LONE WOLF: HANGIN' WITH STEVE BERLIN

 
Everybody was trying stuff out – trying sounds out, trying identities out. And here were these four guys from 10 miles away who might as well have been 10 solar systems away. Playing this fully realized music, largely self-composed, with all this great flavor and stuff like that.
-Steve Berlin on first hearing Los Lobos
 

Wow. You're kidding me?

Clue... less about what he was doing. He knew what he wanted to do, but it was not in any way like, "Here's my idea. Here's this great vision I have for this record, come with me."


Los Lobos
About two hours into it, the guys are like, "You gotta call Lenny right now. You gotta get us out of this. We can't do this. This is a joke. This is a waste of time." And this was like two hours into the session that they wanted me to call Lenny. What am I going to tell Lenny? It was a favor to him. What am I going to say, "Paul's a fucking idiot?"

Somehow or other, we got through the day with nothing. I mean, literally, nothing. We would do stuff like try an idea out and run it around for 45 minutes, and Paul would go "Eh... I don't like it. Let's do something else." And it was so frustrating. Even when we'd catch a glimpse of something that might turn into something, he would just lose interest. A kitten-and-the-string kinda thing.

So that's day one. We leave there and it's like, "Ok, we're done. We're never coming back." I called Lenny and said it really wasn't very good. We really didn't get anything you could call a song or even close to a song. I don't think Paul likes us very much. And frankly, I don't think we like him very much. Can we just say, 'Thanks for the memories' and split?" And he was like, "Man, you gotta hang in there. Paul really does respect you. It's just the way he is. I'll talk to him." And we were like, "Oh man, please Lenny. It's not working." Meanwhile, we're not getting paid for this. There was no discussion like we're gonna cash in or anything like that. It was very labor-of-love.

Really...?

Yeah. Don't ask me why. God knows it would have made it a lot easier to be there.

And Lenny put you guys together thinking it would be a good match?


Los Lobos
Well, "It would be good for the family." That was it. So we go back in the second day wondering why we're there. It was ridiculous. I think David starts playing "The Myth of the Fingerprints," or whatever he ended up calling it. That was one of our songs. That year, that was a song we started working on By Light of the Moon. So that was like an existing Lobos sketch of an idea that we had already started doing. I don't think there were any recordings of it, but we had messed around with it. We knew we were gonna do it. It was gonna turn into a song. Paul goes, "Hey, what's that?" We start playing what we have of it, and it is exactly what you hear on the record. So we're like, "Oh, ok. We'll share this song."

Good way to get out of the studio, though...

Yeah. But it was very clear to us, at the moment, we're thinking he's doing one of our songs. It would be like if he did "Will the Wolf Survive?" Literally. A few months later, the record comes out and says "Words and Music by Paul Simon." We were like, "What the fuck is this?"

We tried calling him, and we can't find him. Weeks go by and our managers can't find him. We finally track him down and ask him about our song, and he goes, "Sue me. See what happens."

What?! Come on...

That's what he said. He said, "You don't like it? Sue me. You'll see what happens." We were floored. We had no idea. The record comes out, and he's a big hit. Retroactively, he had to give songwriting credit to all the African guys he stole from that were working on it and everyone seemed to forget. But that's the kind of person he is. He's the world's biggest prick, basically.


Los Lobos
So we go back to Lenny and say, "Hey listen, you stuck us in the studio with this fucking idiot for two days. We tried to get out of it, you made us stay in there, and then he steals our song?! What the hell?!" And Lenny's always a politician. He made us forget about it long enough that it went away. But to this day, I do not believe we have gotten paid for it. We certainly didn't get songwriting credit for it. And it remains an enormous bone that sticks in our craw. Had he even given us a millionth of what the song and the record became, I think we would have been – if nothing else - much richer, but much happier about the whole thing.

Have you guys seen him since then?

No. Never run into him. I'll tell you, if the guys ever did run into him, I wouldn't want to be him, that's for sure.

That's an amazing story. I can't believe I never heard it before.

We had every right and reason to sue him, and Lenny goes, "It's bad for the family." When we told the story in that era, when this was going down, we were doing interviews and telling the truth. And Lenny goes, "Hey guys, I really need you to stop talking about it. It's bad for the family."

Amazing. Talk about bad for the family.

I know. Again, it's just so incredible how naïve we were back then. You can't even imagine that era of music when you'd actually listen to your record company president who told you to shut up because "it's bad for the family." Now, I'd tell him to go fuck himself.

That's our version of it. I'd love to hear Paul's version of it.

But he's much richer now and could probably give a fuck about it. It's still one of those things where I've not forgiven anyone involved in it. It still remains. I haven't let it go, as you can tell. It was just so wrong and so rude, and so unnecessary. It is an amazing moment in our history.

Well, maybe we can turn to some brighter times – working with the litany of stars like Sheryl Crow, but also making really interesting records, like Faith No More. If I can pump your ego for a second, you really draw something completely different out of each artist and band that you work with.


Los Lobos
You're very kind. I just feel that my job is to be as opaque as possible and elevate, in any way possible, what it is I'm working on. I certainly try hard not to stamp the work I do with me. I mean, certainly it's my sensibility and a lot of my choices. But I'm like a painter. Or, my game is just other people's imaginations. I'm just painting with their colors to create something.

When it works. I mean, it's something exponentially larger than what I, or the artist, anticipated. I've been lucky enough to have been in that situation a couple times. We start out with a cool idea, and it kind of blew up into a ridiculously cool idea.

Like what...

Like Faith No More. [Berlin produced the group's major-label debut, 1987's Introduce Yourself for Slash records, Los Lobos's label at the time.] I saw them and heard their demos and thought "Oh my GOD! This is the coolest shit imaginable." And I learned a lot from them. As you can tell, they really had their sound down. My role in that production was a lot of just letting them express it. And also, Matt Wallace, who came with them, was obviously so good at what he did, I just let that all happen.

You know, when I had finally been through The Town and the City, I started that futile process of trying to find its cousin in your canon. And I guess from a fan's perspective, if it had any equal, it could be closest to Kiko.


Los Lobos
Well, it was by design, but not because we wanted to make it again. We really loved the way Tchad mixes sound and wanted him to be involved. We've done two records without him. Nothing against those two records, I think we're very proud of Good Morning Aztlán and The Ride. Tchad has a unique thing.

He was not involved in the recording process. And to get back to much earlier in this conversation, had he been there from the beginning and engineered, I think it would have been a much different record. And it certainly would have been a much more fun record. That's no dig at Robert Carrazza, who I think is an incredible engineer. I've done lots and lots and lots of records with him. But Tchad's personality and his view and just the way that he approaches it. It wasn't anything that Robert did or didn't do that made it hard to make. Robert and I will be the first to tell you, he killed himself to get this record sounding great. But how Tchad approaches his art, and just his personality, just this wonderful sense of "Let's go exploring today." And that's just really it. He has this great thing of going on an adventure to see where it goes.

Well, he's good for you guys. You've made a really patient-sounding record. If I can end with the whole La Bamba thing, I've heard stories about you guys playing it whenever someone requests it – even sometimes more than once in the course of a show.

Put it this way – it's not very often in the set anymore. It's never in the set, honestly. But if there are kids there or someone who really wants to see it, and that's what they're there for, then we'll play it. So we play it a lot. But as you can imagine, it's not our favorite song to play.

And because of that, I think it's a very cool thing that you will do it. I mean, music history is littered with guys who won't touch the song that made them famous in the first place.

What can I say? It's not our favorite song, but we don't mind playing it and it sure makes people happy. I mean, what is our job, really? It's to make people happy, so it's not that big a deal for us.

JamBase | Worldwide
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[Published on: 11/3/06]

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Comments

Hotchkiss starstarstarstarstar Fri 11/3/2006 06:22PM
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Hotchkiss


i wasn't a fan of los lobos until i saw them live at further fest. very hard working, true to themselves rock band.

great interview!

operindejer starstarstarstarstar Sat 11/4/2006 09:03AM
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operindejer

I'm not much of a Los Lobos fan myself. I saw them in Dana Point in May at the annual blues festival, but I only stuck around for half of their set. I think I could've enjoyed it more had it not been for the poor overall quality of the festival - lots of colliding sounds and music, a poor layout for the grounds, and a mandatory two beer maximum monitored by those bothersome festi-credit cards. And on a side note, G-Love's set was very sub-par too, in my opinion, maybe because he wasn't all that excited to be there. A shame, too, because it was a damn perfect weekend in Dana Point.

Either way, this was a great interview, and I'm compelled to go check these guys out again sometime under better live music circumstances. And damn - ain't that some shit about Paul Simon? What a shrimpy little dick. If it's true, and that's really how he is, I hope his sub-five-foot mouse-man ass got what he deserved in some way.

nanatod Sat 11/4/2006 10:28AM
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I used to listen to Los Lobos before Steve Berlin joined the band, and I think they were a lot more cohesive and powerful before he became a part of their sound.

Los Lobos ruined their band by letting the gringo join.

jeffh999 starstarstarstarstar Sat 11/4/2006 02:44PM
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Looks like Paul Simon's login here must be nanatod....
Great interview! These guys are the some of the nicest, hardest working, most talented artists playing today. They are the best live band in the land. Their songs have a spirituality and a conscience, both lyrically and musically. Check out their media player on their website to sample some of their albums, then go buy them. You'll be glad you did.

lovejahlive starstarstarstarstar Sat 11/4/2006 03:30PM
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lovejahlive

I've had the pleasure of catching them twice and I totally agree with jeffh99,there is some sense of spirituality with this band that you won't hear anywhere else.It's an almost indefinable quality,a "flow" or "groove",definately something special.
'will never feel the same way about "Graceland" again.Thanks for the interview/article Scott.

EVILFUNK starstarstarstarstar Sun 11/5/2006 12:05PM
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EVILFUNK

PAUL SIMON - YOU HAVE ONE OPTION IF YOU WOULD LIKE ANY RESPECT AT ALL ; DO AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMBASE AND EXPLAIN YOURSELF!

SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU BUY INTO THE MANS INDUSTRY!

Matthew Jaworski starstarstarstar Mon 11/6/2006 07:59AM
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Matthew Jaworski

Great article. I'll definitely have to check out more from these guys. That Paul Simon shit is hysterical.

Berlin was right, though: it is wack to hear about musicians complaining about their "job." I know everyone's job ticks them off at some point, but it's impossible for me to sympathize with a musician who's complaining about playing music. I've been drumming since I was six, I can't imagine anything better than making a living off it.

grtwent1 starstarstarstarstar Mon 11/6/2006 10:28AM
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Great interview. I've been following the Wolves for quite some time and truly feel that they are one of the most underrated rock bands in the history of rock. Not only can they jam (and do), but the talent in this one band is more than most other bands display in an entire career. They are an American treasure and should be treated as such.

My only negative comment is that the last show I saw (last week in Denver) was the shortest LL show that I have EVER seen....90 minutes with the encore for over $30 (no opener). What happened to the 2-set LL show? They did, however, play 20 songs in that time including some blazing tunes (encore of Are You
Experienced?> Not Fade Away >My Generation was over the top), the This Time was slowed down and twisted, the Hold On was awesome and the Don't Worry Baby blew off the roof of the Gothic.

Chains of Love
Luz De Mi Vida
The Road To Gila Bend
Maricela
The Town
Dream in Blue
Don’t Worry Baby
Hold On
Pigfoot Shuffle
Chuco’s Cumbia
That Train Don’t Stop Here
This Time
Los Ojos De Pancha
Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio
Georgia Slop
I Got Loaded (w/Lovelight verse)
Good Morning Aztlán
---
Encores:

Are You Experienced?>
Not Fade Away
My Generation

jimcard starstarstarstarstar Mon 11/6/2006 12:17PM
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Kudos to all the positive posts. These guys are awesome. Wasn't a huge Paul Simon fan, but needless to say, I hope Karma does what Karma does best.

Lastly, ten years ago last month I saw LL at First Avenue in Minneapolis. It was probably 5th or 6th time I saw them. They happened to play La Bamba that night. Hadn't seen them play it before and just assumed they didn't play it at their shows. I like La Bamba because Richie Valens was one of the first rock and rollers so respect where respect is do. Sadly, for a lot of people I know they equate Los Lobos with being just about La Bamba. I pity the poor fools. I shouldn't be harsh but sometimes I have to bust out.

What was amazing about this La Bamba is they did it at about half the normal speed. Does this mean "in half-time"? Whatever it is called this song frickin' groved and rocked, hard. That's right, La Bamba rocked hard. If you request this song, request that it be played this way. You will not be dissapointed. It didn't hurt that they moved into Cinnamon Girl right after that.

I love you Los Lobos!

Thurman Merman starstarstarstarstar Mon 11/6/2006 01:31PM
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Thurman Merman

I never knew this about Paul Simon.....Graceland has ALWAYS been one of my top ten favorite albums of all time. If he jacked up two great performers like the Africans on the record and Los Lobos, I wonder how many people he has stolen material from in his career (I am sure there are plenty more). Will never support Paul Simon again. How 'bout Los Lobos playing the song the way the way they were going to do it for this tour. That would be sick.

tresorejas starstarstarstarstar Tue 11/7/2006 07:59AM
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Since the first time I saw them In Taos, NM back in the 80's I have seen them time and again and will continue to do so. They have grown and stuck to their roots of making music that sounds like nothing you hear elsewhere. Too many more good years. Great interview, and well done.

the420cloud starstarstarstarstar Tue 11/7/2006 12:25PM
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I dont know what has gone down since the Graceland (was there some legal trouble???) but on the Making of Graceland movie Simon talks alot about the process of recording jams with huge groups of musicians in africa, editing and than writing and recording his vocal and other parts...it sounds like what happened with Los Lobos is a bit different than the writing process used on Graceland. See the making of Graceland movie before you throw away your copies...

Often at auditions I am expected to play a bands tunes but also it is common that i would be expected to 'just jam'...people want to hear what you can do off of a script...if im checking out a band and all they do is call tunes i would eventually suggest that the band just jam to see if the band can swim without a floatation device... jamming is a time when a bands true personality as a group of players comes out. Not just a band playing thier material.you can hire a cover band to do that!

I would like to hear from Paul Simon about this stuff with Los Lobos...

matttroche Wed 11/8/2006 02:54PM
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matttroche

yeah, i always knew there was something about that paul simon i couldn't trust. haha. keep rockin lobos

cush212 Wed 11/8/2006 06:56PM
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Thank you Scott and Steve for an interesting and insightful interview. And thank you Steve for a very, very fine album!!! I just finished listening to The Town & The City, and while it may not have been fun to make, you have created a work of art! I'm a casual fan, always enjoyed Los Lobos live (6-8 shows over the years) but never got into the studio stuff much. Well, that's changed. Town & City is in my top 1 for now and I see it staying in my top 10 for a good long while! I work for one of the big book & music chains in music and this will go up as my staff pick tomorrow, meantime, I think I'll play it again...

As for Paul Simon, I always thought he made a great album in Graceland, it's good to hear the truth. The one good thing Graceland did ultimately do was expose the mainstream listening audience to African and other ethnic music thereby giving many artists an audience base and thereby a paycheck and artistic satisfaction they might not have seen otherwise. There is always a silver lining even in the darkest of clouds...

jessemiller Mon 11/27/2006 08:35PM
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after hearing paul simon's self-lauding interview on world cafe recently i agree with steve berlin - he may be the world's biggest prick

Oscar12000 Fri 2/16/2007 07:36PM
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Los Lobos is one of the true great American bands, and they always have been. If you've never seen them, you owe it to yourself to go!

pikigod Wed 4/16/2008 09:48AM
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Goodness! Steve Berlin really has it out for Paul Simon! Golly gee, I'll hold him down and Steve can kick him. Then again, as much as my knee jerk reaction is to side with the underdogs, I see some holes in this tirade of how Paul Simon raped Los Lobos.

Berlin really makes a point of saying that Paul Simon's career was in the toilet and Los Lobos were really hot at the time. ie. they were doing Paul Simon such a BIG FAVOR. And the bastard was so UNGRATEFUL.

That's like Tom Petty saying he was really helping out Dylan's CAREER by joining the Wilbury's. Let's face it, Dylan had wandered off into dipsomania by that time and Petty was hot, hot, hot. Full moon fever hot, am I right?

What do I know? I do know Simon's film "One Trick Pony" which Berlin sights as Simon's career abyss was, if anything, AMBITIOUS. It definitely had it's moments. Dig Lou Reed as the gay producer with a lisp hell-bent on adding strings to everything, and the cameo from the B-52's where they blow Simon the aging folky off the stage, it's got a teenage Mare Winningham naked too. The more I think about it, it's a brilliant film. Maybe it's not "The Dewey Cox Story", but it's certainly more ambitious than "La Bamba" which I enjoyed as well. ANYWAY, even if Paul Simon was on his knees in the bathroom of the Greyhound Bus station when he came to make "Graceland", nothing takes away from the classics he had under his belt.

As much as I admire Los Lobo's, to be fair, they were still finding their way at that time. It's a big jump from "A Time to Dance..." to "Will the Wolf", and a giant leap to "Kiko" for sure. Hell, they might have learned something from Paul Simon's process. Loosen up, and just play, let the ideas emerge organically. I don't know, I wasn't there, but nowhere does Berlin make if clear that Simon took either a lyric or the melody. Maybe a chord progression, or a riff? Whatever happened, it doesn't appear black and white. The only thing clear is how bitter Berlin is.

I wonder if David Hidalgo would really beat Simon's ass if he ran into him, which Berlin intimates. I doubt that big Buddha of a man would beat anybodies's ass.

Maybe Los Lobo's were reluctant to just loosely jam back then. Just wanted to play fully formed songs. But songs don't always come via the stork fully formed. Admittedly, Steve Berlin's not a writer, so maybe that's how he sees it. Berlin wasn't on the Basement Tapes either.

Berlin goes on about Lenny Waronker applying the Vaseline for Simon to do the dirty. Lenny Waronker is no slouch. He may not have produced Faith No More, but the Ry Cooder records and the Randy Newman records he produced alone should put him in the pantheon of great producers. Sounds to me like he was encouraging Simon to cross pollinate and follow his muse, and encouraging Los Lobo's to get in on the action too.

Sounds like Paul Simon is a poor communicator. Obviously, the collaboration could have been set up and/or handled better. So things got strained, hostile even and Simon allegedly said, "See you in court!" Maybe that might have been the way to go. I don't know. Or why not just bad mouth Simon in the jam band Kangaroo court.

gmtobehere star Sat 4/19/2008 01:57PM
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This guy is crazy. "Paul Simon, the world's biggest prick" --- are you out of your fucking mind? The man has done more benefits and worked for more charities than I can even count. I've heard multiple demos of You Can Call Me Al, Gumboots, Boy in the Bubble, and Diamonds, and guess what --- HE WROTE THEM ALL

Also, it's interesting that Ladysmith Black Mambazzo has never mentioned any of this. Paul and their leader, Joeseph Shabalala have remained great friends since the album was completed.

For the record, the Myth of Fingerprints was the worst song on the record.

Steve, who ever the hell he is, is just trying to grab attention off of a multiple grammy winner. I think he's a bit jealous that Paul went on to win record of the year (I think he has won three), and nobody knows who Steve is. By putting this out there, he was just trying to get some folks to read his name.

This article is almost entirley a complete fabrication.

"As if everybody here would know what I was talking about. Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes"! --- Paul SImon

BRIANBEVAN starstarstarstar Sun 4/20/2008 07:09PM
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All you folk who doubt the story about Paul Simon should do some research on UK folk legend Martin Carthy and his caustic comments on Simon. His experiece was VERY similar to Steve's. In particular, Carthy was livid at the way Simon stole the traditional Scarborough Fair and claimed it as his own after Carthy taught it to him. Carthy was hugely unimpressed with Simon's attitude and compared him very negatively with Dylan, of whom he spoke highly. Don't argue with me about this...just read the material.

gmtobehere star Mon 4/21/2008 03:06PM
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he/artie introduces Scarborough Fair as "an old English folk song" --- Simon wrote the canticle, and for the record, Simon and Carthy are now frinds, as they sang together a few years ago when Paul toured Europe.

boom