I have plenty of recollections of working on that one [Graceland]. I don't know if you heard the stories, but it was not a pleasant deal for us. I mean he [Simon] quite literally – and in no way do I exaggerate when I say – he stole the songs from us... The guy was clueless... He's the world's biggest prick, basically.
-Steve Berlin on making Graceland with Paul Simon
Talk a little bit about your audience. They're a pretty close-knit group, pretty tight.
I know from the traffic on the website and stuff. We always laugh and say "Conrad's had a beer with all of them." It certainly does seem to be a symbiotic relationship. We certainly don't put ourselves above anybody, that's for sure. We're not holding anything at arm's length. A lot of times, we've put the hardcore fans in our employ. We have guys all over the country right in [message board] The Neighborhood there. They're not just hanging with us, they're working. It works out well.
Maybe I can ask you to talk a little bit about your bandmates. We could start anywhere, but let's start with David.
David Hidalgo by Tim Owen
Well, you know, he's the only genius [laughs]. He's always surprising all of us. The ideas are endlessly fascinating. It's always the funnest moment of any record when he puts out the new demos. It's very exciting. He's always very shy about it. But it's almost always amazing.
How about Cesar?
What you see there, is what you get. He's the blues master of the two. There's not a lot of the intricacy to the personality on stage. The gentleman you see is the gentleman that he is. He grounds us in many ways, I think – in his songwriting and his sensibility. Whereas Dave and Louie are both prone to taking flights of fancy, he's got his feet on the ground most of the time.
It's a Lennon-McCartney, kinda one-up-in-the-air, one-down-on-the-ground kinda thing.
They do seem to have a lot of that magic on a lot of their songs.
They're definitely polar. It's what creates. It's what avoids boredom - the fact that they have such different sensibilities and are such different songwriters. Different everything, really. It's good. Going back and forth between the two is what makes for an interesting evening. We get too off in one world, going back to the other world is always exciting.
Cesar Rosas by Michael Weintrob
How much do you contribute to the writing of the songs these days?
Very little, really. I think my strengths tend more towards orchestration. Dave and Louie songs come in, more often than not, almost completely done, if not completely done. Cesar's probably contributed a few melodies over the years. I don't have what a great songwriter has. I don't wake up in the middle of the night with a song in my head. And I wish that I did. I have the ultimate respect for anyone who has that gift. And I just don't think I do. I've worked with enough great songwriters to know that what they have I don't have. I have nothing but the highest respect for those guys.
But I think all of us in the recording process contribute something special. My antenna's generally focused on orchestration, thinking about sequencing. Because I'm trained as a producer, I take a much longer view of stuff than guys who are just wrapped up in a part in a song at a moment, you know? I'm always thinking, "How does this song fit into the sequence?" and "Where is this song gonna go?" It's the way I've come to think about this stuff. I think it's a helpful viewpoint to have.
Did I miss anybody? Did I talk about Louie? He's kind of the soul of the band. He's the songwriter, so what we are in terms of the song is Louie. It's his point of view. It's his sensibility. He's very quiet. Where there are discussions or disagreements or something like that, he almost never really steps up. But when he does, it's because he has to, because he's making a powerful point about something. Myself, I probably talk to him more than anybody else in the band just because we have a really good running discourse about everything.
You know what? I bet everyone in the band would say that. I think all of us have talked to him a bunch.
After the success of La Bamba, he was adamant about doing the folk album (La Pistola y El Corazon). We all said, "Why now?" But in his own unerring, effective way, he knew that if we didn't do that right then, we might have had a much rougher ride to our career.
Louie Pérez by Matt Schwenke
What a visionary. That kind of thing sometimes signals the death knell for a band...
Yeah, I know. He truly is. And it's not like we would have done La Bamba II, III, and IV. I just remember him being adamant about it.
Speaking of doing a lot of different records and working with a lot of amazing songwriters, I own a ton of the records that you've done over the years. One, in particular, I'd like to ask you about is Paul Simon's Graceland. I obsessed over that thing when I was young. Do you have any recollections of working on it?
Oh, I have plenty of recollections of working on that one. I don't know if you heard the stories, but it was not a pleasant deal for us. I mean he [Simon] quite literally – and in no way do I exaggerate when I say – he stole the songs from us.
Yeah. And you know, going into it, I had an enormous amount of respect for the guy. The early records were amazing, I loved his solo records, and I truly thought he was one of the greatest gifts to American music that there was.
Paul Simon by David Atlas
At the time, we were high on the musical food chain. Paul had just come off One Trick Pony and was kind of floundering. People forget, before Graceland, he was viewed as a colossal failure. He was low. So when we were approached to do it, I was a way bigger fan than anybody else in the band. We got approached by Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin who ran our record company [Warner Bros.], and this is the way these guys would talk – "It would mean a lot to the family if you guys would do this for us." And we thought, "Ok well, it's for the family, so we'll do it." It sounds so unbelievably naïve and ridiculous that that would be enough of a reason to go to the studio with him.
We go into the studio, and he had quite literally nothing. I mean, he had no ideas, no concepts, and said, "Well, let's just jam." We said, "We don't really do that." When we jam, we'll switch instruments. Dave will play drums, I'll play something. We don't really jam. Especially in that era. Louie will be the first to tell you this – he was made to play drums. They forced him to play drums. He's not really a drummer by trade. He's never practiced a moment in his life. Not once in his life did he sit down at the drums because of his love for drumming. The other three guys made him play drums in the early days, so he sort of became drummer by default. He hates playing the instrument, I think. Again, you should ask him, but I don't ever ever, ever get the sense that he was one of those dyed-in-the-wool, John Bonham, let's-play-drums-for-three-days-straight kind of guys. So consequently, as the core band was comprised then, we never jammed - never ever. Not by accident, not even at soundcheck. We would always just play a song.
So Paul was like, "Let's just jam," and we're like, "Oh jeez. Well alright, let's see what we can do." And it was not good because Louie wasn't comfortable. None of us were comfortable, it wasn't just Louie. It was like this very alien environment to us. Paul was a very strange guy. Paul's engineer was even stranger than Paul, and he just seemed to have no clue - no focus, no design, no real nothing. He had just done a few of the African songs that hadn't become songs yet. Those were literally jams. Or what the world came to know and I don't think really got exposed enough, is that those are actually songs by a lot of those artists that he just approved of. So that's kind of what he was doing. It was very patrician, material sort of viewpoint. Like, because I'm gonna put my stamp on it, they're now my songs. But that's literally how he approached this stuff.
I remember he played me the one he did by John Hart, and I know John Hart, the last song on the record. He goes, "Yeah, I did this in Louisiana with this zy decko guy." And he kept saying it over and over. And I remember having to tell him, "Paul, it's pronounced zydeco. It's not zy decko, it's zydeco." I mean that's how incredibly dilettante he was about this stuff. The guy was clueless.