Los Lobos

30 Years of Eclectic Rock

Music Features Los Lobos
Share Tweet Submit Pin

In an old brick building on the gritty end of Sunset Boulevard, the five members of Los Lobos are nearing the end of a day of TV and press interviews. The high-ceilinged space, formerly a bowling alley, is now used for photo sessions; like the band, it’s a still-functional relic of old Los Angeles. One by one, these decidedly non-glitzy musicians reluctantly submit to the ministrations of a make-up artist as a photographer checks the remaining light. “They’re only in the music for the photo shoots, and I can’t disappoint them,” cracks a publicist from their label, Hollywood Records, as she grabs the arm of bass player Conrad Lozano and marches him toward a touch-up.

Los Lobos have endured this sort of showbiz regimen—always with some discomfort—numerous times since the release of their debut, How Will the Wolf Survive?, 20 years ago. Today, though, they sense increased attentiveness from interviewers and label reps alike, and it feels good. The band’s latest, The Ride, is generating a more noticeable buzz than any record these veterans have released since Kiko in 1992, and even before the advances went out to the media, the band members felt ramped-up enthusiasm from everyone at Hollywood. “It was a bit rocky for a while, but, this time out, I think they’ve been exemplary,” says sax player Steve Berlin, recalling the release of 2002’s Good Morning Aztlán on Hollywood sub-label Mammoth, which the parent company inconveniently dismantled six weeks prior to the album’s release.

But it isn’t simply because Los Lobos are now signed to Hollywood proper that the vibe is more upbeat; it’s that listening to the new record has reminded people at the label and in the music media what attracted them to their vocations in the first place: The Ride is one of those special albums that assumes a life of its own and pulls the listener in. Los Lobos have a reputation for musical and emotional authenticity, but The Ride stands out even amidst the band’s rich body of work.

What’s surprising about the excitement surrounding the record is that its operative premise initially appears to be a gimmick. The Ride features a parade of big-name guests—including Elvis Costello, Bobby Womack, Tom Waits, Mavis Staples, Dave Alvin, Ruben Blades and Richard Thompson—singing on 10 of the 13 tracks, including remakes of four songs from earlier Los Lobos albums. And yet what looks on paper like an artier rip-off of Supernatural at best (and a formula for disaster at worst) improbably turns out to be one of Los Lobos’ most seamless records.

Not that a whole lot of people are likely to hear it, or even be aware of its existence. The band’s only bona fide hit was the soundtrack to the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic, La Bamba. “The unfortunate part,” says Louis Perez, the band’s original drummer, sometime guitarist and longtime songwriter, “was when we did have [a big success], it was not really ours. The movie came up and went down, and when it was all over, it was all over.” Recent Los Lobos albums have topped out at about 100,000 in sales, down from around 300,000 in the late ’80s. Like most cult bands, these guys make no money from record sales and rely on selling tickets and publishing royalties to scrape by—but scrape by they do. It’s hardly arbitrary that the band chose “La Venganza de Los Pelados” (featuring rock en español band Café Tacuba) as the new album’s opening track—it translates as “Triumph of the Underdogs.” But conducting one’s career below the radar has certain advantages, Berlin suggests. “We’ve never really had anybody tell us what to do or how to do it.”

That autonomy continued during the making of The Ride. “We really took our time,” Berlin explains. “We produced it ourselves, so we had our own schedule. It wasn’t like somebody was waiting for us to get going every day. We’d work two or three days and let the songs breathe a little bit, then come back and check them out. It allowed us to find stuff in the songs, to come back and try different ideas. It was a very relaxed process.”

The guest-star angle wasn’t the record company’s idea but the band’s. “It was our thirtieth year,” says Berlin (though it’s just the 21st for him), “so we wanted to acknowledge that somehow, and it gave us the license to say, ‘We’re gonna go back and look at our old material and maybe bring in some people.’ We didn’t really know if it was going to work or not. We didn’t want it to seem like a mix tape or feel jerky.”

Perez admits to having misgivings during the sessions. “While we were making it,” he says, “it felt kind of funny because it was the first time we’d ever tried having guests on an album. We often try something different just to rearrange the brain cells, but it didn’t feel like it was holding together while we were making it, and I was almost afraid to listen to a sequence. But then I finally listened to it, and it was very strange how it all kind of fits. I was relieved. I think it’s really, really cool—a lot different than anything we’ve done before. This one has a celebratory feeling, like having people come to our party. To me it’s always better when you don’t know exactly what you’re doing.”

Womack was the first one asked and the first to accept. Although Los Lobos generally records in the home studio of guitarist Cesar Rosas, for this special occasion the band booked the big room at The Village, a state-of-the-art facility in West L.A., so they could cut the track live with the five of them surrounding Womack. They’d worked up a medley of Rosas’ “Wicked Rain” (which had originally appeared on Kiko) and the Womack classic “Across 110th Street.”

“Just to be in the same room with Bobby Womack, to be sitting right next to him, was awesome,” says Rosas, recalling the session. “Thirty seconds after we met, he’s singing my song to me, saying, ‘What do ya think about this?’ It was remarkable to me because I didn’t really know him, and none of us had worked with him before; I’ve worked with other people who, in a similar situation, would have said, ‘You get one take, let’s go. I’ve got something else to do.’ But he hung out, he told stories, we had a meal together. At one point he goes, ‘Al Green called me and wanted me to be on his record, but I told him I was busy working with you guys.’ We’re like, ‘You turned Al Green down for us?’”

During the entire session, Berlin recalls, Rosas “had this look on his face like a four-year-old at Christmas. Bobby’s reading the lyrics and singing, and it just sounded so unbelievable. That would have been enough almost, just to hear and see that. The coolest part was he was so gracious through the whole process. We pretty much had it after the second or third take, but it was so much fun that we cut it a bunch of times, even though we didn’t have to. Bobby was saying, ‘C’mon, c’mon, let’s do it again. Maybe we can do better.’” After Womack sang the entire eight-minute medley live, Rosas overdubbed his vocal—“Once he got up the courage,” Berlin quips. Rosas readily admits it “took balls” to follow the great soul singer—“But when I stepped up to the plate and sang, it didn’t sound too bad, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ It worked out pretty nicely.”

Most of the album (and all of Aztlán) was recorded in Rosas’ converted garage. One of the first things recorded there for The Ride was a remake of Hidalgo and Perez’s “Someday” from 1990’s The Neighborhood. The track was sent to Mavis Staples for her lead vocal. For the deeply soulful remake of “Is This All There Is?” (from 1987’s By the Light of the Moon) featuring Willie G. of Los Lobos’ East L.A. forerunners, Thee Midnighters, the band “pushed all the gear into the dining room, which is much bigger,” says Berlin, “and we all played together, which just gave us a different vibe.”

The biggest challenge, says Berlin, “was figuring out how to integrate the guest stars into our thing. For instance, on the Mavis track, Dave actually sang his version of it like they were trading lines, which sounded great as well, but the best it sounded was with her singing the whole thing. On the Bobby track, obviously he sang the crap out of it, but it felt more like us with Bobby and Cesar trading off.”

While there are plenty of guests on the album, it doesn’t seem to matter who’s singing or what the style is—it’s as much a Los Lobos record as anything they’ve done. The glue holding The Ride together is the remarkably simpatico team of Hidalgo and Perez, who wrote 11 of the 13 songs. Of the newly composed material, the bittersweet folk-rocker “Rita”—on which the group is joined by Greg Leisz’s gorgeous pedal steel and sometime Los Lobos producer Mitchell Froom’s keyboards—is the most stunning. “David came up with this very cool track, we talked about it like we’ve done for the past 30 years and I wrote a lyric,” Perez recalls, acknowledging that he failed to nail it on the first pass. “But I kinda jacked it up on the hoist, got underneath it again and tuned it up a little bit.”

Typically, Hidalgo will work up a melody and some changes on guitar and hand a cassette of his demo to Perez, who then comes up with the lyrics. “That’s the way it’s been for a while now, because we just don’t have the luxury of time that we used to,” says Perez. “Ideally, we’d sit down and write together, like we did for Kiko.”

The two longtime collaborators are so attuned to each other that, with the material for the experimental 1994 Latin Playboys side project, Hidalgo gave the music to Perez without explaining what each piece was about, as he normally would. Perez then wrote lyrics for each and presented them to Hidalgo without telling him which piece of music each lyric belonged to. In every case, Hidalgo matched the lyric to the piece Perez intended.

“But even though I’ll work in my separate corner and he works in his,” Perez explains, “we eventually end up sitting in his car with a cassette in his stereo talking about it, anyway. While everybody’s inside, we’ll be sitting in the car listening. And we’ll eventually talk about arrangements, breaks and how many verses, and try different things.”

“If it’s right, we’ll go with it,” says Hidalgo. “We try not to let egos get involved. Whatever works, we’ll follow the inspiration.”

Another contributing factor to the record’s organic feel is that it was recorded “old-school—just a two-inch machine with a classic old broadcast Neve console,” Rosas explains. Most of the basic tracks were cut live with drums, bass and one or two guitars. After engineer Robert Carranza imported the tracks to Pro Tools for overdubbing, he bounced them back to tape for the mix-down—“to bring as much ‘analog-ocity’ to the deal as we could,” says Berlin. There was no standard procedure for dealing with the outside contributions, which came from all directions and in various forms. Costello recorded his vocal and piano tracks for the How Will the Wolf Survive? classic “Matter of Time”(which he regularly performs in his solo sets) during a soundcheck before a show in Oslo, Norway, and the band then built the track around it. Waits cut his characteristically idiosyncratic vocal for “Kitate” on a long-obsolete multi-track cassette recorder, forcing Carranza to locate another one of the rare machines in order to transfer it to Pro Tools.

But some of the guests made house calls. Blades showed up to sing on “Ya Se Va.” “He came in and took over, and in 45 minutes it was done,” Rosas marvels. “Nobody could speak,” adds Berlin. “It was like nine tracks—boom, boom, boom.”

On “Wreck of the Carlos Rey,” Thompson drove across town to Rosas’ house and overdubbed his vocal and guitar onto Hidalgo’s original demo, which was cut on his cassette recorder. The band members asked Thompson to participate because they cite Fairport Convention, Thompson’s seminal British folk-rock group, as a major influence. Now, generally, one wouldn’t expect a bunch of Chicano high-school kids in East L.A. to be listening to jigs and reels, but Perez and Hidalgo were sponges for the cultural mix surrounding them during the 1960s and ’70s.

“In those days,” Hidalgo recalls, “L.A. radio was really good. KPPC was like the free-form radio station, and they helped form my taste in music. They played Jethro Tull, Zeppelin, Albert Collins, Albert King, Clifton Chenier, Ray Charles, Traffic, Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention—that’s the kind of stuff we were listening to. And then, being interested in music as a kid, I’d watch the country shows on Saturday morning TV—Ernest Tubb had a show, Buck Owens, Waylon Jennings, Ferlin Husky—just for the love of guitar, I started getting into country music. And that’s how we got into folk music, too—I liked the acoustic instruments. When we had a chance to play acoustic instruments in our own way, in our own culture, Fairport Convention was the link, the breakthrough. They played acoustic instruments with a rock attitude. So Fairport Convention led to Los Lobos.”

“But I completely understand what you’re saying about that,” Perez says diplomatically about my expression of disbelief. “Shouldn’t we be swinging a bat at a piñata?”

“We did that, too,” says Hidalgo, briefly cracking himself up before returning to his recollections. “L.A. is a really cool place still, but back then it was wide open. You’d drive through L.A. through all the different neighborhoods and in every one you’d hear a certain kind of music—the Filipinos, the Latinos, the black side of town—that’s what we grew up with, and that’s what radio was. Radio and television reflected the environment. Not like today, where it’s all homogenized. You go to Louisiana and they’re watching the same shit they’re watching in Culver City.”

“That’s the way it should be today,” Perez jumps in, “where there’s a place for music that has emotion and passion. But yes, some of this music attracted us. David and I were just reminiscing, because we did an interview today over at Garfield High School, where we met. It was in art class, and we had these desks that turned into easels, so we sat at the back of the room and pulled the easel up so the teacher couldn’t see us, and we just talked about records that we liked. So we made the connection that way. There were other kids, too, that were into Firesign Theater, smoked weed and watched The Muppets. And we became like a fringe group at school. We’d go see Fellini movies at the Nu-Art. I don’t want to call us the intellectual group because it really wasn’t that—we were just having fun with it. It’s not unusual—you still see that happening today. It’s just that some of those kids end up loading up their dad’s weapon and taking it to school. It’s a different world now. Back then, if you were an outcast you just found things that made you feel good and found friends to share those things with.”

But, in their music- and art-filled homes, Hidalgo and Perez have preserved a bit of the world that formed their sensibilities—for their own pleasure and for the benefit of their children (each has three). Says Hidalgo, “From my kids—mostly my daughter, who’s 18 now—I realized how much music represents when you are growing up. It’s always been available to my kids. We listen to Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams, George Jones, DEVO, the Meat Puppets—all that stuff. She’ll show me stuff, too. We discovered The Flaming Lips together on a family trip. She’s also into Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers—I’ve learned a lot from her.”

“All our kids are real creative,” Perez says with unabashed pride. “They all play music, they paint and they write.”

“They’re real close, too,” Hidalgo continues. “They’re all family—Cesar’s kids, Conrad’s kids. Even if they don’t see each other that often, there’s that love that will always be there for each other.”

Clearly, these guys have forgotten they’re doing an interview; actually, so have I. If they had snapshots on them, they’d be pulling them out right now.

The vibe Hidalgo and Perez are giving off is utterly without pretense and disarmingly genuine, and this description also applies to the record they’ve made with their spiritual kin. Like Music From Big Pink, the classic first album by The Band, The Ride is unmistakably homemade and handmade, and feels like real life at every moment. This is what family sounds like.

“I think it’s a friendly record,” Hidalgo says. “It invites you in instead of trying to shock you or trying to affect you in any other way. It just wants you to be a part of it. It wasn’t planned that way; it just turned out that way.”

“Friendly, but without putting a cardigan sweater on it, either,” his partner clarifies. “It still rocks.”