After 30 years, Los Lobos along for 'The Ride'


June 20, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


WHITTER, Calif. -- Los Lobos have been a part of America's musical landscape for so long that it's easy to take the self-effacing "just another band from East L.A." for granted.

It's been 30 years since guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter David Hidalgo, guitarist Cesar Rosas, bassist Conrad Lozano and drummer Louie Perez (Hidalgo's frequent songwriting partner) met as students at East L.A.'s Garfield High School and first came together as a band. Saxophonist Steve Berlin defected from the Blasters 10 years later, in 1983, and the lineup has remained otherwise unchanged ever since (barring the addition of the drummers and percussionists who've freed Perez to move front and center as a multi-instrumentalist).

The musicians aren't making a big deal about their 30th anniversary -- patting themselves on the back just isn't their style -- but their new album "The Ride" stands as well-deserved tribute. It finds an extremely impressive roster of fellow musicians -- including Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Ruben Blades, Mavis Staples, Bobby Womack, Dave Alvin, Garth Hudson, Richard Thompson, Cafe Tacuba and Willie G. (the leader of legendary '60s Chicano rockers Thee Midniters) -- turning out to guest on a set that mixes new versions of some older Lobos tunes, a few well-chosen covers and several strong new tunes.


When: 7:30 p.m. June 30
Where: Park West, 322 W. Armitage
Tickets: $27.50
Phone: (312) 559-1212

The result simultaneously charts where the band has been and points to where it still might go. Or, as the shy and soft-spoken Hidalgo succinctly puts it, "Looking back and trying to look forward at the same time."

I recently met Hidalgo and Perez for lunch at their favorite Mexican restaurant in Whittier, Calif. -- the L.A. suburb where most of the band members relocated after their first brush with success enabled them to leave the barrio -- and we talked about the new album as well as the group's rich past. Los Lobos will celebrate the new release with a show June 30 at the Park West.

Q. Tell me about how "The Ride" came together.

Perez: It started with us having this erasable chalkboard and writing everything down -- the songs and the people we wanted to work with. Some of them were our friends, some of them were people we just admired, and many of them were both. It could have been a double album; we could have just kept going and going.

Hidalgo: Each of the singers was given an opportunity to do what they wanted to do -- the freedom to do whatever they wanted to do with our songs.

Perez: It was so much fun to send the track out and then have it come back to the studio. It was kind of like when you were a little kid and you sent the box tops off and you'd check in the mailbox to see if your prize had come. Every day was like that: "Did it come yet?" "Here it is!" And then we'd have Richard Thompson or Ruben Blades coming in to record with us and we'd get to see them do it. We've been recording in Cesar's basement for a long, long time, and it's been kind of like a clubhouse for years now. So it would be weird and all out of context to look over and realize, "That's Ruben Blades singing over there!" Or to pull up in front, look in the rearview mirror and see Thompson pulling up in a minivan!

Q. Why do you guys prefer recording at home?

Hidalgo: The pace is a lot slower when we work that way.

Perez: Plus, we get to hang out with Cesar's kids and David's and my own. We decided we had gotten enough of Hollywood. We were tired of the formula -- the way rock guys do it -- and we just thought, "Why don't we make it easy on ourselves? We don't need all that stuff."

Q. The group survived a horrible tragedy when Cesar's wife, Sandra, was kidnapped and murdered in October 1999. How did you deal with that?

Hidalgo: When we were in the middle of it, the main concern was to make sure Cesar was OK and support him. We didn't really tour much; we just sort of shut down there.

Q. Was there ever any talk about the group stopping for good at that point?

Hidalgo: We talked about it, but . . .

Perez: We're unemployable. We don't know what else we would ever do!

Q. What was the idea behind recording new versions of some of your older songs? I know that you put a lot of emphasis on live performance; did you want to capture the way some of those songs had evolved?

Hidalgo: We were really just trying to represent the 30 years we've been together.

Perez: We were feeling nostalgic. But you're right -- the songs have evolved; it was interesting to see where some of them have gone.

Q. Since you're feeling nostalgic, let's look back at some of the key turning points in Los Lobos' career. The band was performing a mix of rockabilly and traditional Mexican folk music at weddings and backyard barbecues before it signed to Slash and released what most fans consider its first real masterpiece, "How Will the Wolf Survive?" (1984). How much of an influence was the L.A. punk scene at the time?

Hidalgo: We were going to shows all the time, and we were aware of the punk stuff -- it was fun stuff.

Perez: We weren't repulsed like a lot of people. The stuff we were originally attracted to was like Black Flag and the Germs, because they had this uncompromising attitude and a real velocity. That's what attracted us. And then Dave discovered the Blasters.

Hidalgo: It just seemed like they pointed to a slot that was open for us, you know? I could relate to them. I liked the punk stuff, but I was a little too old to be playing that. There wasn't a truth to it -- it was their reality, not mine. But with the Blasters, they were part of the same movement, but they weren't tearing down walls or anything. And we realized for the first time: "We can be a part of this."

Perez: They say you spend 20 years making your first record and 20 seconds on your second. We signed to Slash, but record companies don't really want to take chances. But the first EP came out [1983's ". . .And a Time to Dance"] and it did great. So we found ourselves at a crossroads: "Are we going to be the coolest kind of bar band in shiny suits, or are we actually going to try to be songwriters? Do we pay respect to where we come from?" For so long, our culture has sort of been overlooked; now here was an opportunity to do something responsible. I mean, we had been together for 11 years before we did that, so even though we found ourselves with this EP and critical success, it was really up to us which direction we were going in. That's where "Wolf" came in.

Q. The band reached another level in 1987 when it recorded seven songs for the soundtrack of "La Bamba," the Ritchie Valens biopic. The group scored a major hit with the single, but you haven't been on the pop charts since. Does that seem like an odd experience now as you look back at it?

Perez: We've had to consider the fact that another big radio hit is just not going to happen for us. I think a lot of artists have to figure that out, and some of them don't like it. But we are really OK with it.

Hidalgo: It was kind of weird, but the cool part was that we'd go to little towns -- Dayton or whatever -- and little white kids were on their bikes singing "La Bamba." What was frustrating was that at the same time "La Bamba" came out, "By the Light of the Moon" came out, and no one got it. I mean, people following the band got into it, but not the people who made the single a hit. But it was good to be part of the movie, because Ritchie's story had to get out there.

It was great for the family, and Ritchie's mom got to see it. The family were great people. When we first visited them, we got there and his mom had set up mattresses in the garage so we had a place to sleep. We were standing, talking to his mom and his sisters, and his cousins came out and had his suit. They gave it to Cesar because he reminded them of Ritchie. It was heavy.

Perez: Then we all sat around and ate beans and KFC.

Q. The next big turning point was "Kiko" in 1992, which remains one of the most unique albums I've ever heard, in terms of creating an otherworldly soundscape all its own. What was the thinking going into that album?

Hidalgo: We knew we had to do something with that record. We rented an office space not too far from here, and we'd get together a few times a week and work things out. It was the first time we worked with [producers] Mitchell [Froom] and Tchad [Blake], and it all just came together. Things started to happen, and we kinda followed the inspiration.

Perez: Our heads were sort of spun around by having had a pop hit -- it took us a couple of records to get it out of our system -- and we were trying to find something else. Tchad and Mitchell were coming off of sort of the same thing [after working with Crowded House], so it was a matter of everyone being in the right place at the right time.

Hidalgo: The attitude was, "Nothing is wrong." We never worked with anyone like Tchad or Mitchell. Mitchell, man -- he's a genius, just amazing. We'd be like, "Let's put in a backward guitar on that," and Tchad and Mitchell would be like, "OK!" And we were like, "Really?" We'd never been in that situation before. Whatever we wanted to try, we could do.

Perez: We had done it by formula for so long -- wrote the song, took it on the road, worked it out, rehearsed it with just drums and bass, dissected it, and went back into the studio -- that we realized that we had to change it up. So with "Kiko," we went into the studio, figuring it was another instrument that we could use, so we didn't have to be dictated by technology, which for a long time we were.

Q. "The Ride" is a good summation of everything Los Lobos has accomplished -- all of the different phases of your career. Where do you see the group going now?

Hidalgo: We're just glad that we are always able to tour. We're glad to work. I think that is one thing that people like about us: It goes back to the old bands -- we came up the old way, working at bars and all that stuff, and it all comes through in our playing.