Interview with Steve Berlin of Los Lobos

Folk and Tumble caught up with Steve Berlin, saxophonist and core member of Los Lobos to talk about their latest album 'Native Sons', a homage to L.A.

Los Lobos is one of the longest continually serving bands in rock. Their music is a unique blend of rock'n'roll, Tex-Mex, country, Zydeco, R'n'B, blues, soul, and traditional Mexican music. Perhaps best known for their International hit ‘La Bamba’ from the biopic of Richie Valens, they have a had succession of hugely successful albums.

Steve Berlin, The band’s saxophonist, keyboard, percussionist, sometime producer, and all-round good guy took time to talk to Folk and Tumble from Washington state, to discuss the band’s fine new album, favourite bands from Los Angeles, secrets of their longevity, and a different side to Paul Simon.

FT: ‘Native Sons’ – the new album from Los Lobos. The band has two amazing songwriters in David Hildalgo and Louie Perez, so why a covers album now?

SB:  Well after ‘Gates Of Gold’, we didn’t have a record label for four years. We put out a Christmas record in 2019. So we got an offer from New West Records here in the States to do two records with them. This was late Fall, early Winter 2019, we looked at our schedule. Normally we take maybe two months out of our touring schedule to prepare; the writers write, we go to the studio for 4-6 weeks on average for every album we’ve done. So looking ahead to 2020, we already had a pretty busy schedule ahead, and there was no window.

So we thought if we did something like a covers record, we could do it, in and around our schedule, and then when we could prepare properly, the next record would be an “original” band record. That was the impetus but little did we know that come March 2020, the world was going to turn upside down. But we didn’t want to wait two years to make a record. In retrospect, it turned out really good, as it would have been quite challenging to make a “non-covers” record during COVID with all the travel restrictions, and so on. A covers record, we could one or two songs at a time, so it was fine. And it worked out.

FT: It’s a tribute album to bands from LA. Given all the amazing bands to have emerged from that city, and short of making a box set, it must have been tough to select which groups to include? With five members in the band, was it hard to whittle the tracks down?

SB:  Well, everybody came with something. I think the only person who was really disappointed in any way was Conrad, our bass player, who really wanted to do a song by Love. He’s a big fan but those songs are pretty fucking weird, and difficult. Being difficult didn’t rule songs out. ‘Sail On’ is quite hard to arrange with its vocal parts. We also didn’t want to overrepresent certain parts of LA music. We had to show East LA and the R’n’B scene.

Perhaps the one failing is we might have missed the LA punk scene, which was so important. We have a Blasters song, of course. I was pushing hard for a Circle Jerk song or a Fear song but those songs are hard to cover and sing. We tried to be representative of the songs that had an impact on us and helped shape our DNA of sorts, and I think, overall we were happy with the final selection.

FT: I’m sure as a former member of The Blasters, you had your hand up for The Blasters?

SB: There was no vote required for that one. That was a given. No vote was required for War. No vote was required for The Midnighters. No vote was required for Buffalo Springfield. We didn’t really need to vote on some bands. All these songs have a secret key, and we needed to find that unlocking mechanism that allowed us to get to it. A very interesting process I have to say.

FT: Looking from the outside, America after Trump remains a deeply divided country, and I wonder is your take on ‘For What It’s Worth’, the band’s response to what is happening on the border?

SB: It is certainly very divided, and we were making this while the election was going on. So a song like that, or on ‘The World Is A Ghetto’ to a certain extent, it was inescapable. We were living in this nightmare for the past four years, not knowing what the hell is gonna happen. There was a lot of unease to put it mildly as we were working on it. So yeah, those two I think.

Obviously, we didn’t want to date stamp the record, like pre-election 2020. But it didn’t hurt anything that those songs were what they represented to us.

FT: Just going back to tracks on the new album, and one of my favourites, ‘The World Is A Ghetto’, again carrying a bit of a message, but these days, as COVID is hopefully on the decline, it carries a very positive message. Los Lobos have long been getting their point across, without hitting people over the head with it.

SB: I think that’s the way we’ve always addressed it. I don’t think people listen when you come out and try to beat them over the head with a flag. You have to make them think about what you are saying. It seems like people can’t wait for the opportunity to put us in a box. We’ve always done a lot of work for the Democratic Party, going back to Clinton, Obama, and Biden, and we get asked all the time, is this song about that, and we say no. Listen to it, please just listen to it. It’s a way to listen sometimes for a lot of people to try and make a connection between ideas that have nothing to do with each other, so we are always very careful about how we say the things we say. But it doesn’t take a genius to work out what it is we are actually trying to say.

FT: Given the constraints of space on an album, were there any artists you would have liked to have included?

SB: I tried to get a few punk rock songs on, but for one reason or another, they just wouldn’t fly. The other one we thought about, and I think we just run out of time, was Bill Withers. We all loved Bill Withers and he was a big influence on us. There were about four or five of his songs we thought about, but at the end of the day we were trying to get a mix of the LA scene and maybe his songs were a little too akin to the Barret Strong song ‘Misery’.

I suppose the question was where do we stop if we’re looking at great LA artists?

FT: The one original band composition ‘Native Son’ just seems to tie the whole album together. It really helps push the theme, and in terms of the song itself, it doesn’t seem out of place.

SB:  It’s funny there’s this thing that happens where a song shows up, late in the process that defines the entire record. It happened with ‘Good Morning Aztlan’. We were done with the record. We were on our way to the mastering lab when Dave and Louie called me and said “hey we have an idea for another song”. They made the call at 10 o’clock in the morning, and literally by 4 o’clock that afternoon, the song was done.

That has happened on each record since ‘Aztlan’. We think we’re done, or close to done, and something new comes up. ‘Gates Of Gold’ was like that too. It’s weird and hard to explain, but something happens late in the process and puts the whole experience in perspective.

When that happens, the songs are like perfect, they just happen.

FT:  Could I ask you about Paul Simon, and him being somewhat less than gracious. Do you mind telling the story about your encounter with him?

SB: No I don’t mind. The only thing I regret is when I tell it, it always sounds like I’m obsessed with him. But really, I don’t think about him. Ever.

You cannot be in the music business 40-odd years and not have some story of somebody ripping you off, or taking credit for something they had nothing to do with.

So it happened pre-‘La Bamba’, but after ‘How Will The Wolf Survive’. We had won our first Grammy, we were riding high, Rolling Stone Record of the Year, all this good stuff going on. The president of our record company was Lenny Waronker, who we loved and was always on our side – a big champion of us – so when he asked for something of us, we always said yes.

So he called us up and asked us to meet up with Paul Simon in a studio. The original idea for Paul’s album was to be Paul around the world. Different parts of the world. Different musical traditions.

We were on a massive high, and Paul was struggling, let’s be honest. He was coming off a number of massive failures. He had spent a year working on a Broadway play that closed overnight, put out a record that had gone nowhere. So going into it, we were doing him a favour.

So we showed up at the studio, and I thought, this is great, we’ll get to see how a master does his thing, and genuinely looking forward to it. He’s a strange guy to start with, not very communicative.

So we ask, “do you have a song?” He said no, I thought we could just jam.

His idea of us jamming was him in the control room, watching us stumble around, and play, which at no time did anyone suggest it was going to be. He’s not saying anything. He’s not helping. He’s not doing anything or coming up with any ideas. He’s just in the control room watching us. This went on for a while, and Paul had no input whatsoever. He would just say no, try something else. So after an hour and a half or so, the guys are like, we gotta get out of here.

I called Lenny and said, this is really not working out, we gotta go. Lenny said, no man you gotta stay, I know Paul’s a little weird, he’s hard to get along with but hang in there, I know something good is gonna happen.

After I don’t know how long it was, we started playing a song we had been rehearsing, something we had been fooling around with. Paul comes through the intercom and says, hey, what’s that? We say that’s one of our tunes, and he asks, can we use it? So we think, fuck anything to get out of here, yes! Whatever it takes to get us out of this room. So we just played it and got the hell out.

Fast forward a couple of months, and the record comes out, and there’s our song, and it says, words and music by Paul Simon, and we think, oh that must be an oversight by somebody. You know he had as much part in writing that song as we did.

So this went on for a while. We were like this is a Los Lobos song, not a Paul Simon song, and we thought somebody, somehow was going to correct it, at the next pressing or whatever. But nobody addressed it. There was silence from his camp. We asked Lenny about it, and Lenny said, oh yeah I’ll take care of it.

So finally his record ‘Graceland’ is really taking off, and we are asking well what are you doing about that song? Lenny suggested he would make it to us somehow. We are saying, dude, he didn’t write that fucking song, we did!

Finally, I started talking about it in the press. Lenny asked me, hey you gotta stop talking about it, it’s not reflecting well on Paul! I’m like, I don’t give a fuck about how it reflects on Paul. He didn’t write the fucking song, we did!

So finally, after this had gone back and forth, our manager spoke to his, and a direct quote from his manager was, “If you don’t like how things are, sue us and see what happens!”

FT: That’s quite incredible! Did you think about suing him?

SB: Yeah we thought about it, but it was within the Warner Brothers label, and there was an insanely naive idea that as a Warner Brothers artist you don’t sue another label artist, it would upset the family that was Warner’s Brothers. In the end, we just said fuck it, but we‘re not gonna stop talking about it. We are not gonna make nice. Obviously, the lyrics are his, but I would say to anybody, listen to that song ‘All Around The World’ or ‘The Myth Of Fingerprints’. Does that sound like a Paul Simon song or does sound like a Los Lobos song?

A lot of the stuff he had to give to retroactively give credit to South African artists. He originally made to claim to songs that were South African singles. Those were singles that every South African knew that he had appropriated. He made them a lot of money, but he had to retroactively give them the credit. He had stolen those songs as well. For whatever reason, he thought he could away from stealing from us.

FT: Steve, thank you so much for taking the time to talk, it has been fascinating.

SB: Thank you too, and hopefully see you soon!