ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 29, 1987
By Steve Newton
When Michael Jackson struck it huge five years ago with the Thriller LP, the phenomenal success of that album was not only seen as a breakthrough for Jackson himself, but as one for black music in general.
Since then Jackson’s buzz has pretty much dwindled away (just count the copies of Thriller at your nearest used-record store), but the popularity of black artists has never been stronger. (Mike’s sister Janet is one example. Tina Turner, Prince, Robert Cray, Whitney Houston, and Lionel Richie are a few others.)
Well, now there’s a band that is making great strides on behalf of another ethnic group–Mexican-Americans. By fusing Chicano roots with rock and R&B, Los Lobos have developed a no-nonsense rock and roll sound that is winning new fans every day. They’ll be bringing it to the 86 Street Music Hall this Tuesday and Wednesday (June 2 and 3).
“We’re been real lucky,” says drummer/guitarist/songwriter Louie Pérez, on the line from his home on the fringe of East L.A. “Starting with our record company [the independent Slash Records]. They’ve never tried to change us–they just let us do what we need to do.
“It’s in the music industry itself where, historically, the talk of bigotry and racism begins, but we’ve never been manipulated. And the fact that we’ve got a legitimate record deal [with distribution from WEA] says a lot for the changes that are going on in the recording industry. The fact that a band like ours can enjoy modest success shows that the atmosphere for contemporary music has changed a great deal in the last few years.”
With their latest LP, By the Light of the Moon, the success of Los Lobos has proven far from modest. It has already spawned the hit singles “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” and “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)”, and is firmly entrenched in the Billboard Top 100. It is the product of a band that has been playing together for nearly 15 years. (All are original members, with the exception of saxman Steve Berlin, who joined four years ago.)
Perez met singer/guitarists David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, and bassist Conrad Lozano, in high school. They played traditional Mexican folk music at first, then did top-40 stints in L.A. clubs before honing their originals and eventually signing with Slash in 1983.
“We’d been playing around Hollywood a lot,” recalls Pérez. “And there’d been different record companies that were interested, but Slash happened to be the best-suited for what we needed. They were a small label that could give us a personal attention, and at the same time they had distribution with the WEA operation.
“So that was perfect for us, ’cause if we’d have gone with a big label we may have just been lost in the shuffle.”
Slash released the band’s seven-song EP in the fall of ’83, and to everyone’s surprise it garnered a Grammy nomination for the tune “Anselma”. How Will the Wolf Survive followed in ’84, boasting the incredibly cool hit single “Don’t Worry Baby”, and the group toured North American, Europe, Japan, and Australiaia before starting on the latest disc in January of last year. In between times they were invited by Willie Nelson to take part in the Farm Aid benefit concert.
“That was a lot of fun,” says Louie. “X was there, and the Blasters. Just a lot of friends. It was a real sort of team effort for a good cause.”
Like label-mates the Blasters, and many other bands from the Southwestern U.S., Los Lobos are often typecast with the label “roots-rock”, but Pérez says the band has outlived that description.
“Up to now I could respect that idea, but I think with this new record we’ve started to defy that category, really growing into something else. It’s not like we’re selling out on what has got us this far, but all those influences have finally gelled and are creating a sound that’s our very own.”
One person who has helped Los Lobos discover that sound is T-Bone Burnett, the producer of all their records (he also cowrote two tracks on the new album, and did some vocals).
“He’s not really a producer in the purest sense,” says Pérez. “He’s just an easy-going guy who really tries to get the songs to communicate, rather than push the formulas or grooves that a lot of producers go for.”
Other outside musicians that put their mark on the new record are Bryan Adams’ drummer Mickey Curry, former Weather Report percussionist Alex Acuna, and drummer Ron Tutt, who used to pound the skins for a fellow named Elvis Presley.
Pérez, who likes listening to the Replacements, Husker Du, and the Meat Puppets in his spare time, co-wrote seven of the new album’s 11 tracks with Hidalgo, including the next single “One Time One Night”. But it’s not a ‘You do the music, I’ll do the words’ arrangement.
“It’s pretty much down the middle. A lot of times David will come up with a melody and chords, and an idea of a lyric, and then I’ll finish it. Or sometimes it’ll go back and forth until the song’s finally done.”
Perez says that currently the band is working on the possibility of editing “One Time One Night” down for radio airplay. (At 4 minutes, 48 seconds it’s by far the longest cut on the album.) They’ll also, rather hesitantly, start filming a video for the tune.
“We’re not real excited about getting our mugs on camera,” confides Louie with an audible shrug. “But it is part of the deal.”
Anyone who has seen a Los Lobos video or live show–they’ve played the Commodore and Savoy before–knows that the band has somewhat of a tough-guy look about them. They look as though they were made for touring, like they’d eat the rigors of the road for breakfast, but that ain’t necessarily so.
“It’s kinda rough,” admits Pérez, 34. “We all have families and that sort of thing. A lot of it gets played up by the media as being real glamorous, but it’s a hard job that you’ve got to get out there and do. There certainly is a payoff though, when you get out there in front of a crowd that are there a hundred percent for you. That’s really worth all the sacrifice and all the effort that you put into it.”
Although best known for fast-paced rockers like “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes”, there’s another, more inspirational side of Los Lobos. It comes through on the Hidalgo/Pérez composition “Tears of God”, and it’s religious aspect: “Hide not your head/The way to turn/Hear what he once said/He’ll show you the way/For there is a world for you and me/Where the blind too can see/Through the tears of God.”
“Rather than draw particular religious references,” explains Louie, “I’d rather go down as saying that there’s a spiritual thread that runs through this record. It’s about facing yourself–and other people–that we’re trying to convey here.”
Looking back, Pérez gives hs parents a lot of credit for allowing him to face up to his dream of playing music. He also admits that it was a way of keeping him out of trouble in the East L.A. barrio.
“At the time it was the sort of thing that kept us occupied–something constructive rather than destructive. At least we were locked up in our rooms, trying to learn guitar, rather than hanging out on the street with a bunch of guys.”