Tuesday

THEE HOLY BROTHERS INTERVIEW


WE'RE NOT LOST: With their four decade long friendship and similarity of purpose in their respective individual musical mission statements having many parallels, it was inevitable that Balancing Act co-founder Willie Aron (above left) and one time Lone Justice bassist Marvin Etzioni (right) would collaborate in the studio. After much prayer and soul searching (aided in no small part by an inadvertent benediction from their Rabbi), that collaboration has come to pass with My Name Is Sparkle, the groundbreaking new release from Aron (as Johnny B. Holy) and Etzioni (as Buddy Holy) under the name Thee Holy Brothers. On the eve of their landmark 14 April performance at McCabe's in Santa Monica with the great Evie Sands, Etzioni and Aron paused to share with Blitz Magazine's Michael McDowell their observations on both the inspiration behind My Name Is Sparkle, as well as the enduring impact of their previous musical ventures. (Photo by Frederick) (Click on photo to enlarge).

DIVINE LOVE:
THEE HOLY BROTHERS
SEARCH FOR GOD
IN ACCLAIMED NEW ALBUM
By Michael McDowell


On many an occasion, timing is everything.

When Balancing Act co-founder Willie Aron and Lone Justice bassist Marvin Etzioni first met at the legendary Aron's Records on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood in 1978 (at which time Etzioni was in the vaunted retailer's employ), both were several years away from that which initially defined them musically.

But by the mid-1980s, with the highly promising Southern California independent musical movement beginning to implode due to a variety of factors (not the least of which was genre myopia among its most noted protagonists), their relative transparency and accessibility, combined with the seemingly incongruous attribute of academia indigenous to the mission statements of both bands, began to resonate exponentially with the disenfranchised. 

While each band eventually found major label support (the Balancing Act from IRS and Lone Justice via Geffen), neither was able to sustain that momentum into the next decade. Etzioni and Aron nonetheless discovered in one another a common artistic vision that has enabled them to maintain a camaraderie and working relationship to the present day.

Not long ago, Etzioni and Aron were attending services at their temple, when their Rabbi genially greeted them with the benediction Thee Holy Brothers. Both had attended classes conducted by the Rabbi, who was well aware of their extensive musical backgrounds. The Rabbi's observation stuck, and Etzioni and Aron soon found themselves applying the findings of their studies into their art.

The resultant My Name Is Sparkle album is the fruit of Etzioni and Aron's duly inspired labors. Drawing inspiration from everything from Simon and Garfunkel's 1968 Bookends album to their own challenges and trials along their respective spiritual paths (particularly those of Etzioni, who composed all nine of the album's original selections), My Name Is Sparkle chronicles the journey of the non-gender specific protagonist of the title, from seeker of the world's pleasures to surrendered servant of the almighty God.

Both Etzioni and Aron have a wealth of outside projects to their credit in their individual resumes. Etzioni served as a producer of the acclaimed Pale album by Toad The Wet Sprocket, and has done numerous sessions as both a solo artist and guest musician. Likewise, Aron is a prolific composer, who has collaborated upon occasion with the legendary Van Dyke Parks. He has also been a driving force in the Wild Honey Orchestra, and most recently served as musical director for legendary vocalist (and one time Capitol recording artist) Donna Loren.

Most notably, each has long maintained a mutual admiration society relationship with beloved composer, vocalist and musical visionary Evie Sands. Aron, Sands, fellow journalist Domenic Priore and Blitz Magazine Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell also comprise an ad hoc yet closely knit quartet of musicians and music journalists who are also hardcore supporters of Major League Baseball's most storied franchise, the Los Angeles Dodgers. All four participated in Blitz's Dodgers Day at Dodger Stadium in December 2016.

Those curious yet positive turns of events led to a summit meeting of sorts in April 2017. With both Thee Holy Brothers and Sands each having highly anticipated and groundbreaking new albums to their credit (Sands' release being her sublime Shine For Me album on the R-Spot label, which is scheduled to make its official debut in tandem with Record Store Day on 22 April), the two are sharing a double bill at 8:00PM PDT on Friday 14 April at McCabe's Guitar Shop at 3101 Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica. Given the near fever pitch of anticipation among the faithful, a sold out performance is pretty much assured.

On the eve of these landmark developments, Thee Holy Brothers' Marvin Etzioni and Willie Aron both shared with Blitz Magazine their thoughts on the enduring impact of the legacies of the Balancing Act and Lone Justice, as well as their enthusiasm for their latest joint venture, which is certain to become an instant classic.

BLITZ: However unintentionally, even during the Balancing Act's run, there were occasional references made invoking Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel with respect to you and Balancing Act front man Jeff Davis. It has been suggested that such references are now alluded to somewhat deliberately by you and Marvin in this current endeavor. Your thoughts?

ARON: During a time where many musicians and artists either deny or minimize the fact that we are all part of a rich musical lineage, I am more than happy to acknowledge the lifelong influence of Simon and Garfunkel on my singing, particularly Art Garfunkel. Marvin and I both credit Bookends as a musical, formative touchstone, and a key inspiration for My Name Is Sparkle.

BLITZ: For all of their good intentions, Lone Justice's run was short lived, despite the considerable accolades afforded the band from the onset. Did you feel at the time that your momentum had been inexplicably derailed? 

ETZIONI: Thirty years later, I'm glad that many folks still connect to what Lone Justice did. Perhaps we were the first Americana band. One time I told Lucinda Williams that when we all started out there was no, No Depression, just depression. She laughed. If Lone Justice got up on stage and played our set from 1983, it would seem current and vital today. Don't hold your breath, folks.

BLITZ: So how did you rebound?

ETZIONI: Prior to Lone Justice, I was fronting a local band called the Model. We worked with producers Chuck Plotkin (Springsteen/Dylan) and Richard Baskin (musical director of the feature film, Nashville). No record deal, but I am compiling two albums' worth of unreleased recordings for future release. I had written a whole lot of songs, so I kept writing and producing records after Lone Justice.

Two years after I left Lone Justice, I produced Toad the Wet Sprocket's Pale, which helped them land a deal with Columbia. When meeting with Virgin Records President Jeff Ayeroff, he told Toad, “Marvin knows exactly what a band shouldn't do.”

I also became a staff songwriter for peermusic. My first solo album, The Mandolin Man was soon released with fanfare. I remain grateful. The album contained my most covered song, Can't Cry Hard Enough, co-written with David Williams.

BLITZ: The notion of Thee Holy Brothers was borne in part from a reference made to the both of you to that effect by your Rabbi. Fittingly, the My Name Is Sparkle album seems to suggest a quest borne of mainstream idolatry that eventually finds the seekers coming to terms with the, "You shall have no other gods before Me" mandate of Exodus 20:3. To that effect, in Elvis In Jerusalem, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land seems to be circumvented with references to a figure who is iconic by entertainment industry standards, yet who nonetheless fits the Exodus 20:3 bill accordingly when viewed in that context.

In turn, the title track finds the protagonist asking the peripheral questions that the seeker often invokes, with perhaps an undercurrent of putting God's truth on the defensive as so not to have to make the prerequisite lifestyle changes mandated either in the Pentateuch or borne of a relationship with Him as defined later in the New Testament. Was that intentional?

ARON: Since Marvin is the songwriter, he can answer specifically.

ETZIONI: It wasn't till after I wrote the songs that all of these connections came to light. As soon as we had Thee Holy Brothers moniker, I felt a need to introduce songs to Willie that had a spiritual side to them. Some were songs were already in the can, others were written while we were recording the album over a three or four year period. Willie and I had taken classes under the Rabbi, who introduced me to the writings of Dr. Avivah Zornberg.

When I was 15, I was introduced to the writings of Elie Weisel. I saw him speak once. I read that the color of his eyes changed when he saw his father being killed. When I met him, his eyes were far away blue. A color I had never seen before.


Spirituality has been with me since I was a boy. When I asked my grandfather, “What is God?” We stood in the backyard and he pointed to the trees and the sky and said, “God is everywhere.” The simplicity of his words has stayed with me ever since.

ARON: Thee Holy Brothers is not a "religious" group. We respect and affirm anyone who takes the time to listen to our album regardless of their religious or spiritual outlook. That being said, we are both Jews who adhere to the Hebrew meaning of the word "Israel," which literally means "to wrestle or struggle with God."  

BLITZ: You said the word "Israel" also means, "To wrestle (or struggle) with God". To that effect, the name Israel is also the name given to Jacob in Genesis 32:28, in the aftermath of his struggle with God. If that is the case, then is Jacob the prototype for the protagonist featured throughout the album?

ARON: There was certainly no protagonist that we were conscious of, so Jacob was not a literal reference point.  Metaphorically however, Jews are commanded to ask questions to and about God, and struggle with the great questions of life. That is a more pertinent theme for the album rather than pinning down who a specific protagonist is.

ETZIONI: In conversations I've had with Leonard Cohen, I asked him about writing songs in one sitting like Hank Williams or Buddy Holly, two of my favorite writers. Leonard smiled and shook his head no. He would write dozens of verses before the song was finished. Leonard wrote poetry books for each song.

I can hear the record in my head as I'm writing, so I have a three-minute clock that knows when the song is finished. I grew up on 45s, so I am very much enamored with the architecture of the song, whether it is by Bob Marley, Merle Haggard or the Who.

BLITZ: To that effect, Marvin alludes to that perspective in Woman Need Man, Man Need Woman. Given that the parameters of the conventional relationship have clearly defined boundaries in Scripture, is the somewhat cavalier reference made between such relationships and God a reflection of the seeker's intent to justify his actions in light of such evidence?  

ETZIONI: There is no gender given to Sparkle. A friend of mine is directing a movie about a nine-year-old trans and they want to use My Name Is Sparkle in the film. Woman Need Man, Man Need Woman could be about a conventional relationship. But what is a conventional relationship? "We're all sensitive people," sang Marvin Gaye. 

When the character sings, "You got bigger fish to fry at home," it is the crack of infidelity. It could be about another man, or perhaps it is another woman. We hear what we know. As time moves on, we can add layers of emotional connection to a song so we can relate or re-relate to a song in a deeper way.

ARON: You are correct in that the album moves from questing to affirmation, and that journey is, in fact, intentional. But that is our own journey, and not meant as something to proscribe to others. In an age in which people ascribe absolute certainty in everything from religion to politics, we are more than happy to ask questions. 

Also, we are not afraid of irreverence or humor, even in matters of the spirit.  One of my favorite lines of Marvin's comes during the breakdown of Woman Need Man, Man Need Woman, where he sings, "It's better to be alone with a woman and talk about God, than to be alone with God and talk about a woman."

BLITZ: The taking to task perspective outlined in If God Let Go, which stylistically seems to invoke the conventional musical template of a much lionized quartet that traveled a similar path at one point, seems to suggest as much.

ETZIONI: What is the much lionized quartet?

BLITZ: The "much lionized quartet" is the one from Liverpool, the Beatles. The idea came up because in listening to If God Let Go, there seems to be an undercurrent of I Am The Walrus.

ETZIONI: I Am The Walrus? One of my favorite singles of all time. It wasn't on my mind when writing or recording, but I am glad you heard an undercurrent!

BLITZ: The proceedings take a dramatic turn in A Sudden Gunshot, combining to a degree the impact of similar references articulated in Logan Lynn's 2016 Adieu album, and perhaps alluding to the aforementioned Simon and Garfunkel parallels, via invoking the saga of mass murderer Richard Speck, as chronicled in their Seven O'clock News/Silent Night. Was this illustration intended to highlight the frequent need of drama to force the hand of a rebellious and/or self-justified seeker?

ETZIONI: As of now, Act One ends with Sparkle singing about someone who has taken their own life. I've had the song with me for a very long time. It was Willie who insisted on recording this one. I would imagine that each of us has taken a moment to reflect on if it is worth choosing life. I have come to the conclusion, yes it is. Unfortunately there are many, including a high number of soldiers who return from the battlefield, who choose otherwise.

BLITZ: Let The Great World Spin and Glad It's Gonna Rain take the observer from flippancy to denial in the face of inevitable confrontation with reality. Was this borne of third person observation?

ETZIONI: Both songs are positive reflections. I wrote Let the Great World Spin after reading the book by the same title. I didn't use any lines from the book but it inspired something in me to write the song. Glad It's Gonna Rain was written after listening to a lot of Jimmy Reed, another favorite songwriter. The song was written while I was driving.

BLITZ: To what effect does that stage of the procedure resonate with either of you in your own journey?

ETZIONI: I'm glad I'm alive right now, in this moment. I'm also looking forward to tomorrow. That's what these songs are about.

BLITZ: With Divine Love, the reality check begins. It becomes obvious that a meeting with the Lord is inevitable, and the knee begins to bow accordingly. At this juncture, is this seen from a point of view of fear or of great anticipation?

ARON: Good question! Popular music, since at least the beginnings of soul music, has often contained lyrics that celebrate both spiritual and secular love. For me, Divine Love can infer both divinely-inspired romantic love or a purely devotional lyric to God. I'm totally comfortable not knowing Marvin's lyrical intention.

ETZIONI: The song was written in the present tense, in the now. God is the constant thread that holds the universe together. One can still enjoy the song and turn it into a love song, if that is what the listener's heart is yearning or searching for. 

When I was fifteen, I was in confirmation class. In the final term paper, we had to choose a topic. My paper was called God. Many teachers reviewed my work, saying I couldn't have written what I had handed in. When I quoted other writers, I did so properly. I was so discouraged by the response, I turned my back on continuing religious studies until I met Rabbi Finley nearly forty years later.

BLITZ: As the album reaches its finale with Keep Crushing Me, the inevitable conclusion is at hand. The seeker faces his Maker, and surrenders both pride and will accordingly. In total deference to God's will, there is an acceptance of suffering and pain in anticipation of the resultant blessings. Do you find this series of events compatible with a Messianic perspective?

ARON: Although we ourselves are not Messianists, we respect all religious perspectives, so I see no conflict in ascribing that point of view to the song.

ETZIONI: It's a very personal song. I was going through a very difficult time in my life. I worked on this song for months, and practically did nothing else. I came up for air when it was complete.

In a culture of immediate gratification, this is a song about how the long road is the short road. I can handle failure, sadness, setbacks and hardship better at this point.

I was working with a string arranger on a session years ago. I showed up to the session saying that I came to the conclusion that it's all written out. He said, “Yes, I have the quartet charts ready to go.”

“No,” I said, “I mean the whole thing. All of it. Everything is written out by the ultimate author.”

“Oh, I see,” said the arranger with baton in hand, ready to conduct his charts.

“But who really wrote them?”

Sometimes I feel like I'm a vessel for energy to come pouring through. In the best of moments, a song appears, a record is made. It's not in conflict with having free will.  But if one looks back at his or her own life, the story makes sense. Perhaps it makes little sense during the times of sorrow and darkness.

BLITZ: Both of you have established formidable track records in recent years in a variety of capacities, including composer, session work, production and various solo and ensemble projects. In the process, have there been any challenges in terms of presentation to an audience that might not immediately think in such terms of diversity?

ETZIONI: Thee Holy Brothers is a two person group. Our live presentation is very stripped down. Two voices, a guitar and a PorchBoard. Our album does reflect the musical diversity that Willie and I share.

My favorite recording artists challenged and often shocked the audience of their day. Certainly the Beatles come to mind. The shock and awe of I Want To Hold Your Hand still has reverberations.

Thee Holy Brothers live outside of me and Willie. It is a third entity that is bigger than us and has a destiny and life of it's own. So far the audiences have been very responsive. Who knows, maybe Bill Maher will have us play on his show.

Speaking of politics, we seem to be living in a very polarized time. Family members and friends from different political parties cannot speak to each other. Parents telling their children to not date others from another political party. My connection to God and spirituality is not a reflection of my political leanings. It is not inconsistent to also believe in separation of church and state. I don't want America to be run by any one who makes decisions strictly based on Scripture. Our plurality is what makes us an incomprehensibly great country.

ARON: Although both Marvin and I indeed have extensive and varied musical legacies, we actually think that our vast experience enhances the depth and breadth of My Name Is Sparkle. Although I am not a writer of any of the songs, I vetted and approved each song's inclusion and served as co-producer and multi-instrumentalist. So my role in terms of the album's vision and scope is a vital one.

Further, we are approaching Thee Holy Brothers as if it is a brand new band. We think audiences will view it as such, since it is our first major collaboration together, despite our years of friendship and working together in various capacities.

BLITZ: The forthcoming double bill at McCabe's in Santa Monica with the great Evie Sands is most assuredly a prime example of the joining forces of the best of both worlds. Thee Holy Brothers and Evie Sands both have richly diverse portfolios, and both continue to confound expectations. Do you envision any sort of collaborative efforts in the studio in the coming months? 

ETZIONI: Are you kidding me? Yes! That sounds great. She seems to really like the album and our live shows. She sang I Can't Let Go before the Hollies.

ARON: As you know, we are beyond delighted to be sharing a bill with Evie, an artist we hold in very high esteem. She is also a dear, dear friend and my Dodgers sister. We absolutely hope to record together in the future.

Evie and I briefly played together with Fleetwood Mac founding member and guitar virtuoso Jeremy Spencer, in preparation for an aborted tour some years ago. We are absolutely kindred spirits, and there is a definite mutual admiration society between both artists.