East L.A. Fadeaway with Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin
RR: As I currently live in Arizona, and I am hit with some of the issues of its legislation, I wanted to ask you about the boycott of Arizona by Los Lobos. What do you think of the immigration laws in that state, and how does it impact America?
SB: Well, clearly, we think it is idiotic beyond all reckonings. Certainly, we feel we did not observe the boycott without a lot of thought and thinking. The show was on native land so there was a lot of that. And, actually at one point, we tried to make it a benefit for some people that had been arrested on the first day of the law. They were out protesting and got arrested, so we were going to make it into a benefit. But, at the end of the day, the subtlety of us playing a benefit for whomever would have been lost—“Los Lobos Breaks
Boycott”—so we sort of had to weigh that. At the end, we chose not to play. I think as time goes on, we’ll figure out a way to do it, but, for now, it’s a lose/lose situation (laughs) no matter which way you go.
The politics of that state are beyond belief to me. You’re seeing, basically, the lab of the right wing, and the tea party, and all that crap, and this is the kind of America that they envision. It certainly bears no resemblance to anything that’s in the Constitution or anything that has been historically part of this country. As far as I can tell, these people don’t know their fucking history from a hole in the ground, or their own ass, so why would I think they would be cognizant or observant of a tradition of caring and openness?
RR: Los Lobos has also has a long history of community interaction, so this is nothing new, which extends, of course, to their support of Barrios Unidos, an Institute for Peace and Community Development.
SB: Yes. We’re citizens of the planet and citizens of the country so we try to do whatever we can do to make it better.
RR: Indeed. Like many records that I champion—past or present—I noticed the old school splitting of the album into two separate yet equal wholes on Tin Can Trust. That connection made me think of your introduction into the band 27 years ago. [Author’s Note: as a non-member at the time of Los Lobos, Berlin, along with T-Bone Burnett, produced the 1983 EP …And a Time to Dance.]
SB: When we started that record I was still in the Blasters, but I was spending, on balance, more time hanging out with Lobos than I was with the Blasters. Right at that moment, when the record started, it wasn’t like I had a decision to make. Six to eight months or so, as that record unfolded, from the conception to the execution to the release, by the time it came out, I was a member of the band. It was just sort of a quirk, time wise, that when I started, I wasn’t quite in the band, but I got there eventually.
RR: Right, and over the years, Los Lobos has gone through some transformations. For example, there was a period of time in the late 90s when there was a looser feel to the live playing, and the band moved away from that in the last ten years. I was wondering how you view those changes and your role in the band now.
SB: I think to a certain extent we’ve become better musicians. The music’s changed a bit. Certainly adding Cougar Estrada to the drums was huge. That kind of tightened everything and everybody up in an enormous way. He’s an extraordinary musician and he allowed us to do a lot more stuff that we, quite frankly, couldn’t do without him. The grooves got more complex and deeper and cooler in many respects, and it’s just nice to have a guy like that back there—anything that anybody comes up, we can execute with confidence. So I think that was a big part of it. I don’t know. In many respects, it really hasn’t changed from the first moment. I’m still kind of doing all the same stuff I’ve
always done, but I think we’ve just gotten a little more conscious of our own sound to a certain extent, and more responsible, I guess, about that. It’s a hard question to answer. (laughs) I don’t think in many dramatic ways we’ve changed all that much. I think it’s still the same five knuckleheads with the addition of Cougar now. We’re kind of doing the same stuff. Obviously, Louie playing more guitar, less drums, changed a bit. That’s the same thing I’m talking about; the grooves got more complex and deeper and required a little more of a technician back there. I think, over the years, that has been the biggest change—getting someone who could pull off any crazy ass idea we can come up with.
I think we’re all energized by the response to Tin Can Trust. This is what we hoped would happen. Then, there are songs that are getting better every time we play them. They get cooler and cooler, and they sound more burned-in, if you will, each time we play them. I know we’ve been doing this for a long time, but there’s no value-added for having done it (laughs) in my mind, anyway. We’ve approached everything as close to doing it the first time as we possibly can. It’s so nice to have new stuff at this point, new things to put in the set list, and new everything, really. That’s what I am enjoying—being able to integrate it into a set. It’s actually an interesting challenge. It’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle, especially with the Hiatt shows [Author’s Note: Los Lobos recently toured with John Hiatt on a series of dates, and collaborations included Hidalgo, Rosas, and Berlin with Hiatt on two Little Feat songs in memory of the recent passing of drummer Richie Hayward]. You don’t quite have enough time to do them all, and, yet, the guys really want to do them all. (laughs)
RR: It’s a good problem to have.
SB: It’s a good problem to have, so the math of it doesn’t really make sense to play two of them back to back because people aren’t familiar with them, so we can’t do two of them back to back, and that’s just one layer of the jigsaw puzzle. When I do the setlist, I try not to have any of the singers do more than two songs in a row so they don’t get burned out. I think the shows just have a nicer flow when it goes back and forth. You add that layer of complexity to it (laughs) because it is like a Sudoku puzzle where the numbers almost add up, but don’t quite. It is like you said—it’s definitely a good problem to have because the songs are great and they’re fun to play. I think the next step is going to be figuring out ways to segue them, either together, or to other songs. My only personal beef right now when we do them is that I think we make a little bit too big a deal about them: “here comes another new song.” As soon as that effect wears off, and we just start playing the songs, I think they’ll get better.