By: Dennis Cook
Press play on Tin Can Trust (released August 3 on Shout! Factory), the 13th studio album from Los Angeles-based titans Los Lobos, and one would never guess it was the output of a group that's been chugging away for 36 years and counting. An atmosphere of complete, engaged excitement permeates the 11 new tracks, which are both instantly identifiable as Los Lobos and sumptuously different in hard to pinpoint ways. This band's creative gusto is slippery like that; a patient process that's still evolving after nearly four decades, but still inescapably forward rolling at all times. Tin Can Trust ranks as one of their best and offers proof of their continued vibrant relevance.
|Los Lobos 2010 by Drew Reynolds|
There's a subtle trust built with their dedicated fan base, many of whom have been on this ride nearly as long as David Hidalgo (vocals, guitar, violin, accordion), Louie Perez (guitar, drums, vocals), Cesar Rosas (guitar, vocals), Conrad Lozano (bass, vocals) and "new guy" Steve Berlin (keys, saxophones), who joined in 1984. In every regard, these guys are top-notch players with nearly unerring instincts, and they possess one of the under-sung songwriting teams of the past 25 years in Hidalgo/Perez. Like kindred spirits the Grateful Dead, Los Lobos hungrily and uniquely melds diverse American musical elements, creating a sound that draws from the blues, country, classic rock, Latin, soul and experimental fields without being stuck in any of them – thus truly making rock 'n' roll live up to its original, expansive, rules shattering intentions.
Steve Berlin sat down with us to discuss their latest offering, finally nailing the Dead's "West L.A. Fadeaway," the freedom at the core of the band and more.
JamBase: What I really like about Tin Can Trust is there's a sustained energy. It feels like an album, which is becoming less the norm. Often it's a song here, a song there, digested in bits through downloads. In general, Los Lobos has always made albums that hang together as a collection or moment in time.
Steve Berlin: We're album guys. God knows we spent every minute of our formative years listening to records and appreciating it that way. So, when it came time to make our own I couldn't imagine we'd think to do it any differently. It's built in to us. But it is a lost art. Nobody seems to give a shit about it anymore.
What I notice, too, is people import things into the iTunes or MP3 library and [albums] go in backwards, so the last song plays first and you're literally listening to it in the exaxt OPPOSITE order than the artist intended. I stress out a lot over it, and the guys in my band hear about it a lot, but I'm glad some people appreciate the effort [to make albums] because sometimes it feels like you're yelling into a void.
JamBase: I'm always struck by the sonic curiosity of Los Lobos' studio work. You guys seem interested in keeping sound alive and engaged. You definitely use the studio as another member of the band.
Steve Berlin: We have our own little quirks we've discovered over the years that make us happy [laughs]. There's a certain quality, though this [new] record sounds different to me; it doesn't sound like anything we've done, period, really. It's not like we set out to do anything differently but I can't quite pinpoint or understand yet what exactly that difference is.
I have the same sense, though pinning it down in words is a much more slippery prospect. It reminds me of my initial reaction when Kiko came out, and I went, "Wow, this is unique!"
That one we knew was unique. We knew it as we were doing it as it came together in this really interesting way. These days, we spend zero time planning. We just pick a day on the calendar and all show up at the studio. So there was no sense of overarching mission. It was just really time to make a new album and we pushed it to the 11th hour, 59th minute, as we usually do [laughs]. So, we just went after it and the whole record came together. Always, always, always, up until the minute it's actually done, I done have any sense of it being "really there." We're always sweating it to the last possible second.
And in some cases, like this one and the last one [The Town and the City (2006)], we get to the end and realize there's a track or a vibe missing, something we need to address. With this one, we really fell in love with the room at this studio in East L.A. that had no-frills whatsoever. A ping-pong table was our dining area, and it's a really funky place but it sounded great. There wasn't anything to do but work in there – no Xboxes or internet – so it kept everybody's brain engaged. So, listening back to it, we had three other songs in the oven, but none of them were recorded live – they were basically done from David's demos, which is one of the things that make us sound the way we sound. Whenever we use one of David's demos it has a very identifiable quality to it. He uses some really ancient technology to get his sounds. You can hear it on "On Main Street," "Do The Murray" and "27 Spanishes" on this one as way of illustration. So, we had 2 or 3 of those in various states of readiness but the feeling was, as cool as these were – and some of them were extremely cool – we really wanted to get one more track that captured that room. And that's where "The Lady and The Rose" came from, and it's one of my favorite songs on the record.
The whole last stretch on Tin Can Trust from "West L.A. Fadeaway" down just glides and that song slots in perfectly.
It's a really cool one, and with that one it really was 11th hour, 59th minute. I think we had to hand it in on a Tuesday and it was Friday that we decided to write a song, record it, overdub and mix it by the following Tuesday. But we did it! And the exact same thing happened on the last record with "The Road To Gila Bend" and "Free Up," both of which were really important to that record. The craziest one ever was for Good Morning Aztlán, which didn't have that [title track] on it. It was Friday morning of the last week and it had to be handed in that afternoon or the next day. That was crazy but David said, "I've got something." It was Friday in L.A. on a holiday weekend, I thought it probably wasn't going to happen but called around to see. Lo and behold, the studio was available and [drummer] Pete Thomas was available. All these miraculous things came together and the whole track went from conception to completion in about four hours. And by inception I mean a sketchy chord sequence that became a finished track.
It's cool that veterans like you still compose on-the-fly like that.
It's not the way to do it! It's stupid [laughs]! I'm not sure it would have been any better if we'd had the luxury of time, but my point is there's always something that seals the deal at the very end of every record.
Has that become a superstition in the band?
I really wasn't aware of it until I sat down and started thinking about it today.
Sorry to stir that up! But the missing ingredient that arrives at the final moments of creation has a long tradition in music and art in general. It's often the final catalyst to make a work really live.
I think this new record shows a sense of hope amid the ruins. That's probably little too heavy, but hope amongst the current economic state, at least. The whole notion of "Tin Can Trust" is you got nothing but love to give.
I've always had the sense of Los Lobos as a working band. Other than that one brief period during La Bamba, the sense has been of a band putting their shoulder into it to make a living and doing what they want creatively.
You certainly have that right! It's what we do. A real let's-go-do-it work ethic; no one has to tell us to work. It's a fairly rare trait. Once a lot of bands get a record deal I think it's not hard work. It shouldn't be a death march but I don't there's anything wrong with showing it's a process born of workmanship. We have a lot of really amazing moments where we get a magical first take, but they were set up by hours & hours of work. We got that first take because we did a lot of thinking and preparation, at least psychically, to get us to that place.
You guys have managed to go your own way for an awfully long time. In fact, I don't think Los Lobos has ever played to any sensibilities outside the band, but ever more so as the years have piled up.
Part of what you've said is true. We certainly appreciate the people who support us, but we're not really thinking about whether the fans will support an idea or song, and I've worked with bands for whom that's all-day work, where each session is full of, "My fans won't understand this or why I'm doing it" or "This is too crazy for my fans." Sheesh, give 'em a break. Just be an artist for god's sake. They aren't going to kill you or throw you back just because they don't like you putting a fuzz-box on your voice. Some people get very protective of what they think their fans will or won't accept, and we've always assumed – literally assumed – that wherever we wanted to go a healthy portion, if not all, of our fans will like to go there, too, because that's where we wanted to go.
|Los Lobos 2010 by Drew Reynolds|
Sure. A lot of my favorite Los Lobos stuff is the weird corners of the catalogue. I have an enduring fondness for the strangest cuts on Colossal Head. I like when Los Lobos just opens the box of mayhem.
So do we [laughs]. I think that comes from the sense that people won't flip out on us or call us crazy. We care but at the same time we think people will take our lead and let us go wherever our muse thinks it's a good idea to go.
There's little comfort points, too. You guys have become known as interpreters of the Grateful Dead catalog. You choose your points well, like the version of "West L.A. Fadeaway" on the new album, which is a song that suits you well.
Honestly, we're fans but I have friends that are completely obsessed. They can hear three-bars and know what show it is. It's amazing, that level of respect, but we're not obsessives. Our homage is as much about our friendship with them, especially Jerry, as much as being fans of the band. And as we get on, we see in the Dead where we'd love to be – a band that can make quality music year after year and never look back. It ain't easy. So, the respect for us is really profound, and we wanted to do ["West L.A."] for them and the fans, since we obviously share quite a few. We'd trying playing it for a long time and really screwed it up like you wouldn't believe [laughs]. I think it was Cesar that said, "Why don't we actually learn the song, if for no other reason that whenever we play it we won't keep fucking it up?" We thought that was a pretty sound strategy.
Los Lobos seems to have fun when you tackle other people's material, and that's tangible to listeners.
We don't feel any compelling reason to do it the same way they did it, like a Richard Thompson or Tom Waits, which is the best it'll ever be. But, if there's a song that inspires us – and again, it's as much about friendship as it is anything else – we'll give it a try. They're our pals, and when the opportunity comes up to do one of these things we say, "Sure!" and then we take it apart and put our own spin on it. We wouldn't try to do anybody's song, friend or not, and have it sound like them. We want it to sound like us. That's what we're here for. That's what it ought to be.
That'd be a tremendous traveling caravan – you guys, Richard Thompson and Tom Waits – like a modern day version of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue.
Yeah, that'd be fun. I'd shell out a few bucks for that.
What do you think has contributed to Los Lobos' longevity? You've been there for about 26 years and everybody else has been there since the early seventies.
Number one, we don't think about it all that much. There's not like a calendar with pages flying off of it. I think it harkens back to not being kept in one place by anything – fans, labels, managers - none of the stuff that halts your artistic expansion. There's never been a time when we felt we had to do something we didn't want to do. That helps a lot because you're never trapped by anything, which promotes artistic growth. And part of it is the fact that we look at it as a really cool job and we like going after it. There's not anything we'd rather be doing or doing it any different way.
And the other component would be that when we do and do it right it sounds really good. It's really filling and fulfilling and gives you hope that the next show, next album or next track will be just as thrilling. Sometimes you get there, sometimes you don't but I saw the Dead enough to see those nights happen. I'm not saying we're the Dead or anything like it, but there's a place you can get to after this much time that's above and beyond any place you'd get to by the simple sum of the parts.
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