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Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin is in it for the long haul

Credit Los Lobos with sticking together and staying relevant.

By Lee Zimmerman

Longevity isn’t exactly commonplace in rock ’n’ roll realms. With the exception of The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead, few bands survive much beyond their first few albums before infighting, restlessness or even mortality takes a toll. Given the public’s fickle appetite and the ever-changing state of what’s deemed commercially palatable these days, the ability to linger more than a few years or even beyond a couple of albums has become a challenge in itself.

Los Lobos are, from left, Conrad Lozano, Davis Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Steve Berlin and Louie Perez. Photo courtesy of Shout! Factory

Los Lobos are, from left, Conrad Lozano, Davis Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Steve Berlin and Louie Perez. Photo courtesy of Shout! Factory

So credit Los Lobos with not only sticking together for the better part of the past four decades, but for also staying relevant and on the cutting edge, able to reinvent itself seemingly at will while remaining true to its original roots.

Indeed, the band’s latest album, the Grammy-nominated “Tin Can Trust,” encapsulates many of the diverse elements — rock, roots, R&B, covers, south of the Border sounds — that the band has proffered so proficiently over the course of its career. The album’s track “Do the Murray” is up for Best Rock Instrumental honors; the album is nominated for the Best Americana Album. The group will hit the road with Eric Clapton in February and March 2011.

Indeed, it’s been nearly 36 years since Los Lobos —comprised of David Hidalgo (singer, guitarist, accordion player and occasional violin); Louie Perez (guitar, drums, vocals); Cesar Rojas (guitar, vocals); and Conrad Lozano (bass, vocals) — played its first gig on Thanksgiving night, 1974. Steve Berlin (saxophone, keyboards) joined the band 10 years later, after making the transition from another seminal L.A. outfit, the Blasters. The line-up hasn’t wavered since.

“It’s all in the mists of times,” Berlin says.

Goldmine: So how do you account for the fact the band has been able to stay together for so long?
Steve Berlin:
It’s a couple of things. We’re all long-haul people. We’re all wed to one woman and not shopping around all the time, so I guess it’s the nature of the personalities involved.

That and — I know it sounds like a ridiculous thing — but we get enough time away from each other and the band stuff, so that everybody feels, at least, I hope everybody feels, that there’s enough balance there. The fact that we’re on and we’re off enough means that you can breathe and you can sort of live in the non-Los Lobos universe for awhile, so when you come back, its always nice. And the last thing is that we like the noise we make. That’s the real thing. When we play at the peak of our ability, it’s a grand thing, so that by itself is enough to hold the beast together, I think. It’s always fun to see this big thing blow up just because we’re up there tooling away.

I saw you guys in at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival three years ago, and Emmylou Harris was in the audience, and she was going crazy. Did she come backstage and congratulate you?
On a good night, we can compete with anybody. She did come back. I love her. I think she’s amazing. So it was great to see she’s that big a fan. It certainly made me very happy.

With all the diversity in your music, with practically every album being different from the one that preceded it, do you guys conceptualize in advance? Do you make a deliberate effort to pursue a particular tack?
If there was a way of saying whatever you just said, the opposite is true. The idea that we would get together and talk about anything we do beforehand is laughable.

Obviously, the kids’ records we did talk about beforehand, but I wouldn’t recommend this for the kids at home; it’s not like we’re holistically oriented people in any way, shape or form, but we literally do no planning, no rehearsing, no anticipating, no nothing, before we start a record. We pick a day, and everybody has to come to the studio on that day, and whatever happens, happens. And, like I say, that can be really scary. It is always a scary for a day or two or three or four, and then, somehow, the gods smile on us, or we force the issue, and we start making music, and away we go. Its kind of nutty, and I don’t know why that is, but it’s the nature of who we are, and in a weird way, it enhances the thrill of doing. I don’t know. I wish I could tell you there was a rhyme or reason to any aspect of it, but there isn’t. The only way I can put it is that the music tells us where it wants to go. Probably the last record would be a case in point, where we started it and we really had no idea what it was, but as we did it, we were realizing that these songs had kind of a sameness to them, and there’s a theme thing going on. So we realized about two months into it that we were making a concept record. But we sure don’t start that way.

That’s really amazing!
Maybe that’s what you get for being together for 30-whatever years … you get to have a little bit of that telepathy.

I wish I understood it, but at the same time, its kind of cool that there’s this magical thing that happens, and we just roll with it, and so far, it serves us well.

I can’t say it’s without its thrills and chills and spills, but I think that what I’ve learned is that if you trust the process and allow it to play out and we don’t really try to steer it, then good things can happen — our records being evidence of that.

Do you guys do a lot of jamming before the songs take shape?
No, not really, It just goes. Basically the way that it works is that each song happens, and we’ll do a song. And then another song happens, and then pretty soon, another song, and pretty soon we’re making a record. But it’s never a jam, per se.

You read about bands that jam their way through an album and cutting them up into songs, but that most definitely has never happened with Los Lobos.

There’s always a chord sequence or ideas, or, with David Hidlago’s stuff, there’ll be an amazing demo that we just add on to and put down as the basic track, and then we go on from there. You know, it’s crazy, (chuckles) but it works.

How did the title of the new record, “Tin Can Trust,” come about?
Louie sort of came up with the song itself, “Tin Can Trust,” and if there was a theme — there wasn’t really much of a theme to this record — it was that living and working and coping with this economic climate that we’re all in, just how to basically survive.

That’s sort of the underlying part of the ethos of the record, so it just kind of fit the sentiment, and I think its light-hearted enough and it just sort of tells a story without having to say life just sucks. We’re all in it together. I don’t know anyone that isn’t affected one way or another, but as the song says, if you got love, the money doesn’t matter. That’s our advice for the day.

You do another Grateful Dead song on the album.
It’s not like we’re beating it to death, I hope.

No, not at all, but you were represented on that Dead tribute album called “Deadicated” a few years ago.
We were very close to Jerry — he was a huge fan. And we’re certainly honored by the respect shown to us by the Dead fans, because certainly as much as we, the band, are fans, we’re certainly not Phish or String Cheese Band or going whole hog by living the Dead ethos the way those guys are.

I feel like we honor them and the Dead fans by periodically covering a song of theirs or periodically showing our love and respect for the organization, because we are close to all of them. We’ve had a couple of songs where Robert Hunter’s come in and helped us out enormously, and I have the highest respect. Coming from one band that’s been together for 30-something years, and going to another band that’s been together for even longer that’s been able to hold it together and show the way forward in an ethical and gracious way … my hat’s off to them, and we’re honored by their friendship.

Even though you’ve been in the band 26 years, in some respects, you’re still the new guy.
Someone called me the Ron Wood of the band the other day.

Yes, an obvious analogy. So how did you meet these guys?
I was in The Blasters, which was pretty cool, and one weekend we were playing our first big headlining weekend at the Whisky A Go Go in L.A., which was a pretty big gig for us because as far as the L.A. food chain goes, that’s a pretty high bar.
It was Dave Alvin that mentioned to me, “Hey, we have this band called Los Lobos opening up.” And I have this vague memory of a couple of years before that, seeing this band Los Lobos opening for Public Image and playing Mexican folkloric music, which was astonishing, considering they were playing this Mexican folk music to probably the most rabid, out-of-control crowd, like a soccer riot of a concert. Yet they stood up there and did it. My thought was, “Well that’s going to be interesting, a bunch of Mexican folkloric musicians opening for us, but our fans will treat them better than those other fans did.”

And then they came and played, and they were a rock ’n’ roll band playing this amazing stuff, so it kind of blew everybody, including me, away. So we got to talking, and they said, “We’ve got these songs, and they have sax parts. You want to learn them and come and play with us once in a while?” And I said, “By all means,” and I’d say by about two years from that conversation … by the end of the second year, I was in that band. The beginning of the first record, I was producing, and by the end of the record, I was in the band.

So how did The Blasters take that? Dave Alvin must have been sorry he agreed to have that band gig with you.
It was no big deal. The Blasters weren’t changing. They were kind of moving a little bit away from the horns within the context of the music. Lee Allen, my partner in crime with The Blasters, was getting older, and I think the travel was getting a little bit harder for him.
It wasn’t this horrible dramatic thing. I didn’t have to have a command meeting with the council to discuss the terms of my departure. It was really like one day Los Lobos’ bus was going north and The Blasters’ bus was going south, so I got on the Los Lobos bus. It really wasn’t that big a deal for anybody.

What was it like for you being the only non-Hispanic member of the group? Was there a big culture shock?
It was, for me, a wonderful education. I came quite literally from knowing nothing about Spanish culture, or Mexican culture, growing up in Philadelphia at that time.

Now in Philly, there’s pretty much a large enough constituency that everybody’s conscious of it, but in early 1970s Philadelphia, where I grew up, there was nothing. There was one Mexican restaurant that I went to all the time. It was absolutely terrible, but it was so exotic; I thought it was cool, especially as I got to know the guys, and we became friends. Obviously there was a cultural difference, and I had to learn about it and come to terms with it, but on another level entirely, we were all second-generation Americans, except for Cesar, who’s really a first-generation American. My grandparents, just like everyone else in the band’s grandparents, came from someone else before coming to America. So on a lot of other levels, we were very similar in many other regards. So I think there is something to be said for that kind of generational thing, where having our grandparents struggle and providing a life for their kids, and our parents providing a life for us has more to do with how we got along than anything.

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