Los Lobos are back in the Triangle tonight for a show at the NC Museum of Art in Raleigh. And since we previewed the group pretty recently, we didn't do an interview this time. But here's one from the files, an interesting 2002 chat with Los Lobos saxman Steve Berlin.
By David Menconi, News & Observer
July 26, 2002
Technically, Los Lobos are a one-hit wonder because they've had just one big hit -- 1987's chart-topping remake of the Ritchie Valens standard "La Bamba." Which only goes to show how limiting terms like that can be, because not many one-hit wonders have as varied, substantive and all-around amazing catalogs as Los Lobos.
Throughout its 29-year history, this Los Angeles band has maintained a peculiar kind of balance, simultaneously making the everyday sound exotic and the exotic sound everyday. They began with the modest description "Just Another Band From East L.A.," the title of their first album way back in 1977, playing amped-up rock 'n' roll as well as traditional Mexican music.
They've evolved through a lot of phases and stages since then, from native Mexican styles to straight-forward roots rock to arty soundscapes. 1992's "Kiko" album began a period of experimentation that took its most extreme form in Los Lobos' spinoff act Latin Playboys, who are responsible for some of the most radical and strange records in recent memory.
"Kiko" was also the first album on which Los Lobos worked with the production team of Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom -- a tandem that came to serve as a George Martin figure to Los Lobos' Beatles. The pairing served both sides well; eventually, almost too well. Feeling in need of a shakeup, the group made a change to producer John Leckie for their 11th and newest album, "Good Morning Aztlan" (Mammoth Records).
An Englishman and longtime regular at London's legendary Abbey Road studios, Leckie's credits include Pink Floyd, various solo Beatles, Radiohead, Stone Roses and XTC. Not surprisingly, given Leckie's pop credentials, "Good Morning Aztlan" is Los Lobos' most musically straightforward album since 1990's "The Neighborhood."
The album takes its title from the Chicano equivalent of Atlantis, mythical birthplace of the Aztecs -- an area that roughly corresponds to the territory that the United States took from Mexico in the two countries' border wars.
On the title track, David Hidalgo sketches out neighborhood scenes in his keening tenor over a steady rolling groove before concluding that Aztlan is a state of mind as much as a place.
"There's a big fat heart with an arrow through the middle of this place that I call home/And when I get lost and don't even got a nickel, there's a piece of dirt I call my own ... You can't run and try to hide away/Here it comes, here comes another day/Where you are never really far away/Good morning Aztlan."
As usual for Los Lobos, borders are murky throughout the album. "Luz de my Vida," guitarist Cesar Rosas' tribute to his late wife (who was kidnapped and murdered by her half-brother in 1999), glides between English and Spanish. "Tony y Maria" revisits the characters Los Lobos created on their 1984 immigrants song, "A Matter of Time." But where "A Matter of Time" exuded a stoic optimism, the sequel is heartbreaking: "The dreams they once had, well, they don't have them anymore."
Despite the heavy subject matter, "Good Morning Aztlan" is not a downcast affair. The album fuses and balances different styles, sounds and elements in a way that suggests, if not solutions, a way to endure the world's troubles -- dance dance dance.
"Good Morning Aztlan" seems like an album that should lend itself quite well to live performance, perfect for Los Lobos' first Triangle show in four years. The group plays Tuesday at the N.C. Museum of Art Amphitheatre, a venue that Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin remembers fondly: "I still have my hat from there, a really cool baseball cap. I might have to get another."
Berlin is the newest member, having joined the original quartet of Hidalgo, Rosas, bassist Conrad Lozano and drummer Louie Perez in 1983. Los Lobos' self-described detail-oriented guy, Berlin is also an acclaimed producer for everyone from Canadian pop stars Crash Test Dummies to the noted jam band String Cheese Incident. He spoke by phone from his Seattle home.
Q: When you were working with John Leckie, did he have any funny stories from back in the day about people like John Lennon?
A: He had a few, but not as many as we would have liked. They would only come out after a bit of cajoling. Before we met him I had pictured an eccentric English gadfly type, like somebody from the Bonzo Dog Band. But sadly, he was just the most normal guy in the world, very blue-collar, get-down-to-work. He was not what I expected, which pissed me off, but I think the record came out better for it. I just wished he'd get more eccentric because he was too bloody normal.
Q: Had working with Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom gotten a little too comfortable?
A: Exactly. It'd gotten very comfortable. To be totally brutal about it, we just didn't have to work very hard to make interesting-sounding records. This is by no means to disparage Tchad and Mitchell, because those records were what we were after and we were complicit co-conspirators. But we wanted grooves and atmospheres then, and weren't so focused on performances. If we got a great performance on something, cool; but great or not great, if we got the right atmosphere, done, on to the next one.
The salient difference here was that every song and every performance had to be great, without settling for cool atmosphere. So this was way harder. I hate to make it sound like we regret anything we did before because we don't; we love the records we made with them. But where we are now, we really wanted to showcase the playing and the writing more. Had we made this record with them, it probably wouldn't have been too dissimilar. But we wanted to shake ourselves up. We sort of needed a shock to the system.
Q: John Leckie describes you as the brain of Los Lobos, while other members provide the heart and soul.
A: I think that's totally untrue and ... um, I'm hoping nobody else in the band sees that because it's a scary thought. If anything, I'm the only one in the band who cares about details, more or less. Nobody else is very detail-oriented; they prefer to be told, 'Show up and bring your guitar.' Where I get into some minutiae. Since I've produced a bunch of records myself, there was some stuff in the studio I could do to help out. So it might have seemed to John like I was the brains, but God help us if I am.
Q: What are some other records you've produced that you especially like?
A: Of recent stuff, I really love Rick Trevino. It was one that came together very quickly because there was no money or time, so we just had to go with it. Kinda like on "Kiko," we had to go with a lot of first impressions of everything. A regretful thing about the current state of recording is that digital technology affords you the ability to endlessly tweak every parameter beyond the point where anybody else would notice, and beyond the point where it's artful or helpful. With Los Lobos, we don't use digital technology because analog forces you to make artistic decisions that are better for the work.
With Rick Trevino, we only had two days to mix, and virtually every mix was our first one. We spent maybe an hour and a half per mix, and I think it might be the best-mixed record of my career. "OK, good, good, good; done, next." There was just no time to reflect on whether or not the bass was a little too "hollow" or the cymbals too "bright."
Q: What about some productions that didn't quite work out?
A: Crash Test Dummies ["The Ghosts That Haunt Me," 1991] was really hard, a difficult record to make. The band was kind of in flux, and the studio situation was just a mess. Part of the deal was it was paid for by the Province of Manitoba, with the proviso that we had to record it there. Which sounds great, but there are no real studios there.
We used this place where they did commercials. They certainly weren't set up for a rock band or anything else, it was a place where you'd sit on a chair at a microphone and sell used cars. It just seemed like every day there was some ridiculous, unforeseeable problem. But it turned out to be very successful. I guess the lesson is I should just get over myself, do the work and hope for the best.
Q: The new album's title song, "Good Morning Aztlan," was written very late in the process of making the record. Does that happen often? You come up with the title song while recording because you kind of "know" the record by then?
A: I don't remember this, but Louie [Perez] pointed out that "How Will The Wolf Survive?" was similar and the same thing happened then. We had 80 percent of that record, but not what would be the heart of it. You know, you think you're done, but something like that shows up -- the solving scene of the whole movie is waiting for you and you don't even realize it. So this time, we had the finished record, but we all thought in the back of our minds, "We need one more big song." Sure enough, literally at the last possible second, it showed up. There was literally no time left on the clock.
Q: The group is also doing some television soundtrack work (for "Greetings From Tucson," a Latino family comedy debuting on The WB network this fall). How is that going?
A: Yeah, we cut a scene last week. We've already cut a lot of interstitial stuff, three-to-five-second pieces of music. Whatever else, we'll have to do it on the road because we're about to leave for a couple of months. We'll be doing it with my laptop, backstage, on the bus. They'll send a 22-bit episode on computer with instructions -- "We want something here, here, here and here" -- and we have to cut stuff to fit. So we'll see how it goes. It's not making records, as we're learning every day. It's still music, but with a totally different purpose. It's so commodified; we could come up with the most brilliant three seconds ever and they might say, "Nah, too dark."
Everywhere else, we're Los Lobos, so there's a certain level of expectations about people knowing who we are. But with TV, we're such meat -- we're just baloney! "You're who? I don't care, just do it." There's no respect for music on TV at any level, and it's not really paying particularly well. But we needed a shock to the system, and this will be a good one.