ALL OF THE ABOVE Marvin Etzioni (Pt. 1)

The Lone Justice
co-founder/songwriter and player-producer-writer extraordinaire finally rolls
out
Marvin Country!

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

Def Leppard’s Hysteria used to be the go-to reference for long-gestating albums, then it was Guns
N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy. It’s
doubtful Marvin Etzioni will bubble up to mainstream consciousness with his
17-years-in-the-making double disc Marvin
Country!
, but it still takes the title – and it’s better than both Lep’s
and GNR’s joints.

 

Not that anyone’s competing. Etzioni is best known as a
co-founder of acclaimed LA late-1980s LA cowpunks Lone Justice, and the 19
songs on Marvin Country! emphasize
the cow part, with detours into blues, folk and gospel. He’s also an in-demand
producer, player and songwriter who’s collaborated with a laundry list of
noteworthies including Tom Petty, U2, Cheap Trick, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Counting
Crows and the shadowy redneck punk group Jon Wayne. Even marquee names like
those can’t create enough crossover juice to make Etzioni the Patron Saint of Poky
Recordings but, you know… it’s cool. ‘Cause in Marvin Country!, that shit ain’t
shit.

 

Speaking via telephone from LA, where he’s running errands
in advance of a trip to Nashville
where he’ll play mandolin with a string quartet, Etzioni explains the lag. In
1994, with Mandolin Man (Restless, 1991)
and Bone (1992) already out and Weapons of the Spirit in the can, “I was
planning to put out an album a year,” he says. As they are wont to do in the
music industry, events conspired to quash those plans. While Etzioni was
finishing Weapons, Restless Records
was up for sale. “So that was it. They put it out, but they didn’t do as much
[promo] as I’d hoped.”

 

As his resume attests, Etzioni is always working on
something or at least logging ideas. “[When Weapons came out], I was working on three different concepts and one of them was Marvin Country!” Restless Records’ new
owners dumped the label in 1995 and Etzioni’s had to park his triptych – “I was
gonna call it Tricycle.” After
shopping a 10-song sample around failed to generate enough interest, Etzioni
decided to continue following his muse. If something happened, great.

 

“It never stopped the creative process,” he says, “just the
process of releasing something. I just decided to stay in the forest and keep
chopping down trees thinking someone will eventually hear it.” So Etzioni kept
writing, playing and producing while the years came and went. “I was doing all
of the above; that’s kind of been my way.”

 

He also revisited Marvin
Country!
often, refining the tunes he’d been working on – in that same “all
of the above” process with folks like Steve Earle, John Doe, Lucinda Williams, Richard
Thompson, Maria McKee and even the mysterious J. Wayne. “Finally about a year-and-a-half,
two years ago, it was time to get this out, to let people in on it.” The
result, Blurt assures you, is a
certified ‘all killer, no filler’ work that re-asserts Etzioni’s importance as
a performer and songwriter in his own right.

 

 


Marvin Etzioni – You Are The Light by ROOM 5 ARTISTS

 

 


Marvin Etzioni with Richard Thompson IT DON’T COST MUCH by ThePlanetCompany

 

 

BLURT: When Marvin Country! arrived, I played both
discs and immediately wanted to do it again. I read that’s kinda what you
intended it to be, a good ol’ fashioned double-album listening experience that
you can experience as a whole or a side at a time.

ETZIONI: Yeah! Or a song at a time. You know? [laughs] I
think the idea of the double album has kind of eluded our culture. So I just
thought it was a challenging idea that, rather than choosing 10 or 11 songs and
making one album out of it, I could make Marvin
Country!
an expansive place to go to, you know, that took chances and
liberties. To not just say, “Okay, here are ten songs. See you later.” But there’s
nothin’ wrong with [10-song albums]. If you can do it, hallelujah.

 

Did you have songs
stockpiled? ‘Cause it’s been quite a while since your last record.

 Oh, yeah. Definitely.
I mean, I had about four albums worth of material and narrowed it down to two.
There’s a double-disc that I’ve titled The
Making of Marvin Country!
where I did some covers, like “Sweet Leaf” by
Black Sabbath – on mandolin. And that doesn’t include two other albums that I’m
gonna finish up.

 

You talk about Marvin Country! being an expansive
place, etc. When I first heard the title, that’s where my mind went: I imagined
Marvin Country! as an actual country
and also in the sense that someone might say, “Oh, that’s Comanche Territory.”

I was almost gonna do a [membership] card that said, “You’re
a member of Marvin Country!” We didn’t; there are only so many things you can
do when you’re assembling a package. It can become endless. People give away
t-shirts now, you know?

            I liked the
idea that – America is a very extensive country. No matter what city you live in, you know you’re
part of something bigger. And most countries are not like that. If you go to France, it’s
like, this is pretty much it. This is kinda the entire culture, right here. You
know Italy,
England
– I’m not saying there’s not diversity within those countries, but not the kind
of diversity we have in America.
I’ve never really seen another country that has that.

            These are
more recent reflections, as I’ve been asked about the album, that maybe in some
way parallel – but I didn’t design it this way at all. But growing up in a very
extensive country, there are a lot of roots. You know, this morning I’m
listening to Merle Haggard. And I love the music from New York, like the Dolls and Patti Smith.
Then there’s Nashville
and Chet Atkins and Billy Sherrill and Bakersfield
with Buck Owens. This country has a rich and diverse heritage of really strong,
powerful songs and records and music. But I love all of it. I love so much of
what has come out of this country that I didn’t really see why I had to put
limitations on what [Marvin Country!]
could represent. I didn’t really want it to be defined by the genre it might
get put in. If anything, I’d like to help expand the genre.

 

Well, you do. You
really explore country music and its derivations, like cowpunk, but in your own
way.

And it’s not just country music. Cowpunk was really an
influence of Hank Williams and The Clash, the Buzzcocks and everything else
that was goin’ on. It was a real hybrid of energy. The thing I’ve always liked
about country music was whether you played slow or fast or kinda mid-tempo like
Haggard is it’s about the songs. And that’s why the Beatles could cover “Act
Naturally.” Maybe that was kind of an early introduction. And that’s probably
why Keith Richards could connect to Gram Parsons, ‘cause the songs were so
good. Keith was coming out of rock ‘n’ roll and soul music. I’m sure when he
got hipped to the country stuff, it was kind of like, “Oh country music. That’s
square; that’s politically right-wing…”

But the songs – Keith Richards,
he’s a major songwriter. And coming from that place – the songs are undeniable.
You get into country, and Hank Williams, and you realize maybe this is the
birth of rock ‘n’ roll right here. Hank Williams, you know, he was a rock ‘n’
roll writer. That’s what Buddy Holly grew up on. So you start to see the
connection. The songs are kind of flowing into each other. It’s one sea, one
body of water throughout the world. Water is water.

So on a song level, you wanna speed
it up and call it cowpunk? I’m into it. You wanna slow it down… It’s the power
of the song, it’s not the power of
the style.

 

You’ve said that the
real country songwriters were like Leonard Cohen, Sly Stone and Jacques Brel.
Care to elaborate on that?

They’re all great songwriters. That’s what connects the
whole thing. What connects the oceans? It’s the water. And you know, Charles
Aznavour, the biggest record he ever got was “Yesterday When I Was Young,” by
Roy Clark. It was a country hit. So here’s a guy – I’ve seen Aznavour and he talks about it live. Here he is, this Armenian
guy who sings in French, and he has a hit on the country charts. Because the
songs are powerful, the songs are timeless. It was a timeless song.

            If a county
artist today did “Everyday People” by Sly Stone, it’d be a Top Ten hit.

 

I can hear that. It’d
be a heartland anthem. Or a truck commercial.

Exactly. It’s a great
song
. The fact that he did it in his style, with that set of vocalists, and
the funk that he adds? That’s his own way of makin’ records. But as a song, it can go anywhere. And that’s
what I was really tryin’ to get at with a statement. Let’s get out of the box
of the genre and open up the doors of possibility of how all of these artists,
really to me, are intertwined.

            Leonard
Cohen has written so many great songs that could be country records, without
question.

 

True. “Hallelujah” is
probably an obvious one, but also “Everybody Knows.” Actually “The Future”
would be a really cool song for a post-apocalyptic western, maybe with Calexico
helpin’ out.  

Yeah! “The Future,” “Tower of Song,”
you know. So to me, all those artists I mentioned, in and of itself, you think,
‘Sly Stone? Oh, he’s not a country artist.’ But if you listen to the songs, that’s
where the connection is. And you strip away the production – and we’re not
talkin’ about how he sings, or the drum machines he used and the ‘hipper than
thou’ Sly magic. I’m just saying this as a sheer songwriter. Some of those
songs to me are like country songs. Sly Stone, to me, has a lot in common with
Hank Williams. I personally see that connection.

And that’s part of the message of Marvin Country!, to get out of the box
and out of the genre-making machine. I don’t wanna be in a box. The artists
should go beyond the box. The artists that I grew up on… you never knew where
the Beatles were gonna go next. You never knew where the Stones were gonna go
next. And if you always know where an artists is gonna go, it’s too predictable
a relationship.

 

How did you decide
which collaborators to pair with a certain song?

All of it was done very naturally. I had no game plan, there
was nobody sittin’ in an office, callin’ me up and [asking for status updates].
If anything, the song “What’s Patsy Cline Doing These Days?” (Note: There are
two versions on Marvin Country!, one
with Jon Wayne and another with Grey DeLisle) is almost the message regarding
the duets, making fun of the idea. Which is actually a true story. There was a
president of a very, very big company in Nashville
that wanted to pair Patsy Cline with one of his new artists. [laughs] That’s
the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. Everyone at the meeting looked at him,
like, “What?”

            So in the
case of the duets on the album, I’ve known Lucinda since the 80s. We played a
club date and she was doing a set and I called her up on stage. “I’ve got a new
song [“Lay It on the Table”], come on up here.” She sang on the choruses and
then, when I cut the song with the drummer, Donald Lindley, as soon as we got
the take – we just cut the guitar, a scratch vocal and drums – we looked at
each other and said, “You remember that night? We gotta get Lu on this.” So
that was the start, there.

            With Maria
[McKee], that song [“You Possess Me”] kinda reconnected us when I worked with
her on her second solo album, and I remembered how much she liked the song. So
I called her and said I was recording it for an album and would she like to
come sing on it. She said, “I love ‘You Possess Me’ and I’d love to do it.” So
she came by for that.

            It was
always natural. With “The Grapes of Wrath,” I already had the song cut and
already had the mix of it. But I thought when we used to play the song in Lone
Justice, Ryan and Maria, on the choruses, had an X kinda vibe with the two-part
harmony and that high energy. So I thought I’d call John Doe. It was almost a
way of saying thanks. The Lone Justice rendition was its own thing but Ryan and
Maria were really into X and wanted to have that kind of influence on the
vocals, the way they’d kinda slide up on the harmonies. So I brought him in for
that. And that song, I just basically put his voice on a two-track mix and then
just made a copy of it. And that was it. It was more like the way they used to
make records in the early 60s. When you ran out of tracks, you’d take a final
two-track mix, add your overdub, and then do another mix of that. I kinda like
doin’ that, at times.

            Even with
Richard Thompson. I wrote “It Don’t Cost Much” with him many years ago. And
that was a real, kind of a difficult track because I didn’t use much from the
original. I kinda rebuilt it around his vocal and then started from there. But
we wrote it together, so it was a natural thing.

Every person on the record was
someone that I know, a real natural fit. I didn’t design the record, starting
it 20 years ago, as a double disc or with this – I thought maybe the Buddy
Miller track and maybe one other duet would be fine, and I’d use the first 10
or 15 tracks I cut for it. But Buddy was living in Los Angeles and I played him the track, then
he came by and sang on it. It was so natural! And fun. It was never – there was
no strategy or anything. It was just
like if you were goin’ out to dinner tonight and you decide to call someone and
find out they’re free that night, too.

 

Let’s talk Jon Wayne.
He’s kind of a phantom in my record collection. There’s hardly any information
about him online – you can hardly find some of the records after Texas Funeral, even though that album
was recently reissued (Third Man Records). Is this someone who wants to stay on
the down-low?

Jon Wayne is a mysterious trip. [laughs] The last I heard is
that they were booked to play the Echo in Los
Angeles but there were a no-show. I can’t say too much
about Jon Wayne. Texas Funeral is a
masterpiece. Jon Wayne actually covered “Mandolin Man” from my first record on
[JW’s second album] Two Graduated Jiggers.
That’s the pinnacle. What more can you ask for? I think officially that’s the
last record they did. I’m kinda sworn to only say so much. But always check
“all of the above” when it comes to Jon Wayne.

 

Not knowing is part
of the fun of Jon Wayne, anyway.

I’ll tell you my big contribution to Texas Funeral. I was walking down the street and I saw the bumper
sticker on the street in the gutter. I thought it said, “Fun.” But I picked it
up and it said, “Funeral.” So I gave it to the “powers that be” and said,
“Maybe you’d wanna use this sticker on the album cover. [laughs]

 

Actually, speaking of
lost albums, are you ever gonna reissue your early-90s solo records?

I asked Rick from Nine Mile Records about it because we’ve
been getting requests [for reissues]. He said let’s focus on Marvin Country! and do that at a later
date. So the answer is yes, I have every intention. Mandolin Man is probably the most personal one to me. I’ll still
play “Can’t Cry Hard Enough” from that album live.

So yeah, I’d like to get all three
out. I don’t really know if I have any bonus tracks. It’s funny. I have this
reel that said “mono mixes” for the second album, Bone. But the engineer just called this morning and said he doesn’t
think they were demos, just outtakes. Maybe I’ll re-sequence Bone just for fun. But Mandolin Man, I would just release it
as-is. The third album, Weapons, I
haven’t heard that in a while so I don’t know if I’d re-sequence that one. I
don’t know if you’re supposed to re-sequence records for reissues, but…

 

I haven’t seen too
many of those, but it’s a really interesting way to reissue an album. It’d put
it in a whole new light, and it would be interesting to compare and contrast
the two versions.

I’d never re-sequence Mandolin
Man
, but the other two might be kinda fun. As you say, it could be a
different way of lookin’ at the record.

 

Maybe you could just
reissue them all in their original form, but post suggested re-sequencing track
lists on your website. Since everyone’s going digital now, it wouldn’t be too
hard for them to create a re-sequenced playlist.

Yeah. Hey, did you ever – there’s a story, I think it was a
Springsteen album some years back. There’s Springsteen, the manager and the
producer banging their heads against the wall, tryin’ to sequence the record.
And there’s this second engineer, this kid in the back of the room, who says “I
don’t know what you guys are workin’ so hard for, ‘cause I get a record and I
just put it on shuffle.” And they just looked at him and I think he got fired
on the spot. [laughs] It’d be like Scorsese, goin’ up to him and sayin’ “Eh,
what’s the difference, how you edit your films,” you know? It’s like, maybe
you’re not the right guy for this job.

 

Let’s hear the story
or your first mandolin, since it’s such a defining moment in your history.

When I got the instrument, it wasn’t like I wanted to be a
musician. I just liked banging on it. In junior high, even in elementary
school, I had aspirations about politics. I wanted to be president of the United States.
So I became president of my junior high. But I didn’t really connect with the
other kids in school politics. They seemed to be less about serving the school
than serving themselves. I connected more to the people that were into music.

            And then
this one event happened that was kinda life-changing. It was 9th grade and there was a school dance. As president, I could get out of class
early to just make sure things were running smoothly. And the band was playing
and their drummer took a break. I’m not a great drummer, but I asked if I could
sit in while he was away. They looked at me like, “You? You’re not into music.”
And I said, “Well do you mind if I try?” And they realized I could actually
keep a groove.

Then their drummer went to a
different high school and we all ended up at Fairfax High. Over that summer, we
started singing and writing songs together. That was the fork in the road, and
the one I took. In high school I ran for 10th grade senator and I
won. It was kinda the same thing. I liked the idea of being of service to the
school and the community, but I just didn’t really connect to the people who
were in politics. And I didn’t connect to the politicians who were visiting the
school.

But the musicians, the longhaired
freak musicians, those were the people I liked because we’d come up with songs
and jam. So after 10th grade I was done with politics and it was
full-steam music.

It connects to the mandolin because
it propelled me into drums and other instruments. But it was the first spark,
holding the instrument and playing it and realizing something can happen by
doing this. And you can feel the evolution of the relationship, between holding
it and playing it.

 

It sounds like it was
also a companion.

Yeah. It’s certainly an extension. I feel very at home [with
it]. It’s one of the most special things that I own. In fact, I’m goin’ to Nashville tomorrow and
that’s the only instrument I’ll take with me, and play with the string quartet.

 

How did you get the
artist Ralph Steadman (see Hunter S. Thompson) to draw on it.

My son Elon is a brilliant artist. When he was a boy, he
really liked Ralph Steadman so I took him to a book signing. After we met him,
I thanked him and told him I happened to have my mandolin in the car and asked
him if he’d draw on it or sign it. He said, “Oh yeah! Bring it in.” He took a
can of spray paint and jiggled it and drew on it. I’ve got him and Keith
Richards’ autographs on the mandolin.

            The Keith
Richards one was funny because it was during a two-night tribute to Gram
Parsons. One of the gigs was at the Santa Barbara Bowl and the other was at the
Universal Amphitheater. Keith Richards is a musician; he shows up to soundcheck
like everyone else. He’s a real anti-prima donna. He knows that you know who he
is, but when it comes to playin’ a song, that’s his focus. I learned a lot
watchin’ him.

            So one day,
he walks into soundcheck. By this time we’d already met and said ‘hi’ and
stuff, and I asked him if he’d sign the mandolin. He goes “No, not at all.” On
the other side of the stage, Norah Jones is soundchecking and my mandolin was
plugged in. I’m sure it only came through my monitor, but you could hear him
scratching really loud. That
signature will never fade away. [laughs]

            It’s a
funny story: I remember during Lone Justice one day Dolly Parton came to a
show, and Maria used to play my Telecaster, so Dolly Parton autographed it. One
day Ryan said we should shellac it, put a veneer on it so it never goes away. I
said, “Okay how do you do it?” You’re supposed to hold it a foot or two away
but he put it, like, two inches from it. And he sprayed it and we both watched
Dolly Parton’s autograph smear down the face of the guitar. That autograph’s
gone. He was like, “Oh my God – I fucked up!” Oh, well. [laughs]

            I’ll never
forget that feeling, just seeing the red ink drip like blood.

 

Are you Jon Wayne?

No, I am not Jon Wayne. [laughs] Thank you for asking.

 

 

Coming tomorrow: in
Part 2, Etzioni takes us on a metaphysical mystery tour of the country of, er,
Marvin.

 

[Photo Credit: Amy Joan Harrington]

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