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Published: 2003/04/26
by Benjy Eisen

Just Another Jamband From East L.A.: An interview with Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin

It's exactly one day before the start of Los Lobos' latest tour when I call Steve Berlin on his cell phone. In a band of multi-talented musicians, Berlin is a musical chairs-man who shifts between saxophone, keyboards, and percussion frequently on stage. During his 19 years with Los Lobos, he has been a Tex-Mex hero, a radio star, and a jamband forefather (although all three have been subtle). It is this last role that has his current attention and imagination.

As a workingman, Berlin's energies extend far beyond Los Lobos. His skills in the studio have been in constant demand since the 1980s, and some of his production credits include Faith No More, Leo Kottke, and Ozomatli. He plays saxophone on albums by Paul Simon, Sheryl Crow, the Go-Go's, and dozens of others. In Los Lobos, Berlin has toured as part of the Further Festival, headlined the Berkfest ("I remember that," he says fondly), and opened for Trey Anastasio just this past fall in Las Vegas.

When I tell him that the first time I heard Los Lobos was when "La Bamba" ruled the airwaves in 1987, he makes a noise like he's heard all this before. It's to be expected. But what Berlin doesn't expect is what comes next: "Then, the next time I heard of Los Lobos wasn't until 1995 when Jerry Garcia died. There was a rumor that the Grateful Dead were considering [guitarist] David Hidalgo as a replacement. That was really surprising to me."

"Why were you surprised?" asks Berlin. He sounds genuinely sincere, perhaps even a little defensive, but then pretty quickly his voice deteriorates until I can no longer understand what he's saying. Damn cell phones. He calls back on the landline and digs right in.

"The comparisons [to the Grateful Dead] really don't surprise me that much," he says. "From very, very early on Jerry Garcia was a huge fan. The last place he performed before he died was with us. So we knew that he liked us. And we knew that there was a sort of kindred sense of spirit, I think. So it doesn't surprise me, nor does the continuing comparison surprise me. I'm frankly honored by it."

Benjy Eisen: And of course you’re aware of a certain band that covers "When The Circus Comes."

Steve Berlin: Yes.

Eisen: Trey Anastasio has always been vocal about his appreciation for Los Lobos.

Berlin: We appreciate him a lot.

Eisen: So then, what’s your take on the jambands?

Berlin: Again, we're kindred spirits. The one place where we divert is that we're slightly less inclined to explore the virtuosic solo. And I think that's the one place where we're just ever so slightly to the right of the jamband ethic. The longest we've ever played a song…(laughs). We like to move on and go to other places in other songs and stuff like that. We have the two very different songwriting sensibilities in David [Hidalgo] and Cesar [Rosas], so to a certain extent with us, we're very bi-polar that way. If we're on one side too long we want to go to the other side. I think that's the only real significant difference. But I think it's the healthiest trend, it's the most exciting music, it's where the coolest things are happening. I think certainly the only things that are happening actually are happening in and around the jamband scene. I think there's god knows who fuck all else worth listening to out there; some of the most interesting things that I hear these days are electronics and jamming.

Eisen: I don’t know how aware you are of them, but there’s a whole branch of electronica-jambands.

Berlin: Yeah, I'm well-aware of them. I tried to get Lake Trout on a couple of our shows. I love those guys. I produced a band recently that is sort of in that same vain a band called Woven.

Eisen: Have you heard the Disco Biscuits?

Berlin: Yeah, from Philly. Yeah, great!

Eisen: It’s exciting to hear what some of those bands are doing with music right now…

Berlin: I think it's the healthiest thing there is. I produced the last String Cheese Incident album [2001's Outside Inside. I've been deep up in it man!

Eisen: With the current musical climate, jambands notwithstanding I’m talking about pop music and Britney Spears with that being the climate that it is right now, how can a band like Los Lobos survive? And not only survive, but thrive?

Berlin: Well, I think that climate that you speak of is poison. And I think that people are very consciously and clearly realizing that it's just ridiculously awful garbage. I'm hoping that the next thing that happens will be a respect for players again and for honest music and for guys that are actually artists on their instrument and write and sing and play great. I think, I'm hoping, I'm praying that the next prevailing trend will be respect for players, and that means guys who jam and guys who play jazz and guys who play stuff well. Because I think frankly what I see happening, not just among the garbage that you mention but even rock and stuff, is just so awful. It is just so awful and useless. And I think what's basically happening is that there are bad musicians playing the music. There are bad musicians playing rock, there are bad musicians playing country, there are bad musicians playing pop. At the end of the day, people can only eat so much garbage before they go, "Wait a minute! This isn't food, this is fucking garbage!" And I think that's what's more or less been happening they've been fed garbage and then all of the sudden their consciousness is being raised to the fact that it's really garbage.

Eisen: I think that because there is so much shit out there, people acclimate themselves to it. It’s what they’re used to.

Berlin: But then they realize. They come to the end of the day and they go, "Wait a minute, this is bad music. This doesn't make me feel good; this makes me feel horrible."

Eisen: I hope that’s the case.

Berlin: Well, I mean, a lot of the records that people really had high hopes for aren't doing shit. J. Lo's record is shit. A lot of those [albums that] everybody assumed would be slam-dunks aren't really happening. The only one that's really sickening garbage that is actually happening is Shania Twain, but that's some other thing. There's some more to that story you know.

Less than a week after our conversation, I watch Los Lobos perform at the Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg. The theatre is sold out. While the spotlight usually shifts between the two guitarists and songwriters, Hidalgo and Rosas, Berlin is no second-stringer. His keyboard runs and saxophone solos are front-and-center, adding flavor to already colorful songs. The band rips through Tex-Mexicali blues, heartland rock, and hard-hitting roots music. By "roots" I mean anything from shards of traditional Spanish to flecks of American country. While the music is heavily decorated, at heart it is 100 percent Los Lobos. But, at first, they still don’t sound anything like a jamband.

Then it hits. Not four songs into the set, the band throws the setlist. A few songs later, during "Just a Man," an extended percussion jam (with various members of the band switching instruments) leads to a fiery jam. Afterwards, Hidalgo leans into the mic. "I like when that happens," he grins.

The audience roars in appreciation. The crowd is a mixed bag. In the cheap seats and by cheap we’re talking $25 there are a few tie-died faithful, some college kids, and an unusual amount of "grown-ups" on dates with their significant others. Many of them look like they just came from a romantic dinner. It’s usually the females in this category that yell for songs like "La Bamba."

I think back to my conversation with Berlin a few days earlier:

Eisen: Let’s talk about the Los Lobos live show. Are the shows scripted at all? Do you use a setlist?

Berlin: For years we didn't have setlists. Then, when we finished this record Good Morning Aztlan, we realized that there is more to it than what the existing band can handle. So one of the guys that played drums on most of the album is now touring with us, and we are using setlists only because it is difficult to switch drummers constantly. And because I write them, I feel like it's my responsibility to make sure that we never do the same show twice, as far as I know. We've never done the same setlist twice I know that for a fact. But we're using setlists, only because otherwise it looks like a Chinese fire drill back there with the drummers trying to figure out who's going to play what.

Eisen: Let’s say a casual fan, who isn’t used to bands changing-up the setlists or improvising, comes to the show. How do you feel about them being disappointed if they don’t hear "La Bamba?"

Berlin: We have a really healthy respect for our audience. And we feel like that respect has been returned to us. Anybody that knows anything about us that comes to our show knows that if we don't play "La Bamba" it's because either we didn't feel like it or they weren't vocal enough about it. If they really want to hear it, they let us know and we'll play it. It's not as though we have a categorical objection to it. But we won't play it unless people ask us for it because we're quite frankly tired of it and it's a long way back for us 17 years now and the stuff we're doing now has more resonance. For years we wouldn't play it, just because we were bastards about it, but now we just don't care.

Eisen: As a music fan, I’ve always thought it was strange when somebody is disappointed because the band didn’t play something. It’s like, "Wouldn’t you rather hear something that the band was excited about playing?"

Berlin: Yeah, exactly. That's the way I feel about it too.

Eisen: Okay, let’s talk then about when you tour after you put out an album. How conscious are you of touring "behind" an album?

Berlin: For us, I think it has more to do with the fact that we're excited about the songs. There's unexplored depth to the songs so we're excited about playing the new stuff only because it is new to us. So it's not pushing product as much as it is just that the songs are newer and more fun to play and they hold more possibilities than stuff we've played a million times.

But we really do try to touch on everything through the course of a show. I consciously try to make sure that we at least play one song from every record. In case somebody's there to hear…if we don't play their favorite song, at least we'll play something from that record. I try consciously to make it as wide and broad as possible, but some nights just take their own track. There'll be a setlist out there, but if somebody feels like playing something else, believe me it's no big whoop. We'll just go wherever the music wants us to go.

Eisen: You said, "If somebody feels like playing something else…" Applying that to improvisation, what if it’s in the middle of the song? Is that allowed?

Berlin: Oh yeah, that happens all the time. We just go.

Eisen: Total freedom?

Berlin: Total freedom. For about nine years there, there wasn't a setlist, and so the ethic is still installed in us. And frankly as our new drummer learns more songs probably we'll go back to it. It's really just a matter of convenience for them so they'll know when they're going to change.

Eisen: Before a tour, what do you do as a band to prepare?

Berlin: Absolutely nothing. "Pack" would be about the extent of our preparation. We're not big on the rehearsing and there's not really much to our show outside of the songs, so its not like we need to work out the pyrotechnics, thank god. As jobs go, it's actually pretty easy.

That last sentence keeps echoing in my head during Los Lobos’ performance at the Whitaker Center. "As jobs go, it’s actually pretty easy." Huh? When the band returns for an encore, after old fashioned audience applause, they surprise themselves with an unplanned cover medley: "La Bamba -> Good Lovin’ -> La Bamba -> Not Fade Away -> Bertha, Little Wing." It seems almost as if they’re mocking the oft-requested tunes, which happen to be other people’s songs. Nonetheless, the band pulls it off with remarkable skill and grace. The looks that the musicians exchange are an immediate giveaway that this isn’t planned. But none of them appear to be sweating it. Indeed, they somehow make it look easy.

Before we say goodbye on the phone, I ask Berlin what new projects he’s got going on. Los Lobos just filmed a scene for Martin Scorsese’s upcoming PBS special on blues music, and they also just cut a song for the soundtrack of "Masked and Anonymous," a Bob Dylan movie. They recorded a track for an NRBQ tribute album, and they’ve all got new "day-jobs" as Berlin puts it, scoring the music for television’s "Greeting From Tucson" (on the WB).

Los Lobos’ latest album, Good Morning Aztlan, was recently released on Mammoth Records, and the band will spend the better part of 2003 on tour, including a stop in New Orleans for this year’s Jazz and Heritage Festival. After nearly 30 years as a band, it is apparent that they still keep to a solid work ethic. But hey, "as jobs go, it’s pretty easy," right? Correspondent Benjy Eisen is currently launching a "War on the Idiot Who Stole My Dark Crystal Video." A $500 reward is being offered.

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