Q&A: Steve Berlin of Los Lobos on a "Kiko" film, the Grateful Dead and starting an album with no songs
Los Lobos is close to striking a deal with their former label Hollywood Records to get a film of the band performing their landmark album "Kiko" released.
Made five years ago when Los Lobos did a short tour playing "Kiko" in full, the documentary includes a performance of the album along with interviews of band members, album producer Mitchell Froom and engineer Tchad Blake. The concert was shot at 4th & B in San Diego.
Believing that the issue will soon be resolved -- Los Lobos now records for Shout! Factory, which released "Tin Can Trust" on Aug. 3 -- saxophonist/keyboardist Steve Berlin is thinking it may be time to revisit the "one night, one album" concept.
"This record lends itself to being played top to bottom, a lot better than some of our others," Berlin said, noting the band will include six tunes from "Tin Can Trust" in their sets on the current tour.
After performing "Burn it Down," "Tin Can Trust," "On Main Street," "Jupiter or the Moon," "West L.A. Fadeaway" and "Yo Canto" on Santa Monica, CA's KCRW-FM's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" show on Wednesday (8/25), Berlin spoke about the methodology behind Los Lobos' albums, the Grateful Dead and aging.
Soundspike: Any idea how many of the songs from the new album will make it into your upcoming shows?
Steve Berlin: The six we played on KCRW are all we have basically prepared. Our problem is that we have no time to rehearse or anything like that, so those six are the ones we'll be featuring.
How many of the songs did the guys show up with you went into he studio to record "Tin Can Trust"?
None. Zero. Not exactly the most opportune methodology, but it works. We spent a couple days in abject terror and then a couple of days being productive.
Yet, album after album, it seems like David Hidalgo and Louie Perez show up with their songs and Cesar Rosas has his. There's no intermingling among the songwriters, even in a situation like this?
We've gotten to a place where this is our metier -- it's who we are. It's Cesar's voice and the combination of David and Louie's voice. If I can say this without sounding ridiculous or pompous, it's like the Beatles -- two guys write most of the songs and George [Harrison] adds his. It works well.
Over the last decade or so, you have shelved the experimental side of the band. If anything you're experimenting lyrically, connecting the songs thematically on records such as "The Town and the City." What's driving that?
The stuff in the '90s ("Colossal Head," "This Time") we were very much into torturing sound. For a lot of the songs, nothing was ever finished until we had repurposed every sound and sent it through a maze of gadgetry. It was fun. But toward the start of the 2000s, we felt we had done enough and it didn't seem like it needed to be on every record. This album was cut in a studio in East L.A. that had a beautiful, natural reverb in the room. We really liked the presence the room delivered, and with the room sounding so cool, we said let the sound be. In a lot of cases we would try an idea, decide that it sounded cool and then go see how it sounded in the room. It gets back to the notion of letting songs reveal themselves during the recording.
Is that a change from the way the band has worked previously?
Honestly, it's been true since "Kiko" (1993). That was the first time we realized there was another way to make a record, that you can start without an agenda and let the music blossom. I'm not saying there are not times that we don't overdo stuff, but the last couple of records we have tried to not push too hard to add things. We don't overcook.
"Tin Can Trust" features the Grateful Dead cover "West L.A. Fadeaway." Is that a geography statement, a comment on your relationship with the Dead?
Early in the process [of making "Tin Can Trust"] we were looking around for ideas, and this was a song we had half-assed done, playing a verse and a chorus in jams. It was Cesar who said let's learn to play it right. We cut it -- one maybe two takes -- with everybody. The first time we played with the Dead was in 1987 and they were kind of heroes to us. They asked Dave to sit in with them once and that was the song they played, so it completed a circle. We've played "Bertha" a lot over the years, so it's nice to have another Dead song in there.
I saw that Dead-Lobos show at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Very good shows.
Of all the times we played with them, those were the best Dead shows I ever saw.
And in the '90s, during jams, you could feel the influence and spirit of Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia in the way Cesar and David interacted with each other.
Those guys were an inspiration. In several ways. There are not a lot of paradigms for being a band that stays together for a long period of time. There's the Stones and the Allman Brothers Band, both with caveats. But with the Dead we could look at them and say here is how you grow old gracefully as a rock band. Los Lobos is 35 years old.
It was a bit of change of pace here in Los Angeles when the band opened for Steve Miller at the Greek Theatre just before the release of the album. It felt like you did a set that was all balls-to-the-wall rock 'n' roll, which we don't usually see you do here.
We had no idea what to expect. His audience seemed to go for our stuff. And in terms of playing an opening slot -- we have had some good ones and some really terrible ones -- this was real good.
Besides playing in Los Lobos you often produce records for others. Anything coming up?
Earlier this year, I did an album with this Canadian band Great Big Sea that just came out ("Safe Upon the Shore"). And I just starting working with a band called the Bridge from Baltimore that I'd say is Little Feat meets (pause) -- I can't really define it. We're almost done. Most of the rest of year will be a lot of Lobos touring.
28 - Eagle, ID- Eagle River Pavilion
29 - Monroe, WA - Evergreen State Fair
30 - Vancouver, British Columbia - PNE Centre (w/ John Hiatt & The Combo)
1 - Edmonton Alberta - Winspear Centre For Music (w/ John Hiatt & The Combo)
2 - Calgary, Alberta - Jack Singer Auditorium (w/ John Hiatt & The Combo)
3 - Regina, Saskatchewan - Casino Regina Show Lounge (w/ John Hiatt & The Combo)
4 - Laramie, WY - Snowy Range Music Festival (w/ John Hiatt & The Combo)
25 - San Antonio, TX - Plaza Guadalupe
26 - San Jose, CA - Mariachi Festival - HP Pavilion
28 - Universal City, CA - Mariachi Festival - Gibson Amphitheater
3 - Gretna, LA - Gretna Heritage Festival
8 - Kansas City, MO - Folly Theater
9 - Clear Lake, IA - The Historic Surf Ballroom
13 - Davis, CA - University of California Davis
14 - Ventura, CA - Habitat For Humanity Benefit at The Majestic Ventura Theatre
15 - Riverside, CA - University Theatre at UC-Riverside
17-24 - San Diego, CA - Rhythm & Blues Cruise
4 - Cleveland, Ohio - Cleveland Masonic Auditorium
6 - Chicago, IL - Vic Theater
3 -Austin, TX - One World Theatre
31 - New York, NY - City Winery