En español | New Orleans has jazz, Chicago has blues, Nashville has country, Detroit has soul and Los Angeles has, well, the whole jukebox. Los Angeles's musical identity is as wildly diverse, heterogeneous and sprawling as the city itself, and no act embodies that limitless range more fully than Los Lobos. Since forming in 1973, the East L.A. band has defied labels with its audacious brew of rock, R&B, soul, punk, country, surf, folk and Latin sounds.
Now, the band writes a love letter home. Native Sons, Los Lobos’ 17th full-length album, pays homage to the band's home turf with a dizzying array of tunes by Los Angeles musicians: the Beach Boys's “Sail On, Sailor,” Jackson Browne's “Jamaica Say You Will,” War's “The World Is a Ghetto,” Thee Midniters's “Love Special Delivery,” The Blasters's “Flat Top Joint,” Don and Dewey's “Farmer John,” plus beloved Spanish-language chestnuts and one original, “Native Son.”
The songs and artists fueled the imagination of band members David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez Jr., Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano and Steve Berlin, who all spent decades marinating in a musical metropolis from the early 1970s playing neighborhood parties and the punk and college circuits. The band cracked the mainstream with 1984's How Will the Wolf Survive?, won three Grammys for its cover of Ritchie Valens's “La Bamba” from the 1987 biopic, then dodged pigeon holes with such acclaimed works as 1992's arty psychedelic Kiko, 2002's roots-rocking Good Morning Aztlán and 2015's boldly eclectic Gates of Gold.
To get an inside look at the new album and understand the secret to their longevity as a group and musicians, AARP talked to the band's longtime member, sax player Steve Berlin.
What makes L.A. such a musical melting pot?
It's a hive of ideas. You have people bringing ideas from so many places and cultures, as opposed to Memphis or Chicago, where there's a regional concept that informs the music. In New Orleans, the music you make is going to be part of the city's continuum. In L.A., there isn't really a historical continuum that you can tap into.
How did that shape Los Lobos?
We felt like we just needed to represent ourselves. We're not trying to represent a historical anything. One of the things that was cool about making this record is that we were able to represent so many genres. Once we started the ball rolling, it was obvious there was an unbelievable wealth of material. We could have done three records. The discovery process was fun for all of us. One thing I feel we missed was something that highlighted how much punk rock of the ‘80s influenced us. A lot of those guys were our fans. We just couldn't find a song and ran out of time.
Has the band's genre-hopping ever limited its audience?
It's one of the things that's kept us around this long. We don't just do one thing. We've done folkloric records and hard-rocking records. Native Sons is all over the place. To their credit, our fans seem on board with that and have expressed nothing but support for us going wherever the proverbial muse takes us. They sign up for the whole package. As far as people not understanding that, it's more on them than on us. “La Bamba,” our biggest hit, was clearly a one-off. There was no expectation of the next song sounding like that.
How did ‘Native Sons’ get started?
We were touring when we signed a record deal with New West in the fall of 2019. The normal window for us to make a record is two months, and we didn't have that window. The thought was: How about a covers record? We could do it in fits and starts between tour dates. Little did we know what would happen in 2020. The L.A. theme was my idea. A focus, even a broad focus, keeps us in a lane and gives us something to talk about at the end of the process.
How did you deal with recording during the pandemic?
We started in February, then, boom, everything shuts down. Touring and traveling is done, obviously. As things opened up a bit, we were able to get together again. The studio we used in East L.A. is big, so we were able to spread out. We had a nurse test us before every session. We wore masks. We took every precaution we could, and we were able to pull it off. I was working quite a bit last year. I started a few records before the lockdown that I was able to finish. I made three records with people I never met.
You're non-Hispanic, Jewish, from Philadelphia and came aboard 11 years after Los Lobos was founded. Did you ever feel like the odd man out?
In Philadelphia, I had zero exposure to Latin culture. When I left, there wasn't a Mexican restaurant there. But the guys were so welcoming from the beginning. I didn't feel like an outsider. And our families are very similar. We're all second-generation Americans. My grandparents came from Russia. Theirs came from Latin America. We're also informed by ‘60s underground radio. And we were all fans of Fleetwood Mac and weird British pop bands. There was more commonality than you would think. That's one of the things we wanted to say with this record.
Was there debate on which Beach Boys song to cover?
We're all Beach Boys fans but Conrad was adamant that we do a Mike Love song and we settled on “Sail On, Sailor” to keep him happy. That one presented the biggest challenge to make our own.
Mainstream pop hits are 180 degrees from Lalo Guerrero's “Los Chucos Suaves” and Willie Bobo's “Dichoso,” both of which you cover on ‘Native Son.’
Songs like these are big hits in East L.A. and nowhere else. “Dichoso” goes back to the wedding era when the band played it two or three times a night. Lalo was a big influence on the guys growing up and a big part of Mexican culture in the ‘50s. He was a zoot-suiter, a political gadfly and a promoter of East L.A. culture doing these funny, R&B-influenced records, kind of a combination of Elvis Presley and Mort Sahl. We did a children's album (Papa's Dream) with him. There were a few people we knew we'd highlight: Lalo, War, The Blasters. Those were no-brainers.
With COVID rising again, how nervous are you about touring?
Come August, we'll be playing every weekend for a year. I feel generally safe. I doubt we'll all feel as safe as we did before we heard the word COVID. I probably read too much about variants. It feels like the vaccine is effective against everything that's showed up so far.
Explain the band's longevity.
There were seven years of hard work before anybody outside of their neighbors knew who Los Lobos was. The band would literally just play around East L.A. and then they got involved doing concerts for these emerging Chicano studies programs in the University of California system. They labored and learned songs and studied these traditions and grew up outside the spotlight. They worked out a lot of stuff, like how to be together and not be at each other's throats. And the guys had families really young. When they showed up on the scene, they had two or three babies at home. Nobody was footloose and fancy free. We never did the no-fixed-address, three months on the road kind of tour, which makes you hate your bandmates. The third thing is there's never any unfulfilled ambition. I can do an a capella barbershop record. There are no limits as long as you show up when it's time to hit the road or record.
Edna Gundersen, a regular AARP music critic, was the longtime pop critic for USA Today.