East L.A. Fadeaway with Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin
RR: True, if you have been doing it this long, it may become easier. But a lot of veteran bands are so far removed from their instincts after a certain period of time. There is too much history with the relationships in the band. And yet, after all these years, Los Lobos continues to find their muse and deliver songs. How are you still able to lock into those original, profound moments as you did on Tin Can Trust?
SB: Well…I think…thank you. I think part of it might be that we don’t really feel, in any regard…the bands you might be referencing are probably bands that have had huge hits, or have had a sound that they are identified with that they feel, to some degree, that they have to either maintain, or retrofit as they get older. Besides “La Bamba,” which was clearly a separate deal, we never really had that issue so there’s never been an identity that we had to live up or down to. It freed us in a lot of respects to basically do whatever we wanted to do, and wherever the albums and the songs lead to, is where we go.
RR: Interesting you mentioned “La Bamba.” If one has followed the career of Los Lobos all down the line, that song and era is occasionally forgotten. It is like the band is this long, epic film, and that was an early scene in the band’s film/career where one goes, “oh, yeah—I forgot about that scene with “La Bamba” because there have been so many other great moments after that.”
SB: (laughs) Yeah, it does seem like an awfully long time ago, doesn’t it? “La Bamba” was always good. It was certainly something we didn’t plan. It was really kind of a mess when they were putting [the film] together. They hadn’t cast the Ritchie [Valens] role, and the entire rest of the movie was shot without a Ritchie role. Every scene that he’s not
in was done before they found him. And then they discovered Lou Diamond Phillips in a San Antonio community summer stock theatre, and had to finish the rest of the movie.
As we were working on it, it was quite literally the last thing in the world that we thought was going to be a hit if you would have seen the confusion that was going down in the making of the movie. I would get called because I was the one who had the job, and we were doing By the Light of the Moon, literally at the same time in the same studio. I was down the hall working on La Bamba, and they were down the hall doing By the Light of the Moon, which clearly at the time we thought was going to be a much larger enterprise. It was amazing. I remember seeing early rough cuts of the movie, and thinking, “Wow, this is really moving. I don’t know how the hell he pulled it off, but it’s actually a good movie. It’s a shame no one’s going to see it.” Shows you how wrong you can be.
RR: I suppose it is often easier to create when expectations are so low.
SB: It was good because, yeah, we didn’t really know what was going to happen. Some of the stuff, for instance, that Dave had to do to sound like Ritchie—had to tune the songs way up to make him sound like a 16-year old—if he had known that the stakes were that high, I think it would have been harder. It was hard enough without anything, but I think if he had known (laughs) how big the movie was going to be, it would have been really hard to do.
RR: Speaking of the classic appeal of Los Lobos’ own material, I feel the band captured that sound, again, on Tin Can Trust’s “The Lady and the Rose.” It’s really quite beautiful—lyrically, of course, and the musical composition, in general.
SB: Yeah, that’s another one of my favorites. The story on that one is that we had done everything else. I may have said “27 Spanishes” was the last song we worked on, but “The Lady and the Rose” was the last song. There were two or three other ideas in play that we were in the process of working on, or sort of the way that “27 Spanishes” was—half a song that needed to be edited into coherency, a very sketchy idea, no lyrics, and, actually, some of them did have lyrics, but no real work had taken place on them. They were all sort of like blank canvases. We were in Fort Worth [Texas]. Half the record was done in L.A., and the other half we were forced to go on the road because David and Cesar were doing this Hendrix tribute tour [Experience Hendrix Tour], and we weren’t done. We had done most of the basics when we had left L.A., but we hadn’t done any of the vocals, very few of the guitar solos, and a lot of the stuff that needed to happen, hadn’t happened yet. We were more or less forced to follow (I was forced into it; Louie [Pérez] and Conrad [Lozano] got to stay home), and I would have to go wherever Dave and Cesar were with a hard drive and find a studio and setup camp, and try to get as much done as we could get done in and around their schedule. It was a bit of a pain in the ass, but we pulled it off.
So we were in Fort Worth, and we had an April 1 deadline. This must have been like the third week in March, and we were about to start working on one of these other tracks, and I was in the other room doing something, and Dave and Louie were in the other room doing something like getting another song ready, and they came in and said, “We’re not going to do this song anymore.” I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “We’re not going to want to do this song anymore. We’re going to write another one, and do another one. We’re going to write a song over the weekend, and do that on Monday.” Wednesday’s the deadline, and nothing at this point on the record had gone down that fast, so I said, “Don’t you think we should do this one as a back up?” And they said, “No, we’ve got another idea.” So, had to trust ‘em. Had to let it go. (laughs) I was really concerned. I didn’t think there was a way in hell it was ever going to come together.
And that’s the song that came together. It was kind of a miracle, a miracle birth, more or less, but I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out. I think that song’s amazing. It’s a very out of character…actually, I shouldn’t say it’s out of character because, in a weird way, Good Morning Aztlán [Los Lobos’ 2002 release] came together in almost the exact same way. We were at the end of the end of the end of the process, and somebody—I’m not sure whose radar, either Dave’s or Louie’s—said, “We need one more idea; we need one more thing that we don’t have yet,” and they come up with it. It’s kind of amazing.
It’s incredible, but I couldn’t be happier with the way [“The Lady and The Rose”] turned out, and that was, literally, just a couple of days back in L.A. We ended up going back to L.A. after the Hendrix tour and the tour of our own, and had a weekend to get that together, and then we were done.