Better Than Ezra’s better than ever: 5.1 remix album hits listener’s sweet spot
“The lyrics have not changed, the music has not changed, it’s just now presented in a format that allows everything to be heard as we intended it. It will sort of make people feel as though they are in the room with us playing.” — Tom Drummond, Better Than Ezra bassist
The popular American alt-rock band couldn’t wait to hit the stage with a slamming horn section, dubbed the “horns of love” by lead singer/guitarist Kevin Griffin, and riffle through a 20-year greatest hits set list.
Griffin, bassist Tom Drummond, and drummer Michael Jerome also couldn’t wait to unveil the details of the band’s newest recording project at an album release party featuring Acuras fully loaded with that cool 5.1 Surround Sound Audio.
At the 10-day NOLA Jazz Fest, the boys had a blast performing on the Acura Stage with guests Emily Schmidt, Melanie Bonhomme, Don Kelly, Jessica Barker, Stephen Louy, Music Valet’s Richard LaBonté, Amy Gabriel, Chris Nary, and Sam Skydell. Who cared about the rain? Not bassist Tom Drummond. “Rain or shine, we always have a great time playing Jazz Fest. There is such a great spirit and energy from attendees, that we have a blast playing. We try to add a horn section to the normal set to jazz it up a bit as well. Overall, Jazz Fest has been great!”
The band also had a blast showing off the 5.1 album and documentary to friends and fans at the jam-packed Whiskey Blue in the W New Orleans hotel the day before. Everybody got to hear the surround sound stereo for themselves at the Acura listening session, as well as watch the making-of on silent cinema, while sipping a Better Than Ezra signature cocktail by St. Germain and groove to D!musik’s tunes.
A chance encounter with Music Valet’s Richard LaBonté in 2011 led to a major upgrading of the multi-million-dollar-selling band’s 1998 album, “How Does Your Garden Grow?” A fan favorite, the album underwent major remixing in 5.1 Surround Sound (DVD-Audio and Dolby Digital 5.1 formats). Besides the remixed music, the packaging’s updated with never-before-seen photos. It’s out now through Music Valet and Better Than Ezra’s website, with Amazon.com, web-based music retailers, and select retailers soon following suit.
The most experimental of the band’s albums at the time, “How Does Your Garden Grow?” was the best candidate for the 5.1 treatment, where the listener can enjoy 360 degrees of sound for a true, high fidelity experience.
Back in the 1990s, no such technology existed. Griffin is excited about treating the fans to this much-improved listening experience. “‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ has always been a favorite amongst the fans and was also the album we experimented the most with,” Griffin explained. “With this 5.1 mix we are able to pull back the layers and hear all of the elements that went to make the whole. And when you listen to the surround sound version of the album, you can really hear what we were going for back in 1997–98.”
Choosing “How Does Your Garden Grow?,” the band’s third and most popular album, was a no-brainer for LaBonté, who orchestrated the entire production recording process. “This album was a perfect candidate for a 5.1 remix due to its complex arrangements and dense productions that feature Karl Berger’s string arrangements, Malcolm Burn’s sonic textures, delicately layered instrumentation, and Kevin’s emotive vocals,” said the Music Valet wizard.
Remixing the album took an incredible amount of time, work, and skill by some of the best in the industry. Engineer Lowell Reynolds (Neil Young, Kings Of Leon, White Stripes) had to take the analog multi-track recordings from the 1998 album and transfer them into digital files at Nashville’s illustrious Blackbird Studio. Jay Ruston (Brian Wilson, Metallica, Morrissey, Leonard Cohen) at Sherman Oaks’ TRS West provided the mix and Eric Boulanger (One Republic, Colbie Caillat, Kate Bush) from Ojai, CA’s Mastering Lab did the tricky analog-domain-to-digital mastering.
Better Than Ezra bassist Tom Drummond was one of the biggest skeptics about the 5.1 album. But when he heard the final product, he couldn’t believe how much better all the songs sounded. He took some time out from Jazz Fest to get more into it.
What inspired you to present the same album with the sonic twist?
When we made How Does Your Garden Grow? in 1998, electronic music was really starting to take hold in the U.S. We really wanted to make an album that coincided with the type of music we were listening to at the time and not just the same pop rock album. We pursued an artistic angle with the album back then, but were limited in what we could achieve sonically. Being able to remix the album in 5.1 surround sound allows listeners to experience the music fully, the way we wanted them to hear it. There are things that we did musically that you cannot hear clearly on the 1998 album, and you can finally hear them on the 5.1 version. This was the perfect album to remix because of how many layers make up this recording.
How unique is this? Has this been done before?
It has been done before, but there are only a handful of titles available in this format; names like Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac come to mind. The Eagles are slated for a release of a 5.1 album this year as well.
Are you aiming to give people a different experience?
Our goal is for people to experience this album the way we originally meant for it to sound since we were limited in 1998 with what we could do sonically. This was really a time before we even had Pro Tools, so there is very little editing, it’s all in the performances. The lyrics have not changed, the music has not changed, it’s just now presented in a format that allows everything to be heard as we intended it. It will sort of make people feel as though they are in the room with us playing. 5.1 allows for more separation of instruments; you get to hear things much clearer. We want listeners to experience all of the musical elements we played around with.
Can you explain what 5.1 offers to an everyday music lover?
5.1 surround sound immerses the listener by surrounding them with five unique channels of music and a subwoofer. It is then characterized by a listener’s location or “sweet spot” where the audio effects work best, which allows the listener to feel as though they are in the room with us. It basically brings forth all of those great musical elements we put into the original album and makes them audible.
Do you think the album/sound will appeal to those who may not be familiar with your sound?
5.1 takes things to another level. So many cool things have been done to this album, we hope that not only our fans will love it, but that it will also appeal to those who really want to see music being pushed to another level.
In the band’s press release, Kevin Griffin was quoted as saying, “This was the album we experimented the most with.” What types of things did you guys do that was different from other projects?
We played around with a lot of odd instruments and also played on instruments that we were not as proficient with. Sort of brings a bit of naïveté to what you are doing when you are skilled at one or two instruments, and then try a new and different one. I should also mention that Malcolm Burn had a lot to do with that as well. He would play synths, organs/keys along with us at times, and somewhat became a fourth member of the band while tracking. That really lead to new ideas and inspirations.
A lot went into remixing the album and we are extremely proud of it. We wanted to let our fans get a taste of the how and why behind releasing How Does Your Garden Grow? in 5.1 Surround Sound Audio.
Whose idea was it to do the documentary?
I think that was Rich LaBonté’s (Music Valet), and I think it’s a good one too. I find that there are lot of people who don’t understand what an album in 5.1 really is. It’s sort of a term they hear when discussing a movie or their entertainment system and DVDs, but not recorded music. Up until now, I think that it has been considered a sort of niche market to high-end audiophiles. But with many major car manufacturers including 5.1 in their car stereos, there will be a need for music lovers to have more of these 5.1 titles available. Look, I had to be convinced as I thought it was a little gimmicky at first, but now I am a believer. Once you hear the difference, you’ll want all of your albums to be in 5.1.
This interview first appeared in Examiner April 23, 2013.