Marvin Country | Interview: Marvin Etzioni

Evan Chern

Risk, patience, and the element of surprise; wars are won using these tactics. In the current state of the music industry, battle plans are as good as gold. Apparently Marvin Etzioni has held his position, rebuffed unscrupulous offers and has come out victorious.

The life experiences that have led to the making of his new album, Marvin Country, are summed up in a two-disc personal musical memoir. One song may conjure images of wheat bristling across the fields of the Texas panhandle, while another flirts with the gritty realities of love, life & loss. The mix-tape-like track sequence of 22 songs takes the listener on a boxcar journey with Marvin as the wise hobo-guide.

The first song instantly seduces the listener. “You Possess Me” is a raw, touching expression of undying love; a deceivingly simple song, professing the yearning for companionship and the journey of a love-sick soul. Hypnotizing vocals are reminiscent of a prayer or incantation, bringing to mind the raw delivery of CCR‘s “I Put A Spell On You”.

Is this album a radical departure from Classical Country music? Or a foreshadowing of the future of this genre? Not sure, but Marvin believes that he’s right on track.

Citizen LA: My immediate reaction was musical “memoirs.” The songs take the listener from one emotional boxcar to another aboard a long steam-engine train. Explain the journey of Marvin Country.

Marvin Etzioni: It started 20 years ago. The tracks on the album have been recorded over that period of time. Originally, I thought ten or twelve songs would be fine. But it just kept going and going. It was becoming more than just an album. I felt that Marvin Country became expansive, like the United States. We’re very expansive people and we know that we’re part of this really expansive space. I believe the album captures that sentiment…

…As a kid I liked Johnny Cash, but I also liked Beggars Banquet by the Stones. To me it was like anything could happen. I love Revolver, from “Taxman” to “Eleanor Rigby”, you never knew what was gonna happen next. Even the White Album had that, a real unpredictability. I used those as a model. No two songs back to back should work, but they do.

Citizen LA: “You Possess Me” embodies a Patsy Cline-esque cry for understanding performed effortlessly by you (Etzioni) & McKee in classic duet. What was the inspiration?

Marvin: When my son was born, it was a life changing experience. I started to write this song called “Overwhelming.” It was like a mantra, with me banging on the drum singing ‘overwhelming’ over-and-over again. This lasted a couple of days until it changed to ‘you possess me.’ I tried all sort of versions; one with a Jimi Hendrix Whah-Whah, and another version which was cut by the Williams Brothers. But I was really looking for an emotional groove and didn’t want it to turn into a big rock ballad. So Maria McKee did an acoustic version of it, and we nailed it.

Citizen LA: What emotions were running through you as you entered the studio, and exited the studio, with Maria Mckee of the infamous Lone Justice?

Marvin: I had the track ready to go, I had my vocals. We know each other so well musically that it took longer for us to drive to the studio than for her to do the vocals. I was a really great day. Afterwards, we were driving down the street and came across a trash bin gleaming like a beacon. It said LONE JESUS on it. We looked at it and cracked up. We couldn’t stop laughing. It was totally bizarre. We were like, ‘Did you do that?’, ‘No, did you?’

Citizen LA: So are you planning to reunite under the name LONE JESUS?

Marvin: Yeah! Hahaha. If you can get JESUS on lead vocals let me know. He’s probably a pretty good singer.

Citizen LA: You included your Grandfather on the “About” section of your website. As you state, ‘He was the first person to turn you onto country music.’ Did you know from an early age that this was your calling?

Marvin: Not at all. In high school we were listening to The Kids Are All Right by The Who. I saw Killer performed by Alice Cooper at the Palladium, The New York Dolls at the Whiskey, and Iggy & The Stooges on their Raw Power tour. That show didn’t even sell out; we saw it over and over again! That was what we were listening to and NO ONE was into country music. I’d bring the Mandolin into the quad and they’d be like, ‘forget it’. But I didn’t see any conflict. I remember getting the first Grand Funk Railroad album and Flatt & Scruggs Greatest Hits and thinking that there must be a way of combining these two sounds…

…My grandfather was into Jonny Cash, Lynn Anderson, her mother Liz Anderson and Buck Owens, Frank Yankovic & His Yanks; he had hundreds of albums. He was the first person that I knew with a reel-to-reel and he would make mixed tapes for me, compilations.

Citizen LA: Would you visit him often?

Marvin: Oh, he lived right next to us in LA. I grew up in Brooklyn. Then his parents and my mom’s parents all lived together in one big house then we moved to LA and got a duplex, so we always lived next to each other.

Citizen LA: That’s funny. The first image that popped up into my mind was this home on some big ranch somewhere with horses everywhere… and you’re like ‘Naw, he lived in a duplex in LA’. You totally knocked me for a loop on that one.

Marvin: Hahaha. Naw. My grandfather worked the sweatshops in LA. He knew nothing about horses. He didn’t even know how to drive a car, let alone a tractor.

Citizen LA: So it’s safe to say that there are no Preachers in your family.

Marvin: Not even close. My family’s all Jewish, on both sides. My grandfather’s from Ludge Poland and grew up orthodox. But he rebelled against it. He wanted to play the Mandolin and they were like, ‘No, you need to go to the Shiva and just study.’ Nope, no preachers. I’m probably breaking a few rules for you here regarding Country Music.

Citizen LA: That explanation is probably the furthest from Christian Country Music that you can get!

Marvin: The only other guy is like Shel Silverstein. And he wasn’t a preacher either. Hahaha.

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Citizen LA: The Stradolin mandolin must feel like an extension of your heart. Why the enduring relationship with the Mandolin?

Marvin: It was my first instrument. I got my first tape recorder from my grandfather too, a Tamburg. I was like ‘Wow, two tracks!’ So, there I was in Junior High writing songs and overdubbing on my two-track. In Lone Justice I played bass, but I’d bring the Mandolin to some of the photoshoots. It was a symbol for me.

Citizen LA: How did it get under your skin? What’s the feeling?

Marvin: I’m self taught. I didn’t know Sharps and Flats; I called them pluses and minuses. I didn’t know what I was doing in junior high, but I kept at it. It was a natural thing for me to connect to… to write songs on. If I’m in the middle of a song, yeah, I might sleep with the Mandolin.

Citizen LA: So I’m sure you have a lot of jealous instruments around you.

Marvin: That’s for sure. Funny you say that because sometimes a pick up an instrument and then pick up another and be like, ‘Yeah, this is the one that wants to be played. It hasn’t been played in a while.’ Good thing is that they don’t break our heart in the morning.

Citizen LA: You stated on your “About” section, ‘If Hitler had been given encouragement to be a better artist, the world would be a different place.’ There is no doubt that a lack of education and individual encouragement can foster an ugly mind. How does music heal a nation?

Marvin: Music heals. A friend of mine just last year got into an accident. While in a comma, he remembers hearing music coming from some other worldly place. He believes that helped him. I remember being a kid and getting my first album. I remember that positive healing feeling. As for healing a nation… the music heals the individual within the nation. The individual that is moved by music goes back into the community. Whether five people or five-thousand, we all share this inexplicable connection to music. I know my life was changed because of music.

Citizen LA: Are you part of the 99% or the 1%?

Marvin: I’m part of the 100%. There are no enemies here. We’re all responsible for what’s going on.

Citizen LA: So for you there’s no “Us” and “Them”?

Marvin: No! It’s all “Us”. People aren’t living on an island as “1%”. When I make a record, when I write a song, I need to make sure that I’m 100% into it. When I work with musicians I need to make sure that 100% of each person in the room is into it. I can’t live in a world of 99. I don’t believe in distancing myself from people that don’t share my political view. I’ve had people from all walks of life respond to certain songs. I don’t ask who they vote for. I want the connection to be about music not ideology…

..I was talking to my publicist about how hard it is to get on a show like Leno, so I proposed the Huckaby show. They said, ‘But that’s a republican TV show.’ I said, ‘What do I care? Republicans buy records too.’

Citizen LA: It’s no secret that Country Music is alive and well. Though most of new country music still retains a classic sound, many artists have embraced ‘Pop’ to the point of becoming pure product. Thoughts?

Marvin: I heard a great song by Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”. So I bought the album. You can say that he’s part of the product… that he’s part of the commercialization of Country. But I heard a great song, so I bought the album. You can’t blame the station if they play a record and people listen to it and they get a response. Their job is to sell advertising.

My feeling is that if you don’t like the record, it’s the artist’s fault. I’m not going to blame the person who works at the label, or the manager, or the agent, or the A&R guy. The artist has to take responsibility for their album. My job is to write songs and make records. That’s where my faith lies in what I do.

I’ve talked to labels that didn’t want to put out my album as a double-disc. I said ‘Ok, nice meeting you, I’ll wait.’ In a time period where we’re going through the great depression of the 21st century, I thought, ‘Well, people need more music.’

Citizen LA: They need more, so you’re going to give them TWO discs.

Marvin : I narrowed it down from FOUR!

Citizen LA: The Grapes of Wrath. How did that come about?

Marvin: For a short while I was living with this gal and we had a not-so-good breakup. So I found myself sleeping on my grandparents’ oddly colored green couch. Three days later the phone rings and it’s this girl. She says, ‘How’s it going? I just want you to know I’m getting married next week.’ I said, ‘What?!’… and wrote The Grapes Of Wrath.

Citizen LA: So how did John Doe get in there?

Marvin: We used to play The Grapes Of Wrath live in Lone Justice. And I’ve been playing the song since. If there is one guy I’d love singing this song, it would be Merle Haggard. But it always had an X kinda vibe to it. So I sent it to John Doe and he liked it. In the studio, he would take my comments and say, ‘Ok, let’s do it again.’ It wasn’t like, ‘This is how I do it and I’m out of here!’ His ego was like nowhere in the room. He’s a great guy.

Citizen LA: Any last words?

Marvin: When I sent the album to be mastered, I sent a note to George Marino that said, ‘Just master the album of your dreams. This is your album now. It’s in your hands.’ And when I got the album back, I didn’t make ONE change. The album you heard is the album that came out of his oven…

…If the album represented one message it would be to follow our dreams. Maybe this current world-wide depression is supposed to make us rethink who we really are as individuals. Are we really doing what our calling is? And if we aren’t, maybe we should reconsider. And that message goes out to 100% of the people!

Marvin Etzioni’s new double-disc album Marvin Country is available now @