More than three decades have passed since Los Lobos released their debut album, Just Another Band from East L.A. Since then they’ve repeatedly disproved that title–Los Lobos isn’t “just another” anything, but rather a band that has consistently evolved artistically while never losing sight of their humble roots.
For Tin Can Trust–Los Lobos’ first release for Shout! Factory (due August 3) and first collection of new original material in four years–the venerable quintet reconnected directly with those roots by returning to East L.A. and recording at Manny’s Estudio, “in a rundown neighborhood,” says Los Lobos songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Louie Prez. “That took us out of our comfort zone and allowed us to do what we hadn’t done in quite some time: to play together in the same room, as one. This was not about putting tour feet up; this was about working.”
“This was a no-frills studio,” adds David Hidalgo (guitar, violin, accordion, percussion, vocals). “We didn’t even have a couch to sit on; we had to bring one in.”
“We went into that studio and the first day everyone was asking, ‘Does anyone have any material?’” recalls guitarist/vocalist Cesar Rosas. “So I said, ‘Well, I have a couple of songs.’ Then Dave started hitting the keys and he came up with something, and then Louie followed. That’s the way everything worked out; that’s the way we made this record.”
“What I liked about making this album,” says Hidalgo, “was the spirit of it: nobody said no to anything. If you had an idea, OK, try it. Just go for it and see where we end up.”
“It felt more like a group effort,” agrees bassist/vocalist Conrad Lozano. “We went into the studio with no ideas and worked some out. Before, everybody would come in with a finished product.” That unified vision and strong work ethic are evident in each of the 11 tracks comprising the self-produced Tin Can Trust, but so is something even greater, “an intuitiveness,” says Prez, “that happens only from being in a band for so long.”
A rare example of longevity in a volatile music world that stresses style over substance, Los Lobos’ lineup has remained uninterrupted since 1984, when saxophonist/keyboardist Steve Berlin joined original members Prez, Hidalgo, Rosas and Lozano, each of whom had been there since the beginning in 1973.
“This is what happens when five guys create a magical sound, then stick together for 30 years to see how far it can take them,” wrote Rolling Stone, and indeed, Los Lobos is a band that continually redefines itself and expands its scope with each passing year, while never losing sight of where they came from. Through sheer camaraderie and respect for one another’s musicality, they’ve continued to explore who Los Lobos is and what they have to offer, without succumbing to the burnout that plagues so many other bands that stick it out for any considerable length of time. Their influence is vast, yet they remain humble, centered and dedicated to their craft. Each new recording they make moves Los Lobos into another new dimension while simultaneously sounding like no one else in the world but Los Lobos. As All About Jazz raved, “The genius of Los Lobos resides in their innate ability to find the redemptive power of music, no matter the style they choose to play.”
“We’re long haul guys,” says Berlin. “If you’re in it for the long haul it makes staying together a lot easier. It’s a challenge, but the thing I’m most proud of is that we’ve never rested on our laurels. We keep trying to make every record feel like the first one and try to do the best we can and not tread on territory we have already trod on. What you hear is exactly what we wanted to do.”
Tin Can Trust, like so much of Los Lobos’ previous work, is an album that speaks to the time and place in which it was conceived. But it wasn’t until the songwriting and recording process was well under way that it occurred to the band that an underlying theme was trying to make itself heard. The phrase that ultimately became the album’s title can be traced back more than a century, but for the band it’s apt for the rickety state in which so many of us find ourselves–and our world–today.
The characters that populate Tin Can Trust are often anxious and hurting yet they remain resilient and proud. The scenarios in which they find themselves and the emotions they are experiencing are all familiar. It wasn’t until Prez and his songwriting partner Hidalgo had crafted the title track and another highlight of the album, “On Main Street,” that the album’s focus started to come into view. Says Prez, “I usually have to find the direction everything wants to go. I try not to resist because as soon as you start fighting and move it in another direction, it just doesn’t work.”
A number of tracks on Tin Can Trust are Hidalgo-Prez collaborations, including the album’s opener “I’ll Burn It Down,” with blues-rocker Susan Tedeschi offering a guest vocal harmony, and “Jupiter Or the Moon” — both of which feature Lozano on the upright acoustic bass. Hidalgo and Prez are also behind “Lady and the Rose,” which Berlin calls “incredible, one of my favorite songs on the record, with great lyrics”; the dance instrumental “Do the Murray,” whose curious title is a tribute to Hidalgo’s recently deceased dog; and the album-closing “Twenty Seven Spanishes,” which attempts to encapsulate in one song nothing less than the entire tale of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, “blow by blow,” as Prez says.
Of the remaining four tracks, three were written in whole or in part by Rosas, and the other is a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “West L.A. Fadeaway.” Lobos and the Dead have a shared history that extends back into the 1980s when the Angelenos befriended and opened shows for their northern peers. Los Lobos previously covered the Dead’s “Bertha” for a tribute album, and as Tin Can Trust took shape it occurred to the band to tuck “West L.A. Fadeaway,” which originally appeared on the Dead’s most successful album, 1987′s In the Dark, into their own new project.
“We were fooling around with it live for awhile,” says Prez, “and then when we got into the studio I think it was Cesar who said, ‘We’ve been messing with “West L.A. Fadeaway” for a while in our live shows. Why don’t we try learning it?’ We said, ‘That would certainly light up a lot of lives,’ because the Dead fans and Lobo-heads have always asked, ‘Why don’t you do another Grateful Dead song?’” Astute Dead Heads will also notice the co-authorship credited to Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead’s chief lyricist, on “All My Bridges Burning,” which he wrote with Rosas. Amidst soaring, fuzzed-out guitars, spiritual organ from guest Rev. Charles Williams, rock-solid drumming and Lozano’s dependably in-the-pocket bass grooves, Rosas delivers Hunter’s words with heart and soul.
Rosas supplied the two Spanish-language numbers on Tin Can Trust, the cumbia “Yo Canto” and the norteo “Mujer Ingrata,” both of which forge a connection to the Mexican folk songs played by Los Lobos in their formative years and on their classic 1988 album La Pistola y El Corazn. “‘Mujer Ingrata,’” says Rosas, “has to do with a relationship gone bad. The title means ungrateful woman. And ‘Yo Canto’ is about seeing different people and looking at some nice chicks! These aren’t social comments about anything,” he adds with a laugh. “I write the plain songs and the traditional songs.”
It was during their earliest years that the particular hybrid of traditional regional Mexican folk music, rock and roll, blues, R&B, country and other genres began finding a sweet spot in the music of Los Lobos. “In 1973, when we first formed,” says Prez, “we were four guys from East L.A. who were friends from high school who played in local rock bands. Then once we got out of high school you still had four guys who were just hanging out together. So the natural progression of things is to just start playing music again. You’d think that we’d form a rock band but then out of nowhere somebody got this idea of ‘Let’s learn a Mexican song to play for somebody’s mom for their birthday’ or something. Mexican music was largely just wallpaper for us–it was always in the background, and we never paid much attention to it. We were modern kids who listened to rock and roll. Then when we finally dug up some old records to learn a couple of songs, that was a real revelation to us that this music is actually very complicated and challenging. So at that point we were off and running.”
“To sit around in the afternoons and play these old songs we had heard when we were kids, it felt good,” adds Hidalgo. “We’d get some Budweiser and some flatbread and string cheese and hang around. It was cool. Then it grew. The old folks were blessing us and thanking us for playing this music. That’s why we’re still here, because of moments like that.”
Their first several years, says Prez, were a “chapter,” as Lobos began discovering who they were as a creative unit. The band’s 1978 Spanish-language debut found only a small audience, and quality gigs were few.”We ended up doing happy hours strolling in a Mexican restaurant. That wasn’t what we had in mind,” says Hidalgo.
By 1980, though, they began to turn up the volume, returning to rock music. At first, acceptance was evasive–at one notorious gig, Los Lobos was rejected by a hostile hometown crowd while opening for John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. Before long though, Los Lobos had begun to build an audience within L.A.’s punk and roots-rock world. An opening slot for hometown rock heroes the Blasters at the Sunset Strip’s legendary Whisky A-Go-Go in 1982 was a breakthrough, and that band’s saxophonist Steve Berlin took a special interest in Lobos, joining the group full-time for 1984′s critically acclaimed Slash Records debut, How Will the Wolf Survive?
As the ’80s kicked in for real, Los Lobos’ fortunes quickly turned in a positive direction, and they became one of the most highly regarded bands to emerge from the fertile L.A. scene. “It was one of those places and times, like ’67 in San Francisco or Paris in the ’20s,” says Berlin. “A lot of really superlative creative energy was focused in that place at that time. It was a very collegial atmosphere because everybody was experimenting with everything: with their identities, with their music. It was a very exciting time to be in a place where everybody around you was doing really interesting stuff. To this day I think that ethos informs a lot of what we do.”
One of the most momentous events in Los Lobos’ history arrived in 1987, when the band was tapped to cover “La Bamba,” the Mexican folk standard that had been transformed into a rock and roll classic in 1958 when it was recorded by the ill-fated 17-year-old Ritchie Valens. Valens, the first Chicano rock star, was catapulted to legendary status the following year when he died in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper and it was a natural choice that Los Lobos be asked to remake his signature hit for the forthcoming biopic of the same name. Little did anyone suspect that the remake would spring to number one on the charts!
“We had met Ritchie’s family and they had asked for us,” says Prez. “Of course, our emphasis at that time was on making our next album, By the Light of the Moon. Then ‘La Bamba’ came out and when the other record came out a few months later it was, By the Light of the Moon, what’s that? It was completely pre-empted by this massive hit. We had no idea what was going to happen.”
What happened was that Los Lobos was now reaching a vastly larger audience. “We were opening up for bands like U2 and the Clash and traveling around the world,” says Lozano. “You’d walk into an airplane and some little kid would be singing ‘La Bamba.’ It was a great time.”
Rather than capitalize on the elevated commercial profile that “La Bamba” had given them, Los Lobos instead chose to record as a followup La Pistola y El Corazn, paying tribute to their acoustic Mexican acoustic music roots. The next breakthrough came in 1992 with the release of Kiko, an album cited by many–including all of Los Lobos–as one of the best of their career. Bringing together all of the elements on which they had previously drawn and taking more liberties than in the past, Kiko “demonstrated the breadth of their sonic ambitions,” as the All Music Guide website put it. Comments Rosas, “With that album we didn’t want to be tied down to all the conventional ways of recording, so we started experimenting and making up sounds.”
Since then, on equally stunning albums such as 1996′s Colossal Head, 2002′s Good Morning Aztln and 2006′s The Town and the City, Los Lobos has continued to deliver dependably solid and diverse recordings, a live show that never fails to disappoint, and just enough side trips–a Disney tribute album and a couple of live ones, solo and duet recordings (among them Hidalgo and Prez’s ’90s diversion Latin Playboys), Berlin’s many production and sideman gigs–to keep their creative juices flowing. Tin Can Trust pushes Los Lobos ahead a few more notches while retaining everything the band’s loyal fans have come to expect.
“There’s this thing that still happens, this musical thing,” says Prez. “But if you took everything away, even the music, you’d still end up with four guys who were friends and hung out and grew up in the same neighborhood. And you can’t take that friendship away from us.”
“We’re brothers and we all equally recognize that,” says Rosas. “That’s what keeps us going, knowing that we need to help each other and we need to get through this and we work well together. And we keep it real.”
“We’re incredibly lucky,” adds Berlin. So are we–lucky to have Los Lobos.