MFD Interview with Los Lobos' Steve Berlin


For more than 25 years, Los Lobos has been one of the most creative, dynamic, and daring bands in the American landscape. The Latino core of the group -- David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Louie Pérez, and Conrad Lozano -- started out as a folklórico band in East Los Angeles playing weddings and other events in the Mexican community, but were soon swept into the creative cauldron of the late-'70s L.A. music scene, where punk, rockabilly, and experimental bands could all share the same stage. Keyboardist and horn player Steve Berlin first saw Los Lobos opening up for John Lydon's Public Image Ltd., and was so impressed he asked them to join a bill with his own legendary band, the Blasters. Soon Berlin had joined the group as a producer and multi-instrumentalist, playing keyboards and horns. Los Lobos has always stayed true to its progressive, roots-conscious vision, infusing the beauty of traditional boleros, corridos, and norteños with the soulfulness of R&B and the ass-kicking élan of rock and roll, along with the renegade spirit of great American experimentalists like Charles Ives and Captain Beefheart. After their chart-topping smash recording of Ritchie Valens' song "La Bamba" in 1987, they released La Pistola y El Córazon, an album of traditional Mexican music that earned them the first of three Grammy awards. Many more albums followed, including Kiko in 1992 -- widely hailed as a boundary-stretching masterpiece -- as well as tours with the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. Music for Democracy spoke with Berlin on a break from their Brotherhood tour with Los Lonely Boys.

Steve Silberman: What changes have you seen in the American political landscape in your lifetime that made an impact on you?

Steve Berlin: The most disturbing thing for me has been the hijacking of language. The debate has been seized by masters of doublespeak, and the ways that things are framed are tilted so far against any sort of rational discourse that it makes me ill, basically. You can't even have an honest discussion in politics anymore -- everything's framed around Republican talking points. They've managed to put the ball in their court. Fox claiming to be "fair and balanced" when there is no balance. There is no "other side" of issues like torture and lying and starting a war without a rationale. These things are based on out-and-out lies. I feel like we have a lot to answer for in the last eight years that will probably never be answered for, or will come too late to actually effect a change. Those are the things that frustrate me. You and I being about 50 years old, we've lived through a couple of nightmares, Reagan being one. I think dawn will break eventually, and the last eight years being so dark, I would be shocked if things didn't change drastically in the next couple of months. But there's always another swift-boater out there, so I never feel good about it.

Silberman: Who do you support for president?

Berlin: Obama. He speaks directly to the issues. He's done a couple of things lately that were frustrating for me, but he has the ability to articulate, in a way that America can understand, what the issues are, and why things have to change. I agree with him probably more than he does [laughing] that the way things are done now is as wrong as can be. I've supported him from the beginning. I think he's got a really strong agenda, and most of his plans sound plausible to me. To me, McCain is virtually incoherent. It's hard for me to fathom how or why anyone thinks things he says make a lick of sense -- his energy plan is useless, his health-care plan is useless, and his foreign policy is completely useless. If you go an inch deep on his stuff, none of it actually adds up, or addresses any issues. It's just a bunch of talking points that mean nothing.

Silberman: Playing in the Blasters and Los Lobos, you came out of a really fertile music scene in L.A. in the late '70s and early '80s. What was it about that historical moment that enabled the flowering of music that transcended traditional genres?

Berlin: It was one of those remarkable moments, like San Francisco in the '60s or Paris in the '20s, where you just had a combination of the right elements and the right people and the right atmosphere for all of that to make sense. There was a lot of openness, a lot of experimentation, and there was a pretty vibrant club scene, so almost any band could form, learn a couple of songs, and go out and play, and within a day or two, there would be people to see them. There was enough money in it to keep us from starving, but not enough to get rich or make people stupid. That's what generally happens when money shows up -- people get stupid. There was just enough to keep everything in a really pleasant place.

My memory of that time was that everybody was pulling for everybody. Anytime my bands would get a gig, we'd be pulling for our friends to get a gig. So when X would get a gig, we'd get the Blasters on, and when the Blasters got a gig, we'd get the Plugz on. One night the Blasters got a gig and we got Los Lobos on, and that obviously changed my life. That was the way we did it. Nobody was stepping on anybody else to get ahead. Our horizon was playing the Whisky on a Saturday night, not getting a million dollars or doing a car commercial. We just wanted to have a good time and play in an interesting place. So for a good two or three years there, it was wide open and really enjoyable and there was this remarkable sense of camaraderie.

Also, the bands that set the tone -- like X, and the Plugz, and us to a certain extent -- there wasn't any artifice. There were shitty bands, but the bands at the top of the proverbial food chain were really the best bands, the most artistic and the most experimental. When the standards are set by bands like X and Black Flag and the Blasters, you know you have to dream large to get good. To play in their arena, you had to get to a place that was powerful, and you really had to work on your ideas. That as much as anything helped make that scene so vibrant. The best bands were really the best bands anywhere -- like London in the '70s when you had the Clash and the Damned. The standards were being set by bands that were really strong, so if you wanted to play, you had to be good. I've been involved in other places where there was a different set of standards. I remember going up to San Francisco in the late '70s and the bands were just so wretched. There was just a very different set of values. The bands were just so fey and weak compared to what we had. I've come to enjoy the San Francisco scene very much, but I remember thinking, "Oh man, we'd eat you guys for an appetizer in L.A."

Silberman: Los Lobos' most recent album, The Town and the City, was in part an allegorical story about immigration. Do you guys talk about issues like that within the band, or do they just come out in the music?

Berlin: We didn't really have that theme when we started the record. If anything, the record started from a very different place. We had just finished a long tour playing our album Kiko in its entirety in sequence, so if there was anything in the front of our minds, it was that -- those songs, that approach, that mindset. Not that we wanted to remake Kiko, but that was where our heads were at. So when we started, we didn't really have that much of an agenda, but the songs started taking shape, Louie, our lyricist, found himself writing from a first-person point of view, which he very very very rarely does. But the songs just kept coming that way. He and I were talking one day and remarking, "Hm, that's kind of weird. Why do you think that's happening?" We've always approached our records with a really open mind. The songs that show up when we start is what happens. Similar to the experience of making Kiko -- that's where the songs were at, this voice and this sentiment. Slowly and surely the voice that showed up in the writing of The Town and the City was his voice and his tale, starting with the song "The Valley," then we had the song "The Town," and it all shaped itself into a tale about an immigrant's journey. It's interesting the way that happened, not being part of an organized process or plan. The theme just showed up and announced itself about halfway through the record. Once we figured that out, the rest of the record came easier, because up to that point, we had no idea why all these songs were so similar. We don't really question it, it's just like, "Wow, that sort of sounds like the second part of the first story."

Silberman: Jack Kerouac's first novel was The Town and the City. Were you guys making an explicit reference to that?

Berlin: Yes.

Silberman: Who thought of that?

Berlin: Louie. He's a fan. It was our little hommage.

Silberman: You guys just finished recording a children's album.

Berlin: Yes, it's us interpreting classic Disney stuff -- "When You Wish Upon a Star" and "Heigh Ho" and "The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room" and "Cruella DeVil." When we first signed with Hollywood Records, it was part of the deal, and in 11 years on the label, we never got around to it. So when we were dropped from the label, they told us, "You owe us this other thing." So they gave us a separate budget and a one-off deal to do this record, and it was a lot of fun. We really enjoyed it.

Silberman: How has it been doing the Brotherhood Tour with Los Lonely Boys?

Berlin: It's been great. They're wonderful people and we really enjoy them. The zydeco shows have been really entertaining -- they come out for our sets, and we come out for theirs, and it's been a blast.

Silberman: What would you say to a Los Lobos fan who says they have no personal interest in politics?

Berlin: If the last eight years have shown us anything, it's that you can't sit on the sidelines anymore. There are people who will do almost anything to gain the advantage and do incredibly harmful things to almost everybody, if you choose to pretend that it doesn't matter. What the next president does will affect the next 100 years, certainly. To sit on the sidelines as the Earth gets warmer, and the environment deteriorates, and the judiciary turns into a joke, and these gigantic corporations cash out as we watch another depression go down -- you can't sit there, as an American, and say it's all going to work out if people don't get involved. Young people, Latinos, everybody with a stake in the future -- you cannot avoid responsibility for what happens next, and if you do, what happens next is going to be quite awful. As a band, I think we feel that a sincere and profound systemic change has to occur. There isn't a single path that the government has taken in the last eight years that has done anything for anybody except the giant multinational corporations. I think the purpose and point of American democracy has been completely trampled upon, and that's what has to get found again, because it's completely lost right now.