Steve Berlin discusses Los Lobos Grammy winner ‘Native Sons’

Editor’s note: Los Lobos tours this summer with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, which includes shows in Sacramento on Aug. 23 and Reno on Aug. 28.

Perhaps no rock band is better suited to make an album covering songs by other artists than Los Lobos.

For 40-plus years, this great band from East Los Angeles has made cover tunes a regular part of their live shows, playing their versions of songs from artists as wide ranging as Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead, Marvin Gaye, John Lee Hooker, the Blasters and Cream. In fact, Los Lobos’ biggest commercial success came in 1987 with their chart-topping cover of the Ritchie Valens classic “La Bamba,” for the movie of the same name.

Not only that, but over the course of a dozen studio albums, Los Lobos have shown a deep knowledge of blues, rock and roll, folk and their native Mexican music and have created a rich catalog of songs that’s stylistically diverse, frequently innovative and somehow also cohesive.

But it took a bit of necessity to make “Native Sons,” the covers album that won the Grammy in April for Best Americana Album, a reality.

After signing a deal with New West Records to make a new album, Los Lobos saxophonist/keyboardist Steve Berlin and his bandmates realized they had bitten off more than they could chew.

“One of the reasons why we did the covers record in the first place was because, little did we know, we had a really busy touring schedule for 2020,” Berlin said in a recent phone interview. “Normally we take two months or so off out of the touring schedule to focus on the record. The writers write and we open the studio up and kind of not have to rush anything, just being able to do it on our own time. Historically anyway we’re not fast workers. Normally things take that time.”

But with no breaks in the 2020 tour schedule, that two-month window didn’t exist. That’s why the idea of a covers album came up. If the band took writing an album’s worth of songs out of the equation, an album would be doable. A covers album fit that bill.

Of course, 2020 ended up being a whole lot less busy than expected for Los Lobos – and virtually every other band – thanks to the pandemic canceling tour after tour. But Los Lobos stuck with the covers project and it ended up being beneficial to the band, which includes Berlin, David Hidalgo (guitar, accordion, vocals and more), Cesar Rosas (guitar vocals) Louis Perez (guitar, vocals) and Conrad Lozano (bass).

“The interesting thing is we started this record before it (the pandemic) all went down, and in a weird way, it sort of kept us sane, I think,” Berlin said. “We were able to think about it and work on it intermittently. Once it was OK to travel again – for a while there, it really wasn’t an option – but once it was safe-ish to travel, we started doing like three or four days a month, maybe like two or three songs and just tried to do whatever we could just to keep the ball rolling, keep ourselves engaged, keep ourselves thinking about music. In a weird way, that’s how we got through it, kind of coming and going and focusing for a little while and then stepping back.”

Deciding on the type of covers album to make, though, was not an easy question to resolve. Berlin thought back to “Llego Navidad,” the 2019 Los Lobos album based around Mexican holiday songs. Feeling a narrow focus helped to make that project work, Berlin, who produced “Native Sons,” proposed limiting the covers album to songs from Los Angeles artists that had influenced Los Lobos.

“There was not unanimity among the band members as far as whether or not it was a good idea,” Berlin said. “I think there was significant pushback and some of the guys were like ‘How’s that going to work?’ and ‘Why are we limiting ourselves? I have songs I want to do that are not about L.A.’ And I just said, my point to them was let’s just see if it works. If it doesn’t work, we’ll pull the plug, whatever. It doesn’t matter. But let’s give it at least a try and see where it takes us. Let’s just see. So with that attitude we started.

“So we cut four songs initially and the plan was to come back (to record more) in a couple of weeks. Then everything shut down,” said Berlin, who along with being in Los Lobos has also had a long and successful career producing other acts. “We just said all right, let’s keep going and keep going, and a couple of months later we had 14 songs without even thinking about it, to the point that we realized we were over what we had been contractually obligated for.”

“Native Sons” is a lively, highly entertaining 13-song album, and it shows that Los Lobos own music was shaped by the rich tapestry of musical styles that came out of Los Angeles in the years before and after Los Lobos formed in 1973.  

Classic rock is represented by a medley of the Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird” and “For What it’s Worth.” There’s jump blues with Percy Mayfield’s “Never No More,” and garage rock is represented with “Farmer John” (made popular by the Premiers). Some vintage roots rock comes courtesy of “Flat Top Joint,” a song by good friends and Los Angeles compatriots the Blasters (which was the band Berlin was in before he joined Los Lobos). Soul music enters the mix with War’s “The World Is A Ghetto.” There’s also the sunny pop of Beach Boys’ “Sail On Sailor” and the rich storytelling and country-tinged pop of Jackson Browne’s “Jamaica Say You Will.” Los Lobos’ Mexican musical roots are represented in the songs “Dichoso” and “Los Chucos Suaves.”

What’s interesting is for a band that has always performed at least a cover or two in the vast majority of their concerts, Los Lobos had played few of the songs on “Native Sons” in a live setting.

“That was kind of the idea. We didn’t want to do stuff that we had done a bunch,” Berlin said. “We kind of wanted to tell a story. We wanted it to be kind of like very specifically, at least in some cases, specifically about people that had influenced us or changed our lives in some way, guys who had really mattered to us, like songs that matter, people that matter. It wasn’t a grab bag. We tried to tell a story about more or less what our DNA is. These are the things that brought us here.”

With their deep catalog of songs, Los Lobos have typically been able to change up their set lists from show to show on tour. But the group recently brought on a new drummer in Alfredo Ortiz after longtime drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez decided to return to Mexico in fall 2020 amidst the charged atmosphere surrounding immigration in the United States. So Los Lobos will likely play more of a consistent group of songs as the band tours this year.

“He (Ortiz) used to play with the Beastie Boys for many years” Berlin said. “But we’ll obviously be featuring the new record, which is great because they (the songs) are super fun to play and the fans always seem to enjoy the covers anyway.”

– Alan Sculley, Last Word Features

Los Lobos
‘Native Sons’
Label:
New West Records
Release: July 30, 2021
In concert: (With Tedeschi Trucks Band) Aug. 23 at Sacramento Memorial Auditorium and Aug. 28 at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno.

ABOUT Alan Sculley

Alan Sculley
Alan Sculley has operated his music feature service, Last Word Features, for more than 25 years. His music features and reviews have appeared in more than 100 daily newspapers, alternative weeklies and entertainment publications.

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