Formed while students at Louisiana State University, Better Than Ezra is returning to its roots. The platinum-selling rockers recently recorded "Death Valley," an EP devoted to their love for their alma mater. The seven-song EP, named for LSU's intimidating Tiger Stadium, features a modern take on songs popularized at LSU tailgates and by the school's Tiger Band.
"LSU football has been a part of our DNA since our first practice just off campus in 1988," bassist Tom Drummond said. "We always talked about recording our favorite game-day tracks Better Than Ezra-style. For us to be able to come back to LSU and record the songs is a dream come true."
Currently working on their eighth studio album, Drummond and lead singer Kevin Griffin took some time to talk with The Life about the top-ranked Tigers, national championships, Dennis Quaid, and of course, "Death Valley" (iTunes | Amazon), which will be available Tuesday.
The Life: You guys formed while students at LSU, so I'm guessing there's a genuine love for this project.
Griffin: We formed in the spring of 1988 while we were students at LSU. I got Tom through The Daily Reveille, the LSU student newspaper, posting for a bass player. We cut our teeth at the parties on campus and bars around town. We always talked about redoing these classic LSU fan chants that the Tiger Band made famous and songs people sang while tailgating, and now we're finally getting around to doing it. Plus, LSU is having a great year, so for us it's a fortuitous series of events.
The Life: So you guys were there in '88, Were you guys part of the Earthquake Game? (Editor's note: Unranked LSU upset No. 4 Auburn, winning 7-6 on a late TD pass from Tommy Hodson to Eddie Fuller. The crowd's reaction registered on a seismograph in LSU's Howe-Russell Geoscience Complex.)
Drummond: I was there for that.
Griffin: I can't remember, but I had to be, I was in school then. Maybe I was drunk.
The Life: Does the stadium always shake?
Drummond: Yeah, but not like that. Back then the team was like 4-7 every year, so we didn't pay attention as much as we do now.
Griffin: Plus it was more about smuggling alcohol in.
Drummond: You can't say that.
Griffin: It's OK, we're in a rock band.
The Life: Right now No. 1 in the AP poll, are you guys surprised at the team's success considering the uncertainty at the quarterback position heading into the season?
Drummond: I think honestly that since Nick Saban came we've been a perennial powerhouse. Every year we're going to put a team out there that is strong, maybe not No. 1 like we are currently, but we're always going to be a quality team. I think that just when you think college football, you think Ohio State, Michigan and USC. Now you have to consider LSU to be among the top five names.
Griffin: Nick Saban changed the culture, and it does seem like it's at that next level. And now you have to be at that level. And considering we lost Jordan [Jefferson]. Jarrett Lee always seemed inconsistent, but he has really risen to the occasion.
The Life: Well, Saban is gone, and now you've got Les Miles. Does having a gambler like Miles as your coach require a little more antacids?
Drummond: I'm a Les Miles fan. You know, I think we've gotten so used to winning in Baton Rouge, when something doesn't quite go [according] to plan everyone jumps off the bandwagon for some reason. Les' record is crazy good. (Editor's note: Miles is 38-6 in Tiger Stadium). Can you really get any better than that?
Griffin: I've hung out with [Les] before in Baton Rouge. I don't think anyone will accuse him of being amiable. It's not something that comes natural. He's not a people person. But clearly, he gets the job done. People have strong opinions on Les Miles. I have a very close buddy who doesn't like him, and I'm like, "What are you saying!?" He's not living off Saban's recruiting anymore. Les can do stuff that can get you on the edge of your seat with all the fourth-down plays, but I've got confidence in him.
The Life: Would you rather remember running through the wet grass or eat it like Coach Miles?
Drummond: (Laughs) Very well-researched.
The Life: Thank you. Was the first question I thought of. Wanted to ease into it.
Griffin: (Laughs) Nicely done. My favorite question of the day.
Drummond: Maybe you're running through the wet grass, stumble face first, eat a little and then continue running through the wet grass.
Griffin: (Les) does love to eat that grass. I don't know what's going to happen if he keeps eating that stuff. He may get some intestinal parasite. Somehow that nut from Alabama [the Crimson Tide fan who allegedly poisoned oak trees at Auburn's Toomer's Corner earlier this year] is going to poison the sideline grass when we play them in effort to fell Les Miles.
The Life: If you guys can achieve even a sliver of the good that Dennis Quaid and "Everybody's All-American" did for LSU in the late '80s, I'd have to think it's a success. No?
Griffin: (Laughs) We think hopefully this project will become a part of what people love about LSU football. The whole culture surrounding Southern football programs is nuts. If Better Than Ezra can help by doing the EP and redoing "Fighting Tigers" and "Chinese Bandits," then we've left a legacy. It's funny you bring up "Everybody's All-American." It was shot at my fraternity, so I got to know Dennis Quaid, John Goodman and Taylor Hackford, who directed it. There were more than a few late nights.
The Life: I definitely recognized "Time of the Year" on there. I remember it was on "Deluxe" which I think is one of the first few CDs I ever bought, that and "Dookie."
The Life: I understand that song is on the EP because the song has a connection to LSU football.
Drummond: When we first started we were a college band, we played around various college towns around the south. Our second best market was Oxford, Miss. That tune came about as we spent many an hour on I-55 from Baton Rouge to Oxford Friday night driving up for the LSU game. That was the origin of that tune.
Griffin: We wrote it when we blew a tire out and were on the side of the interstate. Also on the EP, we redid "Double Shot of My Baby's Love," which was sung by another famous LSU band from the '60s, The Swingin' Medallions. We tried to link the past with an old LSU party band. That and I think it just happens to be one of the greatest band names ever. We tried to do our homework.
The Life: If you were to go on a Southern college tour do you think you could get away with singing "Chinese Bandits," say, in Tuscaloosa or Oxford? It's pretty heavy, with the "Roll, Tide, roll. Roll, Tide, roll. Around the bowl and down the hole," as well as "Geaux to hell, Ole Miss."
Drummond: (Laughs) Absolutely not.
Griffin: I don't believe we could. No one up to now has put those chants onto a record. We were clearing the EP with LSU and we had to provide them with the lyrics. They saw the lyrics to "Chinese Bandits" and asked us to change one of the chants. But since it's an LSU-sponsored project, we altered it. But yeah, as far as playing that song at Alabama or Oxford, I don't think we will.
The Life: Clemson has their Death Valley, and coincidentally they're Tigers too. Jocking LSU's style a bit?
Griffin: Let's look at the two programs and you draw your own conclusion.
Drummond: Enough said.
The Life: They're doing pretty well, if they keep it up perhaps we can settle it on the field it in the Superdome in the BCS national title game?
Griffin: We're down for that.
The Life: Speaking of the Superdome and national championships, were you guys at the 2008 BCS title game when almost all of Louisiana turned up as the Tigers beat Ohio State?
Griffin: We were there in 2004 [Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma] and 2008. It is nuts how they go about them. We'll be there again soon -- knock on wood.
The Life: What is your favorite LSU football moment ever?
Griffin: For me, it was when Tom met me in Baton Rouge in 1997. LSU didn't have the greatest record and Florida, which was ranked No.1, came into Death Valley, and we beat them. Beer was flying in the air. It was a magical moment. But I'm also partial to that 2004 national championship game. That was just a great moment. Tom and I had my brother with me. It was one of those moments where you're like, "It doesn't get any better than this."
Drummond: It was pretty cool. Since then, we've had another championship, which is crazy because it had been such a long time before that first title. It was something like 1958 LSU had last won it. I just remember leaving the Superdome after that [2004 game], and everyone is walking and cheering down the street. It was such a great moment to finally win a national championship.
Griffin: Good times.
The Life: I'm sure you guys stayed out of trouble.
Griffin: We tore it up in the French Quarter that night. People were literally dancing in the street. [Keyboardist] Jim Payne in particular was going nuts. He has this orangutan-like dance and it was in full effect. He's prone to ripping off clothes as well.
Drummond: He'll love this description.
Griffin: He's our Frank the Tank. He helped on a lot of those chants for the EP. It's mostly him on those chants in "Chinese Bandits."
The Life: Oh good, so all the hate mail can go directly to Jim.
The Life: In addition to the "Death Valley" EP, I understand you guys are in the works on another album? When can we expect that?
Griffin: We're going to have a new album out in 2012. We're in the process of recording demos. Every band can say it's inspired work, and we're really excited. We'll be doing a full tour this summer.
The Life: Anything else you guys want to add before I let you get out of here?
Griffin: Yeah, one last thing. You know how during football games, schools run a commercial promoting their college? Well, LSU put us in theirs with Shaq. The premise is you can be a superstar like Shaq, rock stars like Better Than Ezra or a scientist like Maxime Faget (Editor's note: Faget helped put the first American into space). It's flattering that LSU would want to use us in their campaign, and it's a coincidence that it's the same year we decided to release the EP. It's serendipity.
Matthew Glenesk is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis.