a drama,’ and it’s the same with a great pop song. So I see it as a challenge, and [with] ‘Crazy Lucky,’ we got it pretty right with that. The reaction’s been good.
You’ve been co-writing with Nashville pop artists like Sugarland and Tristan Prettyman. Has your time living in Nashville influenced how you write songs?
There was always sort of a country twang to the ’90s Better Than Ezra stuff, too.
There was always that. I hadn’t listened to Deluxe in a long time, and I did recently. And then our first cassette album got put out by a former drummer (we didn’t want it put out), but I listened to it anyways, and there was this noirish, Southern-rock thing lyrically, and yeah, it sounds like a Southern rock band. I think if anything, what Nashville’s done to me—and it’s good and bad—is make me really focus on the lyric. Because Nashville prides itself on amazing lyrics. In pop and rock, lyrics can just sound great, and you can have a complete nonsequitur, and it’s like, ‘Fuck it. It’s great. Let’s move on. Next song.’ But in Nashville, it’s like, ‘Nu-uh.’ It’s gotta be a Nashville lyric. It’s gotta be bulletproof. It’s got to be just perfectly crafted.
So on the one hand, I’ve been spending a lot more time on the lyrics, but sometimes I also worry about the beauty of that open-ended lyric that means something different to everybody. Shit influences you, and sometime you don’t know it. The fact of the matter is I’m realizing more and more as a songwriter that part of the reason I moved to Nashville—I’ll be 46 on October 1st—was ‘Fuck, my shelf-life in Nashville is way longer. I have a lot more time in my career in Nashville [than I do] in L.A.’ I don’t want to be a 50-year-old guy, saying, ‘Dope beat, man!,’ with kids, writing Ariana Grande songs. Nashville is still the home of guitar-rock. There’s guitars in everything. Not so in pop. Guitar is kind of the pariah.
Let’s talk about your classic tune ‘Good.’ Do you remember exactly where you were when you wrote it?
Kind of. I can remember the first time we played it live. It was in a double-wide trailer, a bar/club called W.C. Don’s in Jackson, Mississippi. It was the most bizarre club. It was some part of an outreach by an assisted-care living facility, where I think some mentally challenged residents would run the door. And it was the place where all the unsigned alternative rock bands played. Everybody [from] Gun Club [to] Nirvana. And we played ‘Good,’ and we knew from that moment, the reaction was just crazy.
I’m trying to think if [I wrote it] in my room at 910 Hearthstone or if it was when I lived on State Street in Baton Rouge — it was in one of those two places. But I remember exactly what I was going for. I had been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan, and I loved how Bob Dylan used four chords and using only dynamics, went from verse to pre-chorus to chorus. And I was also listening to the Pixies, and it was that whole loud-quiet-loud: Your dynamics were dictated by your distortion pedal. So that was the challenge: to write a song which was just four chords and using melodies to make those dynamic transitions.
So that was, like, 1992 or 1993?
I think it was written in ’90 or ’91. That song was turned down by every publisher and manager we played showcases for. Also, the ‘WAH-ah, it was good,’ that was supposed to be a lyric. That wasn’t supposed to be the finished lyric. We started playing it, and I didn’t have a lyric, so I started doing the ‘WAH-ah.’ I mean, a lot of times I can say, ‘Oh, I was copying [Pixies guitarist] Joey Santiago.’ But I don’t know about the ‘WAH-ah.’ The funny thing about ‘Good’ is it’s the only song where we’ve had a modulation—meaning a key change. The bridge modulates up a whole step. Of course, it’s our biggest song ever—it’s what we’ll be known for—[and] the fact that’s the only time we did it may be a reason we didn’t have more success [laughs]. So, modulate!
That’s good, man.
Back in the day: Griffin and Drummond with BTE’s original drummer, Cary Bonnecaze.
Looking back at the song’s lyrics, it reads more like a breakup song, despite the happy chorus, than we originally thought. Was it about a specific person or relationship?
So many times when you break up with somebody, you’re just thinking about the shitty stuff, and that song was about looking at the good stuff. Like, ‘How did I grow from this relationship?’ You know, ‘Fuck, it was great living with you!’ I was dating this girl that I was going to end up breaking up with when I wrote that song, and maybe I was fucking projecting, because she was this awesome girl who pushed me to leave Baton Rouge and live in Aspen and L.A. I never would’ve had the balls [to do that] on my own; I would’ve pussed out and gone to law school (not that that’s bad, but it wasn’t for me). And it ended up not working out, but I never would’ve done a lot of shit if it hadn’t been for her, so that song is a breakup song, but it’s about [how] this person was great for me.
We always thought in the coda of the song, you were actually singing, “Yeah, you weren’t so good” …
…like for the whole song, it was about how good this person had been, and then, right at the end, you throw in a giant ‘fuck you.’
No, it wasn’t like that. Do you know the story about ‘Yeah, that’s right?’ at the end? There was this band called Rockzilla in the ’90s. They were a bunch of fucking old hair-band burnouts. They lived next to the Paramount Lot in L.A. and had a big, old milk truck that they’d put a wooden sign on and it said, ‘Rockzilla: Future Rock’ on the side. They would play the Central, which is the bar before the Viper Room was the Viper Room; it was an old hair-band place. One night we went and saw Rockzilla, and it was these old fat guys, probably junkies, and they were just terrible, and at the end of every song, the singer would go, ‘Did we roooock?’ And there was 20 of us, and we went, ‘Yeah, you rocked!’ And he went, ‘Yeah, that’s right!’ So when we did ‘Good,’ that was our homage to Rockzilla. That’s Tom, our bass player, going, ‘Yeah, that’s right!’
What’s the weirdest theory you’ve heard about what the song’s about?
I think people always thought it was about a breakup, but I can tell you one thing that’s notable about the song is that it’s [says guitar chords] G, D, E-minor, C7. A C7 was the chord of the ’90s. If you listen to the Screaming Trees, ‘I Nearly Lost You,’ that was the alternative chord. You could have a simple, nice chord progression, but if you wanted to go alternative, you added the 7.
When it hit No. 1, do you remember how you celebrated?
I remember when that hit No. 1 we were in England. We played the Borderline, and we were on a press tour with Alanis Morissette. Her album was poised for great things; ours was poised for great things—but about 11 million less. And… I think we got shitfaced in London.
What was your greatest, most frivolous rock star purchase of that ’90s?
[Laughs] Well, the first thing I did with royalties was pay off my Discover card. I had very modest expectations: I wanted to pay off my credit card that sustained me post-college, moving to L.A. and Aspen. I think the first thing I bought was an ’88 Range Rover, which was just a piece of shit, which I paid cash for. I paid cash for everything. I [also] bought this Minotti couch, and it’s amazing. It’s the Maybach of couches. It was an $18,000 couch, which I still have today. It’s brilliant. It looks great.
You’re a family man with three sons. Are your kids aware of your old hits, and do they ever get played around the house?
My 15-year-old knows the songs. I know they’re in his Spotify playlist, but if they pop up, he will not play them. But he loves ’90s music. He loves cool, modern music with all his friends, but he loves Radiohead, Presidents of the United States, Cake. His girlfriend’s father is Rich Egan, who started Vagrant Records and manages some cool bands, so she’s got good taste. He knows our songs and has asked me a bit about them, but the twins—the 5-year-olds—are oblivious. They’re more into LMFAO and ‘Berzerk’ [by] Eminem. I play ‘Berzerk’ all the time in the car. They love coming to the shows. My 15-year-old finally gets that Dad can get [him] good tickets. Any show he wants to go to, I can hook him up, whether it’s Justin Timberlake or Broken Bells or Cage the Elephant. So while he doesn’t play my music, he likes the fringe benefits.
Did you name any of your sons Ezra?
[Laughs] I’ve not named any of the kids Ezra. But a lot of people have named their children Ezra, and they’ve told me, ‘I’m such a fan; his middle name is Ezra.’ A lot of middle names.
Do you ever get sick of playing ‘Good’ live?
No, man. All those songs—the hits have been good (no pun intended), and you realize that having a hit is so difficult to have, because most of [the time] you don’t. And when you quit having hits for a long time, you’re like, ‘Fuck, that was a stroke of luck.’ Some bands resent their hits: ‘We were way more alternative than that song! We’re a lot heavier than that!’ Who cares? I mean, I love that song, and it still holds up today, and I love playing it. I love people’s reaction. We played Saturday night in Atlanta, and there were a group of high school kids [up] front. They knew every one of our lyrics, the new songs and the old ones. And then their parents, I think, were in their 40s, [were] going crazy. And that’s, like, ‘Fuck. All right. We’re doing something good.’
That said, you know how there’s the ‘sound of failure’ you hear on a trumpet that goes, ‘womp, womp, womp, wahhhh?’ Among my friends, if we’re all walking into a bar and one of us trips on a rug, somebody goes, ‘WAH-ah’ [laughs hysterically]. So if I say something to a girl that’s just awful, I hear, ‘WAH-ah.’ So my friends fuck with me. They love the song, but they’re the first guys to take the piss out of me.