What makes a happy musical marriage? Is it selflessness, hard work, or perhaps simple luck? In the case of Los Lobos, the answer may be all of the above. Founded by high school amigos David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez in 1973, Los Lobos started as an experiment in blending rock with traditional Mexican music and ended up stumbling on a major cultural niche and a rabid following in Los Angeles. After solidifying their lineup with the addition of guitarist Cesar Rosas, bassist Conrad Lozano, and Steve Berlin on saxophone and keyboard, the quintet spent the rest of the decade putting out a string of commercially successful releases, including their iconic cover of Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba.” By the time the ’90s rolled around, Los Lobos were touring internationally with artists like the Grateful Dead, U2, and Bob Dylan, all while flirting with new genres like psych-rock and R&B. Today, they are no less a band than a cultural institution, but they certainly have not forgotten the people they represent. On August 30, the Grammy Award–winning group will take to the Lobero Theatre to support the Notes for Notes foundation. I took a call from Berlin, who is also an independent record producer, to talk about survival, sustenance, and what it means to be a band for 40 years.
The fifth and final wolf to join the pack, Berlin’s coming in 1984 may have been the turning point for Los Lobos. The same year saw the release of their major-label debut, How Will the Wolf Survive?, one of their more critically acclaimed albums to date. So how did the wolf survive?
“For one, we were really, really lucky,” said Berlin from his home in Portland, Oregon. “We’ve been blessed with a fairly stable career, and not too many crazy ups and downs. And we like the sound we make. It’s a big part of being in anything for 30, 40 years — on some level, you have to really like what you do. It’s really not that hard to get through the ups and downs when you realize you’re a part of something that’s a little bigger than whatever today’s argument happens to be.”
Certainly Los Lobos’ big picture has been expanded by their history of charitable work. In addition to their upcoming gig with Notes for Notes, an area nonprofit that provides kids with free access to musical instruments, instruction, and recording studio environments, the band works with a number of other charities.
“I’d like to think we’re good civic citizens,” said Berlin. “We have a scholarship program that we administer for at-risk kids in L.A. There’s also a group in L.A. called Plaza de la Raza that we do a benefit for pretty much every year. It’s basically a Hispanic arts center and program based in East L.A. that helps to reaffirm and educate the Hispanic youth and culture.”
When he’s not gigging with Los Lobos, Berlin can be found in the studio, working with any artists who approach him as a producer or instrumentalist. A quick glance at a list of past coworkers speaks to the breadth of his skills: Sheryl Crow, R.E.M., The Dandy Warhols, John Lee Hooker, Faith No More, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth, to name a few. As for Lobos records, Berlin had a hand in producing a few, including 1987’s By the Light of the Moon, but as he explained, the role has become something of a communal effort.
“We all are [involved] now,” he imparted. “We haven’t used a producer other than ourselves for a number of years. … So I don’t want to say it’s easy, but as a producer myself I think it’d be really hard for someone from the outside to deal with what we do at this point. We sort of have this process down now where we know how to get there.”
After 30-odd years together, it’s difficult to imagine a more efficient creative process. But what’s left for the wolves to explore?
“We’re about to re-release the 20th anniversary of our album Kiko [and the Lavender Moon], which I’m looking forward to, and I guess once that cycle completes, we’ll have to think about commemorating our 40th year as a band, because that’s what 2013 will be. To be honest, we don’t spend a lot of time reminiscing. This whole Kiko thing I think is about as close to sentimental as we’ve gotten, and that’s just because we sort of have to. [Laughs.] But, like I said, it’s our 40th anniversary next year, so I’m sure we’ll come up with something.”
Los Lobos headline a benefit show for Notes for Notes this Thursday, August 30, at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). The show starts at 7 p.m. with opener Joe Bonamassa. For tickets and info, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com. For more on Notes for Notes, visit notesfornotes.org.