Los Lobos have always had an outsider approach to American roots music, infusing plenty of their cultural perspective into the mix. It’s an approach that’s served them well through the band’s four-plus decades.
The 2015 album “Gates of Gold” (the band’s 17th studio effort and first in five years), did what virtually every Los Lobos rock-oriented album has done – mixing hard-edged blues (“Mis-Treater Boogie Blues”), squeeze-box kissed cumbia (“Poquito Para Aqui”) and sweet ballads (“Magdalena”) into a gumbo that reflects the band’s bluesy rock roots and Mexican-American heritage. And like many of the superlative albums (1984’s “How Will the Wolf Survive?,” the innovative 1992 release “Kiko” and 2004’s “The Ride”) released by this East Los Angeles band, “Gates of Gold” garnered plenty of positive acclaim for its mix of music.
Now the quintet is getting the chance to showcase a new song or two with a career-spanning song set as the group tours this fall. For saxophone player/keyboardist Steve Berlin, the band is at a great point in its history after more than 40 years of playing live and in the studio.
“When you do it as long as we’ve been doing it, it’s not like we’re on some dramatic growth pattern. We have our friends and our fans. We’re in a happy spot, right in the middle,” Berlin explained. “We can tour as much as we want to. If someone would have told me in the beginning that this is where we’d be in 40 years, I don’t think anyone would have said, ‘No thanks, this is not a good deal.’ Believe me, we know how lucky we are to be able to make a living doing this.”
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The California outfit’s prolific recording and touring finally landed them a deserved Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination (they were passed over), but the band’s embrace of Mexican folk music has also been around from the beginning, dating back to when David Hidalgo, guitarist/singer Cesar Rosas, guitarist/percussionist Louie Perez and bassist Conrad Lozano were classmates at Los Angeles’ Garfield High School back in the early 1970s. (Berlin joined in the early 1980s after a stint in the great roots rock band, the Blasters.)
The knowledge of Mexican music came in handy following the band’s breakout success when they hit the top of the charts with the soundtrack to the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic “La Bamba.” Short-sighted people around the band were happy to suggest embracing being pigeonholed by that major hit cover song, an idea that didn’t sit well with the band. The Los Lobos response was to cut “La Pistola y El Corazon,” an acoustic full-length featuring Spanish-sung Mexican folk songs.
“I remember there was a little bit of dissension among people around us at that time that it was a really idiotic idea and no one was going to want to hear (’La Pistola y El Corazon’),” Berlin recalled. “And they couldn’t understand following up a multimillion selling record with something like that, but that’s exactly why we did it. There would never be a better time to do something like this when arguably people would be paying closer attention than if we had done it 10 years later. I think it was a genius move on our part. I think it turned out great.
“What was kind of funny was that some of the idiots around us were like, ‘You need to do “La Bamba II.” ’ And it was like, ‘Do you people realize that we basically did all the songs the guy wrote,’ which was about 18?” he said. “When he (Valens) died, he was 17. Where would you like us to get ‘Volume II’ from? We did 12 of his 16 songs. It’s amazing how stupid some of the (suggestions) we heard in that year were.”
With “Gates of Gold” representing the end of the band’s two-album contract with 429 Records, Los Lobos face an unknown future label-wise. It’s all part of a music industry landscape that’s shifted dramatically and seen the band record for six different labels. It’s a brand new world that Berlin admits he’s been observing as someone who has worked on many outside projects, and the possibility of self-releasing music is an option.
“What our next record would be or how we do it, is kind of a daunting thing to think about,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it just to see what we can pull off on our own.”