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Interview: Steve Berlin (Los Lobos)

4 August 2021

Photo by Piero F Giunti

There are many reasons why bands choose to do covers albums. For some, it helps bands finish a record deal without turning over new music to the label they are leaving. For others, it’s promotional material that justifies hitting the road to support. For Los Lobos, who formed nearly 50 years ago, the Native Sons album was an unintended consequence of the global pandemic.

Though the band had signed a record deal with New West Records, there wasn’t a lot of pressure to put out an album of new material in 2020. Instead, Los Lobos had planned to spend most of the year on the road while starting to think about a follow up to 2015’s Gates of Gold. With a packed schedule, the band couldn’t afford to take two-and-a-half months off to write and record but when the pandemic put a hold on tour plans, the idea of a covers album presented itself.

By covering songs from the Los Angeles artists they grew up listening to, David Hidalgo (vocals, guitar), Louie PĂ©rez (drums), Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitar), Conrad Lozano (bass) and Steve Berlin (saxophone, keyboards), Los Lobos could skip over the writing phase and start to work on the arrangements, which hold pretty true to the originals, and recording, done both in small chunks in the studio to limit exposure as well as at home once things worsened.

Native Sons skips the standard covers, the songs that have dominated charts for the last 60 years and, instead, puts a spotlight on some lesser known tracks by both household names (“Jamaica Say You Will” by Jackson Browne, “Sail On, Sailor” by The Beach Boys, “The World is a Ghetto” by War) and more obscure, regional acts such as Thee Midniters, Barrett Strong, Lalo Guerrero Y Sus Cincos Lobos, and Percy Mayfield. There is also one original, the title track, which fits in nicely with the nostalgic sounds of the other 13 tracks on the album.

Steve Berlin joined me on a Zoom call on the day Native Sons was released for an enlightening conversation where we discussed what it means to release an album in 2021, how everything came together, and the events in his childhood that led him to be a musician.

In 2021, is the day of an album release still like a birthday? Is it something big to celebrate?

STEVE: It’s not what it used to be. Something about a digital release day doesn’t have the same resonance. My phone’s been going crazy though, a lot of my friends are hearing it for the first time today, so, that’s cool. It’s not like it used to be way back when you literally couldn’t hear an album before it’s release day.

I remember the days when big albums were released and, some times, stores would have midnight sales so you could buy it the second Monday turned into Tuesday.

STEVE: Yeah, I did that too. I remember being really excited about it, there wasn’t a thought that I would be able to find it elsewhere before that. Eventually I realized there’s a bunch of people I can hit up to hear things beforehand. Now it’s like, “Yeah, that’s not the same.” I think that’s slightly tragic, I think the world would be a happier place if an album release was a much bigger deal. I’m sincerely happy that people are looking forward to this record and so far the response has been really good. We put out records in the recent past, I remember there was in Mojo or Q magazine, it was like, “Another great record from Los Lobos, ho hum.” It’s like, “Dude, do you have any idea? Do you think we just shit these out? Give me a fucking break.” That, I guess, is going to happen if you’re going to stick around for 50 years.

Back in the day, did you go out and at least go out to look to make sure your local record store had copies of new Los Lobos albums on release day? And, if so, did you buy a copy?

STEVE: Yes, I looked. I did not buy it, I was not that person. But, when radio was all there was, I would tell my family and my girlfriends and whoever to just call the radio station and request our song. I wasn’t above that, that’s for sure. My wife still gives me shit. “Who else did you tell to do this?” Back in the day, I sound like a fucking dinosaur, whenever we were on the road I’d hit all the record stores and be like, “Is it here?” A lot of times, it wasn’t, especially on some of the crappier labels we were on through the ’00s. There’d be a lot of times we’d be out there busting our ass and no records, no nothing, no signage, no acknowledgement that we were even in town.

Do you still get a thrill when you’re out somewhere and you hear a Los Lobos song?

STEVE: Yeah, that never stops. That’s always super exciting and unexpected. That thrill, I hope that’ll never go away, when you hear something you worked on out in the world, it’s still pretty great. It still matters. It matters to me, that’s for sure.

I’ll admit that I didn’t realize Native Sons was a covers album and, before listening, I was not familiar with many of the originals. It wasn’t until I heard your cover of the Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth,” that I started putting two and two together. I think I understand the mission behind the record and that is to pay homage to the bands that you grew up with, specifically in L.A. but what I appreciate is you’re introducing people who didn’t grow up in L.A. in the ’60s to some potentially new music.

STEVE: That’s kind of the unspoken part of the mission. It was really more us saying thank you and paying homage to the people who formed our DNA, more or less. Certainly everybody on that record is part of our shared DNA. The fact that that’s how it worked for you, that’s an unintended giant benefit that we’re getting to turn people on to some really cool records.

There’s this internet radio station called Gimme Country, and they gave me 2 hours to program, which was super fun. Obviously, the first song on the record and one of the other ones is a Midniters song and I thought it would be cool to put some Midniters stuff in there and, man, those songs sound so cool. Even I find inspiration now even though we just did a whole record and we covered their songs. I go back and listen and I’m like, “These songs are really, really cool.” What’s funny is, the guys in Los Lobos say that when they were growing up, they thought Thee Midniters, the Beatles and the Stones were all kind of in the same pantheon. Thee Midniters were on TV all the time. They were like, “They were like the East L.A. Beatles.” It’s not figurative, as little kids, they weren’t going to clubs, they’re just turning on the TV and they’re like, “Oh, there’s the Beatles on Ed Sullivan; oh, there’s Thee Midniters on this show.” They kind of thought these bands were more or less equal, which is pretty funny if you think about it. Thee Midniters were really influential because they were knuckleheads … they still are knuckleheads … from the neighborhood that, in that moment, made it as big as anybody had. This was pre-War, pre-*Richie Valens*. I guess Richie Valens really wasn’t from the neighborhood, but these guys were literally from the same block in some cases as the guys from my band. They are still friends. Little Willie G [from the band War] sings on the record, he just sent me a text 10 minutes ago. He just got the record today.

The album’s getting great reviews. Did you expect that for an album full of covers? Did you think maybe you’d get good reviews because you are faithful to songs that are very well written?

STEVE: No. I was actually kind of nervous about the response, to be honest with you. Covers records are not hard. You pick good songs and play them. It’s kind of low-hanging fruit. That was my fear going into it, it would be perceived as such, especially for a band of our age. There’s a reason why Rod Stewart only does covers now. That was an honest fear of mine, that we’d be accused of being low-hanging fruit farmers. It’s very gratifying that the response has been great and it’s very, very gratifying that people see that we put some thought into it and tried to create something that’s not just those songs but a larger narrative. We tried to create something that said more than “here’s 14 songs that we like a lot.” When I say that almost everybody on that record is part of our DNA, that’s not a joke. All that stuff went into making us us. I’m a little surprised, I thought there would be somebody saying what I was thinking in my head but so far that hasn’t happened so I will say thank you to the gods of commerce and finance.

We didn’t have a record deal for 5 years, 2015 was the last time we were on a label and we couldn’t have cared less. Not being on a label was not the subject of the day in any discussion that we ever had. It was like, who cares? No big deal, it’s not like our fans care and we certainly didn’t feel the urge in those years to get a record out. It was “it’ll happen when it happens.” It happened to be fall 2019. After having a really pleasant experience with Rhino Records with the Christmas thing [2019’s Llego Navidad], our last record experience prior left a bad taste in our mouth. I know we’re not trying to sell pop records or anything like that but it was kind of stillborn, it didn’t seem like there was a big effort to get it out.

The difference between that record and this record is night and day, there was almost no press or anything when that record came out. We were just sort of like, “Maybe we’re over it. Maybe we’re just not going to make a record again.” You know, the things you think about at our stage. When we got this offer from people that are our friends, like, I knew John [Allen] from New West. John used to be our publisher. We felt an affinity to these people, they were very kind to us. The offer was very generous, it was a modern record deal. All our record deals prior were old school record deals which basically are like Mafia-loan contracts. There is almost no chance you’ll ever see a dollar from the old school record contracts and everybody kind of knows that. The modern record deal with an indie is a partnership, a 50/50 split after costs. They do what they do, we do what we do and it’s a much more symbiotic and artist-friendly relationship. That’s the deal they offered us. It made it easy to say yes to.

But, when we said yes to it, we were looking at a busy 2020, non-stop touring, 2 or 3 trips to Europe, a trip to Japan. There was a lot of stuff going on for a band with no record. The thought was that we didn’t have time to do a real record, something that would require a two-and-a-half month commitment which is what every other record in the last 20 years took. We didn’t have a month, let alone two-and-a-half months to take out of the touring schedule so we thought, okay, let’s do something we can do in pieces – a week here, a week there. There was no rush. Much to New West’s credit, they never pressured us to get it done.

As it turns out, Covid hits and the methodology idea turns out to be a perfect idea for trying to make a record under Covid because it wasn’t about touring. It was about staying out of the lockdowns and travel restrictions. There was a lot of challenges that went into the making of this record plus dealing with all the run-up to our election, which was another nightmare. So that’s why it was a covers record. The L.A. part was something we came up with to focus the energy. It wasn’t like we went into thinking to make a covers record, it was more of what can we do now that would work with the label to get something to start this relationship. It’s a two-record deal so maybe next year we’ll start working on a non-covers record. I know that we are well overdue for a record of new material.

It’s been a long road to get to where you are. If we can go back to your childhood in Philadelphia, what was the first band you remember seeing live?

STEVE: You know who it was? Oddly enough, this is really interesting, well, there’s two. The first one I went to on my own was the Nazz. I got to see Todd Rundgren, pre-Todd Rundgren when he was in the Nazz, play in a park in Philadelphia. I had an aunt that lived in an apartment building on Rittenhouse Square and I was probably 11 or 12 and the Nazz was playing a free show in the park so I just kind of wandered over. I was like, “Wow, this is really cool.” And then the other one, which would have had to have been around the same time, was Dreams, with Michael and Randy Brecker and Billy Cobham. They were also Philadelphians and the Brecker’s parents and my parents were close friends. They were playing at Steel Pier in Atlantic City. We used to rent a house in the summer and we would go to Atlantic City in the summer time. This was when the Atlantic City boardwalk was pre-casinos, pre-Trump, pre-bullshit. It was a very elegant and safe family place. I remember we took a jitney, they had these little taxis called jitneys, to see Dreams. I definitely wasn’t playing an instrument so I must have been 11 because, after seeing Michael Brecker, I started playing flute. Seeing those guys play was overwhelming. That set me up to be who I am.

Did that set you up to be a lifelong fan of those bands?

STEVE: I can’t say that’s what happened. I was more impressed with the spectacle and the exoticness of the experience. I hadn’t really formed a musical opinion at that point. I was a big Yardbirds fan. I guess I was an Anglophile early on, so both the Nazz and Dreams were not in my specific wheelhouse. I thought the Yardbirds and Jeff Beck were the coolest so I wasn’t quite there yet. I love Todd Rundgren and I’m a huge Michael Brecker fan but that didn’t set me on the course. I think that was more an introduction to the secret world. “Wow, these guys get to play and do cool stuff.” That part appealed to me more than the music.

And that’s what inspired you to start playing an instrument?

STEVE: Right around then, we were all just trying to figure out who we are. I started playing drums first. My best friend was also a drummer. A band formed of all of our collective best friends and it was down to him or me for the drum chair and they picked him because, frankly, I was a terrible drummer. I didn’t want to miss out on the fun so I started playing flute just to be part of the band. That was right when the first Jethro Tull record came out, that was my first inspiration. Flute seems relatively easy and certainly portable. It’s not like dragging around a drum kit so that appealed to me and my mom. The sax showed up not long after. The other drummer is still my best friend, we’re still close.

But he hasn’t put out 20 albums and toured the world.

STEVE: No, but he still plays. He still has a drum kit. He’s professional auctioneer in Vermont, so he’s got a pretty cool gig. He plays on weekends at a local restaurant, one of which he owns, just for something to do.

This is sort of embarrassing to admit but my knowledge of the Philly soul scene comes from Hall & Oates. Was the Philly soul scene part of what you grew up on?

STEVE: Very much. That was a huge part of my growing up. Before Hall & Oates, there was the Philadelphia International label which was The O’Jays, The Spinners, Harold Melvin & the Blues Notes, Teddy Pendergrass. That was the sound of my childhood and then the antecedents to that. There was this huge Philly soul sound. For a city that was largely in the shadow of New York in most things culturally, musically we couldn’t give a shit about anybody or any other city. As a Philly musician, we thought the sun rose in East Philly and set in West Philly because the musical thing was so rich there. Some of the people that I grew up playing with, most of the people I played with once I became half decent, were playing on those soul records so I got to go once or twice to the studio when somebody was doing something and just sort of watch the operation. The sound of those records is still somewhat imprinted in my head. It’s such a lush, articulate, emotional, intelligent sound. It’s not playing to a lower denominator. Those records, even some of the biggest hits, are very, very, very articulate and powerful and lots and lots of moving parts. They’re not simple records on any level and that affected how I hear music and my production style, I’m guilty of perhaps overdoing stuff, but that came from listening to those records and hearing that stuff on the radio all the time.

And then, of course, the Philly jazz tradition which is another thing onto itself, so many amazing sax players in particular that came out of Philly. There was a moment there where I was a jazz snob. Philly was it. It was a great place to grow up as a musicians, there’s so many amazing players and lots of inspiration everywhere. There were lots of clubs, I had a standing gig when I was 14. It was really good nurturing ground. And now it seems like there’s an indie rock scene. Sounds like things are happening there again. I’m very proud of the city and I still love it dearly. I’m still Philly through and through, I still root for the sports teams and I still get the Philly paper every day digitally. I’m still there emotionally if nothing else.

The stuff you covered on the album is mostly ’60s L.A. Because you lived there in the ’70s and ’80s, did you see the big change in the music scene, especially during the glam metal Sunset Strip days of the mid-to-late ’80s?

STEVE: By the time I left, our whole L.A. punk scene was well over. It pretty much was the hair bands who invaded all of our sacred places with their tight jeans and open shirts, curlers in their hair. That part wasn’t hard to leave. By then, that moment was over. X was happening. The Blasters were happening. The Go-Go’s. All of our friends were more or less on the road all the time. Back in the day, on that scene, we would see each other all the time and we’d be at every show. It was like the same traveling band of misfits, if not at every show, at least a couple times every week you’d run into the same people. These great friendships formed.

Around ’84 or ’85, we couldn’t play two or three times a month in L.A. any more, we had to play twice a year instead of twice a month. Everybody was on the road, people were having success, in the Go-Go’s case, giant hit records, and for us as well, a number one record, everything changed. We had to grow up and deal with the real world and go out and play shows while touring non stop. It was a wonderful time while it lasted.

When I left L.A., to be clear, I still had a place there, so I was back and forth for about 5 or 6 years, it wasn’t like I was leaving this crappy place where the people annoyed me. It was more because my wife and I wanted to start a family and we knew we didn’t want to have a family in L.A. We didn’t know any well adjusted kids from Los Angeles. It’s a really tough place to raise kids. It’s everything you think it is, it’s a really surfacey culture. It’s very trendy. You have to play a game there that I didn’t want to have to burden my kids with in any way. We took off and started our family in Seattle initially and now we’ve been in Portland for about 13 years.

You play a lot of guest parts on records and have been producing other bands. Do you take everything that is thrown your way or are you selective about what you choose to do?

STEVE: That’s a very timely question. More often than not, I will say yes just because I like it. But, I literally just finished something last night that was torturing me. It’s been torturing me for a couple of days. I finally finished it at midnight last night. I’m not a quitter but I came close to saying, “Can I send your money back? I don’t have time to do this.” That almost never happens. In terms of production, I have to be a little selective although I’m not as selective as perhaps as I should be. Certainly Covid changed the rules on everything but now we’re getting back on the road so my windows of time are back to 3 days here, 4 days there, a week here.

You’re doing dates with Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and, next year, with the Tedeschi-Trucks Band. It seems like you can play with just about anybody.

STEVE: I would say that’s probably true. We get along with almost anybody. We’ve done some weird ones … [laughs] … early, early on, like around the first record, they stuck us on a tour with a band called La Mafia. It was the Mexican answer to that Puerto Rican band, Menudo; it was all young, 15-or-16-year-old kids. They would randomly replace them as they got older, like, the minute they started looking like a 19-year-old, the next day it would be like, “Oh, hey, where’d that guy go?” “He timed out, he started to look like he wasn’t 15 any more.” We were stuck on a tour with that band. Don’t ask me who thought that would be a good idea. Four shows in, we were like, “We’re quitting.” I could not bear another night being with that band. When we quit, we were in McAllen, Texas and we had no way back. We weren’t making any money and we didn’t have anything saved, we were just high and dry. I reached out … we had been to Austin before … so I reached out to Clifford Antone, the guy that started Antone’s club. I was like, “Look, good friend, we’re stuck in McAllen. We can probably make it to Austin on the amount of gas we have in the car.” I think I just asked him if he could put us up until we figured out what our next move was. He said, “You can open for anybody at my club for a week and I’ll pay you $100 each and that should get you somewhere.” Sure enough, we had 7 nights, 5 guys in the band, we ended up with $3,500 and that was enough to get back to L.A.

And that is a great story to end on.

 

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