Smile Politely

The Wolves survive and thrive: Forty years of Los Lobos

Los Lobos has been around the block. The Latin-Americana rock and roll act from East Los Angeles has been making music for over forty years now, and for a band whose name means “the wolves,” they’ve certainly proven their tenacity. They have over twenty albums (like the breakout, 1984’s Will the Wolf Survive?), multiple Grammy award winnings, hit singles (including a chart-topping cover of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” in 1987), and just pretty much unanimous acclamation. They’ve jammed and collaborated with musicians across the spectrum and from all walks of life. They’ve also witnessed four decades of the evolution of American music, from the shifting popularity of scenes to dramatic changes in the recording process itself. The veterans are bringing their prowess as guitarists, and as all-around musicians, to Champaign-Urbana’s ELLNORA guitar festival this year, in part to celebrate the release of Gates of Gold, their first complete studio album since the big 4-0. I spoke with Steve Berlin, the band’s horn player and keyboardist, about some differences between then and now.

Smile Politely: Los Lobos is releasing Gates of Gold on September 25th. It’s the group’s first time releasing a complete studio album since 2010. Was this pause intentional?

Steve Berlin: Well, our cycle for albums is about two-and-a-half years, give or take. Right at two-and-a-half years was our 40th anniversary. When it normally would’ve been time, rather than try and come up with a new record that some way captured what forty years was like, we decided to put out the Disconnected in New York City record, effectively kind of buying ourselves a little time, to avoid that pressure. It’s hard enough for us to come up with new records in the first place. That way, we could release something to commemorate it without forcing a new album out. So, yeah, Gates of Gold is right on time.

SP: So Los Lobos is playing CU’s ELLNORA guitar festival this year. You guys have been a force of talented instrumentation for over four decades now. Although you’re not one of the band’s guitarists, what does it mean to you, and to the rest of the band, to be a part of a guitar celebration?

Berlin: Well, I feel like we have a couple good ones, so hopefully we’ll be able to represent ourselves (laughs). But you know, I saw part of the lineup and it’s really very interesting, there’s some good people at that festival, so it’ll be fun. I’d like to think that there’d be some jamming involved which would be nice as well. We’ll keep our fingers crossed and see what happens.

SP: What do you think are some musical influences that contributed to the band’s guitar sound?

Berlin: Certainly Peter Green would be one, Jimmi Hendrix, Otis Rush. I know BB King has been a huge influence on Dave (Hidalgo) at least. Hubert Sumlin is big with us. I’d say also some acts that we’re close with, like I’d say that Richard Thompson is a big influence too.

SP: Do you have a favorite genre for Los Lobos to play?

Berlin: I honestly like the fact that we can mix everything up. To me that’s the fun part. I feel like we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing when it’s not any one thing. I much prefer when we’re throwing it all in the pot and cooking it up that way than, ya know, anything specific to one line of thought or something. It’s fun to step in and kind of mix stuff up a bit. So, yeah that’s my favorite way to play.

SP: Among many other sounds, when I listen to you guys, I personally hear some punk influence. You and the band were affiliated with the late 70s/early 80s punk scene, like your work with the Flesh Eaters. What was it like to be right in the thick of things in the LA punk movement?

Berlin: Well, it was a great and very exciting time to be in L.A. There were lots of clubs, a lot of music happening fundamentally everywhere, all over every night. Any night of the week there’d be some amazing band playing somewhere, and some were our friends, so we got to see and play with a lot of amazing people. And you know, that’s definitely still part of us. We spent like three or four years right in the middle of all that stuff and to this day I can’t imagine we would’ve been the same band had we not experienced that. I mean we are who we are, but if we had just come out of East L.A. without that scene, I don’t think we’d be quite as far along. I think we learned a lot from being around people like Dave Alvin and John Doe. People like that, I mean… nobody was messing around. Everybody had a really intense workout routine. And I think that that work ethic remains with us, as well as that spirit of sharing. When we were coming up, we all just kind of did the best we could. Like, The Blasters would have us open or X would have us open, or a lot of other bands from the clubs. There were bands who would always sort of go out of their way to make sure that people heard us, and we still feel that mentality is important in music.

SP: So it was a more hands-on, cooperative scene then?

Berlin: Oh yeah, definitely.

SP: How do you feel that compares to musical creation and collaboration these days?

Berlin: I think a big part of what was special was that it was pre-Internet. People were able to develop their ideas in relative privacy. Not everything we did was immediately broadcasted to the world. We were allowed to play, and kind of learn our craft a bit, and I think that’s kind of one of the things that have gone away. Like, people just put out the very first thing they come up with, and some of the time, that’s a great thing. But honestly, for me, I’d love to actually hear some bands and songwriters and producers kind of develop their ideas a little bit before they go up and out to the world. Because, God knows there is a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have wanted anybody to hear. Los Lobos was a very good band from the very beginning, but if we were coming up now, you know people would be sending live clips of us everywhere the minute the show was over, or during it, and I think it would’ve been a very different scenario for us to play that kind of show. You should be able to grow as a band, and get better and smarter and everything else, before everybody hears you. We were more in control. Nothing would get out that we didn’t want people to hear, and that’s kind of the opposite of what is happening now. I mean, obviously every show that we do now is recorded and put up someplace, and at this point in our career, that’s fine. But I don’t know if that would’ve been so great in 1980 or 1981, I mean, it kind of would’ve been less fun for everybody.

SP: Yeah there’s something to be said about a completely finished project. You don’t get that as much nowadays.

Berlin: No, no you really don’t. Everybody just kind of throws stuff up. And the pressure that that puts on bands can be tough. I think it’s healthier for them to have a chance to kind of think about what it is, like write a song and play it a couple times and then change it if they want to. Once a song gets out there, it’s harder for a songwriter to decide, ‘maybe I’ll do it this way instead,’ you know? Because there’s already an idea of the song in the world. So, it’s interesting. It’s a different paradigm certainly than the one we grew up in. Frankly, I’m glad we came up when we did, and not now.

SP: So, what kind of show can C-U look forward to at ELLNORA?

Berlin: Well I’d say that given it’s a guitar show, we’ll probably lean on the guitar parts a little more (laughs). Not that we wouldn’t. Um, I don’t know, I’d like to think that it’ll be a little bit of everything. More often than not, we don’t decide until the moment we go out there what we’re going to play, so it’s kind of hard to say at this moment. I think it’ll probably be more electric and rock and roll, rather than acoustic.

SP: Do you think we’ll have a chance to do some dancing?

Steve Berlin: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean that’s a big part of every show we do, so that goes without saying. It’ll be a fun time.

Los Lobos is playing ELLNORA Guitar Festival on Saturday at the Krannert Center Tryon Festival Theatre at 8 pm. Tickets are$10-34.

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