Los Lobos to Play Ojai’s Libbey Bowl

Steve Berlin Talks Hits and Early ‘80s L.A. Music Scene

Courtesy Photo

Los Lobos are an American institution. Formed in the 1970s by East L.A. high schoolers David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, and Frank Gonzalez, the band released its first record in 1976, Sí Se Puede!, which consisted of 10 traditional Mexican and Tejano songs and was a benefit for the United Farm Workers of America. Perhaps best known for their 1984 song “Will the Wolf Survive?” and 1987 cover of Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba” — which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart — Los Lobos have, in their almost four decades together, released a plethora of fine albums embracing and incorporating everything from rock, R&B, country, and folk to Tejano, brown-eyed soul, boleros, cumbia, norteños, and more.

The now-legendary rock group has amassed a vast catalog of fantastic songs that have, in part, celebrated both the Chicano and the immigrant experiences, and ultimately the human experience. I recently corresponded with Los Lobos’ saxophonist/keyboardist extraordinaire, Steve Berlin, who joined the group in 1984, via email in advance of the group’s upcoming Libbey Bowl concert on Friday, June 22.

Would you say activism and awareness have always been a part of Los Lobos’ approach to making music and building community spirit? I would say yes, but with the caveat that we prefer to let our music speak for itself. It would be facile for us to overtly say this song is about this issue, etc., so we prefer to let the listener interpret it the way they hear it.

Tell me about that late-’70s through early-’80s L.A. music scene when Los Lobos was on the same label as groups like X, The Plugz, and The Gun Club? It was an amazing time for sure. Any night of the week, there seemed to be something incredible going down, and it was a great time for a band like ours to — effectively speaking — grow up. For a while there wasn’t enough money or a media spotlight to make people jealous and petty, so there was a spirit of great camaraderie, which we still try to embody to this day. So many bands gave us a helping hand, so we try to pay it forward as well.

Do you feel that there was a natural solidarity between Los Lobos’ East L.A. Chicano roots rock and Tejano aesthetic and the working-class punk-rock Americana ethos of bands like X or The Blasters? I think it was more about testing the limits of our imagination, really. We kind of learned at the feet of those bands, so to the extent there was an exchange, it would be hard to say. I know we all felt a lot of pride when any of the OG bands from that time achieved anything notable, and I’d like to think vice versa.

The band’s big breakthrough came in 1984 with your third full-length album, How Will the Wolf Survive?, which cemented your reputation as a rock-’n’-roll band that integrated Latin groove and Chicano soul. What are your memories of making that album and the group’s most famous song, “Will the Wolf Survive?”? I don’t think we ever felt like we were blazing any sort of trail, to be honest. We just tried to get what we were playing and what came naturally to us down on tape. The record, in retrospect, was not particularly challenging to make, and we had a lot of support from the guys at our label, which made it easy, since none of us really knew what they wanted from us. It was just an exciting time to be an L.A. artist on Warner Bros. and Slash [Records], so we just rode it as hard and as long as we could. When the company started to break apart and get corporate and stupid, we began to lose faith. As far as recording “Will the Wolf Survive?,” I just remember hating the drum machine we ended up using for some stupid reason — I still do. Aside from that, the song wasn’t that hard to get — I believe Cesar’s [Rosas] solo on it was a first take, and it wasn’t hard to mix or anything.

Do you think “Will the Wolf Survive?” has an even deeper resonance since Trump’s inhumane treatment of Dreamers and draconian immigration and border policies? It seems comically naive given the full-on assault we seem to be dealing with on a daily basis. We’re old enough to have survived a few terrible, semi-criminal presidents, but I don’t think anyone thought we’d ever see the likes of this insanity. I just hope I live long enough to see his karmic debt fully repaid.

“One Time, One Night,” from 1987’s By the Light of the Moon, is another of Los Lobos’ quintessential masterpieces. How did that come about? Again, not a particularly difficult song to capture once it got worked out. The single version, which is different than the album version, has John Hiatt singing background vocals, and that was the first time we ever met Mitchell Froom, who would produce [Los Lobos’ albums] Kiko, Colossal Head, and This Time about five years after the session. He played organ on it as well.

What’s the story behind the vignette-like songs on the 2006 album The Town and the City? Was the title an homage to Jack Kerouac’s first novel? How did Jaime Hernandez come to do the cover art? Were you or other band members fans of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s groundbreaking Chicano/punk rock/magical realism Love and Rockets alternative comic? Louie [Pérez] and I were fans of the Hernandez brothers, and there was the obvious East L.A. connection, so it seemed like a great fit for the cover of that record. As far as the songs, that was a much more challenging record to make — we had done a long tour on the anniversary of Kiko, playing it live in sequence, and had just finished it when we went into the studio to start The Town and the City. We had this vague notion that we would try and use what we thought to be a similar ethos in the approach, but it seemed like the record wanted to be something entirely different. I just remember feeling like we were pushing something up hill pretty much the entire record — like one step forward, two steps back for what seemed like months until right at the very end when we got, like, four songs done in two days, “Free Up” and “The Road to Gila Bend” among them. Up to that point, I had no idea if it even hung together as a coherent statement, but that’s how our records tend to get made.

Who are your musical influences? First and foremost is my main man and former compatriot Lee Allen … I still think about him literally every time I play. Besides him, I really like Red Prysock, Dexter Gordon, and Lockjaw Davis. And then on the outside I love Archie Shepp.

Do the group’s vocalists/guitarists/multi-instrumentalists David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, and Cesar Rosas usually write song lyrics together, or do they each come up with their own lyrics and then craft the music together with you, bassist Conrad Lozano, and the various drummers who have been in the band — including, most recently, Enrique González? Dave and Louie do their own thing, with Louie handling all the lyrics on their tunes, and Cesar pretty much does his thing by himself, and then when we get together to record, everybody will throw their two cents in. Dave’s tunes are often pretty fleshed out, and we’ve been known to use his actual demos as the primary layer on quite a few Los Lobos tunes. Cesar’s [tunes] often take a little more arrangement shaping before they get recorded, but it all usually works out in the end.

What can fans expect at your upcoming Libbey Bowl show? Will you be playing any new compositions or new covers of any folkloric Latino music? I wish there were new tunes to play, but alas, we had a recording project fall through, so we’re back to square minus one on that front. Hard to say what else we will have up our sleeve, but I’m sure it will be something worth your while.

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Los Lobos will play Friday, June 22, 7 p.m., at the Libbey Bowl (210 S. Signal St., Ojai). Call (888) 645-5006.