Los Lobos still making history
March 5, 2009
Louie Perez said he’s felt a little bit guilty this winter.
He’s been reading a lot, taken in a couple of great movies and spent most of his time in his Orange County house catching up with his family. But he says he hasn’t accomplished much.
Two full months away from music is almost unprecedented for Perez and the other members of Los Lobos, a band that has remained intact since the childhood friends decided to collaborate in 1973.
The “little band from East L.A.” returned to the road again this week, and will play at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe on Saturday, March 7.
“It’s gonna feel weird,” Perez said. “I’ve always experienced that after we come back, even after a short break, you’re on fire. The passion is all back again.”
As the band’s primary lyricist, it is natural for Perez to be the spokesman. He was easing back into work mode Feb. 24 by speaking with music writers in separate telephone calls. His conversation with Lake Tahoe Action was the final interview of the day, so there was no time limit. Sounding sincerely happy to learn that the interviewer’s music collection includes nearly everything Los Lobos has ever recorded, Perez was relaxed and candid during a nearly hour-long talk.
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“The two hours on stage ” that’s the s—,” he said. “It’s the other 22 hours that beats the daylights out of you. When you’re able to get away from all of it, you come back and everything is renewed. I would say it’s a good thing to see us when we’ve just gotten back.”
Perez spoke about the band’s history, its recent work and future plans and what might be on the set list for the Tahoe show. Deep into the conversation, Action asked about the band’s legacy. Does he ever reflect upon how it combined two cultures and created a commercially successful musical style that has influenced generations of bands?
“I think about that,” Perez said. “I step out of myself for a minute every now and then, just to get my bearings. And I think about it, yeah. This band has been more than just a cool rock group and a bunch of good musicians. Am I exaggerating or overstepping by saying this little band from East L.A ., in its own way kind of way, changed musical history? I don’t think so. I think it’s the truth. We’ve been instrumental in integrating Latin music into the contemporary musical landscape.
“We threw the musical world off its axis just a little bit. There was a little band from East L.A., four Chicano guys who played a 100-year-old Mexican song, and it was No. 1 on the billboard charts and a worldwide hit. This band has really stretched the definition of what Latin music is.”
The No. 1 song was “La Bamba,” which was on the soundtrack for the 1987 film of the same title about Richie Valens, the first Latino rock artist to gain U.S. popularity in the United States. Valens died in 1959 at the age of 19 in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
Los Lobos released an album every two or three years ever since, each time keeping its familiar Tejano, rockabilly and blues sounds with David Hilgado as the primary vocalist. However, each new record brought a different approach. It’s always had a penchant for experimentation, and 1992’s “Kiko” and 1996’s “Colossal Head” are the most avant-garde ” and probably most critically acclaimed ” records. Los Lobos has has three Grammys.
“Things have come into vogue, and things have fallen out of fashion, and we’ve just been a constant through the whole thing,” Perez said. We’ve just always done what we’ve wanted to do. We’ve disregarded everything else. This is what we do. That’s it. Nothing’s going to change now. By the time we made our first record, we had been together 11 years. This whole concept, from the very beginning, of a producer kind of eluded us.”
Perez, who finished high school in 1971, began his lifetime musical partnership with Hilgado in 1972 after Hilgado graduated. Perez would come to Hilgado’s house, where they would play guitars and listen to records. They eventually formed a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Bassist Conrad Lozano also had a rock band, and guitarist Cesar Rosas was in a 14-piece soul band.
During the days, the four would hang out together and play Mexican music, then they would go out at night with their different bands. They eventually realized their passion was the Mexican music.
“We started canvassing pawnshops, getting all the different instruments for, like, 15 bucks and trying to figure out how to play them,” Perez said. “It really was consuming us to the point where we said, ‘You know what, I don’t have time for that (other) band anymore. What are they trying to do anyway? They are spending all their time trying to sound like the record.’ “
Los Lobos played exclusively Mexican music from 1973 until 1980, when they delved back into rock. That’s when they began opening for the Blasters, a Hollywood punk band. Blasters saxophonist Steve Berlin became a friend and fan, then joined Los Lobos, completing the quintet.
“I think we have been a band that has certainly has changed anyone’s notion of what music should come from in Mexican-American people, and we still to this day, we always have challenged that.” Perez said. “We challenge our own culture in the way they listen to things. We don’t always give them what they want to hear. Not that we’re in any kind of position that we should be trying to educate anybody, (but we’re) at least trying to share our experience with them. I think they’ve been able to visit some territories that maybe they (otherwise) wouldn’t have.”
A music critic likened the sound of the Latin Playboys to somebody finding an old radio in an archeological dig. There was something ancient about the experimental music.
The Latin Playboys consisted of musicians unafraid to create unique songs: Los Lobos’ main lyricist, Steve Perez, and its primary songwriter, David Hilgado, Mitchell Froom, a producer who collects exotic keyboards, and Tchad Blake is an engineer Perez described as a “nutty professor who collects sounds from all over the world.” They released albums in 1994 and 1999, and went on a single short tour.
A Latin Playboys comeback is in the works, Perez revealed.
Inspired by a couple of acoustic tours he performed with Hilgado, Perez came up with the idea of releasing an old Playboys concert recording with a couple of new studio tracks.
“We have a really killer live recording that I don’t think anybody’s heard,” said Perez, who later came to the realization that he was “baby stepping” around what he really wants to do.
“We got so much satisfaction from (our acoustic tour), I think this is all leaning toward another Playboys record and possibly another tour, probably within the next couple years,” he said.
Perez said Froom also wants to get back together, and that Blake, who now lives in the U.K., remains close to Los Lobos, helping engineer two songs from their most recent album, “Town and the City.”
“Chad, I really haven’t talked to about it, but I think he might be excited too,” Perez said. “I think he might want to come back to the States for something like that.”