Los Lobos Look Back at Kiko
When, in 1992, Los Lobos entered the studio to follow-up 1990’s low-selling and vastly underappreciated_The Neighborhood_, they did so with the attitude that this was ‘just another record.’ Likely humility from the four Chicano high school friends from East L.A. and their fifth musketeer Steve Berlin, but what resulted was Kiko, a beautifully written and sonically brilliant collection of 16 songs that effectively separated itself from the rest of the rock world, and Los Lobos from the perception of being just the La Bamba band. Now, twenty years later, those same five- Berlin, Louie Perez, David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, and Conrad Lozano- are at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, to perform Kiko in its entirety before a capacity crowd of Museum supporters, fans, and VIPs, honoring the release of the 20th anniversary edition of the groundbreaking album and its live CD and DVD/Blu-Ray counterparts. Prior to soundcheck, the band shared some time while relaxing backstage.
Kiko was released at a time when the CD medium was becoming ubiquitous, and with it, much longer running times than on LP, afforded by the space on disc. Kiko’s 16 songs likely would’ve been a double-album in the vinyl era. Did you go in thinking you had a double-album, or was it just a matter of having more space available?
Louie Perez How many songs did we start off with?
Steve Berlin Seven.
So, you didn’t know what it was to become?
Perez No. We just kept going.
Berlin We certainly did not set out to make a long record. Once the ball got rolling, it just kind of went there.
The momentum in the studio was unexpected, then?
Berlin You can never expect momentum in the studio. It’s a good way to screw everything up. We never expect anything. My memory was we weren’t even conscious of how many tracks there were until we started to sequence them. It was like, wow. It didn’t seem like it was that hard to do, so I wasn’t sure how we got to that many songs.
Probably a good sign.
The sequencing of the record creates a terrific flow. Was the sequencing a band decision?
Cesar Rosas Sure. We cared about it.
Perez That’s when people cared about sequencing.
Hidalgo We would take it home, listen to it, and make suggestions.
So, did you have to make decisions, or did everything that you had done find a space on the record?
Berlin There were no outtakes.
Perez We didn’t have anything extra. We just stopped when we felt like it was over.
Berlin The song “Rio De Tenampa,” which is on the record; there were two versions that we actually cut. It wasn’t full here (on the record). We actually ended up compressing that.
I’m glad you brought that up. On the 20th anniversary edition there is the full version of “Rio” with the English verses and Spanish chorus, whereas on the original is the short version with only the Spanish chorus which I thought really captured the spirit of the record. How did you arrive at that decision to do that?
Perez It was written with the English verses and Spanish chorus. We had the full version of that recorded, but then we chose to bookend the record, end the record, with just the chorus part.
So an artistic choice, like a coda?
Perez Yeah. End it with this phrase and then have it go out with a bang.
This was coming just shortly after a period of huge commercial success with La Bamba, and here you were making, for the time, a very different record. How risky did you feel was Kiko ?
Berlin When we started doing the demos, we liked what we were doing, but I remember when we cut the first seven songs and played it for (Warner Brothers record label president) Lenny Waronker, it was a tense moment. We had to be prepared for him to say, ‘Guys, it’s too weird.’ Or, ‘Go to Plan B.’ I don’t know what the hell Plan B would have been. It wasn’t like we felt, ‘Hey, man, check this out. We nailed this.’ We were more like, ‘I hope he doesn’t tell us to go start again.’
Perez I played the stuff for Lenny, and he called me up said, “Okay, Louie, what’s up? What kind of record are you making here?’ I said, ‘Lenny, do you remember (Marvin Gaye’s) What’s Going On?’ He said, ‘I know what you are talking about.’ I’m not comparing ourselves to Marvin Gaye, but he was moving into unchartered territory for soul music.
That’s an interesting analogy, given that What’s Going On comes after a period of great commercial success with Gaye’s duets with Tammi Terrell, not unlike your pop success with La Bamba .
Perez Exactly. There was no way anybody would expect this coming from four Chicanos from East L.A. In the larger sense, I think it freaked out a lot of people, but this not a self-indulgent record. It is not a pretentious record. This is a record that is so expansive that it includes everyone.
I feel like the seeds of Kiko were planted on The Neighborhood. Would you agree?
Perez I think we had a sense that something was going on, and I think it started with “Angel Dance” (from The Neighborhood ). I remember when David and I were first messing with that it felt like it was going somewhere.
Hidalgo We were trying to do something different. Every album we try not to repeat ourselves. We were playing trash cans in the alley, trying to find something out of the ordinary. The trouble we had with the record company- they didn’t trust us as producers. The album ( The Neighborhood ) sat in the can for like six months, and by the time it came out, they killed the kick for us. I like the songs, but the shit that was going on around it spoiled it, for me.
Then, were you all solidly behind this and ready to make a stand or did you think you might need to do something else?
Berlin We were just hoping for the best. We felt good about it, but my memory of out it was walking into his office and mentally crossing my fingers. I was hoping we didn’t have to go re-think this whole idea.