Los Lobos – photo credit: Drew Reynolds

The Popdose Interview: Steve Berlin of Los Lobos

Los Lobos - photo credit: Drew Reynolds
As music fans, bands find their way into our song-obsessed hearts in a variety of ways and some of the best experiences come about very unexpectedly.

I think we all have those early albums that we remember hearing that were different. They were different, because top to bottom, the listening experience provided a sonic knockout because of the quality of the songs and in some cases, where the band took those songs.

Kiko by Los Lobos hit the mark on both of those points. Spanning 16 tracks, it was a remarkably filler-free listen that found the band reaching new creative peaks throughout. Los Lobos were extremely inspired during the recording sessions for Kiko and that comes through in the vibe of the songs which made it to our ears in album form.

And yet, it wasn’t an easy time for the band. They began the sessions for what would become Kiko surrounded by feelings of frustration. The creation of their previous album The Neighborhood had been somewhat of a soul sucking experience on many levels and the touring process to promote the album would leave the group bleeding money at its conclusion.

As saxophonist/keyboardist Steve Berlin tells us, they entered the process of recording their next album “pissed off” about a number of things, but they had a new approach in mind. They were going to do things their way and that artistic leap of faith certainly paid off. Berlin says they knew when they completed recording sessions for Kiko that they had captured “something that was pretty special.”

20 years after its original 1992 release, Kiko is getting a well-deserved ticker tape parade in the form of two new releases from Shout! Factory. The original Kiko album has been expanded with five additional bonus tracks, including previously unreleased studio demos and live tracks.

Additionally, Kiko Live presents a full album performance from 2006 which reveals how perfectly the Kiko album was sequenced. It flows very naturally in the live setting. Available on CD, DVD and CD/Blu-ray, the video component of this package is an essential pickup. Documentary footage surrounds the live performance of the album and tells the complete story of how Kiko came together, featuring interviews conducted with the members of Los Lobos specifically for this project.

We were happy to get the chance to talk with Steve Berlin to talk about the rich history behind Kiko, the nearly 40 year history of Los Lobos and the band’s upcoming tour with Neil Young.

If I did my math right, it’s approaching 30 years since you made your first appearance on a Los Lobos recording, with the …And A Time To Dance EP. They had been together for about 10 years. From an evolutionary standpoint, can you describe where the band was at the point you joined?

The first time that I met them was at the Blasters show that they opened in, I think it was 1981 or 1980. So they had really just….it was at the stage where part of that [time period that they had been together previously], they had been pretty exclusively a folkloric un-electric band that played primarily…they had a standing gig at a restaurant and then they were doing a bunch of backyard parties and social events and stuff like that.

So when they first showed up on my radar was when they opened for the Blasters and at that point, they had just started to plug in and everything went from hardcore acoustic to hardcore electric – meaning that the instruments were plugged in and they had a drum kit. So it was in a primal transitional stage, I guess you could say.

It’s interesting hearing the band talk in the documentary about making that transition from being more of a folk group to being more of a rock-based group around the time that you joined. I think that was one thing that I was interested to see in the documentary that might surprise some other folks, is just how much rock and roll there is in the roots of this band.

Well, I mean, I guess what’s somewhat lost is that it’s not like they grew up listening to the folk stuff. That was one of the things that kind of surprised me as we got to know each other. I grew up in Philadelphia and they grew up in East L.A., but we were listening to practically the same stuff. There’s a lot of obscure English bands like Bloodwyn Pig and the first [incarnation of] Fleetwood Mac and we [also] worshipped Cream, Blind Faith and Steve Winwood and people like that, so it wasn’t like they were living in some arcane musicologist world.

We were typical kids that just kept going and kept learning and kept playing stuff. So that was really kind of an amazing thing to me that we could be so far away and yet so similar in so many respects. I think what really switched it for them though is that once they got into it in the early ‘70s, once they decided to learn the folk music that they were playing, they were really immersed in this [music]. They went to villages in Mexico to sit with masters and learn how to play the instruments and learn the songs and just really dig super-deep on that stuff. So it was just sort of part of what they were and part of what made the band interesting is that they had on the one side, a pretty extensive rock knowledge and then a really different side, where there was this super extensive knowledge of this relatively arcane folk tradition as well.

Hearing you mention Winwood is interesting, because prior to getting the new reissue of Kiko, it had been a little while since I’d listened to the album. Listening back, it struck me how David Hidalgo’s vocals on a song like ‘Dream in Blue,’ combined with the instrumentation, have an almost Winwood-like feeling.

Oh yeah, every once in awhile, his voice does kind of sound like Steve’s, it’s just part of the genetic makeup of him I guess, I don’t know, I’m not really sure! [Laughs] But we really were huge Traffic fans and Winwood in particular, he’s always been up there. Often, when we do ‘Dream in Blue,’ we actually throw in ‘40,000 Headmen.’ So your detective skills are pretty good!

By the time you got to Kiko, the band was at an interesting point. In the liner notes, Louie Perez talks about how the band was “poised for something different from anything we’d done before. Like so many great albums, this one was born out of a frustrating period for the band. From your perspective, what was the catalyst which finally gave the group the courage to really trust themselves and just go for it?

Well, I’d say this. The first record, all of us were still just trying to fumble our way through, more or less. So that wasn’t as much about finding ourselves and moving forward, it was just [that] we were so happy to be part of this amazing thing that was going on in L.A. at the time. You know, being part of the whole scene, with the Blasters and X…and I’m actually looking at a thing that Louie just sent me that’s [an ad] from the Starwood, and this would have been [from] 1980, so the first night was Fear, the next night was Top Jimmy and Gun Club, which I remember being at that gig, because I was in Top Jimmy’s band and you go down [the rest of the ad] and it was a pretty awesome lineup.

So we were just stoked to be in the game. That was just amazing to be on a label with X and the Blasters, the Gun Club, Green on Red, Rank and File and all of our friends. I think for me, the point at which we left the past behind as far as I was concerned was in rehearsal, when Dave brought in “Will The Wolf Survive?” I remember thinking very distinctly in that moment “okay, well, everything’s going to be different from now on.” That was the first time that we really, I think, wrote something that was uniquely ours. Everything up to that point, I mean, there’s certainly stuff on the first record and other songs, I don’t want to disparage them in any way. But I just remember thinking that, I was halfway through the song and I was thinking to myself “once we get this one down, it’s all going to be a different deal for all of us.”

And I was right, it did change things. It was sort of the first time that we’d come up with something that really kind of spoke volumes, and I guess it was just the songwriting took a giant leap forward on that one, I think.

Hearing some of the demos on this new reissue of Kiko was interesting. Was it typical for the band to demo songs out in such a fully-formed state like that, or was that something that came about in the process of woodshedding for this album?

It was unusual, actually. It really hadn’t been up to that point – we hadn’t done it that way. And that was one of the reasons we did it that way, I think. You know, everything else that we had done to that point was just that someone would bring a song into rehearsal or we’d play it on the road. That was one of the things that we honestly got sick of specifically, like on The Neighborhood.

The [Neighborhood] songs started and then we took them on the road forever. It seemed like a whole year of playing those songs before we started recording them. Which for us and what we learned the hard way was that’s a really shitty way for us to work. And I like the [The Neighborhood album] –  again, I’m not disparaging the record per say, but it wasn’t any fun at all to make. By the time we recorded the songs, we were kind of sick of them. And then it took a year to make the record on top of that, so it was just this brutally very inefficient, slow, drudgery….I’m making the record sound like shit, but it wasn’t what we were about. Everything else up until that point had been about capturing this moment and being in the moment and being on top of the stuff and that one was just slog slog slog, record record, tour, play a song forever [and] just a very, very, very long way way around.

So when it came time to do Kiko, we were pissed off, number one, that we had fallen into this trap that let other people who will go nameless, sort of tell us how we’re supposed to do our shit. Well, we know us and it was “well, we’re not going to listen to anybody anymore, because everything they told us was a lie,” effectively speaking. So when we went into cut Kiko, we were just like “well, let’s just see what we have and let’s just not limit ourselves in any way and let’s see how far we can push this” and consciously not limit ourselves in any way. We’re not going to listen to anybody, we’re not going to talk to anybody and we’re just going to do exactly what we want to do and we’ll see what happens.

So that’s kind of where it started and the demo, I think we started with six or seven of those songs demoed. The ones that aren’t in that added package, they’re actually on the record – those demos became the songs. So none of that effort was wasted. It all went to something. It was kind of revelatory I guess, in a weird way. It was sort of like “oh wow, this is kind of cool.” But honestly, we weren’t even sure about it. We weren’t convinced ourselves that it was any good at all. It really kind of took Lenny Waronker at Warner Brothers to tell us that he thought it was pretty cool and Mitchell [Froom] and Tchad [Blake] telling us it was pretty cool for us to sort of realize it was pretty cool.

We certainly weren’t like “wow, this is going to crush and you’ve got to hear this shit.” We had been so beat down by what happened with The Neighborhood and all of the bullshit that we inflicted on ourselves from “La Bamba” that we had no real profound strength of our conviction. It wasn’t like we thought we were on top or anything, we were just following our instincts and trying to make the shit that we liked.

I have a couple of thoughts on that, but I’ll start with this. You mention the “La Bamba” thing – that’s really what I saw with this album was that if “La Bamba” was the only thing you knew about Los Lobos, the release of this album in 1992 seemed to change that. It turned a lot of people’s heads.

Well you know, yes, I guess that’s the desired effect. Again, that’s what we wanted to happen, but it wasn’t like we thought we [were consciously doing that], we were as surprised by the response as anybody. We were kind of amazed that people heard it for what it was. Because for us, we knew it was a departure and we knew that it was going to be a stretch for some people and certainly, the people who jumped on board during “La Bamba.” It’s a long way from “La Bamba” to Kiko. But we we wanted to do it. And we knew we had to do it, just the same way that we knew that we had to do La Pistola [1988’s La Pistola y El Corazón], it was sort of like we knew that we had to leave this place and this perception of us being like some sort of party band or something like that and we had to go somewhere else. And we did.

It was just an interesting time to hear this record, because this was one of those examples of an album where you’re hearing it one way, forming your own impressions, but pre-internet, you didn’t have the ability to read 360 different reviews of an album at a glance to see how an album was resonating with people and if they are sharing your opinion. It was all about maybe reading a stray review in Billboard and Rolling Stone and beyond that, the complete picture of how an album was being received would start to form as you got the chance to talk to other people who were fans and find out what they thought about the album.

It was most definitely a different time, that’s for sure. We knew, kind of right away. It was pre-internet and stuff like that, but we knew, probably once we were finished with it and once we sat down and actually listened to it, we knew we had made something that was pretty special. Again, we didn’t know how anybody else was going to take it, but I know that we felt like “okay, well that’s where we wanted to go.” We didn’t really have a destination in mind, but we knew we had something that was going to be different and good in a way that was the same way we felt about Pistola. We knew that we’d done something that was different and good and part of our journey, I guess you could say.

Hearing the demos was an interesting thing, because you got to hear the framework of the songs and listening to the finished songs in comparison, you could really hear what Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake added to the process. They put polish on without making it too polished. Froom talks in the Kiko documentary about how he was tired of making albums in the “‘80s way” and you can hear that in these recordings, that he tried to capture a different sound. 20 years later, the album still sounds very current as a result, in a way that albums from that same time period sometimes don’t, from a production standpoint.

Well, that’s been a lot of the fun part for us, is going back and redoing it and listening to it and being in the mindset [again]. It really doesn’t sound at all like something that happened a long time ago, that’s for sure. It’s a pretty modern record.

That Chamberlain that Froom brought in on ‘Kiko and the Lavender Moon,’ that’s one of many cool sounds that were put on this record by Mitchell and Tchad.

Well you know, those guys really are something, I’ll tell you. A lot it too, I’d say, it was the beginning of Tchad becoming Tchad more or less. No one had ever allowed him to express his genius before, I don’t think. I mean, everybody sort of felt to a certain extent, like they were bottled up – Mitchell [and] ourselves, for reasons I’ve detailed. But I think Tchad in particular, had this really genius-like quality, I mean, he’s a true, true artist and one of the coolest things about Kiko was that everybody was playing with no rulebook and the sense of the moment was “well, let’s see how far out we can go and let’s see how far we can push this thing.”

It was really cool to see Tchad take that initiative and just literally hit the gas pedal and really blow it out. So that I think was a huge part of it for us, too. I think one of the things that really defined Kiko, was like you go out…let’s say we get the framework for a song like “Dream in Blue” or something like that. And then you’d go out and like with all of us, you have an idea and you walk out and try something. You’re not really sure – it’s not like it’s fully-formed, you’re like “you know, I think I like this sound.” We’d record it and come back in and Tchad would have made what was a humble attempt at something and it’s something that just sounded fucking magnificent [after he finished with it].

He did it a lot – it was really not at all unusual. Something that you would think was a half-assed attempt and because of his process and his genius, it would be like “oh my God, that sounds fucking amazing” and then “okay, well that’s done, what’s next? Let’s do something else.” So it was a lot of that and I know it happened for all of us. Dave, myself – any goofy little idea that we came up with, once Tchad got done with it, it sounded like Moses wrote it. Just beautiful huge amazing sound. So that was a big part of it, was just bringing Tchad in and turning him loose, was huge.

What’s a song for you on this album that you’re really proud of where you took it as a band, or your personal contributions to the song?

I love “Peace” – I just think that’s a really powerful piece of music. “Just a Man,” although I don’t know if I ever actually played on “Just a Man.” I don’t think I did much on “Just a Man,” but it’s just a very truly gratifying track. No matter who you are, you hear that song and it’s just really super-powerful and huge.

I think “Angels with Dirty Faces” would be one. The loop that we used on that was from an instrument called an Optigan, which was a super, super ghetto sampler from the early ‘70s, made in France. It used optical plastic discs that were the size of an album, but they were floppy plastic. You’d stick them in this little port, like a CD player and it was designed as like a home entertainment system, so you’d get melody, rhythm and single notes. So you could actually just hold the one key down and then hold another key down, with your left hand and then play a melody with your right hand.

So it’s a super, almost-useless bizarre French idea of what popular music would sound like in the late ‘60s that had nothing to do with rock and roll. So we took, I think it was  the country/western disc, because there were only [a limited number of library titles of sounds]. You’d have swing, country/western, marching band and stuff like that. It was a really insane instrument. And that was, believe it or not, a country/western groove that we slowed down and then turned around, if I’m not mistaken. It’s not backwards, but we cut it in the middle of the bar so it has a lumpy slightly misshapen sound. If you listen to the loop by itself, it’s really kind of hard to find where beat one is. But that was one where it just sort of [came together], once we got that sound down.

And then the very cool thing about that was that I remember Pete Thomas [working on that song as well]. Again, it was like every song, every day in the studio, it was this mad rush to see who could out-weird each other, I guess. Not really “out-weird” each other, I guess, but how far we could take it. So the snare drum on that one, I’m pretty sure it was “Angels,” Pete took the top head off the snare, so he’s literally playing the bottom head of the snare, which is why the snare sounds so strange on that. And then, I think there’s a sax and a flute part and we processed the sax.

The whole record was done in such a dreamlike state that it’s really hard to really remember what the specifics were, like how we actually pulled some of this shit off. To this day, there’s parts that Mitchell swears that I did, that I don’t remember and there’s stuff that I swear that I remember I did, that Mitchell says he did. So it was this whole dreamlike event.

I remember very specifically when we were doing the demos in a studio called Paul & Mike’s, which was the one that was in the dark heart of Los Angeles on 5th Street. It was just this horrible, brutal part of town with homeless families all over the place and [it was] just a really terrible place to be. But once we got in with Mitchell and Tchad [to start working on the album], it was like everything changed. It was like “okay, this is cool – this will work.”

When you got around to playing songs from this album live, particularly years later when you went back to play the entire album, were there difficulties as a band, figuring out how to replicate some things, like that backwards guitar solo on “Angels with Dirty Faces?”

No, not at all, really. We had been playing the stuff live enough, almost seventy percent of it live, I’d say, so we’d figured out how to play it well by that point. I think really the only challenge we dealt with was something that nobody realized [and that] is that on every record since [Kiko] and every live show, the work was split up relatively evenly between Dave and Cesar [guitarist/vocalist Cesar Rosas], or at least split 60/40, in terms of who’s singing what. Kiko, there’s sixteen songs and Cesar only sings two of them and Louie sings one. So Dave’s up there singing song after song after song after song. Which is something we don’t – I mean, I do the setlist every night and I really try hard to make sure he never sings more than two songs in a row. So when we do it live, he’s up there doing three or four songs in a row, which is just kind of hard for him. It’s not easy. So that’s really the only actual challenge in the live show is that it gets hard and he complains about it, which is unusual for him, because he doesn’t really complain about a lot of stuff. But I know he has to get himself up to do that, because that’s a lot of singing for him.

That’s a lot of songs for one album. After it was completed and handed in, was there ever any outside suggestion from the record company to perhaps trim the album down a bit?

Well yeah, and that’s why “Rio de Tenampa” on the record is only two minutes long. That’s one of the reasons why we put the extended version on the reissue. We didn’t really want to cut anything if we could avoid it. So the best methodology that we could come up with for not cutting anything was to just cut the tracking out, more or less. But once it was all done and there, it all kind of flowed together. Even to this day, I don’t think there’s a weak song on there, so I’m not really sure what, if anything, we could have or should have cut.

It was just kind of taking advantage of [the fact that] it was also the transitional year from vinyl to CD, so we didn’t have to worry as much about “it’s not going to fit on one side” and certainly the album’s too long for the vinyl world, it would have been impossible. We would have definitely had to cut something or make it a double record.

You talked about the flow of the record and that there aren’t any weak songs. That’s really one of the things about seeing this record live, is that it works because the sequencing and the songs are so good. You see some of the full album performances live and it doesn’t work as well, because there are some dud songs or the sequencing is awkward and you can tell as a result that the band feels awkward playing the album in sequence on stage. That’s not the case with Kiko. It’s a great performance that flows very naturally.

Yeah. Well, thank you. I feel the same way. It doesn’t bog down anywhere. It moves and it shifts and I think it’s a really well sequenced piece of work. So thanks, with all due modesty, I guess, I agree. [Laughs] It’s kind of hard to say that without sounding like a pompous ass, but it really worked out nicely.

The fact that Los Lobos is opening for Neil Young this fall is a dream double bill for a lot of music fans. Have you ever had the opportunity to work with Neil before?

Well, we did one of the Bridge shows, which was amazing. And we’ve done one show on the tour, which was also really, really amazing. So we’ve done a little bit with him. But I’ve gotta say, the one show that we did with him [earlier this summer in Albuquerque, N.M.] was just mind-bogglingly good. I mean, Crazy Horse, you know, I am not a [huge] fan, but I have friends who are such mega-fans – like the people that I know that know every single thing he’s ever done. I don’t consider myself a fan on that level. But after seeing him play, I now am.

The guy is just this empowering giant of everything and the show was so powerful and they sound so great together, it was just a knockout. It was the first one [of the tour], which might have been why it was so powerful. I didn’t realize at the time, that it was their first show in over eight years. It was definitely a high musical moment. They were on fire.

As the band approaches its 40th anniversary, you’re still making great music, with the Tin Can Trust album which came out just a couple of years ago. Is there new music in the distance from Los Lobos?

Well, I have to be honest with you, we’ve just been in “Kiko planet” for a while, so I haven’t really been thinking about it. I’d say generally those things take awhile for us to gear up for. Next year’s our 40th anniversary, so obviously we’re going to have to do something. But at this point, I don’t think we’ve actually really thought about it very much or considered what we’re going to do.

Obviously, we have to do something, I just don’t know what it’s going to be yet. Hopefully we’ll figure it out soon enough. But I’m sure there will be something, I just can’t tell you what it is. The trouble is that we’ve done, like, we can’t do The Ride again. We’ve been a lot of places already musically, so to try and come up with something that isn’t some weird echo of something you’ve already done is going to be a bit of a challenge. But I’m sure we can figure it out.

Another album which you worked on has an important anniversary this year. What are your memories of playing on ‘Fireplace’ from R.E.M.’s Document album?

It was a definite pleasure. Scott Litt was producing, who’s a friend of mine, I had played on a bunch of other records that he had made that year. [Some of those included] Paul Brady and if I’m not mistaken, I don’t know if it was in the same year, but it was certainly in the same timeframe as the Replacements’ All Shook Down record, which was also pretty amazing.

So knowing Scott, we had worked out a pretty effective methodology, he and I, on what my gig was when I would come and work for him. So it was just a lot of fun. I’ve managed to stay friends with those guys. Peter lives here in Portland, where I live, so I run into him a lot. I think I’m going to go see him tomorrow or Friday, actually. I’m in a fantasy baseball league with everybody else except Stipe. They’re all big baseball knuckleheads, so we’ve stayed friends over the years.

But it was a bit of a cool time to be around them. They were working at a really high level and I think the world was completely captivated by them. So it was neat to see how they worked and I think that record, it’s one of my favorite R.E.M. records. My participation notwithstanding, I think it’s one of their best records. Just hearing the songs in the studio before I played on “Fireplace,” it was like “wow, this thing is awesome.”

Another interesting entry in your discography is the Faith No More Introduce Yourself album. How did you end up working on that one?

When we started the first Lobos record, I started as a producer and ended up as a band member. The guys at Slash knew that was what I wanted to do and I would often find myself just hanging out at the label, because that’s where my friends worked and it was a neat place to be. So it wasn’t unusual for me to just be there and I remember being in the mailroom when the Violent Femmes demo came in and putting that on for the first time and then losing my shit, because it was such a great record.

I don’t think it was quite the same thing for Faith No More, but it was just one of those deals. I won’t say I was the house producer, obviously, but it was how [the initial songs for that album] came in and it obviously was amazing. So I more or less lobbied Bob Biggs at Slash to let me produce it. It was a trip. They remain also again, still good friends of mine.

They’re just an incredible band. I remember going up to San Francisco, I was sitting in their manager’s office and we were having our first meeting to see if we were going to work together. I remember looking out the window and seeing this guy kind of skipping across the street, which isn’t that unusual for San Francisco, but I just remember [thinking] “I’ve never seen anybody walking and skipping” like that. So I’m watching this guy skipping across the street and the door opens up and it was the same guy. It was Matt Wallace, who to this day, has this very childlike eager go-getter [vibe about him].

But he was huge for me in the making of that record. I left that meeting and we agreed that I was going to produce it and so I went back home to L.A. and I guess we were going to come back together again in about a month and a half. And by the time I got back, he had completely… the songs were just tightened up. A lot of the stuff that I would do as producer, he had already done for me. Basically, the demo is as tight as it can be and the arrangements were amazing.

It was a relatively easy record to make, made difficult only by the fact that the singer was bi-polar and that was Chuck [Mosley, the band’s first singer], not Mike Patton, who is I don’t think, quite as bi-polar. But the first singer in that band, he was a tough guy to work with. You just never knew which version of his personality was going to show up on any given day. We were also dating the same girl at the time, so that made it a bit of a challenge as well! There was a little bit of extra angst built into the situation. But somehow we rose above it and I’m really proud of the record.

That’s another one that I have to say with all due modesty and I really mean when I say “all due modesty,” I’m not saying this for any other reason than I believe it to be true is that, that one holds up really well too. That one does not sound like it’s 25 years old. I think that one really is solid and timeless.

Matt and I made a couple of records together. We did a record with David Baerwald, called Bedtime Stories. I would say of all of the records of my whole separate career, that was the one that really got away. Matt and I did two versions of that record that were both amazing, again, with all due modesty and then David Baerwald, who is also, I won’t say he was bi-polar, but he’s a little bit nutty. He then made it for a third time with Larry Klein, using a lot of the work that Matt and I had done.

What Matt and I didn’t realize was that Baerwald had fallen in love with the process and refused to let go. He couldn’t get his head around the idea that he would one day stop making that record, so he just made it over and over and over again. And I wish to hell…and I’m sure that Matt would say the exact same thing, the record that Matt and I made, would have been [released]. I hate this word, but it would have been a huge record. It was really, really, really, really good. The songs were amazing, the singing was amazing, the playing was amazing. That’s the one that I feel like was tragically lost, due to whatever, that it never came out the way it was supposed to.

Matt’s a great musician, a great producer and a great engineer. We’re not as close as we used to be, but I have the highest respect for him.