INTERVIEW: Thee Holy Brothers: Marvin Etzioni and Willie Aron

INTERVIEW: Thee Holy Brothers: Marvin Etzioni and Willie Aron
Photo Credit: Francis A Willey

Los Angeles-based duo Thee Holy Brothers most recent single/music video is entitled “Lift You Up,” which is both unique and emotionally affecting, especially in light of today’s cultural transformation.

Thee Holy Brothers comprise Marvin Etzioni and Willie Aron, both of whom have done it all – Marvin is a Grammy-winning producer, while Willie is an in-demand session musician and award-winning songwriter.

Before releasing “Lift You Up,” the twosome released their debut concept album, My Name Is Sparkle, a double-act production starring Sparkle, who is on the way to Jerusalem to find God. Sparkle doesn’t find God but does find Elvis.

XS Noize spoke with Marvin Etzioni and Willie Aron to discover how they got started in music, their songwriting process, and what the future looks like for Thee Holy Brothers.

How did you get started in music? What's the backstory there?

Marvin: When I was about three years old, my mom would get me 45s. I couldn’t read, but, according to her, I could pick out the song I wanted by the colour of the label on the record. As a kid, my grandfather gave me a mandolin and turned me on to country music. Buck, Liz and Lynn Anderson, Patsy Cline, Haggard, Cash... the list goes on. My grandfather had over sixty Cash albums. He also invented the “mixtape.” I never saw one before he showed it to me. Each reel-to-reel tape was filled with songs from his favourite albums.

I taught myself how to play the mandolin, drums and then guitar. He also gave me my first tape recorder. In junior high, I was writing songs. It was a Tandberg 2-track tape recorder so that I could overdub one track! I kept writing songs in high school and never stopped. Writing songs, poems, stories always came naturally to me. I took creative writing classes in junior high and high school.

I also loved 45s as a kid. Favourite singles: “She Loves You”/“I'll Get You” — The Beatles. “Everyday People” — Sly and the Family Stone. On the single "Don't Let Me Down," I added my name to the songwriting credits of Lennon/McCartney and added my name to the producer credit next to George Martin’s name. It's the only time I ever did that. Weird right?

At the time, I looked at albums as a series of singles and/or great songs. First albums: “Meet the Beatles!” (Another gift from my grandfather. I still have the original mono pressing. Best I've ever heard.) Produced by George Martin.

“High Tide Green Grass” — the Rolling Stones produced by Andrew Oldham. (I won this album at a contest in elementary school).

“There's a Kind of Hush All Over the World” — Herman's Hermits produced by Mickie Most. (My mom got this for me at Sears Roebuck. I was eight years old.)

Six years later... It wasn't until I heard John Lennon's “Plastic Ono Band” that I related to an album that had a sonic and lyrical concept, like a film. “Plastic Ono Band” was a life-changing event.

My friend John Kruth told Willie that he was writing a book about “Plastic Ono Band.” Willie suggested that Kruth interview me for the book. Kruth came by, and we listened to a vinyl copy on my Techniques turntable with an Ortofon mono cartridge. It was a revelatory experience.

Kruth's book, Hold on World, comes out in April 2021. (I pre-ordered my copy.)

Willie: I was something of a classical piano prodigy as a young child. I started playing the piano at age six and won some competitions in Los Angeles in the early '70s. My parents were older Eastern European Jews who didn't like rock music, but they did have the adult am pop station on in the car constantly; I remember hearing "Windy" by the Association, "Up, Up and Away" by The 5th Dimension, and "Mas Que Nada" by Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66 as a small kid and wanting to inhabit those records. They had an atmosphere and magic that remains evocative for me.

When I heard The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix for the first time in 1976, that got me serious about pursuing music for the rest of my life. I quit piano lessons, taught myself the guitar and started playing bands at age 14. From that point, music has been at the centre of my life, aside from my family. I'm a serious record and instrument collector, and the pursuit of music informs my daily life.

What artists are you listening to now?

Marvin: I enjoy the New York Times Playlist in addition to videos on Spectrum’s Music Choice channel. I'm also discovering albums, for whatever reason I never heard before. As an example, "Tijuana Moods" by Charles Mingus. I read that this was the album he was most proud of. Or I’m rediscovering albums I haven’t heard in a very long time. “Never a Dull Moment” by Rod Stewart is an inspired work deserving of more attention. Or a single by the Knickerbockers, the Beatle-esque sounding “Lies.”

I recently listened to The Kinks (one of my favourite bands of all time.). "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" and "This Is Where I Belong" are among my many fave Kinks songs. I recently watched "The Moneygoround" play that was broadcast on YouTube. I'd like to see it live should it ever come to a theatre.

I had an unusual experience (at least for me) the other day. I ordered a first U.S. edition vinyl copy in mono of “Rubber Soul” on eBay. After I ordered the album, the seller told me he knew of one of my songs, “Can’t Cry Hard Enough” (a co-write with David Williams of The Williams Brothers) and said how much the song meant to him. After I thanked him, he told me he had stage four cancer and was happy that one of his favourite albums was going to a home where the record would be appreciated.

Willie: The stack on my turntable right now is as follows: Ramsey Lewis, "Mother Nature's Son" (brilliant jazz re-imagining of The Beatles White Album). Stan Getz/Eddie Sauter, "Mickey One" OST. Beethoven/Leonard Bernstein, Complete Symphonies (a massive, 8-LP box set I got for $1.00!). Jack Bruce, "Harmony Row". Asteroid No 4, "Collide" (one of my favourite newer bands, very much like Rain Parade/ Byrds). Pretenders - debut - never gets old for me! Spencer Cullum - intriguing debut - psych-folk-pop with atmospheric pedal steel.

How did Thee Holy Brothers come to get together?

Marvin: Willie and I have been friends for over forty years. Rarely do parallel tracks ever meet. A few years ago, Willie and I went to a Shabbat service. Rabbi Finley saw us and said, “It's The Holy Brothers.” We laughed, and I said to Willie, “Now that we have a band name, all we need to do is record an album. So that's what we did but not before changing The to Thee.

Willie: Marvin and I have known each other since 1978 when I visited the record store he worked at, which was across the street from my high school. We instantly connected over our love of similar music. We have been friends and musical cohorts for decades, but the band came into being around when the rabbi at our synagogue saw us dressed in suits and hats and said, "it's the holy brothers!" We then decided that all we needed was to form a band, change "the" to "thee", and make an album!

What inspired your latest single/music video, "Lift You Up"?

Marvin: I had recorded a stripped-down version and was going to include it on my new solo album, "What's the Mood of the Country Now?" I sent the song to director Fr3deR1cK just because he wanted to know what I was up to. He called Willie and said, “Thee Holy Brothers should record this.” Willie called me about it, and I said, “No problem. I'll take it off my album. I have plenty of other songs.”

Willie: The inspiration came from our friend, the award-winning filmmaker named Fr3deR1ck, who is doing a documentary on THB. He heard a demo of Marvin's song years ago and was slated for Marvin's solo album "What's The Mood Of The Country Now" and suggested that we record it, which we did. Freddie also made an unforgettable video of the song, featuring footage of Black Lives Matter rallies he shot in Atlanta and archival footage of Dr Martin Luther King and John Lewis.

How did you hook up with Stephon Ferguson?

Marvin: It was Fr3deR1cK's idea to add Stephon Ferguson as the voice of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. When he sent us Stephon's voice in the recording of “Lift You Up,” I was in near tears listening in awe with Willie. It was no longer my song. It belonged to the universal powers that guide us.

Willie: Freddie has deep connections to the Martin Luther King family, and Stephon has an uncanny ability to sound like Dr King. He has done the classic King speeches for the King family. Freddie suggested we get Stephon to recite Marvin's lyrics to the song; we did, and the results are spectacular.

Do you have a guilty music and/or entertainment pleasure?

Marvin: "The Baker and the Beauty" (TV series from Israel). I tend to like any TV show or film from Israel. Not because of my connection to the country (my parents are Sabras, Israeli born, and I have family there). Something about the quality of writing and production. They are always ahead of the curve. Oftentimes, shows from Israel end up being shows made in the States.

As an example: “In Treatment.” "Your Honor" — Bryan Cranston can do no wrong as an actor. "King of Comedy" — Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro. My favourite Martin Scorsese film.

I listened to a few ABBA singles the other month. Airtight, perfect pop records.

Willie: I honestly don't believe in guilty pleasures. If you're enjoying something harmless, there should be no guilt attached! But I will admit to being a hopeless baseball addict. By far, my favourite sport.

Why make music?

Marvin: I don't have a choice. I dream of songs. I live and breathe songs. Lennon said you gotta catch a song in the first fifteen minutes, or it might be gone. He wasn't wrong.

For the longest time I can remember, sometimes it's hard for me to read. I get into the words and sentences' rhythm, and I have to put the book down. I often see a phrase or a couple of words together, and I hear a song coming on. Once again, I put the book down. I’ll be writing songs to the very end.

Willie: Music has been my entire life's work, outside of being a devoted parent. My soul would die without music, and I knew from an early age that I had to pursue it as my livelihood or else I'd be spiritually dead inside.

What can you share about the songwriting process?

Marvin: I’ll give it a try. Every day brings another blank sheet of paper. Sometimes I live life and other days I write. It's not that writing isn't living life, but when I'm writing, I can't do other things simultaneously. I tend not to play an instrument unless I’m writing. I can pretty much write at any time. I don't need a particular environment. If the mood doesn’t strike me, I’ll strike and create the mood.

I recall reading about "Walk on the Wild Side." Someone asked Lou Reed, how come he doesn't write another one of those? Lou said it doesn't work that way.

Sometimes I'm in the middle of a new song, and I finish it — like it or not. That is the most important thing. Completion. I can come back to the song to rework, rewrite and/or restructure (I call it "the architecture of song"). Sometimes I have to discipline myself to finish a song; other times, they write themselves. Either way, getting a version completed is key.

No rules to it, but I do study the structure of songs. I've been doing it for decades. I used to go to coffee shops when they had jukeboxes at the tables. I'd listen to songs and write down how each song was structured. I still study the structure of songs/records to this day. It's like learning a language. Study it, and you can use it instinctively. I have a song clock in my head. Most of the time, I can tell when the song is over.

“You don’t finish a work of art; you abandon it,” said Picasso.

I heard a story about Mark Twain, who wrote a long letter to a friend. At the end of the letter, he wrote, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have time.”

“Rave On” by Buddy Holly is under two minutes.

The master songwriters and record makers knew how to edit. Check out the Max Perkins book "Editor of Genius" or the film "Genius" based on the book. Hemmingway and F. Scott let Perkins edit their books. Same concept as editing songs and records.

George Martin would restructure or edit Beatles songs. Examples: "Can't Buy Me Love" starts with the chorus. The original started with a verse. Much better now. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" — a verse was removed. I never missed the verse Martin removed. One can hear the original acoustic version (with orchestration added later by Martin) on the "Love" soundtrack.

Willie: I compose music for film and tv and write songs with other people, but in THB, I serve as co-producer and arranger. Marvin is the sole writer, but his songs have to be met with my approval before recording them. If I can add something vocally that enhances the lyric and helps arrange the songs that work best within the THB framework, I will.

There is no need for me to co-write with Marvin. His songs are perfectly constructed jewels. He is prolific and utterly fearless. He understands the structure and architecture of songwriting, like no one else I know. That's good enough for me.

How are you handling the coronavirus situation?

Marvin: Better now that Biden is in office and Dr Fauci can talk openly on all networks. For example, he wasn't allowed to appear on Rachel Maddow’s show during the prior administration. When lockdown started in March 2020, I wrote "Quarantine Blues" and sent it to Paul Zollo at American Songwriter. He wrote a feature on the song. Then I called my friend Bob Duskis at Six Degrees Records. We'd been in touch for about a year. I was sending him new songs, including Thee Holy Brothers.

I said, “Now that all the record stores are closed, let's sign a digital-only deal.” So I started my own record company, Regional Records and signed with Six Degrees. It's something I've wanted to do for the longest time. In 1989, Virgin Records was going to give me my own sublabel to develop new artists. They asked me what I wanted to call the label, and in a moment of inspiration, I said, “Regional Records.” I had just produced Toad the Wet Sprocket's "Pale" album, and the band went with Columbia records instead of Virgin. I was asked, “How is it you can produce records for under $20K, and they sound better than the records that we spend $250K on?”

As we were sending contracts back and forth to close the deal, one of the label presidents called and said they were leaving Virgin. So, I let it go. Within a couple of years, I signed with Restless Records as a solo artist and my albums was released with the Regional Records moniker and logo.

There are not enough hours in the day for me during the lockdown. I don't miss playing live or travelling. I tend to appreciate what I can do in the moment. That's all I got. So I’m prepared to live like this for months and years to come if need be. I'm more interested in reinventing myself rather than imitating a life that once was.

Willie: Marvin and I have remained in contact daily, and often Marvin will send me songs to vet for THB. When not discussing songs, we share our gratitude about staying creative in the present moment rather than project into the future about what will happen when the lockdown is over. Neither Marvin nor I spend any time trying to predict the future. Even during a global pandemic, there is still so much creativity to engage in.

Looking ahead, what's next for Thee Holy Brothers?

Marvin: Pre-COVID, director Fr3deR1cK started a doc about Thee Holy Brothers. “Lift You Up” will be part of the doc. Freddy says when he is ready to travel, he'll come to L.A. and complete the doc.

Willie and I recorded an album's worth of songs for our second record, and I've written enough songs for the third and fourth albums, as well. The first album, “My Name Is Sparkle,” was written as a two-act play. I'd like to see it as a trilogy (three albums in total). We are interested in turning “My Name Is Sparkle” into a TV series — it could be a film as well, animated or not.

Willie: Fr3deR1ck's doc on us will be completed. Our second album will be prepared for a 2021 release. There are enough songs written for a third album as well. We will also look into turning "My Name Is Sparkle" into a vehicle for theatre. And as always! Marvin will be writing, and we will be recording. It is a good problem to have!

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