Published Feb 01, 2000There are three ways to grow old in music. One is to become mired in a quicksand of complacency, accepting the fact that your greatest glories took place in your increasingly distant youth. Another is to sadly attempt to replicate the fire of your early work without recognising that time has changed you and your audience, a fate that befalls more than just classic rock musicians.
The final option is to never turn back, challenging yourself and unconsciously incorporating new influences balanced with the wealth of your experience. Just because you were shit hot then doesn't mean you can't get better.
Fifteen years ago, Los Lobos was a leading contender for the best roots rock band in North America. In 1999, 26 years after their first gig together, they've evolved into something much more, and their new album, This Time , is one of their best. Front men David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas are even better guitarists now than they were, and the entire band's dynamic is impeccable, especially considering the individually talented musicians involved. Their seven-year relationship with producer/engineers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake has revealed a wealth of possibilities in terms of both their approach to recording and the resulting sonic smorgasbord.
In the '80s, they would alternate their whiskey-soaked blues-based rockers with straight-up Mexican material, a combination that they began brewing as a wedding band back in 1973. Today Los Lobos's musical geography is as likely to include Brazilian tropicalia, Arabic counter-melodies, Parisian flourishes, and Manhattan soundscapes - the type Froom and Blake employ on their productions for Cibo Matto and Soul Coughing - as the band's more traditional haunts in New Orleans gumbo, Chicago electric blues, the swampy sounds of backwoods Mississippi, or the TexMex folk of their native East L.A. neighbourhood. For them, like the opening line on Talvin Singh'sOK , "the world is sound."
Because Los Lobos keep getting better, they continue to convert new audiences who only recognise the name from 1987's fluke #1 hit, a straightforward cover of "La Bamba." Although that was the only time they registered on the mainstream radar, Los Lobos shall be remembered as a conduit of Mexican folk and 40 years of rock'n'roll history, pushing both traditions into the 21st century.
They're anything but hip. They're five old guys, led by two front men who could never be sex symbols. Both David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas have more than enough chops to be hailed as Hendrixian guitar gods, but their modesty, age, looks and perhaps even their ethnicity sadly prevents that. They use an accordion unapologetically. Their live shows are still nothin' but a party - bluesy rockfests that are interrupted by the occasional Mexcian corrida (two-step or polka), or a corny ballad dedicated with a smile to "all the ladies in the house" by Rosas, the guitarist with dark shades and beatnik goatee. At a time when they're hanging out with Money Mark and Latino hip-hop crew Ozomatli, and their side project Latin Playboys is gaining major underground cred, the band will take an opening slot for ZZ Top.
It was this type of unpredictable behaviour that first attracted saxophonist Steve Berlin to the band. In the late '70s, he had moved to L.A. from his native Philadelphia to play with punk band the Plugz and post-punk roots rockers the Blasters. The Plugz, who were mostly Hispanic, took a liking to Los Lobos and introduced them to the L.A. punk club scene, which eventually led to a deal with Slash Records in 1983. The first time Berlin saw Los Lobos play was a rather improbable gig: they were the opening act for the L.A. debut of Public Image Ltd. in May, 1980.
"I thought they did a really good job of dodging beer bottles," laughs Berlin from his Seattle home. "The musical aspect of that performance was nil; that was basically a controlled punk rock riot that you paid to get into. It was horrendous, a very malevolent moment. It was a coming out party for Orange County punk rock, because they were all there and they all wanted to show Johnny Rotten how far they could spit and throw.
"And then there was Los Lobos."
Their outsider status may have worked against them at that legendary gig, but they soon became embraced by a club culture that had never seen anything like them. Berlin says that it was an opening slot for the Blasters at L.A.'s legendary Whiskey-a-Go-Go that served as Los Lobos's real coming-out party, not the PiL gig. "Everyone in the joint was just blown away. It was an amazing performance that came out of nowhere," he recalls. "Everybody thought they knew everything that was going on, and in comes this band from seven or ten miles away who had this whole history, and none of the smart, hip dudes knew anything about them.
"We became friends more or less right off the bat. We played two nights together, and then the next night Ornette Coleman was in town for his first L.A. performance in a long time and all those guys were there. I remember thinking, 'Wow, these guys are really cool!' Not long after, I was playing a lot of gigs with them and flying at my own expense all over the country. I'd leave a Blasters gig during the encore to come back and play a wedding with Los Lobos just because I had so much fun with them."
The '80s were good to Los Lobos, especially with the "La Bamba circus," as Berlin puts it. Their 1987 album By the Light of the Moon marked two significant events in the trajectory of the band's career, both ultimately positive in the long run. They met Mitchell Froom for the first time, who was just starting his career as a producer when he sat in to play keyboards on the album. They also encountered some ugly tension that Berlin is hesitant to delve into, but says that coming through that struggle is what has kept them together ever since.
"I don't even want to get into it," he says cryptically. "There was a lot of unpleasantness, the likes of which we haven't seen since... stupidity and backbiting. And not among band members, but people in the immediate vicinity were trying to make Machiavellian things happen, and it was as ugly as it could possibly be. But we rose above it, and that's a testament. When people ask me how we've stayed together for 25 years, the short answer is that you trust each other and you don't let that kind of stuff happen."
After 19 years in the band, Berlin is still the new guy, which allows him a little distance to evaluate his bandmates' musical bond. "Having grown up together and sharing memories and experiences makes the music stronger - the fact that you have trusted each other for that long in a weird, unspoken way makes everything underneath that much more powerful. That's a magical thing about music: you get a group of people that if you took them apart and had them play, it wouldn't do what it does when they're together. Grateful Dead is a perfect example. There's Jerry [Garcia], who was a great musician, but everybody else in that band is terrible!" laughs Berlin, who later denies longstanding rumours that Hidalgo was solicited by the Dead to replace Garcia. "When you get them together, though, they play their asses off. There's a magic that happens when the right group plays the right stuff."
As their many side projects attest to, the members of Los Lobos don't have to defend their individual talents. On their last three releases, they've tapped the internal magic that drives their work together in a different way - by throwing out the rule book and stumbling upon happy accidents while arranging in the studio; figuring out how to play their songs live happens well after the album is finished.
"We don't learn the songs before we record them. It's a recipe for disaster, but there are a lot of interesting accidents." Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin
"The way we record, we don't learn the songs before we start recording them, which makes playing them live even more of an adventure," explains Berlin. "It's like being back in high school and learning stuff off of a Who record.
"It's something I would never do on one of the records I produce [for other people] because it's a recipe for disaster, but for us what happens is that: a) you're never bored, which is important because we get bored; and b) you get a quality on the performances of searching. The effect it gets is the songs sound... not unsettled, but there isn't this martial precision. There's a lot of interesting accidents. That's the kind of stuff we actually like."
This approach, which began once they hooked up with Froom and Blake on 1992'sKiko , was a response to the process around 1990'sThe Neighborhood . Berlin recalls that album being a laborious process that involved re-recording the songs to death, "all these record industry-type ideas that we've all since learned have no value or validity for what we do."
At the end of the '90s, Los Lobos find themselves with a new audience, a new record company, a bevy of rewarding side projects, and - now that most of their children are fully grown - a new tour schedule that finds them on the road more than ever, racking up new converts. How did they fall into this game plan?
"We don't spend much time second-guessing anything," concludes Berlin. "We don't develop any career plans, or go into something thinking, 'This is what we're going to do.' We have no real aspirations to subvert anything other than our own ideas."
... And a Time to Dance (1983)
Accordion-driven rockabilly sums up why they started as a great wedding band.
How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984)
Invigorating blues rockers and blistering Mexican polka rave-ups solidify their mandate for the '80s.
By the Light of the Moon (1987)
The lyrical Hidalgo ballads and Rosas dance numbers are the high points on what, in retrospect, is an otherwise paint-by-numbers album.
La Bamba OST (1987)
Although they dutifully completed their assignment of paying homage to Ritchie Valens, this lightweight material unfortunately became their commercial calling card.
La Pistola Y El Corazon (1988)
A left turn into strictly acoustic, uncompromising traditional territory.
The Neighborhood (1990)
This marks the last time they were content to be simply a great roots rock band, and tastefully closes the second chapter in their career, with hints at their intensely creative future.
An epic, definitive and fantastical work that embodies most of the possibilities within Los Lobos' template, although it's more reflective than the raucous two albums that follow.
Just Another Band From East L.A. (1993)
A thorough two CD career retrospective that compiles album tracks, live cuts, and some of their many compilation contributions. Worth owning even if you have everything else.
Colossal Head (1996)
The loose, carefree songwriting betrays the album's spontaneous composition, but by surrendering to their gut instincts the band emerges with a sumptuous sonic stew and swampy grooves that makes a great party record.
This Time (1999)
As good as Kiko and considerably more upbeat, This Time features their loudest, heaviest rockers, their sexiest Latin dance numbers, and the sweet end-of-the-century soul of the title track.
David Hidalgo and drummer/lyricist Louie Perez formed the Latin Playboys with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, releasing two rewarding oddball records (1994's self-titled debut, 1999'sDose ) that expertly explore moods, sounds and grooves that would eventually underscore Los Lobos songs. Hidalgo also plays the blues in Houndog with Mike Halby, formerly of Canned Heat. Cesar Rosas released his first solo album of BBQ TexMex rock, Soul Disguise , earlier in 1999. Steve Berlin is an active producer, a busy session player, and an integral member of highly underrated cinematic world jazz bandTuatara . While his bandmates kept busy, bassist Conrad Lozano "did some yard work," says Berlin. "He's got a grandson, and he's perfectly content to putt around his house and move shrubs around."
"These are all healthy things," says Berlin. "I've been doing it all along, making other records with people. But it's really good for Cesar, Dave and Louie to go out and tour and experience life in another band, because really the only band these guys have ever been in was Los Lobos. Conrad was in Tierra for a while [a locally popular L.A. Latino band of the '70s], but that's it. Those experiences are really good and powerful and you see stuff that you might have forgotten. It's good to remind yourself how lucky you are."