In 1987, Los Lobos became a global sensation with their rollicking version of the Ritchie Valens classic “La Bamba,” a song that showcased their Mexican American roots. But this East Los Angeles rock quintet is so much more than a hit cover song. Marking 50 years as a band, Los Lobos are known for a sophisticated musical stew that draws in equal measure from rock ’n’ roll and R&B, cumbia and norteño. They’ve released an album of Disney music covers, a collection of Christmas tunes and the iconic Kiko, one of the most exquisite rock sessions of the ’90s. And they’re still touring the world together.
Taking a break from shooting a documentary about their career, band members Cesar Rosas (guitar/vocals), 68, and Louie Pérez (percussion/guitar/vocals), 70, sat down at their East L.A. recording studio to discuss their storied career.
Question: You’ve been making music together for five decades. What keeps you going?
Pérez: The two hours onstage is what you’re doing this for. The other 22 have been hurting for a while, because we’re not kids anymore. We travel so much, and it can get difficult. At the same time, these are my soul brothers, and we were friends even before we were musicians. That’s what keeps it all together.
Q: Los Lobos created a richly layered tapestry of sounds. Was it all planned, or did it emerge organically?
Rosas: We’ve always done whatever we felt like doing, which is really cool. I think we sort of beat the system. We were always organic, man. Nothing more, nothing less. If we’re going to do this and you don’t enjoy it, that’s cool. If you do like it, we thank you for it.
Q: Your biggest hit, “La Bamba,” was first recorded by Ritchie Valens, who died in a plane crash at 17, in 1959. Do you feel like you’re carrying the torch for him?
Pérez: Now that I’m older, I feel a lot of empathy for him. He was a young kid caught in the middle of rock stardom. He was out on the road and wasn’t used to it. We experienced similar feelings. We’d never been anywhere, but we jumped in a van and drove across America. It was the same kind of experience.
Q: Is it still fun to play “La Bamba”?
Rosas: We retired it quite a few years back. We hung it up and decided to forget about it. But people still love that song, you know. And if you don’t play it, they get disappointed. We didn’t want to upset anybody, so we brought it back.
Q: Has the presence of Latin music in the U.S. mainstream changed in the past couple of decades?
Rosas: It’s a bigger market, all across the board.
Pérez: And it moves around in all these different styles. It’s not all reggaeton or cumbia or ranchera. Some of these kids are playing traditional music, and they look like they discovered punk rock last week.