By Benjamin Krepack
On his new album, “Marvin Country”, Los Angeles musician Marvin Etzioni sings a stirring duet called “Lay It On the Table” with Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams. It’s a bluesy plea for truth between a woman and a man with a long history together but on the verge of splitting up completely. Lucinda and Marvin literally sing their hearts out.
“It’s hard to believe you once knew me when I was twenty-five; we had nothing in our pockets; we had forever in our eyes…”
First a little background: Along with vocalist extraordinaire Maria McKee, Marvin co-founded the late, great alt-country rock band Lone Justice. You might remember “Sweet Sweet Baby”, “Shelter”, or the Tom Petty/Mike Campbell penned “Ways to be Wicked”, which were all staples on MTV back in the day. Their acclaim landed them on world tours supporting U2 and Petty. Prior to the second Lone Justice album, Marvin set off on his own path, producing acts including Counting Crows, Peter Case, and Toad the Wet Sprocket. Since that time, Marvin has released a few solo albums – including “The Mandolin Man” in 1991.
Once a struggling new wave rocker, Marvin has evolved into a mandolin messiah. Though he plays many other instruments, the mandolin remains central to his art. The new record, Marvin’s fourth solo release, has an intoxicating Americana vibe sporting a virtual parade of great musicians weaving their way into Marvin’s jangly, rootsy, and heart-felt song concoctions. There’s great folk, blues, rock, and country spirits on every track. Collaborations with guitarist Steve Earle, original X-man John Doe, Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller, and the Dixie Hummingbirds are all part of the mix. And then there’s Maria McKee from their old band Lone Justice. McKee is featured on “You Possess me”, another stellar track.
Marvin continues to play everywhere, travelling with his trusty mandolins, be they acoustic, electric, or accompanied by a string quartet. This summer, he’ll be opening shows for Martha Wainwright in New York along with a string of other shows, planned and un-planned. I got the chance to shoot the breeze with Marvin about new songs, old bands, growing up musically in L.A., and how to dial a rock star direct.
You play a lot of instruments on the new record, but your mandolin is always close at hand. What is it about the Mandolin?
Marvin Etzioni: The mandolin is the first instrument I ever picked up when I was a boy. It was my grandfather’s. He always let me play it. One day I broke a string, and I just put it back in the case. I thought I had broken the instrument. A few days later, I watched him get it out of the case and replace the string. Up until then, I didn’t know strings were replaceable.
You play it everywhere. You’ve been sitting in with a lot of people, you play solo as well as with a string quartet. And you play both electric and acoustic mandolin. You really are the Mandolin Man!
When I first heard a Chicago blues guy named Johnny Young play the mandolin, I just flipped out. That was it for me. They called him Johnny “Man’ Young, the ‘Man’ stands for ‘mandolin’. Then there was Yank Rachell, the master of the blues mandolin. I met Yank and he nearly gave me the electric mandolin that I’m currently playing. In return, I gave Yank a slide. He couldn’t believe it. A slide on a mandolin? You know my favorite Led Zeppelin track has always been “The Battle of Evermore” with Sandy Denny and a ton of mandolins. C’mon!
Watching you up on stage with blues singer Jeff Dale on your electric mandolin, you looked like you were almost having a Pete Townshend moment a couple of times.
That was the mandolin that Yank gave me! I’ll join Jeff and his band again in July. That was a lot of fun. Yeah, I like acoustic. I like electric. Any way blood flows.
Your new record includes one of your songs from the first Lone Justice album. Maria McKee’s vocal really defined “You Are the Light”. Does re-doing it here mean something else to you? Were you considering any other Lone Justice-period songs for this record? .
I originally wanted the Lone Justice version of that song to be all acoustic. More like ‘Rubber Soul’. That was the original intent. So I went back to the original key – I sing it in G, Maria in D – and played it acoustic this time. I recorded this version as a birthday gift, and had no intention on putting it on the album. But a couple of people heard it and said it should be released. Getting the Dixie Hummingbirds to add their unique harmonies was the last thing on my mind when I first wrote and recorded it. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it for the first time. I also put “Grapes of Wrath” on the record, which is a song from the Lone Justice live set. A friend of mine asked me after a show one time what Stones album that song is on (laughs). ‘Between the Buttons’, I almost told him! Just kidding. But “Miss Amanda Jones” certainly has that same feel.
Plus, you have Maria McKee singing with you on the very first song, “You Possess Me”.
I wrote this one after my son Elon was born. The song started as a mantra. I was banging on a tabla singing “overwhelming” over and over again. Somehow it turned into “you possess me.” I changed one line from the original. It took me about twenty years or so to get the one line. This song, however, did reconnect Maria and me. When she was in the middle of her second solo album (what was to become ‘Sin to Get Saved’), my music publisher at the time told me that Maria would like to hear some songs. At this point we had not worked together for about eight years, so I suggested sending her one song, and I chose this one. She connected to it, and we started writing and playing again. We can communicate musically without talking, so she just knew. I’m still amazed at the power of song.
Sometimes it feels like you’re the host of your own little show and listeners are invited in to hear all these amazing people join in. Were you looking to do more of collaborative thing this time out? Or, was it more of an organic process?
The album had no design as such when I started about twenty years ago on it. The original version only had one duet, but as time passed, I kept recording and one song led to another. There’s a personal story and connection with each person who is on the album.
Your duet with Lucinda Williams on “Lay it on the Table” is another gem.
I wrote that song with Red Lane. KCRW radio gave it song of the day.
“Living Like a Hobo” is pretty funny.
That was an early track. It’s another song that could have opened the album. If I was to pick one song to describe the album, it would be this one. It’s a one of a kind record. My friends with kids tell me that their children love this one. I’d like to turn the song into a children’s book one day. Children are brilliant at connecting with something that is coming from a place that moves them.
I feel a lot of ghosts hanging around on the record: Patsy Cline, Woody Guthrie, Gram Parsons. I hear Johnny Cash – with a dash of Lennon – in “A Man Without a Country”. It’s all part of an Americana feel that you’ve captured.
Cash and Lennon. Two of my favorites. That about sums up “Marvin Country”!
“Working Class Hero” was the first song I learned on guitar. “Man Without a Country” does have that kind of single guitar and voice point of view. Maybe a bit of that “Julia”/ Donovan style of guitar picking. It’s not a perfect take, but it reveals the essence of the song. Others have made the Cash comparison, but nothing intentional. That’s just how it came out. I wish I could have sent him the song.
In “Gram Revisited”, you say you want to go back in time to say goodbye.
I know his daughter. We met at the taping for the Gram Parsons tribute. That’s where I got Keith Richards to autograph my mandolin during a sound check. Anyway, I had a version of the song all ready to go. Then one day, I recorded a version with a Casio, guitar and vocal on a Walkman cassette machine. On the playback, I can hear a boy in the background yelling “daddy!!” In context of the song, it felt heartbreaking. That was the only reason I kept it on the album. Maria McKee and Ryan Hedgecock from Lone Justice really turned me on to Gram Parsons. I was into him via “Wild Horses”, so we were looking at the same picture, but from different sides.
How about Patsy Cline?
My grandfather was a big Patsy Cline fan. The song “What’s Patsy Cline Doing These Days?” is about a record company executive looking for ways to break a new artist and he has the idea of getting Patsy Cline for a duet.
And you have two versions on there.
There are two versions of “Forever Young” on Planet Waves. If Dylan can do it… (laughs).
Speaking of Dylan, the title to one of your songs, “Bob Dylan is Dead”, is not true, but it will be one day. I think a lot of people think about his mortality, and you pretty much take it head on.
I started writing this one in the 80’s. Dylan was getting a mixed review on one of his albums at the time. I thought, if anything should happen to Dylan, the reviewer would not want to be remembered for writing that review. So the title and chorus hit me: “Don’t come crying to me, when you hear the news. Bob Dylan is dead.” I didn’t finish the song until recently. I played it for a co-writer friend of mine named Sam Lorber, who encouraged me to finish it, so I did. I thought of getting Dylan to sing on it, but I let that one go.
There are songs where you’re literally baring your soul and I would place “There’s a Train” at the very top of that list. Was that particular song difficult to put on the album because of how emotionally raw it is?
I started writing “There’s a Train” when I first heard that my Grandfather passed away. Sam Lorber helped me finish that one. I had the song for years. I couldn’t bring myself to play it. Out of the blue, I asked my engineer to push ‘record’. What’s on the album was the first take. I broke down. I walked out of the studio. I went to a funeral where they had a New Orleans horn section, so I thought I’d bring in that kind of influence. My friend, Solomon King, introduced me to the horn players. They added the two-part section to the final guitar and vocal mix. I think adding the horns covers up the sorrow a bit.
“Grapes of Wrath”, with John Doe, has a great Kinks meets X vibe.
Did somebody say the Kinks? Boy, you really hit a nerve. I went to see the Kinks all the time: holding my notebooks from school, standing outside the Hollywood Palladium, waiting in line, no seats, standing room only. “Muswell Hillbillies” is one of the great Country albums of all time. Ray Davies is one of THE songwriters, right alongside Lennon and McCartney and Merle Haggard. I didn’t grow up on ‘Blonde on Blonde. I grew up on ‘Face to Face’.
You must’ve been soaking up the music while you were growing up in L.A. Who else did you see that influenced you?
I saw Randy Newman, solo piano, at the Troubadour. I had never heard him before, but some friends in a confirmation class wanted to go see him, and I’m sure glad I went. When I got the album ‘Sail Away’ it changed my life. It’s a masterpiece I heard Brian Wilson on the radio the other day say it was the greatest album of all time. Certainly that’s a fun night of playing “what’s the greatest record?”, but I couldn’t argue with him. I saw Joni Mitchell at the Troubadour too. She would go from instrument to instrument. Guitar, twelve string, dulcimer, piano, tuning while talking. Song after song. She was breathtaking. I had never seen anything like her before. Her ‘Blue’ is one of the great albums of all time. It’s still a reference point that hovers around when reaching in the dark.
Who else did you see live?
Fairport Convention. Front and center at the Troub, and I stayed for both sets. I went backstage and they autographed the ‘Rosie’ album for me, including Sandy Denny. She asked me if there was anyone else from my high school here, and I said that I was the only one. She was very sweet. Years later, while I was in Lone Justice, I wrote and recorded two songs with Richard Thompson, and I included one on the new record. Oh! And then of course I saw the New York Dolls at the Whisky. I also got to see Iggy Pop and the Stooges on their “Raw Power” tour. Iggy was on fire, climbing the walls like Spiderman. The album ruined me for punk. Nothing seemed more powerful than ‘Raw Power’. I’ve played the title track live with just mandolin.
Your original band, the Model, was one of the classic L.A. new wave groups of the era that were influenced by the likes of the Kinks and early Who.
The Plugz, the Quick, Translator, the Plimsouls, the Motels. Those are the first that come to mind from those days. I liked the energy of the bands. Punk, new wave, whatever anybody wanted to call themselves or be called. As much as I thought energy was important, songs are what really made me tick. The energy of the Who or the Kinks without songs is just electricity without a wire. The bands that have stood the test of time are the ones with the songs.
And the Model?
The Model never released an album. I kept writing song after song, albums worth of material. Our first producer was Richard Baskin who was the musical director for Robert Altman’s film “Nashville”. He was the first person who understood was I was going after, live and in the studio. We recorded at Shelter studios. One of the songs, “I’m the Exception” was played by Rodney Bingenheimer on K-ROQ. Then we worked with Chuck Plotkin and Toby Scott and recorded at least an album’s worth, but no final mixes. And no release.
What’s one of your most memorable rock concerts?
The Who’s Quadrophenia tour. In my high school, a lot of the girls knew where the bands were staying. Someone told me the band was staying at the Hyatt on Sunset. So, I took a shot and just called the hotel and asked for Pete Townshend. There was a moment of silence and then he actually answered the phone! I made up this story about writing an article about the Who for my school paper. I was so nervous. He asked me to hold on, that he was making a “spot of tea”. He kept me on hold and I could hear his tea kettle in the background. Within a few moments, he returned to the phone. I said, “Pete I’m not writing an article. I’m a songwriter and you’re one of my favorites. I just wanted to talk with you about songwriting and making records”. I told him “The Who Sell Out” is my favorite Who album. We talked for about forty five minutes. He was very encouraging about keeping on with songwriting. I’ll tell you, it was a life changing moment. I was on my path.
To learn more about “Marvin Country”, go to: www.marvincountry.com