Los Lobos’ Long, Winding Road

The late 1970s and early ’80s marked a fertile time for music in Los Angeles. English and New York punk inspired a West Coast response that was characterized less by a sound than by a boundary-pushing attitude. Acts such as Black Flag, X, the Go-Go’s, the Dickies and the Blasters may have set the template, but only Los Lobos, a Latin-inflected East Los Angeles quintet, has remained active and musically relevant for the entire three decades since.

“X and the Blasters and some of our best friends were at the top of that food chain, so when Los Lobos got good, we had lots of opportunities to play with our heroes,” Steve Berlin, Los Lobos’ saxophonist, tells The Pitch. “We got to see firsthand how hard those bands worked. They challenged themselves to be better all the time. That work ethic and sense that you don’t skate, you push it all the time — that really amplified our evolution and defined a career for us.”

The idea of punk then hadn’t yet been codified and commodified. It was just a loose term that covered a variety of underground sounds, about as descriptive as “rock.” This offered a wide-open space that embraced everything and allowed Los Lobos to forge its vibrant blend of Tex-Mex, Latin roots, blues, cowpunk and heartland rock. (Many would simply call it Americana, though much of the inspiration came from south of the border.)

“That wide-openness helped us define our music. We didn’t have to put any limitations on ourselves or the music. We were free to go anywhere we wanted,” Berlin continues. “Learning early that those rules were there to be broken made our world and our lives richer. That’s probably the largest thing we took away from that era.”

A member of the Blasters at the time, Berlin co-produced Los Lobos’ 1983 EP …And a Time to Dance with T Bone Burnett; he then joined Los Lobos for its Burnett-produced major-label debut, How Will the Wolf Survive?, which climbed into the Billboard top 50. But it was the band’s 1987 hit cover of “La Bamba,” for the Ritchie Valens biopic of the same name, that briefly made Los Lobos ubiquitous.

To say it came as a surprise is an understatement. The band thought the movie was destined to go direct to video. When Los Lobos recorded the track, the film still didn’t have its lead actor. The filmmakers even asked the band members if they had any Hispanic friends who could sing and potentially take the part. “We thought, ‘This isn’t going anywhere,’ ” Berlin says.

If Los Lobos had been another kind of band, it might have processed its success differently and released an album to capitalize on it. Instead, it released an album of Spanish-sung Tejano mariachi songs, 1988’s La Pistola y El Corazón. “That was sort of clearing the air as to how the world perceived Los Lobos and what we were. We didn’t want to be known as the La Bamba party band,” Berlin says.

Commercial success ably dodged, Los Lobos released nine more studio albums over the next 22 years. Tin Can Trust, which was released in 2010, was the first time since 1992’s Kiko that the members recorded live in a studio as an ensemble rather than cutting tracks individually at guitarist César Rosas’ home studio. Recording in the heart of East L.A. was a sort of homecoming for much of the band and also a kind of wake-up call to the level of economic stress so many others were laboring under.

“It’s much like when we did Kiko, which was done literally in the ghetto,” Berlin says. “We had to step across homeless families to get into that place. For real. This one wasn’t quite as devastating as that. At the same time, it was certainly troubling, and there is no way you could see that and deal with it every day and not have it inform the music on some level. Going back and seeing that old neighborhood — it really hasn’t changed that much. Everything is really exactly where it was. It’s just everybody is poorer.”

The plight of the poor isn’t new ground for Los Lobos, though; 2006’s critically lauded The Town and the City traced the trials of immigrants in America across 13 tracks of adventurous roots music. That record was preceded by a tour in which the band played Kiko in its entirety. Early next year, a live CD and DVD from that tour will be released, and Berlin says he’s hopeful that the supporting tour will inform what the band does next.

“In a weird way, playing those songs again is as inspiring as anything that we do,” he says. “So maybe something cool will come from it again.”

Categories: Music