East L.A. Fadeaway with Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin
Los Lobos recently released their first studio album of new material in four years with the live-sounding, vigorous, and deceptively diverse Tin Can Trust. Ostensibly just a collection of tunes crafted in the Lobos normal manner of coming in the studio with only abstract ideas and no songs whatsoever, the band, again, miraculously pulled 11 tracks from their generous muse’s bag of audio tricks, and crafted another fine document. Indeed, the album, with basic tracks and other elements recorded mainly in East L.A., has a rich, wizened flavor to it, while also signaling a return to the band’s cultural roots—both geographically, and with its longstanding tradition of getting a song’s essence, its true spirit, down on tape after only a few takes.
Jambands.com caught up with keyboardist/saxophonist Steve Berlin, while the band was on tour with John Hiatt. Collaborations ensued on the road as Berlin, along with Lobos guitarists David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, often joined Hiatt to play on a Little Feat song in tribute to their fallen compadre, the late drummer Richie Hayward. Live, Los Lobos is still a formidable force with a large catalogue of songs which resonate. What is most intriguing is Tin Can Trust allows the band much more freedom to explore even more sonic terrain on stage with the added problem of having many choices to make when one sits down and writes a setlist. Berlin is an honest, witty and engaging gent who has now played with the band for 27 years after a stint in the L.A.-based Blasters, and co-producing the 1983 Lobos EP, …And a Time to Dance with T-Bone Burnett. The musician discusses the construction of the band’s new album with warm and detailed candor. He also displays an astute mind about how the band’s music has always appeared to weave an interesting spell around audiences without ever trapping the band in their own collective identity. In the end, Los Lobos has remained a defiantly independent music force, outside the mainstream, because they know no other way.
RR: Why did Los Lobos decide to go back to basics, and return to their East L.A. studio roots to record Tin Can Trust?
SB: The story goes that basically what it was was that we had spent the better part of a decade recording at Cesar’s [Rosas] house where we had set up a studio. It wasn’t optimum, but it worked fine for us. He moved. He sold that house, and moved away. His new place was not going to work for the way we record; a little bit too small, and the configuration was a little too bizarre to try and record the way we record these days. We knew we had to go some place, and our engineer [Shane Smith], a guy I had worked with before, had recommended this place in East L.A. He said, “It’s really special, we like it, just bear with it. Don’t go by your first impression because it looks like shit. (laughter)
And he was right. There’s nowhere to sit. We had to actually bring in a couch to have somewhere to sit, other than a couple of folding chairs. It’s basically a punk rock studio that has this really cool sound [Manny’s Estudio]. But once you get around the fact that it doesn’t really look like much, it really sounds great, and that was the main thing. Then,
we realized that the salient feature was going to be the fact that we could set up and play live, which we never do at Cesar’s house. It was just a little bit too small. We started that way, and pretty much tried to address every song that way. We adapted [to the studio], and it was great. I’d go back there in a second. I think part of it, too, was that the guys were going back to the old neighborhood every day, and, in some way, that definitely informed the record. I know the vibe was there, and there was a lot of reflection going on.
RR: How did that atmosphere inform the material and the way the band played?
SB: This wasn’t the first time we’ve shown up with nothing, really. At this point, it’s sort of become our stock-in-trade, I guess. (laughter) There were no real songs, per se, so David [Hidalgo] would start with an idea, which would turn into a song, and Cesar would start with an idea, which would turn into a song, so, I guess, we just filled it out from whatever there is. In a weird way, that’s like the only way we know how to start now. Once that gets going, then an idea turns into a song, and that turns into another idea, and that turns into a song, and once you get through the first two or three days of it, that’s not so bad. But, initially, at least, the first couple days are terrifying because there feels like there is no point to it. We’re out of ideas; we might as well go home, call it quits, and never bother to record again. But, somehow or another, a muse always shows up and shows us the way.
RR: Let’s discuss the new album by starting off with the ethereal closing track, “27 Spanishes”—it is tough, confident, and fragile. I love the whole vibe, especially the organ sound which creates a certain atmosphere inside the track.
SB: That one was a demo of Dave’s so he’s actually playing everything on that—keyboards, drums, and the guitar. A couple of songs from this record were done that way; not all of them were done live. That was one that just had a cool flavor to it, and it was the last one to get finished. It just took a while to figure out what it was. The demo itself needed some editing, so we sort of had to cut it up so it made coherent sense, but those sounds are just Dave’s wacky crap he has in his house. He’s got a great demo process. He doesn’t let any of us observe it, but I know there’s lots of pedals involved, and I know there’s an 8-track tape recorder involved because that is how he has to play it back.
Let me think about that. Actually…there’s an organ and there’s a…the sound you might be referencing, believe it or not, is me playing a clarinet sample. Yeah. There’s an organ and I forgot about the clarinet sample. I don’t know what the hell it is—probably a Mellotron, a clavinet, or something like that, through an amplifier. There are a couple of layers of percussion, too. If I’m not mistaken, there are a couple of things where we said, “Cougar, do something,” and he just did stuff. (laughter) And then it was sung, and then it was done. The solo, the guitar, the drums—all that stuff—is all Dave. That’s him playing at the end there, and then dropping the sticks. We just thought it was a cool way to end the whole record (laughs)—just bizarre, suddenly getting up from the drum kit and walking away.
RR: Yes, and then there is the almost polar opposite on “Jupiter or the Moon”—ambient, impressionistic, and quite moving, it’s a song that sounds like it was always out there like many classic tunes.
SB: Thank you. Yeah, it’s one of my favorites. That was probably the second song that we did. The first couple of days Cesar had a song which may have been the very first one, and then Dave sat down and started playing [“Jupiter or the Moon”]. That could be the first take so that could be why it has that flavor. He kind of said, “Follow me,” and it was done with the standup bass and the drums, and I think it was all in one room, too. The piano was on it, too, and, yes, it was all basically in the same room. As the record enfolded, we ended up moving it to a different room, but I think the first couple days, we had it all in the same room so I think that’s why it might have some of that flavor to it.
We got lucky on a couple of those. “Tin Can Trust” was first take, “West L.A. Fadeaway” was first take. I guess when you do it for this long somehow or another you just develop telepathy of pulling that off. (laughs) That’s all I can figure because we didn’t know the songs. We had never rehearsed them. We just had an extremely vague idea of how they went.