By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
It shouldn’t have worked.
They came on like a two-for-one deal, a band who played blue-collar, country-flavored roots rock on the one hand as well as full-on Mexican regional music, norteñas and cumbias with equal conviction.
Los Lobos (the Wolves) were originally four guys who made music in high school and kept at it after they got out. They made their bones during the emergence of West Coast punk in LA in the ’80s. “I definitely think that era still informs our music,” says Steve Berlin, who permanently joined Los Lobos in 1984 for Will the Wolf Survive? “Everything we learned about playing, we learned from X and the Blasters and the Plugz and people like that.” But did the hardcore punks who came to shows to bleed on one another disenfranchise the band? Berlin says no. “It wasn’t in any way weird to us to have X and Black Flag share the same stage.”
One of the last bands standing from that fabled era, the band have the same lineup and are making new music. The three-time Grammy Award winners are currently touring behind Tin Can Trust, which just received a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
But the spotlight is now on some concert footage Los Lobos filmed in San Diego when they played Kiko from beginning to end at 4th and B. The band’s old label has agreed to hand over the material, which Berlin says will be released sometime next spring—if all goes according to plan.
Kiko represented a one-show/one-album concept Los Lobos considered, but they would never again revisit it. One of the problems, Berlin says, is that they don’t really know all of the songs. “Some of the stuff, to be honest, we never bothered to learn, even as we recorded it. There are a bunch of songs that were put together in pieces that we never actually played as a group live.”
There was a practical reason for that: For years, they recorded in Cesar Rosas’ home studio, which was too small to accommodate the whole band.
“And we never really had enough pre-amps or headphones or microphones or something,” he explains. “A lot of those albums were done brick by brick.”
That said, 2006’s The Town and the City sounds less like a record made piecemeal than a concept album. It is one, Berlin says, but it wasn’t planned that way. “We started the same way—with nothing, not really knowing where we were going and piecing songs together,” he says. “As we worked on it, the songs all wanted to go to the same place in a weird way. We realized it was thematic and not advanced writer’s block.”
Berlin says this was precisely the record-building method they used during much of the 2000s, a time when Los Lobos were their most experimental.
“As crazy as we would get—and we would get pretty crazy—something in there had to sound like us. We couldn’t lose ourselves,” he says. “There were moments when it was close to the edge, where we would go, ‘That’s too nutty. Let’s pull this back a bit.’ We’re always cautious about going off the deep end. But we like being close to the edge, that’s for sure.”
Tin Can Trust is their first new material in four years. It has standard rockers, some Mexican folk and a Grateful Dead cover (“West L.A. Fadeaway”).
“To be brutally honest, at the early stages of the record, we were very much bereft of material to record,” Berlin says. “So for no other reason than to break the ice and learn about the studio [it was their first time recording in Manny’s Estudio in East LA], it was suggested we learn how to play that song.” They used it at first to learn the acoustics of the place, liked the second take and kept it.
Berlin says he is as surprised as anyone that Los Lobos are still around today. But as far as they have come, he says, they still refer to their 1980s punk roots. “We carry that ethos with us every day, every show, every record,” he says. “It’s still built into our DNA that you play as hard as you can, don’t look back and always experiment.”
Los Lobos perform at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930; www.thecoachhouse.com. Sat., 8 p.m. $39.50. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "The Wolves Still Have it: Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin looks forward, not back."