Among the many alternative-rock bands to emerge in the 1990s, Better Than Ezra owns one of the most unusual and intriguing names. More to the point, they can also claim one of the most intriguing musical catalogs from the era.
No mere flash in the alt-rock pan, Better Than Ezra has always been based around the solid, tuneful songwriting of singer-guitarist Kevin Griffin. They notched several sizable hits in the mid-1990s — notably “Good,” “In the Blood” and “King of New Orleans.” Moreover, the group continued to produce strong, inspired work that has kept a sizable fan base of “Ezralites” loyal to them.
The trio of Griffin, bassist Tom Drummond and drummer Michael Jerome will perform at Cone Denim Entertainment Center on July 6. They are on the road throughout July but gigging only sporadically thereafter. Such is the work life of a 1990s band in the 2010s.
“Back in the day, we would tour all the time, because that’s all we did,” says Griffin, who is speaking by phone while cruising the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles. “Now we all have different projects and stuff.”
“We’ll always have two or three shows a month,” he continues. “But then we’ll do these little runs, like this summer one. So it’s not like what we used to do, but we’re always still out there playing shows.”
The band members all live in different places. Griffin makes his home in Franklin, Tenn. (near Nashville), while drummer Jerome is in Los Angeles and bassist Drummond has remained in New Orleans, where Better Than Ezra came together back in 1988.
The group was formed by four students at Louisiana State University: Griffin and Drummond, plus guitarist Joel Rundell and drummer Cary Bonnecaze. In 1990, they self-released their first album, “Surprise,” which received college-radio airplay and began building the band’s base.
But then tragedy struck with the suicide of guitarist Rundell later that year. After taking a hiatus, the surviving members regrouped as a trio. They issued their second album, “Deluxe,” on their own Swell label in 1993. Steady touring and a memorable 1994 performance at the South by Southwest convention in Austin, Texas, helped shine a light on Better Than Ezra.
They signed a major-label deal with Elektra Records, which reissued “Deluxe” two years after its initial release. The album caught fire behind the success of the addictive earworm “Good,” which topped “Billboard” magazine’s Modern Rock chart, and its followup singles, “In the Blood” and “Roselita.”
“Deluxe” ultimately sold over a million copies in the U.S. The group built on its success with “Friction, Baby,” a somewhat edgier album produced by Don Gehman (best known for his work with John Mellencamp and R.E.M.).
Better Than Ezra then threw the world a curveball with their fourth album, “How Does Your Garden Grow?,” which was way more atmospheric and experimental than their previous work. One of its best songs — “One More Murder,” about chronic gun violence in New Orleans — had no guitars at all. The group liberally employed keyboards, loops, samples and scratching. The album left the record label and their more superficial fans scratching their heads.
In hindsight “How Does Your Garden Grow?,” released in 1998, is Better Than Ezra’s masterpiece. But it tanked at the time and remains their lowest-charting album. Elektra dropped them like a hot potato, leaving the group to forage their way through a succession of smaller labels over the last few decades.
But the album that appeared to stop their career dead in its tracks may have provided them with career longevity by establishing them as an act that chose art over commerce. Commercial success can be fleeting, but art is enduring and core fans respect that commitment.
Griffin elaborates: “I never wanted to be bound within a certain sound, like ‘Oh, we can’t do that, it’s not our sound.’ Some people would say, ‘Why don’t you keep making songs like the ones on “Friction, Baby”? And I’m like, ‘Well, we did that.’ ”
“’Deluxe’ had an alternative-rock sound, and ‘Friction, Baby’ was us maybe being influenced by grunge a little more,” he says. “And then ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ was the result of us listening to Bjork, Radiohead, DJ Shadow and bands that weren’t guitar-based. We were like, ‘We don’t wanna go heavier; that’s not what we’re feeling.’”
Maybe the group had the last laugh, because of all the albums in their catalog, “How Does Your Garden Grow?” was picked to remix and reissue in surround-sound in 2013.
Meanwhile, Better Than Ezra just released a new single, “Grateful,” as the prelude for a full album they expect to have out next year. The song is an exhilarating burst of positivity with Griffin’s voice joined by a choir on the uplifting chorus. It exhibits modern production techniques wedded to old-school songwriting. Like Better Than Ezra itself, the sound is unpredictable but the spirit is recognizable.
“There are a lot of different styles in our music all through the band’s history,” says Griffin. “That’s just us evolving, reflecting our taste and what’s turning us on musically. Our fans like that about us.”