THEos Lobos reached the pinnacle of pop in 1987 when their cover of La Bamba, recorded for a film of the same name, reached world number 1. On the way up, and even down the other side, the Los Angeles roots-rockers have mastered several styles of music for nearly 50 years together – from traditional Mexican folk to jump blues and avant-rock – and have won. 11 Grammy nominations (with three wins), working or appearing with Paul Simon, the Clashes, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and many more along the way.
Now, to move forward, Los Lobos have decided to look back. Native Sons, their 17th studio album, is a high-profile celebration of the LA artists who inspired the band in the early days. With covers of well-known pop tracks from the Beach Boys (Sail on Sailor) and Buffalo Springfield (For What It’s Worth) alongside rare tracks from 60s garage rockers Thee Midniters and Latin jazz legend Willie Bobo, c is the perfect multilingual collection for this multifaceted set. “You would not meet [these artists] at the same party, ”says guitarist Louie Pérez Jr.“ But once they all got to the party, everyone in the band thought, ‘Hey, that’s kind of fun.’ “
This brought the band back to their roots as a highly demanded alliance in eastern LA where the mandate is to play the hits. “Normally when someone makes a tribute recording, they make their version of who is the subject of the tribute,” Pérez explains. “We didn’t do that. We try to play it like on the original records. This does not make people talk about us. This makes it a real tribute.
Trying to perfectly reproduce the sounds of the past has been the hallmark of the band. The core members – Pérez, singer-instrumentalist David Hidalgo, guitarist Cesar Rosas, and bassist Conrad Lozano – were originally brought together in the 1970s by their love of psychedelic rock and cut their teeth in various LA cover bands. But what bound them was the traditional Mexican music that was a mainstay of their respective homes. “It was a bit like car alarms,” Pérez recalls. “It was in the background and we couldn’t even hear it anymore. Then we totally immersed ourselves in it. The group studied records in their parents’ collections and snatched up instruments such as the guitarron and requinto jarocho pawn shops.
Soon the band was playing all over eastern Los Angeles, resembling, as Perez puts it, “more like [Neil Young’s] Crazy Horse than a Mexican band ”, and make connections with several generations of Chicanos. “We would be at an event in the park and the elderly were rolling up their blankets, ready to go. Then we would start playing and all of a sudden they were rolling out the blankets. These grandmothers would come and bless us.
As their sound evolved to again incorporate electric instruments and rock beats, the band found their way across the LA River and thriving punk and roots rock scenes of the early ’80s. Getting gigs with other artists such as the Blasters (from whom they pinched saxophonist Steve Berlin) and the Latin punk group the Plugz, Los Lobos wowed and angered audiences. At a notorious concert, they performed an ensemble of Mexican acoustic standards during the post-punks Public Image Limited part one. The crowd responded with saliva, taunts and projectiles. “The pennies and pennies started coming in, and then the quarters started coming in,” Rosas told author Chris Morris in the biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue. “I remember they threw that big wet wad of paper away and hit Dave in the face.”
Things have improved. The group’s reputation for their thrilling concerts grew and they won their first Grammy for Anselma, a catchy tejano number from their 1983 EP … And a Time to Dance. Their breakthrough came in 1987 when they were asked to record a handful of Ritchie Valens songs for a biopic on the late rocker. “The request came directly from Ritchie’s family,” Pérez says. “La Bamba was the single from the stack of 45s that everyone carried when we were young – of course let’s pay tribute to it.”
As exciting as it was, the group’s expectations were low. “I remember seeing the movie and thinking, ‘This is actually a decent movie. Too bad no one sees it, ”says Berlin. La Bamba ended up being a huge box office hit, and Los Lobos’ version of the song topped the US and UK charts.
As they relished the financial windfall and the opportunities that came with success, the group, Pérez says, faced “a little identity crisis. We had been doing this for a long time and this song eclipsed anything we had done before. Rather than pursue another success like this, Los Lobos followed up with La Pistola y El Corazón, an album that returned to their traditional Mexican musical roots. “We played it for [Warner Bros Records president] Lenny Waronker and he had a kind of glassy look in his eyes, ”Pérez explains. “He said, ‘Does that mean a lot to you? OK… We’re going to make a record. Let me take care of the rest. Which meant he had to stand up and explain to Mo Ostin, the CEO, that we were going to commit commercial suicide. This album won another Grammy for the group.
Los Lobos’ insistence on following their own instincts and interests only got stronger. In the 90s, they collaborated with producer Mitchell Froom on Kiko and Colossal Head, a pair of daring albums that brought touches of funk, noise rock and experimental music. “We decided to make uncompromising music that makes us happy,” says Berlin. “And if nobody likes it, we don’t care. We’re going to do it anyway. The original attitude was “Fuck everyone”. Sometimes that’s the way it takes to be to get good things out of yourself.
The band settled into a comfortable pace of touring and recording sessions without getting complacent – they recorded a children’s album with musician and labor activist Lalo Guerrero, and backed actor Antonio Banderas on a song for the film Desperado – while keeping the same composition. “The secret is that we were friends before we were a band,” says Pérez. “We didn’t meet through the classifieds. I think we are still very good friends and brothers.
This sentiment was evident during the Native Sons sessions when Hidalgo decided to surprise Pérez by dropping a version of Jamaica Say You Will, a song from Jackson Browne’s debut album. “I said, ‘Wow! Whose idea was this? David looked at his shoes and said, “Well, I know this record meant a lot to you.” And then he said, ‘And you’re going to sing it.’ They managed to tear a worm from me.
An extended break during the pandemic – “so we can regroup, cool off and get back together,” Pérez says – will hopefully serve Los Lobos well ahead of a fall tour and then their half-century celebrations. . “We are all lucky and grateful,” says Berlin. “It didn’t seem to last that long when we first started, for sure.”