Los Lobos have traveled a long road since rising out of East Los Angeles some 30-plus years ago. In that time, the band has gone from playing traditional Mexican folk songs at weddings and quinceaneras to rattling clubs, bars and amphitheaters with their soulful, blues-addled punk to tripping through the dreamscape of 1992’s groundbreaking Kiko, one of the singular albums of the last decade.
But, in a lot of ways, the close-knit quintet never left the neighborhood that spawned them — which is why they still feel compelled to appear at community events such as the Santa Paula Citrus Festival, where they’ll perform (for free) on Saturday, July 15. It helps remind them of where they came from, and how important that place has been to making Los Lobos what they are today, three decades on.
“Although the guys grew up in L.A., the L.A. they grew up in was, in many respects, a small town. East L.A. was like a town within a city,” says multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin, who joined the group in 1984 after having been a member of blazing roots-rockers the Blasters. “And I have to say it’s really gratifying many times to come to a smaller town and play because the people are really appreciative that we showed up. It tends to make for a really fun evening for all concerned, especially for us. We like being the big fish in a ‘small pond.’ ”
Do you think Los Lobos could have come from any city other than Los Angeles?
Steve Berlin: I don’t think it would’ve been quite the same. A lot of what makes us who we are is L.A. It’s definitely a different place entirely than any other place in the world. A lot of the sensibility in the songwriting and just the way we go about our business has a lot to do with how the city shapes you. It asks a lot of you. In some ways, it’s a Third World city and a First World city at the same time, and that’s something we tap into quite a bit.
Do you feel like what the band has done over the years is reflective of the Mexican-American experience in L.A. and elsewhere?
Only to the extent that four-fifths of us are [Mexican-American]. It’s not something we’ve made an overt, conscious effort at doing. We don’t try and address that aspect of things at all. The songs are about what the songs are about; the people in them may or may not actually be Hispanic. We take a lot of pride in that we strike a blow for equality everywhere we go as much as we can. But I don’t think we’ve ever said to anybody — and certainly never to ourselves — that we’re attempting to chronicle the Mexican-American experience in any way, shape or form. As far as we’re concerned, we’re just trying to create compelling music in a culture that largely throws off that stuff.
How did Los Lobos get aligned with the L.A. punk scene in the 1980s?
The scene back then was so all-encompassing. I mean, if you think about the Blasters as being construed as part of the punk rock scene, you get an idea of how wide and open it was. It was just a very nurturing set of circumstances at that moment. There were lots of places to play, and lots of people to see the people that were going out to play. It was a really good nursery for us to learn how to do it and figure out what we were going to be, as it was for everybody. I pity bands that are starting now and what they have to go through, because for us, frankly, it was kind of easy.
But did the scene welcome the band initially? There’s a story about them getting booed opening for Public Image Limited at the Olympic Auditorium back in the early days.
I was in the audience. It was pretty gruesome. It wasn’t as much like Los Lobos pissed these guys off; they came pissed off. My memory of the situation was the punk scene in Orange County was a lot of brats, basically — rich, spoiled children who wanted to show how street they could be. My sense of it, unlike many other shows I had been to, even hardcore shows where the spirit was really intense but kind of beautiful, that night was like, “We’re going to show [PiL frontman] Johnny Rotten how punk we are.” It had little to do with Los Lobos and everything to do with this army of Orange County assholes who showed up to cause a ruckus. They would have booed and thrown shit at anybody, and they did. The Plugz were on next, and they got not quite as much shit thrown at them, only because they came second and there wasn’t as much shit to throw. That night was not indicative of anything other than that specific band drawing a specific sort of element to that place.
Are you at all disappointed that the song most associated with Los Lobos, “La Bamba,” isn’t your own? Would you have rather had one of your original songs been as huge a hit?
No question it would’ve been great. But I’ll be honest: It’s been a long time since we’ve intentionally tried to make something that was crafted as a legitimate pop single. The way the pop world works now, there’s quite literally no chance of us having a single of that nature now. All of us are happy it happened; as albatrosses go, it’s certainly a very minor and small one, that we had this giant hit record with a cover. We were very close to Ritchie’s [Valens, the late rock’n’roll artist who originally popularized the traditional Mexican folk song] family and still are, so we were really happy for them — happy the story got out and happy they had something special to look forward to. And it was nice to see, if for a brief moment, what it was like to have a No. 1 record.
What influenced the unique sound and tone of Kiko?
It was a combination of a lot of stuff. We had come from touring behind The Neighborhood, which was kind of a disappointment for us. It was a hard record to make, and it was hard record to tour behind. There were still a few of the trappings of the “La Bamba” success around, but not enough that it really made a difference. It was sort of like we were overplaying — in other words, playing venues larger than we actually had fans to fill. We didn’t know how many people were going to jump off the train after “La Bamba,” and we found out pretty graphically. So it was kind of a rough time for us. When it came time to start [Kiko], we went into a studio in downtown L.A. and started doing some demos, and sort of let inspiration take us wherever it wanted to. We got about five or six songs, all of which made the record pretty much as they were. We took them to Larry Waronker, who was the president of Warner Brothers at the time, and he said, “Wow, this stuff is great. But I’d like you to talk to [producer] Mitchell Froom about it.” We got together, and I think what made that record what it was is the simple fact that Mitchell and Chad [Blake, engineer] were pretty much in the same state of mind [as us]. They had had some success, but they had gotten a lot of uninspiring records, and they took it upon themselves to do them, thinking that’s what they’re supposed to do, when what they’re supposed to do is make the records they really like. So all of us were in this mildly extremely-pissed-off state, and wanted to create something totally different than both what the world thought we should do and what we had been doing. It’s not as if you can call it an angry record, but there was a lot of anger behind it. We were just sort of going, “Fuck the world, let’s do it our way.”
How has the band managed to keep going for so long?
We’ve not had any reason to stop. We’ve managed to carve a niche for ourselves where we can pretty much do what we want to do and not have to conform to anyone’s opinion of how we should sound or how we should act or how we should dress or anything else. And we’ve managed to keep the creative tensions that tend to break bands up to a minimum. We encourage individuals within the band to explore whatever they want to explore. There’s nothing anybody in the band can do that would be considered out of bounds, outside of robbing a bank, perhaps. To a certain extent, it’s an open enough family that anybody can do enough of whatever it is they want to do. For instance, I’ve been out producing records these last couple weeks, something I really wanted to do. And it’s no big deal. We go back to work on Sunday, and I’ll be there with bells on, ready to rock.