Interview: Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin on LA’s native sons, WAR, and how to last forty-years as a band

How a stop-gap album became a statement on Los Lobos’ musical DNA thanks to COVID.

For nearly fifty years Los Lobos have been one of the great curators and stewards of American music, digging deep into the well of influences that informs that sound.  They have infused their music with rock and roll, Tex-Mex, country, zydeco, folk, R&B, blues, brown-eyed soul and combined it with the traditional styles of cumbia, boleros and norteños.  The mix is a wholly original take on Americana and has established Los Lobos as one of the most important bands of a generation.  For their 17th studio album, Los Lobos like much of the world were impacted by the worldwide pandemic and found their plans for a new album blown apart.  The band instead decided to honour one of their greatest influences, their hometown of Los Angeles with a homage of covers inspired by LA artists.  As with Los Lobos’ music, those influences stretch far and wide, and the album, ‘Native Sons’, includes tunes by Jackson Browne, Buffalo Springfield, the Beach Boys, the Blasters, WAR, Willie Bobo, and more.  Los Lobos’ saxophonist and keyboardist, Steve Berlin, checked in with Americana UK’s Tim Newby to discuss the new album, the keys to the band’s success, WAR, Zoom, and what’s next.

It seems so appropriate for Los Lobos to cover artists from LA.  How did the idea for ‘Native Sons’ come about?

We were offered a record deal in late 2019, and at the time we had a busy 2020 planned as far as touring. Normally when we make a record we try to block out about six weeks to get it done and we didn’t have a six-week window nor anything close for most of  ‘20, so we decided we could get a covers record done inside the windows of time we had.  Then we decided to focus the song selection on something so then the LA idea came up and we ran with it.  As it turned out it was kind of perfect for 2020 since we were locked down for long stretches of time.

With Los Lobos’ varied influences I imagine there were many songs you guys debated for the album.  How did you end up choosing the various artists and songs?  What was it that you as a band were looking for in the artists and songs you chose?

When we started, we really weren’t sure if the concept would hold for a whole record so initially, it was just finding songs we could play authoritatively and hopefully bring something too.  I think it was [Buffalo Springfield’s] ‘Bluebird’ followed by [the Blasters’] ‘Flat Top Joint’ followed by the bones of [the Beach Boys’] ‘Sail On, Sailor’ to start.  Once we got rolling it seemed to get easier and then it was trying to cover as many of the influences as we could and before we knew it we had 14 songs.  I was shocked when I realized we had that many.

The opening cover of Thee Midniters ‘Love Special Delivery’ is the perfect way to open the album as it draws a direct and immediate connection to not only Los Angeles, but to the roots of Los Lobos.  What is the importance of Thee Midniters on the development of Los Lobos?

The guys always say they thought Thee Midniters were East LA’s answer to the Beatles.  They were around East LA playing a lot and on TV all the time when they were growing up so it was a big deal. Willie G has been on a few of our records now and we consider him a close friend.

I love the mix of artists you guys cover, but I was especially drawn to WAR’s ‘World is a Ghetto’.  I have always been fascinated with ‘World is a Ghetto’ (probably born from days as a child digging through my parent’s albums and first being sucked into the amazing album artwork).  The song for me highlights the nuisances of Los Lobos and the subtle, restrained power which you guys play with.  What was it about WAR and this song that made it a fit for Los Lobos?

There were a few artists we knew we had to include like The Blasters, Thee Midniters and WAR.  We were making this record during the run-up to the election, so it was kind of an obvious choice.  And we wanted a song we could do sprawling solos on so it fit the bill on a few levels.  WAR was another huge influence on us coming up.  I’m surprised it took us this long to do a WAR cover, to be honest.

I was also captivated by the inclusion of Willie Bobo’s ‘Dichoso’, who I was unfamiliar with, who brought this song to the band and what drew you to Willie Bobo?

That was one [guitarist] Cesar [Rosas] brought to the project.  He had cut it for a solo project I believe so it fits right into what we were doing.

What is the standout track for you?

I like the way [Jackson Browne’s] ‘Jamaica Say You Will’ came out.  Songs with that kind of texture and complex backing vocals are not exactly our wheelhouse so I’m proud of the guys for going deep on that one.  And I just like [Percy Mayfield’s] ‘Never No More’.  It took a while to figure out what the horns were doing so I’m proud of that one as well.

Was the recording for ‘Native Sons’ approached differently due to the pandemic?

The original rationale for the covers record as I mentioned was that we didn’t have the time to commit to an album of originals or so we thought, and then suddenly we had all the time in the world- sort of.  As it turned out it was a good call to do it since we had to work in short bursts around all the LA lockdowns and the travel restrictions etc.  As the only non-LA resident I had to quarantine at home every time I came home even though we got tested before every session which was no fun, but somehow, we got through it all.

What did you guys discover about yourselves as a band as you journeyed into the roots of LA music and worked on this album?

We had some fun riddles to solve so I think doing that was useful and powerful. Figuring out what made a song like ‘Sail On Sailor’ and ‘Jamaica Say You Will’ work so well as records and then trying to make it our own was actually a real challenge. LA is such a unique city obviously, so it was a blast to do the research. We could do a few more volumes now if anyone wanted us to.

What did you guys do during the pandemic to stay connected as a band?

Besides making this record, not a lot.  We had a few hilarious attempts at Zoom meetings, but we soon gave up. Safe to say there’s not a great appreciation for modern technology in the band.  We did a few live streams which were interesting and sometimes fun, but we never got it together to do anything more.

Los Lobos holds such an important place in the pantheon of American music.  Forty-plus years in where do you see your place in the long history of American Music and what do you see as your lasting impact?

That’s hard to answer from the inside without sounding like a pompous ass.  We just put our heads down and go to work when it’s time to and honestly never think about things like the legacy or the place in history. Ever.

Over those four decades together as a band, what has been the key to you guys’ longevity and staying together as a band, when so many other groups burn out, fade away, or implode over internal squabbles?

A few reasons.  One, the band was together for six, seven years playing six-plus times a week all over East LA without anyone on the west side of the LA River having even a clue they existed so you could call those the equivalent of the Beatles Hamburg years, not that we’re in any way like the Beatles, but they worked out a lot of stuff before anyone knew or cared who they were.  Two, we like the sound we make for the most part, and we realise it’s all of us together.  Three, as long as it doesn’t interfere with anything everyone is free to pursue whatever extracurricular projects, they want to so it’s not like there’s some unfulfilled ambition pulling at the threads.  We have arguments and dust-ups like anyone, but we try to forget them quickly and just move on.

As the world seems to be returning to some semblance of normal and live music is returning, what are you most looking forward to getting back to both personally and as a band?

I can only speak for myself on that one.  We’re cautiously optimistic that things will look and feel ‘normal’ soon, and the shows we’ve played recently people seem to be genuinely happy to be out and at our show.  Someone reminded me the other day that the Jazz Age and Art Deco followed the last pandemic so I’m intrigued by the idea that there might be some kind of artistic awakening coming, although the political climate seems to keep shooting down any realistic hopes for a national awakening.

Los Lobos’ ‘Native Sons’ is released on 30th July on New West Records

About Tim Newby 46 Articles
Author of books, writer of words, enjoyer of good times. Often found barefoot at a festival somewhere. Author of 'Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin' Sound & Its Legacy' (2015), 'Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival! (2019) Follow him on twitter @Tim_Newby9 .

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