It was really a grind virtually every single day of making this record. Which is not to say it wasn't edifying. I mean, it's art. We knew what it was there for. It's not like it's supposed to be fun.
-Steve Berlin on making The Town and the City
JamBase: Congratulations on The Town and the City. You guys must be pretty proud.
Berlin: Thank you very much. You know we're still in that, more like the pain of childbirth is still too apparent to feel the joy of pride, I guess. It will take a little while before actual pride shows up.
JamBase: It's a very heavy-duty album.
Berlin: Yeah, that is true.
JamBase: But were you able to have any fun doing it?
Berlin: Ummm... No [laughs]. How honest should I be? I'll put it this way, we've been blessed, almost for decades, with records that either made themselves, or were incredibly fun to make, or just painless. Like The Ride just had one amazing moment after the other, with all these guest-stars stopping by and stuff.
Steve Berlin :: Producer
I really don't remember a single day of making this album, where I'd go home and go, "Boy, that was cool" or you know, "Gee, I'm really glad I have this job." It was really a grind virtually every single day of making this record. Which is not to say it wasn't edifying. I mean, it's art. We knew what it was there for. It's not like it's supposed to be fun. It's certainly not in my contract that it has to be fun. But I don't remember a single moment relaxing or laughing or having a nice day at work. It was always two steps forward, one step back. Every day.
Is there anything any of you were able to point to...
No, I wish I could tell you. It wasn't apparent to me, that's for sure. It wasn't anything I could have fixed, or addressed or dealt with. It just seemed like the nature of the songs and the nature of the material just demanded that kind of application. And you know, I hate hearing more than anything in the world, musicians complain about making music for a living. So certainly I am well cognizant of the fact that I have the best job in the world.
Now, that said, and that clearly understood, it was still just really hard rock-pushing-up-a-hill-and-falling-down-again type of work, that's for sure.
Well there is that old saying, "Sometimes you have to struggle for your art." And even just speaking as a fan, you guys made a beautiful album here.
It seems to be very well-received. That point is really gratifying, because you never know what people will think about it. So it certainly does my heart good to hear all the nice things people are saying about it.
How involved in the production were you?
Let's put it this way – I was the only guy there every single day. A lot of guys got to take some days off, but I didn't.
Did that upset you?
No, that's just kinda what I do and how I approach it. I do that because I genuinely enjoy the process. I actually like making records, seeing how they get put together, come together. I've made some over the years that have been hard. So I know what a hard record is like. But there is still joy in art. I'm sure da Vinci had bad days, and Mozart had bad days, and Monet had bad days, or bad weeks, or bad projects, you know? You just gotta get through it. You make the best thing you can and hope the world appreciates it. Not that I'm putting myself or us on their level; I'm just saying that not all art is made in joy. A lot of times it's made in pain and you're sort of focused on a task and whatever that task entails you get it done. And that's pretty much how we do it. We just kinda found a song in there and just really ground it out.
How are the new songs for you guys to play live?
It's good. I mean they've been well-received. Some of them actually fit right in and people seem to really dig them, and some like "Hold On" require a little bit more of an adventurous audience. We've been playing it in the set every night. And sometimes, if it's a festival, or a really happy crowd or something, you just don't want to bring them down. How much do you want to play the new songs? It just feels like it would be a cruel trick to throw that song at them. You know we're judicious about it, but I'm happy with it.
Now I'm gonna ask you to go all the way back. What was your original motive for moving out to LA?
It was '75 and my motive was being bored shitless in Philadelphia. Some guys I was playing with were, at that time, backing a group called the Soul Survivors. Remember "Expressway (To Your Heart)?" And they moved out, and within weeks, had gotten a gig backing up both Billy Preston and Gregg Allman. That's a pretty nice parlay. So they called me up in '74, I guess it was, and said, "Come on out, the pickins are easy."
Go figure. I came out in Christmas of '75, and they instantly lost both of those gigs. Like, within 20 minutes. Gregg went into rehab and Billy went and, I don't know, beat up his wife or something like that.
Oh shit... welcome to Hollywood.
Those gigs disappeared in a hurry. But I was just happy to be in LA.
So you liked it right off the bat. Do you remember some of the first things you did?
Oh, I loved it. I got some work relatively quickly. It wasn't instantaneous. We became a band, and we actually put out a record on Casablanca. Which is cool. I mean, that was the cocaine and disco label of all time. So we got to see, first hand, what that was like, which was pretty funny.
When did you start with The Blasters and about how long did you stay with them?
That would be... all those dates are fairly hazy.
And they're hard to find.
Yeah, I know. They are hard to find. For instance, I've always told people that I joined Lobos like '82 or '83. And then we put out this live show, Live in '84, and I'm introduced as "Steve Berlin of The Blasters." And it's January, 1984. I remember the show very clearly. And in my mind, I was well into Los Lobos by the date of that show. All my dates are a little bit off. So I eventually had to move a few dates forward [both laugh]. If they're still calling me of The Blasters, it probably means that I was still working on the first record at that point.
I can only get bits and pieces of your recollections about when you saw them for the first time. Was it a pretty automatic thing that you wanted to work with these guys?
I was amazed, as was everybody else that was there. The first time I saw them was the infamous PIL [Public Image, Ltd.] show. I didn't see myself playing folklore, Latin American music. I didn't have a shred of that in me. So the very first time was more like, "God, those guys are brave for just standing there and taking spit and shit and other stuff thrown at them." So, it wasn't that moment.
The moment where they sort of came into everyone's consciousness was opening for The Blasters at The Whisky. They blew everybody away. They were just so realized. Everybody else, even The Blasters, at that moment, were still experimenting. I remember in The Blasters, we had a concept, a sound, a great rhythm section, and a great songwriter. But everybody – X, you name it – we were all just kinda like experimenting. Everybody was trying stuff out – trying sounds out, trying identities out. And here were these four guys from ten miles away who might as well have been ten solar systems away. Playing this fully realized music, largely self-composed, with all this great flavor and stuff like that.
It was an amazing moment. Just because everybody thought that they were hip, thought that they knew what was going on, and clearly had some total other world happening that we didn't know anything about. So that, to me, was the most intriguing part. How could I have missed this? How could I have not been aware of this? I gotta find out and I gotta learn more about it. And then they said, "There's a saxophone tradition in this music. Do you want to learn some of these songs?"
Fuck yeah! Let's go!