OMG this is really happening

Steve Berlin

Los Lobos

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Evidence suggests that after 34 years most bands aren’t putting out their best material anymore. This is happily not so, in a big way, for Los Lobos, who’ve turned in one of their best with Tin Can Trust (released August 3). It’s an album of ripe textures and undulating grooves, with heavier currents mixed in so smoothly they sneak up on you. It compares favorably with earlier standouts like Kiko, Good Morning Aztlán, The Neighborhood and Colossal Head, and reaffirms the band as an original with a still-restless urge to break new ground, even as they shore up their past strengths.

OMG Interview: Los Lobos

photo: Drew Reynolds

“The collective wisdom, at least artistically, has always proven to be pretty sound. We really haven’t done anything egregiously bad or career killing or foolhardy,” says Steve Berlin, keyboardist and saxophonist for Los Lobos since the early 1980s. “Certainly during the La Bamba era, there people saying we should do this or that or go here or there, but we listened for two seconds and realized, ‘That’s a really stupid idea (laughs).'”

The conduct of the band during this period inspires respect. There aren’t many bands that hit commercial success in the 80s still around at all, and if they are they’re regurgitating the songs that made them famous.

“That’s the calculus. It was pretty obvious to us after cutting nearly every track that Ritchie Valens did for that movie – there were only 19 [songs] since he died at 16 or 17 years old. So, there wasn’t a Part Two to do,” observes Berlin. “Obviously, there was commercial pressure for us to do something like it, but we’d say, ‘Which of the song and a half we didn’t record would you like us to?’ It was pretty obvious it was no way to conduct a career trying to go further down the La Bamba path.”

“We thought it was a really cool time to do the folkloric record we’d been thinking about for a while [La Pistola y El Corazón (2008]. That was our way of cleansing our identity from whatever people thought at that time. A lot of people around us thought it was commercial suicide to do that record at that time, but I thought it was the smartest thing we could ever have thought of, to say very clearly, ‘If you think we’re that, we’re actually this. You can either jump off the train or come along with us.’ Some people jumped off the train, some people came with us, so it all worked out.”

For many hardcore Los Lobos fans, that decision and what has followed has cemented the band as one of the great American Music bands in modern times. Los Lobos’ facility with bedrock country, rock, New Orleans styles and more makes them an open-minded original that neatly slots in next to the Grateful Dead, Goose Creek Symphony and a handful of others, particularly in terms of their longevity and continued creative spark. And unlike almost any peer, Los Lobos has seamlessly integrated Latin elements into what is ostensibly a rock band. Over the years, there’s become less of a dichotomy between their English language/trad rock stuff and the Latin elements, too, which were initially peeled off for projects like La Pistola but now, particularly on Tin Can Trust, have simply become one aspect of their sound.

OMG Interview: Los Lobos

photo: Drew Reynolds

“We figured out that the best way to go about anything was to mix it all together,” says Berlin. “We learned that with Kiko and each successive step along the way since. A long time ago we used to think, ‘Here’s our Latin song’ and ‘Here’s our whatever song.’ Later on, we wondered what would happen if we threw it all in the same pot and stopped trying to keep all these things separated in any way. Since Kiko it’s been built-in and it allows us a lot of freedom. When an idea comes in it allows us to think, ‘Let’s take it here. Let’s take it there. Should we do it in Spanish or English? Should we do it in this groove or that groove?’ We do have a pretty impressive toolbox, I must say, in all due modesty, and it comes from being able to synthesize all this different stuff and not really think about them as separate flavors. It’s like having dessert and the main course at the same time.”

On the new album a track like “Yo Canto” converses really well with the English language cuts on either side of it, and their music as a whole has increasingly done that over the years. And it makes the English-speaking folks in their audience sharpen up the rudimentary high school Spanish they learned decades ago – a pleasant side effect.

“It’s just a color, one of the things on the palette wheel,” says Berlin. “That doesn’t mean it always works. We still have to put ’em together but it’s the habit.”

One of the first places this writer seriously delved into Los Lobos’ music was as a public radio DJ on a free-form station in Monterey, CA in the mid-eighties, and what became obvious very quickly was all the different places Los Lobos fit into. Even their major label debut EP, …And a Time to Dance hinted at the Sir Douglas Quintet with a stronger Spanish accent or the Flying Burrito Brothers if they’d dug Cajun music. I found I could put their music in between say Howlin’ Wolf and Joe Bataan and it worked.

“That’s a straight line right there, at least to me. That’s not even a zigzag,” says Berlin. “That was the radio we grew up with; I did on the East Coast and the guys did on the West Coast. Those kind of programming decisions are what informed our musical imaginations. That’s kinda why you get us doing what we do, and certainly why we still make albums sound like albums. That’s the music that informed us, old time 60s/70s public and even commercial radio, but especially free form radio where you could hear Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Steve Miller Band. For me it was WMR in Philly and some others dotted around the East Coast. Now, of course, they’re full-on commercial stations but at the time they were programmed by uniquely and amazingly talented people that had no fear of anything. Even now, you get glimpses of it with things like Sirius Disorder, which they killed, of course. I got a Sirius radio the minute I saw a playlist – a whole bunch of crazy shit thrown together.”

At one time rock ‘n’ roll held the promise of a platform that could hold anything heaped upon it, just so long as it had a certain amount of boogie and bravado. The same era that produced Cream also produced the folk-rock of Fairport Convention and The Byrds, the ferocious soul-rock of Sly & The Family Stone and the art-minded output of The Beatles and Bee Gees, amongst myriad other examples. All were classified as “rock” in some way, and all held a kinship grounded in individual vision and the moxie to execute it. Los Lobos absolutely fits into this lineage, refusing to ever allow their creative output to be made into whatever sausage the industry is hawking at the moment.

“Part of that is the world needs an identifier. It’s changing but it’s kinda hard to say, ‘It’s music. Here it is.’ It needs to be put into some box or another, if only to call it just plain strange,” observes Berlin. “That part is falling away as the methodology and way people receive music now is something they find on the Internet on a music blog or a mix where a song or artist is paired with something else they like. I feel like what’s going on right now is a very healthy thing. Those walls are coming down and people’s imaginations are being freed. That bodes well for the long-term health of everybody, at least musically. We’re in the initial throes of the revolution. But we need to figure some way for musicians to get paid for it besides touring.”

“It’s tough but there’s bands showing that the paradigm can be solved,” says Berlin. “If you put everything you have out you’ll get paid, but it’s hard to get to that place. It’s the road up, the hard way, but everybody’s getting there. The dust is settling. I think there needs to be some fair, equitable way of charging less than $10 per record so people can get their hands on more [music], likely through a digital source like iTunes. It’s just gotta become too cheap to steal it. If it’s 4 or 5 bucks or whatever it is and you have an authentic download and people knew the money is going to the band, then you have something. We’d get there easier if it wasn’t $10 bucks or $12 bucks.”

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