Diplomacy keeps group together

Friendship, trust make life easy for Los Lobos

Artscape

July 25, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

The five members of Los Lobos had recorded 11 new songs and were two days away from the deadline to turn in their latest album when a thought suddenly struck them.

"We sort of had this idea that we weren't quite done," saxophonist Steve Berlin said. "That there was another song hovering out in the ether somewhere."

Singer-guitarist David Hidalgo went back into the studio and recorded a melody that had been in his head, and the group's lyricist Louie Perez took it home to think it over.

"At 5 o'clock, Louie calls and says, `OK, I've got something, and I think it's really, really good. We need to do this,' " Berlin recalled in a phone interview this week from a New York hotel room. "Generally, it takes us a really long time to organize everything, so I said, `Well, if it's meant to be, it's meant to be.'

"So I called Dave, and Dave said, `Well, I just opened a bottle of champagne, and I'm sitting in bed with my wife, but it's you guys calling. I'll come.' Two hours later, we all got together, and in 45 minutes, the song was done. It was just obviously meant to be."

The song that wouldn't be ignored was "Good Morning Aztlan," the catchy title track on Los Lobos' new album, which hit music stores in June and has been collecting rave reviews across the country. Its release coincides with the band's celebration of the 25th anniversary of its first album - 1978's Mexican roots record Just Another Band From East L.A.

This week, the Los Lobos celebration comes to Baltimore, where the band plays Artscape at 8 p.m. tomorrow.

Berlin's recollection of the last-minute creative process this spring illustrates a few of the things that have kept Los Lobos together for almost 30 years - the familiarity, friendship and trust in one another that have made working together just about as easy and casual as planning a family dinner.

Four of the five members - Hidalgo, Perez, bassist Conrad Lozano and guitarist Cesar Rosas - have been friends since high school. They formed Los Lobos in 1973 after discovering a shared passion for combining rock 'n' roll with Mexican traditional music. Berlin joined them in 1983. Today, the group remains so tight-knit that four of the five live within 10 minutes of one another in East Los Angeles. (Berlin lives in Seattle.)

"One of the things that's kept us around this long is that we're a very democratic organization," Berlin said. "Every idea gets heard; everyone's opinion gets voiced. Anybody can stop the train if they feel like they really need to.

"And we're friends," he added. "We actually get along the way you'd hope all friends get along. ... The other thing is, there's very little unfulfilled musical ambition among us. Generally, when I read about people leaving bands, they say it's because, `They wouldn't let me do X or let me do my reggae-haiku-poetry rock-country western-jamboree.' There really isn't much in our group that wouldn't be allowed."

The diplomatic approach led to albums that were vastly different because of the band's interest in experimenting with different genres. Although mainstream America continues to know Los Lobos best for their work on the 1987 La Bamba soundtrack, the group has displayed a varied repertoire. In 1988, it released La Pistola y El Corazon, a tribute to Mexican folk, and albums such as Kiko have combined the music that surrounded them in their childhood with musical twists rooted in blues or even heavy metal.

When it came to creating the new album, Los Lobos sought something different.

"We felt that the records we had made through the '90s were, by design, experimental and extreme and, by design, not about the song in a classic, structural form," Berlin said. "We cared more about the atmosphere and groove and less about the verities of songwriting. ... So we wanted to do something more straightforward - not necessarily simplistic, but something where you didn't need a decoder ring to come and enjoy it."

The result is a collection of songs infused with both Mexican sounds and foot-tapping rock, with poignant lyrics that explore subjects like the deflation of an immigrant's dreams or ancient lore. ("Good Morning Aztlan" refers to the mythical birthplace of the Aztec people. Aztlan was the part of Mexico taken over by the United States in the Mexican-American War of 1846, according to Chicano folklore.)

And some songs seem darker, more personal than Los Lobos' previous work. In the love song "Luz de Mi Vida," Rosas worked with Perez to pen lyrics like "You are forever/light of my corazon," which were inspired in part by the murder of Rosas' wife, Sandra. Her half-brother killed her in 1999 after she told him she wanted him out of her life. And "The Word" talks about "a dark cloud of despair," and how "peace is the only way for us to be" - lyrics that seem to touch on the world post-Sept. 11.

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