If you wanted to line out what an an ideal career in the music industry might look like on paper, one of the first people you’d have to look at as a living, breathing, real-world example would be musician and producer Steve Berlin.
That’s because at this point in his career, the multi-instrumentalist has something that just about any commercial musician is striving for: the ability to be artistically free while remaining culturally relevant and financially stable. One way Berlin has managed to this is by creating one of the most diverse musical portfolios around.
Since 1984, his main gig has been as multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire for iconic Los Angeles band Los Lobos, along with musical compadres David Hidalgo (guitar), Louie Perez (guitar), Cesar Rosas (guitar),Conrad Lozano (bass) and Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez (drums).
Los Lobos rose to fame in the late 1980s on the strength of cover single “La Bamba,” which was featured in the 1987 movie biopic of the same name. The film detailed the story of Chicano music idol Ritchie Valens. With the release of the single and critically acclaimed albums such as “How Will The Wolf Survive?,” “By The Light of the Moon” and “Kiko,” Los Lobos has influenced a whole generation of musicians with its hybrid strain of music born from Tex-Mex, soul, blues, zydeco, mariachi and others.
Bravery would probably be one thing I like in a band, someone that is willing to take a chance and experiment. I like and appreciate rule breakers.”
As a musician, his creative and artistic output spans decades, having founded, recorded and toured in punkabilly’s The Flesh Eaters in the late 1970s and having played with members of Deer Tick and The Black Lips in the smash and roll band Diamond Rugs in the early 2010s. His list of producer credits is as varied as it is long and he’s been able to work with bands ranging from String Cheese Incident to Leo Kottke.
When asked by Tahoe Onstage in a recent phone conversation to estimate how he divides his time between projects, Berlin cut it at 50 percent with Los Lobos, 30 percent producing and 20 percent touring. Not too bad a split.
“I consider myself just a really lucky guy. I’ve been able to do this making and producing music for most of my whole life,” Berlin said.
The 63 year-old musician has spent most of that life playing and touring in Los Lobos, with 2019 marking his 35th year in the band. During that time, Los Lobos has become one of the most celebrated and influential bands of its generation. The group was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame Class of 2018, whose inductees also included Marcia Ball and Ray Charles. The honor culminated into an all-star tribute that featured Norah Jones, Gary Clark Jr., Irma Thomas and others.
“The induction class was pretty cool. As much as anything, it’s an acknowledgement that we have persevered. It’s not easy to have done this. Awards are always nice: you get to dress up, eat really nice food and drink really nice booze,” Berlin said.
One thing that Berlin has been acknowledged for more and more over the years is his work as a producer. As his older production work with artists such as Los Lobos, Leo Kottke, The Tragically Hip and String Cheese Incident reached the ears of the current generation of musicians, he became one of its more in-demand producers. Just in the last couple years, he’s worked with a plethora of bands and sounds, including punk-soul with Austin’s Street Spirit, hitchhiking folk with New Hampshire’s The Suitcase Junket, jam grass with Michigan’s Greensky Bluegrass and boogie-woogie pianist Marcia Ball. Much like the bands he work with, Berlin doesn’t want to play by any conventional rules when it comes to choosing his projects.
“I really need something to raise my temperature if I want to do it. It’s interesting; it’s an indefinable thing. Bravery would probably be one thing I like in a band, someone that is willing to take a chance and experiment. I like and appreciate rule breakers. Just in the last year I’ve made a bluegrass record, some Latin records, a couple punk records, a couple of rock records. I just like to get out and do something,” Berlin said.
One artist who can always raise Berlin’s temperature is guitar ninja Scott Pemberton. Berlin produced Pemberton’s 2015 album “Timber Rock” and is currently back in the studio with the Timber Rocker to record its follow up. The two have become close friends both musically and personally, and Berlin was a little verklempt when he recently moved out of the neighborhood the two shared.
“Scott is just one of the most unique musicians on Earth. He’s a unique individual, he’s a unique musician with a unique viewpoint and style. I enjoy every bit of it and I love playing with him. It’s one of my most favorite things to do when I’m home. He used to have a standing gig at the bar in my neighborhood every Tuesday night,” Berlin said.
After decades in the music business, Steve Berlin has certainly built an ideal career for himself. He plays with the people he wants to play with and he makes the records he wants to make. What more could you ask? At the end of the day, there’s only one way to explain why he’s been able to do what he does: He still loves it.
“Every record has its challenges and joys and heartbreaks. They are kind of like children in a way as you love them all. The way I work, I have to on some level fall in love with the music or the idea.”
— Garrett Bethmann