Though they’ve long billed themselves since their 1978 record debut as “just another band from East L.A.,” Los Lobos is anything but that common. Their inventive and groundbreaking mix of rock, soul, blues, R&B and surf—all wrapped in traditional Mexican, mariachi and norteña music—have garnered them fans not just in their hometown, but around the world.
Now, the band has recorded a tribute to the City of Angels and its wide variety of musical sounds with the July 30 release of the covers record Native Sons (New West). It sprouted from an idea that band member Steve Berlin says came about in a year when every musician’s original plans got scuttled.
“We didn’t have the foresight to predict a global pandemic, and like everyone else, we thought it would be over in a few months. We had a ball doing the Christmas record in 2019, because it was fun and didn’t have the same [creative] stress level that a ‘normal’ Los Lobos record would,” he offers.
“So, the thought of a covers record as a project came up. And then the idea of making it our love letter to Los Angeles emerged. It could be fun and have some resonance, and would honor people who inspired us.”
Los Lobos is also one of the few bands of its time to still retain its entire classic (if not original) era lineup. They still are David Hidalgo (vocals/guitar), Louie Pérez Jr. (vocals/guitar), Cesar Rosas (vocals/guitar/bass/organ), Conrad Lonzano (vocals/bass) and Steve Berlin (saxophone/keyboards).
The dozen covers on Native Sons include entries from familiar names like Jackson Browne (“Jamaica Say You Will”), Buffalo Springfield (“Bluebird/For What It’s Worth”), WAR (“The World is a Ghetto”), the Blasters (“Flat Top Joint”) and the Beach Boys (“Sail On Sailor”).
But there’s also a wonderful treasure trove of songs by far lesser-known acts like garage rockers Thee Midnighters (“Love Special Delivery”), and R&B stars Barrett Strong (“Misery”) and Percy Mayfield (“Never No More”). Chicano/Mexican music is represented by Lala Guerrero (“Los Chucos Suaves”) and Willie Bobo (“Dichoso”).
Berlin says the epic “The World is a Ghetto” was especially special to the group.
“We knew there was going to be a WAR song. Our road manager used to work or them and our bass player’s son works for them, so there was no way we were going to do an L.A. record without paying tribute to them,” Berlin says. “All those guys have meant a lot to us as an inspiration. They don’t get their historical due. But I realized to my horror I didn’t do the horn part right. I was just doing it from memory!”
And for the quintessentially Californian Beach Boys song “Sail On Sailor,” in the liner notes Berlin offers that it “seemed like it would be easy, but once we broke the eggshell it revealed itself to be a lot more complex.”
“I would characterize a lot of songs like that,” Berlin adds later. “You’re trying to put your spin on it and what made the song so great in the first place. It didn’t sound right when we started it, and we couldn’t figure out why. So, we hired a brilliant keyboard player named Phil Parlapiano who solved that riddle for us and how to play the chords. And it worked!”
There was one genre, however, that Los Lobos chose to skip. “We couldn’t find a punk rock song that wouldn’t sound weird given our ages!” Berlin laughs. “We’re too old to sound angry anymore! It would have been silly.”
The sole original tune and a heartfelt statement from the band, “Native Son” wasn’t even a thought by the time the record was almost complete. In fact, it was written and recorded entirely in a four-hour time period on a Friday—before the band had to turn in the finished project the next Monday!
But according to Berlin, that’s not an uncommon occurrence for the writing team of Hidalgo and Pérez. who often create on the fly for inclusion in an album.
“There’s always a song that emerges late in the game that basically puts everything in perspective. That’s what this one did,” Berlin says. “When we start every record, we have a vague idea or a vibe of what we’re doing. A plan. Then the records take their own shape. And a lot of times, it ends up different than the initial impulse. But we let it happen.”
For more on Los Lobos, visit LosLobos.org
This interview originally appeared on HoustonPress.com