November 15, 2016 Interview – Kevin Griffin of Better Than Ezra
Back in the 1990s, when Alternative Rock dominated radio airwaves and MTV, a little band out of New Orleans, Louisiana emerged, going by the name Better Than Ezra. A band mixing Classic Rock, Alternative Rock, and Post-Grunge leanings, their 1995 major label debut, Deluxe, became a massive hit, going Platinum while including three hit singles. Led by the dynamic vocal stylings of Kevin Griffin, Better Than Ezra has since established themselves as one of the more respected names in Alternative Rock as they continue to push the envelope as heard on their latest album, 2014’s All Together Now. Amidst it all, Griffin has expanded his resume to expansive lengths, co-writing for artists such as Howie Day, Missy Higgins, Barenaked Ladies, Christina Perri, and Meat Loaf, just to name a few. A well-rounded songwriter/producer/performer, Griffin is perhaps one modern music’s most important unsung heroes. Recently we caught up with Griffin to sit down and talk his journey into professional music, his love for songwriting, keeping music fresh, plans for the future, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – You began your career in Rock-n-Roll nearly thirty years ago. Through it all, you helped build a successful band in Better Than Ezra, you have co-written a long list of songs for others, and continue to do so. First, tell us, what his amazing ride been like?
Kevin Griffin – It has been so gratifying and fun. I got the fever to play and I was inspired and moved by music at such a young age. In second grade, I was playing guitar in the elementary school talent contest. To be nearing my fifth decade and still do what I dreamed about doing as a child, and having this career that has evolved and changed with the ups and downs that you have, it is just amazing. To still be doing it is great and a blessing. The funny thing is, sometimes I still think, “Wow, I’m a musician, I’m a career musician.” I never really have thought of myself as a musician as the thing I do. I just thought of it as I am just doing this little side bar and here I am, it is a career in music. I love all the things that have branched off being a performer/songwriter. Doing different things and disciplines within music, whether it be writing for other people, managing other artists, publishing, being a promoter, it has been a great journey and fun.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like an amazing trip. Better Than Ezra had broken into the mainstream in 1995 with the album Deluxe. You made it independently in 1993 and came out on Elektra in 1995. This record did exceptionally well with a list of memorable singles. Looking back, what was it like for you to see this major label debut do so well?
Kevin Griffin – Oh yea. We got together in ’88 as just another college band at LSU in Baton Rouge. We just had the idea of playing parties and such, and seven years later we got signed. You talk about paying your dues. The old story is you go out, pay your dues, learn your craft, you become great on stage, you get a rapport on stage, you learn how to work a crowd. These things that feel second nature to me, only came from doing them over and over. So by the time we got signed in ’95, we were a seasoned band. We worked for it and nothing ever came easy for the band. When we had success in ’95, when we finally broke, after being passed on for many years, it was really gratifying. It was an awesome year. I kept a journal about it and I would suggest anyone who is doing something they have dreamed about, when it starts happening, keep a journal. Remember it.
CrypticRock.com – That is a great idea. It is funny, because as you said, it took a while to get there with a lot of hard work. Sometimes people do not realize success is seldom something that comes overnight, it takes a lot of hard work.
Kevin Griffin – Yes, it takes a lot of work. Most people don’t see. There is that whole rule of 10,000 hours, you have to put the time in somewhere. At some point in your narrative, you have spent the time. You have to be talented, there are greater and lesser degrees of talent. Maybe for some people it comes easier. I have worked with artists that are between 17-19 that are so damn accomplished, good, and self-assured. That wasn’t the case for me, I was just ok. It took me a while.
CrypticRock.com – Right, everyone is different in that way. Your work in Better Than Ezra has been very consistent through the years, and in 2014, you released your eighth studio album, All Together Now. This is one hell of an entertaining album. From start to finish, it is catchy and fun to listen to. What was it like creating this record?
Kevin Griffin – It was a long process. It was about three years of writing those songs. I just kind of know when songs are just happening for Better Than Ezra and certain songs are going to be pitched to other artists. We did it out in Eagle Rock, California, which is the Pasadena/Los Angeles area. It was a kind of back to basics for us. We were all in one room playing as a band, as opposed to doing it piece meal, building with loops and tracks. It was a lot of fun, we were all living in a house together out in Pasadena and it was a blast. We worked with an amazing producer, Tony Hoffer, he has done some of my favorite albums from Beck, to Fitz and the Tantrums, to The Kooks. It was just a pleasure to make and I am really proud of the album. I think it is one of our strongest albums. They are just great songs with great production. It sounds fresh and different and I couldn’t be more pleased with it.
CrypticRock.com – It is a very colorful record with each song distinctive from one another. Sometimes, with a record, songs blend together, but with All Together, all tracks stand out. It still sounds like Better Than Ezra, but extremely fresh. It does not just appeal to the base of followers, but a new audience.
Kevin Griffin – It kind of did. The track “Crazy Lucky” got us a lot of new fans, it did really well for us. That was the whole point, we have always changed a lot, for better or for worse. Some bands sound the same album to album and it works for them. We have always been interested in evolving and changing. It is always going to be us, it is going to be Me, Tom, Travis, and Michael Jerome. You have to bring other people into the mix, otherwise it is going to sound tired. That is why we brought in a great producer who was probably someone who did not know much Better Than Ezra. Someone who could bring something new to the table, something fresh, modern, and youthful.
CrypticRock.com – It worked exceptionally well. Speaking of adapting and trying new things as a songwriter, is it a challenge? A lot has changed over the last thirty years with music and technology.
Kevin Griffin – I think that it is a challenge, so you have to rise to the challenge. The way I rise to challenge is I am always searching for new music and new inspiration. I am a music fan, but I am always kind of pushing myself to listen to Spotify or whatever. Consuming music comes naturally for me and being turned on by seeing a band I heard on Alt Nation or something like that. Then I go on Spotify and I am looking at similar artists, going deeper down that rabbit hole. I think it is key as a musician, as a songwriter, especially as you get older. You have to keep being re-inspired, listening to music, and consuming it. Then it has the same effect it did when you were a teenager, where music forms your own song writing. Then, by osmosis, your music is going to stay fresh.
It is a challenge. Because I write for other people and am a hands-on kind of control freak, I am really good at Protools and Logic, so I produce a lot of the stuff I do. If I’m not really good at doing a certain sound that is maybe happening, then I have a kid in who is a whiz at Logic, or Fruityloops, or any of the Digital Audio Workstations who is going to make what we are doing sound competitive and relevant. Then it wears off on me. Yes, you have to keep reinventing and getting new inspiration. Otherwise, it does get stale because you are still just drawing off those old influences. You are not going to come up with a new chord progression if you didn’t hear it somewhere, at least I won’t.
CrypticRock.com – Very good point. Speaking of songwriting, as mentioned early, you have co-written tunes from everyone from Howie Day to Christina Perri, to James Blunt. What is like co-writing songs for others to perform?
Kevin Griffin – It is just what you think it would be, it is so, “Oh my god, this is awesome!” It is a thrill and honor to have someone say, ”
I want to record this song,” for me, for my career and everything I have wrapped up into it. It means a lot and the thrill doesn’t get old. I really like having the artist go out and do the hard work. It is great writing songs for other people because they get up and do the morning shows, get out and work it out on the road. I get to be writing other songs and having another at bat. Truth be told, it is smart business-wise. That said, I am not just about writing for other people and with other people. I love performing. Some of my friends ask, why do you still go out and tour? It is because I still love it. It keeps it fresh for me, playing live is part of what keeps my songwriting fresh. Getting inspired, getting feedback, new experience, and meeting new people.
CrypticRock.com – It is wonderful that you still find inspiration in the basics of music. Seeing that you have devoted your career to Better Than Ezra and writing for others, is there a possibility of a Kevin Griffin solo album?
Kevin Griffin – Yes, next fall of 2017. I am going to be recording it in January and February. It is going to sound different than Better Than Ezra. My thought are, if it doesn’t sound different than Better Than Ezra, that is should be a Better Than Ezra record. It will have different influences and a different approach. What it will be exactly, we will find out.
CrypticRock.com – That will exciting to hear, it is a long time coming. You have toured with Better Than Ezra a lot and recently a solo tour. How is this experience different for you than playing with the full band?
Kevin Griffin – It is really different. It is a challenge because it is just you out there with a guitar, or just you with a percussionist. People have come to be entertained and it is up to you. You can’t really hide behind something that is super familiar like Better Than Ezra and the noise of it. I love having the freedom to take left turns, go off on tangents, and just feel out a crowd, whether it is packed or not many people. It is really freeing to me. I have a set list, but it is more of a suggestion. It is also nice to come off stage and my ears are not ringing and I am not beat up. It is more of a refined affair, but no less dangerous.
CrypticRock.com – That is right, anything can happen on stage. Since you have written many songs for yourself and others, what are your foundation musical influences when you were younger?
Kevin Griffin – The first one, I always say Elton John. In no particular order, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Elvis. The cannon of ’70s Rock too. Van Halen, AC/DC, figures big in Rock music. That is the bedrock of what I grew up listening to, but then it was REM, The Smiths, and Pixies. Also Britpop, then the New Wave of the early ’80s, and the Alt college scene of the late ’80s. Bands like B-52s, The Connells. When you listen to early Better Than Ezra, we wore our influences on our sleeve. Then there is Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and John Mellencamp. It is all a big melting pot. I would say late ’80s Alternative still has a big imprint on what I do. I think it is still relevant and it still works.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely, the era is the foundation for Alternative Rock.
Kevin Griffin – Oh yes. The Pixies especially, you listen to a song like “Where Is My Mind?” today. I was at a bar in Tribeca recently and it came on between a The Temper Trap and Saint Motel and it sounds completely relevant.
CrypticRock.com – Completely true. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror/Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of the genres, what are some of your all-time favorites?
Kevin Griffin – I am a massive Science Fiction fan and the first one is probably Alien (1979). I am a big Ridley Scott fan. I am a child of the late ’70s/early ’80s Slasher films. Films such as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), He Knows You’re Alone (1980), and When A Stranger Calls (1976). Christopher Lee Dracula films, those were just twisted movies.
More recently, I have gotten into Sam Raimi films. I loved Drag Me To Hell (2009), and most recently, the film he produced, Don’t Breathe (2016). The whole new thing, such as The Conjuring (2016), I don’t go see. But every once in awhile, I will get a Rotten Tomatoes look at Don’t Breathe, and will just go see this film. I want to see The Witch (2015). Also, two Horror films that give me the creeps, Jeepers Creepers 1 and 2 (2001, 2003). Also, The Descent (2005).