Reflections: Los Lobos
Photo credit: Piero F. Giunti
In 2023, Los Lobos will commemorate their 50th anniversary, and the quintet will celebrate by, well, doing what they’ve done all along.
“The only time we ever really look back is on these anniversaries, which seem to be coming faster and faster,” says Steve Berlin, who—despite joining the group on saxophone, woodwinds and keyboards way back in 1984—is still the most recent addition to the lineup. “If you get 50 years out of something, I guess you can say that the concept has been proven.”
“You get up in the morning and you show up,” adds Louie Pérez, who co-founded the band, originally as its drummer, before moving up front to play guitar and sing. “You just keep doing it.” Los Lobos are all about moving forward and trying new things, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve elected to completely ignore the past. As long ago as 1988, when they released the Grammy-winning La Pistola y el Corazón, the band—whose other members, all onboard since day one, are vocalist and multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo, guitarist and vocalist Cesar Rosas and bassist Conrad Lozano—have, on occasion, paid tribute to their MexicanAmerican heritage.
But now, with the release of Native Sons—their debut release for New West Records—the musicians have gone further: The album is a celebration of all things Los Angeles, featuring covers of songs originally recorded by The Beach Boys (“Sail On, Sailor”), Jackson Browne (“Jamaica Say You Will”), the Blasters (“Flat Top Joint”), War (“The World is a Ghetto”) and others who hail from the same city that spawned Los Lobos. Like so much that has taken place over their long run, the album wasn’t really planned.
“We were label-less from 2015 until recently and, to be perfectly honest, we really didn’t give a shit,” Berlin says. “It’s not what we do. We don’t need to churn out product. We never even have band meetings We just kind of tour nonstop, regardless. So, the idea of finding a label and putting out a record was there, but it wasn’t that big of a deal.” When New West signed Los Lobos, it was the label that put forth the idea of a covers album.
“We were agreeable but we had to narrow it down,” Pérez says, picking up the story. “We said, ‘What about a tribute to Los Angeles?’ Then we started going through tons of songs by bands who are from LA, gravitating toward ones that had some meaning to us, whatever that might be.”
From the inception of the project, they knew they wanted to honor not just the big-name artists from LA but also some of their local heroes, including 1960s Chicano rock bands the Premiers, the Jaguars and Thee Midniters. Though these bands never found national acclaim, they were revered in their neighborhoods.
“The big groups when we were growing up were unapproachable—untouchable,” Pérez says. “But we’d also say, ‘Hey, there’s Thee Midniters! Let’s chase them down the street!’ They became our local Beatles. Without even knowing, we were accepting the fact that there was regional music.”
“I think it’s great that some bands will stay in a place and build a market where they are,” Berlin adds. “Look at Phish: They went from Burlington, Vt. to the rest of the world. They built a local career first, which is way smarter than moving to Los Angeles and competing with a thousand other people with more money, or who are better looking than you are. This record’s really about gratitude. We just wanted to thank the people who were inspiring to us and, in some cases, gave us the chance to be who we are.”
The final tracklist, in addition to those cited above, includes a medley of Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird” and “For What It’s Worth,” R&B nuggets originally cut by Barrett Strong and Percy Mayfield, a tune by Latin percussionist Willie Bobo and “Los Chucos Suaves,” which was written by a formative influence on the group, the late guitarist/singer Lalo Guerrero. “The only thing that we didn’t get to do was a punk-rock song,” Pérez says.
There’s also one original, which ultimately became the title track of Native Sons. “We thought we were done with the record,” Berlin says. “And, on the Friday before we were gonna deliver the album, Louie called me and said, ‘Hey, I got an idea for a song.’ We said, ‘We’re done with it,’ and he goes, ‘No, I think this could be good.’”
Native Sons is hardly the first time that Los Lobos has covered material by others. Although the vast majority of their recorded catalog consists of songs written by the band members—most often Hidalgo and Pérez—and released on such critically acclaimed albums as Just Another Band From East L.A. (their 1978 debut), How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984), Kiko (1992), Good Morning Aztlán (2002) and Tin Can Trust (2010), to this day, if you mention the name Los Lobos to most people, their immediate response will still be “La Bamba.”
It was back in 1987 that Los Lobos scored their only No. 1 hit, a cover of the traditional Mexican folk song most commonly associated with Chicano rocker Ritchie Valens’ 1958 version. Los Lobos had been asked to contribute an updated version of the tune for a biopic on Valens, who died in the infamous 1959 plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. An unexpected smash, the film, also titled La Bamba, exposed Los Lobos—who did all of the Valens music for the soundtrack—to more people than they’d ever reached. The soundtrack vaulted to the top of the Billboard charts. Even today, more than three decades later, Los Lobos can’t even think of leaving the stage without performing the song. They don’t mind.
“People will always remember Jimi by ‘Purple Haze,’” Pérez says. “Anybody who’s had a big one-off hit like that, do you go through a little bit of an identity crisis? Maybe you do. We were making some cool records and doing our thing for a long time when that record eclipsed everything. But we worked through it. It tickled us a whole bunch to know that, because of all that notoriety at the time, there may now be somebody in Helsinki listening to Los Lobos. And at the same time, we were sort of ambassadors, making people understand who we are as a group, as a culture.”
The massive success of “La Bamba” gave the group new clout with their record label, which at the time was Warner Bros. When the group went to label heads Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin with the news that their next album was going to be a collection of acoustic-based traditional Mexican music, there might have been a few raised eyebrows but there wasn’t much resistance. “It actually threw a wrench into the commercial machine,” Pérez says of the notoriety that resulted from the soundtrack. “It’s not like we said, ‘How can we commit commercial suicide?’ We weren’t thinking about it that way. When we played traditional music for [the Warner executives] the first time, Lenny just said, ‘This is you?’ We came into the public’s attention because of the rockand-roll that we played, but we did that [traditional music] for 10 years until we made our way back to rock-and-roll. Lenny, the last of the real record guys, looked at us and said, ‘You really want to do this?’ We said we did and he said, ‘Go ahead and make your record. Let me figure the rest out.’”
La Pistola y el Corazón barely scraped into the charts, and Los Lobos have yet to approach the Top 10 since “La Bamba,” but the upside is that they have remained one of the most respected bands in America. Some of their subsequent music has bordered on the experimental, while other recordings have aimed closer to the mainstream—there was even an album of Disney covers in 2009. But no one ever questions the integrity of Los Lobos. Other bands might have let that moment in the spotlight change them, but Los Lobos has stayed true to their vision, bringing their pan-cultural music to audiences all over the U.S. and abroad.
“When we first started touring America, we were these four Chicano kids from East LA that had never been anywhere,” Pérez says. “Then, suddenly, we’re in an old van, and we’re off to discover America. And guess what? We discovered a lot more similarities than differences. It made the idea that music is the universal language more than just a cliché. It was real. We were playing down South in places where you wouldn’t find a Mexican if your life depended on it; we were playing to predominantly white audiences and they were digging us.”
As for the band’s longevity— four-fifths of the members are originals and the other is coming up on four decades— Berlin attributes that stability mainly to a built-in maturity and a sense of practicality that has always ruled the way Los Lobos operates. “When I started with them, I’d have said, ‘If we get five good years out of it, I would be extremely happy,’” he says. “Nobody knows that they’ll last 50 fucking years. People ask: ‘How did you do that?’ It’s the people, obviously. No one here is on their fourth marriage. We are actually all married to the same women that we started with. When the band’s first record came out, the guys already had families; there were kids around, which kept everybody grounded. We never really went out on long tours, like some bands. That’s when you start to hate everybody; you wake up and the first thing in your head is: ‘I want to strangle this guy.’ The longest trip we ever took, I think it was five weeks, and we decided we’re never, ever going to do that again. It was a really, really bad idea. So most of the time, our tours are like two weeks. That’s helped keep everybody together through decades of stuff. The world has changed around us, and certainly the music business has changed, but we’re still the same knuckleheads doing the same knucklehead stuff.”