Better Than Ezra for a better New Orleans: An Interview with Ezra’s Bassist Tom Drummondlt-rock trio Better Than Ezra may enrich the music scene of this noble city, but it’s another type of contribution that helps make them the kings of New Orleans. The band founded the Ezra Open 10 years ago, which has raised more than $500,000 for various causes here and around the country, but after Katrina, the Better Than Ezra Foundation was formed and the band’s mission shifted to committing funding to benefit the renewal of the structural and cultural heritage of New Orleans and Southern Louisiana. On March 27, the band and their supporters threw it down in the name of charity at the ninth annual Ezra Open bowling event, which started with a midday bowling tournament at Mid City Lanes Rock ’n’ Bowl and ended at Harrah’s Casino Theatre with a rollicking party filled with food and drink, auctions loaded with local art and Saints memorabilia up for grabs and a private concert with Better Than Ezra.
New Orleans Living caught up with Better Than Ezra’s bassist and background vocalist Tom Drummond, one of the founding members of the band, which was formed at LSU in the 1980s, and learned that $200,000 was raised at this year’s Ezra Open. There’s plenty of other stuff keeping Drummond and his band mates, Kevin Griffin (Ezra’s lead singer, guitarist and chief songwriter) and drummer Michael Jerome busy, such as their appearance at Jazz Fest, the debut of the Cool Zoo Splash Zone this month at Audubon Zoo, which benefited from a $50,000 check from the Better Than Ezra Foundation, plus exciting plans for Ezra to make new music later this year.
Hey, Tom! How was the Ezra Open this year?
It was great! It’s like a giant party! All the participants really enjoyed the bowling. We used to do golf, where we were spread out all over the golf course and no one was really together except for the foursome you came with. It’s really a no-brainer for us to probably do bowling in the future.
There are two events that make up the open: the Bowling Tournament at Mid City Lanes Rock ’n’ Bowl during the day and the patron party concert and auction at night at Harrah’s Casino Theatre where Better Than Ezra puts on a show.
Correct. Yeah, it can make for a long day, but the majority of people come that night to Harrah’s. And this year we had a lot of David Cook fans just there to watch the bowling. He won American Idol two years ago, I think. He bowled; he was right next to me. He kept messing with me! I didn’t bowl very well. He was a better bowler! And we had a silent auction and a live auction that went on during the show. It’s an open bar and free food and all that, and this year I think we doubled our normal attendance. And it looks like we’re probably going to have raised about $200,000. It’s great.
That is great! I bet everyone wanted that Saints buggy thing at the auction.
That Saints golf cart was awesome! And the auctions were very successful. And Harrah’s has been so good to us. It’s a big enough room to have the show and the tables for the auction items and to be comfortable in, and there are bars on the inside. It’s great. We had a lot of really great local art too. It was like a gallery in there! I tried to get a piece by Ashley Longshore, who’s about to blow up; I think she just signed a deal with Anthropologie to be their artist. But I got seriously outbid. And Frenchy did a live painting of a scene of the night. By the way, that Saints golf cart will do about 80 [mph]!
I want that thing! I bet Zack Strief from the New Orleans Saints was a big hit at the event.
Oh, yeah! He is a big man, I’ll tell you that. I think every Saint is a hit right now. The Saints have been big supporters. They get a team together every year, and they always have really great auction items for us. They’re really great people. Oh my god, I went to the Super Bowl, it was awesome! We actually performed for the team after the game at their hotel where the party was and didn’t even start until 2 a.m. It was us and Kenny Chesney. It was crazy! But also it was such a long journey, and the day of the Super Bowl was such a long day, and emotionally, how do you get any better than that? In some ways it was a big relief, but also an emotional drain on everybody—the players, coaches, the staff and the fans. It’s still just kind of hard to believe! It feels like something always goes wrong in the end, but not this year. I really think it was sort of a spark that really put New Orleans back on the map; the hotels are booked, the restaurants are booked. You’ve got to wait in line to get on a streetcar these days!
It’s a great feeling permeating this city. And it’s cool how the music community, the art community and the business community like Harrah’s and Rock ’n’ Bowl come together in a community effort for the Better Than Ezra Foundation.
Yeah, I think we’ve been doing it long enough now that people trust us. They know it will be for a good cause, and they have a good time doing it, so they want to be involved. This was the ninth year we did it as an open. Previously we’d always done stuff with national charities like the National MS Society. But after Katrina we created our own 501(c)(3) so we could direct how the money was spent.
So is everything now specifically committed to local causes?
Yeah, for the most part, but we sent money to Haiti. Our goals are to help New Orleans recover post-Katrina. We have a board of 12 people and after the event we decide what the best use of the money is. I don’t know yet what we’re going to do this year, but I know NOCCA will get another check from us because we’re big supporters of education. The zoo got a big check from us last year.
Right, the Cool Zoo Splash Zone is a new area of philanthropy for the band.
Right. It’s supposed to open up at Zoo-to-Do this year. It’s a splash park mostly for kids, I suppose. They’re going to have a little shop with bathing suits and changing rooms so kids can go have a free-for-all in the fountains, and there’ll be rides and slides. I’m looking forward to bringing my little girl who loves to get in the pool, although she can’t swim yet. She’s going to love this!
New Orleans needs that, especially when the heat arrives this summer. And I hope it’s for kids of all ages because I want to jump in that!
I’m sure it is! Yeah, me too!
Earlier this year, Taylor Swift performed Better Than Ezra’s song “Breathless” from Ezra’s 2005 album Before the Robots at the Hope for Haiti telethon. That must have been a huge honor for the band.
It was a huge deal. Only 13 songs were performed, like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Hallelujah,” so we’re talking great company here. She actually did a really good job on it. I tell you, the only time I really get nervous as a performer is when I’m on television. You can rehearse all day, but you can bet the actual performance won’t be as good as one of the earlier rehearsals. It’s just the way it is! [Laughs] It was quite an honor. She’s been a big fan of Ezra, and as we’re starting to find out so are a lot of people, like David Cook and the band Sugar Ray. Darius Rucker showed up at a recent show. It’s cool. You stick around long enough and you win, I think. [Laughs] It lets you know you’re doing the right thing. As an artist you always have self-doubt about what you’re doing, like do people even like this? It’s rewarding to have somebody like that show up at a show.
Since Taylor Swift performed that song, have you noticed more attention being given to Before the Robots?
Certainly the song has jumped way up on iTunes; I think it’s in the top five of all our songs. And we get a lot of Google alerts on ours phone referencing “Taylor Swift” and “Breathless” and “Better than Ezra,” so yeah, definitely.
That’s great. So tell us about the music and the response you’ve gotten from your latest album, Paper Empire, released in 2009.
I think as an artist you always think your latest is your greatest because every time you do an album you learn something new, whether it’s something technical or something regarding songwriting or just about life in general. You’re a bit older and hopefully a bit wiser, so each project should be better than the last, at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s about being commercially successful; that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the music! That’s kind of a hard lesson to learn, but it’s true. I just feel really grateful that we’ve been able to do what we’ve done and that we continue to be relevant and work. We just discussed doing an album or an EP, which contains fewer songs, for the fall so we’re going to gear up for that soon. It’s the frenetic nature of the business; if you don’t have something out currently you’re going to get swept under, because there’s just so much other stuff coming out.
Speaking of country, Travis McNabb left Better Than Ezra in 2009 to drum for popular country music duo Sugarland. You say his departure was “bittersweet.”
We’re still good friends. Both Kevin and I wanted to start a family and not be on the road as much. I’ve got another one on the way now, a little boy. And Travis just wanted to be able play more often. It makes sense for him. It was a great opportunity; and Sugarland has blown up in the last few years as a country act. He still does session work on the side for me when he’s available. He’s on the board of the foundation and still helps make decisions, although he was too busy with Sugarland to be here this year.
How much of a natural fit is your new drummer Michael Jerome for the band?
He’s been great, personality-wise and skill level–wise and just his overall demeanor. He’s been a fantastic fit and hopefully you’ll get to meet him one day. He’s really a fantastic drummer. He hits ’em hard!
I’m looking forward to meeting him for sure! So how much fun is it for Better Than Ezra to play at Jazz Fest?
Oh, it’s awesome! You see fans young and old, which is great. We’ll have musicians sit in with us, which isn’t as common at other shows we do throughout the year. That allows us to take the songs to a new place, which is fun for us because sometimes you get a little stale if you’re playing the songs the same way every night. This way you kind of open it up and have some improvisational skills from horn players and all that’s really fun.
You are the owner of Fudge Recording Studios in New Orleans.
Yep, I’m co-owner with Jack Miele and Shane Theriot. We have of variety of projects coming through there. I’m working with a guy now you’ll probably be hearing a lot of soon named Shane Paul Smith, who sounds really great. I’m doing stuff for ESPN; they call me occasionally to send them instrumental music for their shows, and Jack does a lot of stuff with local bands. And Shane has this Nashville–L.A. connection with other producers who come in and use the studio, which is kind of neat. So we’re getting on the national radar now. And remember the Saints song “Big Thang” that ran every five minutes on Fox 8 during the season? Greg Barnhill did that in our studio; he’s a big Nashville producer and he’s bringing country stuff here.
How is Better Than Ezra’s reception when you perform here in New Orleans compared to other places?
I guess we’re sort of viewed as the hometown heroes here, which is really nice. The other thing about New Orleans is it’s cool to be a big fish in a small pond. I live in the Garden District with all the oak trees; it’s a beautiful place to be. And part of it is the people—you walk into Starbucks or Byblos and people know your name, they know what you want before you get to the counter. That’s cool! And I tell you, when you’re on the road, and you see that lots of these other cities are sort of cookie-cutter, it’s a pleasure to come home to New Orleans. I love the architecture; I was actually an architecture major at school. And I love the food. On the road the food is the worst! My wife and I really love this city.