I first became aware of Los Lobos in the early 1980s. It was during a time in Los Angeles in which high schoolers like me were venturing out of the comforts of the San Fernando Valley—yes, that “Valley,” in which the words “dude” and “gnarly” floated throughout our language—to head over the hill into Hollywood to see punk and rock bands whose homemade flyers somehow found their way to our suburban school.
But the chatter around the band wasn’t along the lines of ‘Who are these Latino guys from East L.A’ and ‘What are they doing playing with X, the Circle Jerks or The Blasters?’ It was more in the spirit of the times: If a band showed up on the bill to play with a slightly more well-known band, then they must be cool.
Besides Los Lobos, Latin musicians like Alice Bag, or Tito Larriva of the Plugz were also in the mix, carving their own paths. As John Doe of the still going band X says in his book “Under the Big Black Sun: A personal history of L.A. Punk:”
“From the very beginning Latinos figured in the LA punk-rock scene …We knew their upbringing was vastly different than ours, but so were the teenage runaways who played in some other groups of the time. No one cared … If you wanted to be part of a group that would be yelled at, have trash thrown at them from passing cars and were generally ridiculed, why would we care if you had olive skin?”
Doe was right—no one cared. It’s in this arena that Los Lobos began to grow and thrive. It helped that the band had started in 1973 playing “revved-up versions of Mexican folk music in restaurants and at parties,” as their biography states. From there, you may know the story, a hit cover of “La Bamba,” multiple Grammy wins, and even a Disney album (it was a contract obligation, says Steve Berlin of Los Lobos).
Sadly, I never got to see them live in the ‘80s, but I did finally catch a show at The Fillmore in San Francisco in 2000. I liked them so much that I grabbed one of the concert posters, which now sits framed above my desk.
Here’s a brief snippet of my conversation with saxophonist and percussionist Steve Berlin, who joined the band in 1984 after leaving The Blasters. He spoke to me via Zoom from his home just north of Portland, Oregon. We talked about the scene in the early days, how one of their best albums, “Kiko,” came about, and what it means to celebrate 50 years of playing as a band.
To hear our entire talk, go to vpm.org/worldmusic.
VPM: What attracted you to Los Lobos and why did you leave The Blasters?
Steve Berlin: When I started playing more with the Lobos guys, The Blasters … I could see them transitioning, like David was getting more antsy to do his own thing, you know, not have to be basically ruled by his brother. There was not a partnership. Phil is a sort of a dictator, basically.
To be perfectly honest, I could see that my tenure as a Blaster was going to be compromised. I guess in some regard the band was probably not long for the world.
When I met Lobos, all that was sort of in the back of my mind. And, as opposed to The Blasters, who would literally fight about the weather, or the most ridiculous stuff in the world, the Lobos guys we’re a family. They had kids, and I won’t say they were adults, but they certainly seemed not to need to fight about stuff that didn’t need to be fought about.
I knew I was new, but I had seen and done a bunch of stuff. I actually made a record and been on a major label and stuff that nobody else in the band had ever done. And so, the Lobos guys treated me with more respect than The Blasters guys did. It wasn’t really that hard of a transition.
What was the mood around L.A. like in the early 1980s when Los Lobos started playing in all the clubs that punk bands were playing? From what I’ve read in two books by John Doe of X, it was a welcoming place for all types of bands.
It was really, really, really like that. It was no joke. Everybody was brand new. There was no real food chain, outside of maybe X or The Plugz, Black Flag maybe. And everybody was sort of rooting for everybody else.
Anybody that got a gig, the first thing you did was get either your friends or some other cool band that you heard. That’s how Los Lobos got on The Blasters gig, they’d given Phil a cassette of something, and Phil dug it and said, hey, you know, open for us at the Whisky a Go Go.
Everybody showed up in LA at that time. You could pick your name, you could pick your look, you could pick your band, you could do all that. It was literally like getting a blank check on your life to start a new.
Tell me about the genesis of the record “Kiko.”
[Prior to “Kiko”] we rehearsed the songs, and then we toured the songs, and then we went into the studio. And to be perfectly honest, by that time, we were actually sick of them. We kind of learned the hard way that we sort of need to have some unexplored territory, to make the kind of records that we want to make, to have the freedom to sort of go in unpredictable directions. So that’s kind of where “Kiko” came from.
We had success with “La Bamba.” And sort of like learning again, the hard way, nothing is given to you. We were touring on a scale that we weren’t really popular enough to maintain. We lost money. And, you know, we had fallen for a lot of what we’ll call industry fables.
By the time it was time to do “Kiko” we assumed that we were about to be dropped from the label. So we just said, “Well, if they’re going to drop us, we might as well make the music exactly the way we want to make it.”
We took it to Lenny Waronker at Warner Brothers assuming that they were going to hate it. And he was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is great. You know, I love it. Keep going.’
What’s it like to be celebrating 50 years of playing?
It’s pretty gratifying, I have to say. If you would have asked me back then, that it would be effectively us and X, the last bands standing—X, yeah, but us, no way. But here we are.
I’d like to think we were still going forward.
What can fans expect to hear on your current tour?
We’re trying to encompass all phases of our career, but it’s really hard to capture 50 years, you know, in an hour-and-a-half show. We’re consciously trying to touch on every era, more or less, and not necessarily every record but at least try to represent every phase of everything that we’ve done.
Los Lobos performs with Paulo Franco at The Broadberry Friday, June 2. Tickets are $49.50. Doors open at 7pm.