The story behind Before The Robots, the latest and most ambitious album from platinum rockers Better Than Ezra (Kevin Griffin - guitar/vocals, Tom Drummond - bass and Travis McNabb - drums), involves one vivid nightmare, a random encounter with aging pop icon Meatloaf, two years investigating the musical underbelly of New Orleans, the death of Gram Parsons, and a whole litany of pop and alt-rock stars, including Howie Day, Liz Phair and Missy Higgins (seven-times platinum Australian debut). Oh, and did we mention Kajagoogoo? They're involved, too.
But let's start with the title.
"The title has nothing to do with anything on the album," explains BTE frontman Kevin Griffin, laughing. "It's kind of hokey, actually. Travis had a dream, where he came up with this great album title called Before the Robots, but his friend in the dream was like 'You can't use that, because there's this hot new British band with the same name, and they're all over NME and Melody Maker.' Travis woke up, didn't remember it was a dream, and didn't ask us if they were a band until much later. When we told him it wasn't a band, he was like 'well, I've got a great idea for an album title."
As a title, Before the Robots is a sly commentary on today's retro-obsessed rock scene. But as an album, Robots isn't stuck in one time period or with one staid genre. While the record maintains Griffin's knack of mixing storytelling elements with memorable pop melodies, the band's musical range has increased dramatically. The funk centerpiece "Juicy" serves as a contemporary update of late 70s Rolling Stones, while "American Dream" is a subtle critique of Enron and WorldCom. But there are also some dramatic left turns, including the sonic dissonance that dominates "Overcome."
"We spent over two years on this in our own studio in New Orleans's Garden District," explains Griffin. "Not only were we able to include a lot of famous local musicians on the album, but having that time really allowed us to experiment. We listen to so many different bands, everybody from Zero 7 to the guys (Kevin Bacon and Jonathan Quarmby) who did the first Finley Quaye album. They have a real cool production style, and I was influenced by them, especially on a song like 'Overcome' and 'It's Only Natural.' But, honestly, for this record, we were picking up things from everyone, from Kings of Leon to Jonathan Rice to Nina Simone." The band also credits the record's sonic mastery to mixer Tim Palmer, whose work ranges from the most recent U2 album to, yes, his early days working with New Wave wonders Kajagoogoo ("That's what did it for me," says Griffin, laughing.)
Speaking of "It's Only Natural," that soulful album standout is actually a collaboration between Griffin and garage rock buzz band Louis XIV. "Those guys used to be in a band called Convoy, and last year we were writing songs together," says Griffin. "That song was supposed to be on their album, but they decided to re-name the band and go for a different, more stripped down sound. I was like 'I'll take it!' and they were really psyched, because it's the first co-write they've ever done."
Ezra fans may get the most excited about the album's first single, "A Lifetime", which features Griffin incorporating a legendary rock'n'roll story into elements of his own life. "Being a writer, it's liberating to know you can create characters and circumstances in your songs," says the frontman. "But on 'A Lifetime,' I take a bit of a personal story, and then embellish it." The song, an epic pop-rock ballad following the aftermath of a friend's death, actually takes its plot from the death of legendary country-rocker Gram Parsons. "Gram's tale is just a great, romantic rock'n'roll story," says the singer. "His friend stole his funeral casket from LAX and took it down to 29 Palms and set him on fire as the sun came up ... and that's where I got the story of some friends stealing their friend's urn, and honoring the girl's true wishes, and going out to the beach one morning and listening to this REM song they used to listen to growing up as the sun was coming up. It was a way to make something both personal and dramatic."
Thanks to his versatility and knack for pop hooks, Griffin has become a much sought-after songwriter over the past few years. "For that, I give all the credit back to Meatloaf," he says, laughing. "It's a weird story - we were mixing our previous album at a studio in Hollywood, and we had Justin Timberlake on one side of us, and Meatloaf on the other. 'Meat,' as they call him, heard one of my songs, and asked me if I'd write for him." Griffin's track, a fire-and-brimstone gospel number called "Testify," landed as the title track on the rock icon's last album and was generally regarded as the best thing Meatloaf had recorded in, well, decades. And thanks to that random gig, Griffin eventually landed a song on the most recent Blondie album ("Good Boys," a worldwide hit that was later remixed by the Scissor Sisters), and has been non-stop collaborating ever since. The list is impressive and has resulted in three #1 songs in the last 12 months.
"It's really fun," says Griffin. "When you're in a band, you're pigeonholed whether you like it or not. But it's fun to write all the different types of music I'm influenced by."
BTE fans worried about Griffin's increased outside workload can relax. The band will be touring all spring and summer in support of Before the Robots. "We've got a real dedicated following, which is unusual for a pop-rock band," says Griffin. "They're all ages, too, from kids to guys in their forties. I think we just bring something more to the table than most pop-rock bands - we do a great, theatrical live show, and most importantly, we're real musicians."
- May, 2005
--Courtesy of Artemis Records
--- from the official Better Than Ezra website