¡Viva Los Lobos! (Interview with Steve Berlin)

Rock Cellar Magazine

Los Lobos is a rare example of longevity in a volatile music industry.  The band has been performing their unique hybrid of Mexican folk, blues, country, rock and R&B since 1973 – with a rock-steady lineup for the vast majority of that time.
The “newest” member of popular American quintet, saxophonist/keyboardist/producer Steve Berlin joined original members Cesar Rosas, David Hidalgo, Louie Perez and Conrad  Lozano in 1984.  Rock Cellar Magazine recently hooked up with Berlin to chat about Los Lobos’ four-decade career and hard lessons they learned along the way.

Prior to joining Los Lobos, Berlin played in several L.A. punk/roots bands: The Flesh Eaters, Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs, and The Blasters.  Over the years, either as a session musician or producer, Berlin has worked with everyone from R.E.M, The Smithereens and The Replacements to John Lee Hooker, Sheryl Crow and Faith No More.

Currently, Los Lobos is touring North America playing theaters, saloons, county fairs and summer festivals in support of their self-produced album, Tin Can Trust, which has earned rave reviews from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal.

This August, Los Lobos will celebrate the 20th anniversary of their landmark record, Kiko, with a re-release of the original album, complete with bonus tracks and a live DVD.

Rock Cellar Magazine: How did your new studio in East L.A. influence the live sound of your latest album, Tin Can Trust?
Steve Berlin:  The previous 10 years, we had spent exclusively recording at our guitar player Cesar’s house. He had built a studio out of a former garage and we established an extreme comfort zone and everybody in the band had their own little corner staked out. And to be brutally honest, it became too comfortable, as we weren’t really pushing ourselves.

The way the old studio was configured, there really wasn’t a way or a place for us to record all together.  All the records going back to Good Morning Aztlan were done more or less in pieces. We couldn’t actually play as a band at the same time in the same room. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; the room just wasn’t conducive to it, so we adapted.  And I think we made some really great records.

When Cesar moved out of that house we were left looking for a new place, and we found this studio in East L.A.  It wasn’t far from where the guys grew up and for the first time in many years, we were allowed the space to record all together.  It’s a big room, so a good portion of this record was captured live.

RCM: Your first single, Burn it Down, debuted at #47 on the Billboard Top 200. Tell us about recording that smoldering opening track on Tin Can Trust.
SB: What I think Burn it Down reflects is us celebrating the fact that we were saying, “Here is what we get to do every day out on the road, and now we get to do it in a studio!” So with that as the pretext for Burn it Down and similarly the track Tin Can Trust, pretty much as soon we would figure out how the song went, we just went for recording a great live performance.  Which I would say is the right way to do it… (laughs)

And it was exciting, because unlike before we would piece the records together brick by brick and you never got that feeling of exhilaration like, “Ah — we nailed it! This is great!” And to a certain extent, that studio influenced a lot of the making of this record, and what you’re hearing is our ability to celebrate what we’ve been doing all this time on the road.

RCM:  On the road, you’ve been playing parts of the Grateful Dead’s rambling West L.A. Fadeaway. Your version of it on Tin Can Trust really grooves with you on saxophone.
SB:  When we recorded that one, it was our first day in the studio and we were trying to figure everything out.  It was a former warehouse in a pretty downtrodden neighbourhood, that a guy I was working with recommended to me. When I first took a look at it I thought, “Wow — I don’t know how the guys are going to respond to this.”  It was nothing to look at, for sure.  I was the only one who had actually seen it prior to our first day in the studio.

Photo by Drew Reynolds

When the guys showed up they had to step over all this garbage and building supplies lying out in the hallway. They were thinking, “What the fuck is this shit?” But there we were and nobody said, “I’m outta here!”

Everybody was game to make it work, along with the engineer who really knew how to make it sound great. So the way we broke the proverbial ice was by tracking out West L.A. Fadeaway, and I think we captured it in that first complete take – exactly what you hear on the album.  I think originally Cesar had suggested we cut that song, because we didn’t really know it.  We’d been foolin’ around with it live, but we were playing just a verse and a chorus, here and there.  But we never bothered to actually learn the whole song before.

RCM:  Like the Grateful Dead, Los Lobos is known for their ever-changing set lists and improvisation in concert.  Does the band sit down together and write a different set list out every night?
SB:  That’s my job to sketch one out, as we try not to repeat them. And I would say that about 60 per cent of the time the set list gets thrown away as we go, for various reasons like somebody suddenly wants to play something else, or the crowd takes the show in a different direction. It’s just a guideline.

To me, that’s what makes for a strong show, when the audience feels and feeds off the energy of the band as we’re exploring and expanding and taking chances.  Sometimes a song doesn’t hit every time; sometimes we miss.  We’ve done some pretty stupid ones too, but I’d say for the most part we do okay.

RCM: How do you feel about audiences yelling out for the big hit La Bamba?
SB: I don’t mind playing it but there is stuff that we like playing better, as you might imagine. There’s songs that feel better to end the night with, but if it’s a crowd that doesn’t know us or a crowd with a lot of kids at an outdoors event, we’ll put it in there because we know that’s what people came to hear.  But if it’s a crowd that we know or a club or theatre we’ve played before, then we don’t play it.

We were playing somewhere a while back and Dave goes, “Alright people, what do you want to hear? Do you want to hear Bertha? Or do you want to hear La Bamba? Which is it?” For Bertha, everyone in the crowd yelled, “Yeah!” and for Bamba, it was almost complete silence.  Nobody booed but I’m telling you, it was silent (laughs). So Dave says, ‘Okay, we’ll play Bertha!”  But we certainly don’t mind playing Bamba as we know it elevated our visibility in a way that nothing else ever had.  It’s a great way to make friends.

RCM: Take us back to 1987, when you recorded that song for the film La Bamba about rocker Ritchie Valens.
SB:  It was pretty darn interesting year, as you might imagine.  We certainly didn’t think it was going to happen for us with that song! (laughs) The whole thing about it was, we knew Ritchie’s family for years because they live in Santa Cruz and we used to play that city more often than we played anywhere else in the world.

So we’d go meet them and hang out with them, then one day they told us that they sold the rights to Ritchie’s story to Taylor Hackford with proviso that the only band who could do the music was us.

We were honored and gratified by it, but if you think about it, we’re talking about a story about a guy who died when he was 16, with no stars in the movie and a first-time director.  All the tea leaves in the world could never have predicted that film would become a giant, international hit.

And the fact that while we were working on it, everything kept changing. We’d be given the weirdest direction like, “Can you do three versions of the song — one in a garage, one in a giant theatre, and one someplace else?” It was crazy as they couldn’t figure out how the story was going to go. With the Lou Diamond Phillips role, they had shot the entire movie and hadn’t even found someone to play Ritchie, if you can imagine.  So it was amazing to me the movie came together at all!

RCM:  What did you think of the movie when you first saw it?
SB:  I remember seeing a very late edit of it while working late one night and remember thinking very clearly, “Wow – this is actually a really great movie; it’s a shame that nobody’s ever going to see it.”  It shows what an idiot I am. (laughs).

RCM:  There is an interview where you called Paul Simon “a fucking idiot,” and claimed he stole the music of Los Lobos on Graceland.  Can you tell us what happened between you and Paul Simon, especially for longtime fans of Los Lobos who haven’t heard the entire story from your perspective?
SB:   Sure. (long pause) Let me start by saying that one of the things that I think gets lost with the passage of time, is that when we went into the studio with Paul, we were actually doing him a favor.  That’s something I think a lot of people don’t realize.  He was coming off a relative string of failures.  He had done a Broadway play that nobody went to and nobody bought his last record.  The fact is, in that moment, we had just won a Grammy and sold a number of records.

So when that went down, our label came to us and said, “Hey, Paul is doing this record and he wants you guys to be on it.”   Frankly, I was the only guy in the band who gave a shit about Paul Simon.  I really don’t think anybody else in the band has ever owned a Simon & Garfunkel record or a Paul Simon record, or frankly gave a shit about him.

RCM:  So then why did the band agree to go into the studio with Paul Simon?
SB:  It was more or less a favor to our record company president Lenny Waronker, who we had a great relationship with. He said to us, “Look, it would mean a lot to us if you guys would do it.”  And initially, nobody had to twist our arms to do it;  as songwriters we thought it would be fun. But when we got down to the Warner Bros. studio, it was just this really bizarre thing….

Rather than engage us, Paul (Simon) would just stare at us like we were animals in a zoo or something.  I’m telling you, the guy is a weird dude – there’s no two ways about it.  A really strange character.

I don’t think at any time we felt like we were connecting with him in any way. The whole space just had this very odd flavor.  And so we go, “Well Paul, what do you want to do?” and he said, “Well, I just thought we’d jam.”  And we’re not the jammiest band in the world, so right away we’re behind the 8-ball.

RCM: So did you jam?
SB:  We did, but it was very, very weird.  We really tried to be nice guys about it, but Paul wasn’t interested in playing with us; he just sat in the control room.   I remember we’d finally find an idea that we’d chase around for an hour, only to have Paul say, “Nah — that’s not working.  Do something else.”

And we’re like, “Well, what the fuck are we doing here?  This isn’t what we do.”  Halfway through the day I called Lenny Waronker and said, “Look Lenny, you got to get us out of here.  This isn’t working man.  The guys just want to leave – this is a bad idea, and it’s just not happening.  Can you call Paul and tell him we got to go. It’s over.”

RCM: What did Waronker say?
SB:  He said, “Stay a little longer.  I know he’s a weird guy but just hang in there.  He’s got some great ideas.  It’ll get better – you just have to wait him out.  He’s not an easy guy, I know.”  So we stayed in there and it was just more of the same.  We were booked for three days, but after the first day we said, “Okay, we’re done.  There’s no way we’re coming back to this bullshit!”
And again, Lenny reached out to us and said, “Look, we really want you to do this – this is going to be a really important record for Paul.”  And we’re like, “No fucking way!  This guy’s a fucking idiot!  He doesn’t know what he’s doing and doesn’t know what the fuck he wants.  The guy is crazy.”  It was such an uncomfortable environment.  And I remember Lenny saying, “Come on, it’s for the family. You got to do it for the family!”

RCM: What did he mean by “the family?”
SB: Y’know, the Warner Bros. family. So how fucking stupid were we, going back in for the second day for just more of the same bullshit. At that point it’s just a standoff. Paul has no fucking ideas, we hate him, and feel like we’re being forced to be there against our will. We’re just standing there thinking, “What in the world are we doing here?”

There’s this uncomfortable silence and then Dave starts playing what would become The Myth of Fingerprints, because it was a song we were preparing for our next record. We’d been waiting around for two days for Paul to come up with something, but he had nothing. So to have something to do, we just started playing what we thought was our song, when Paul suddenly says, “Hey, that’s cool. What is that?” And we said, “Oh, it’s a song we’ve been working on.” He goes, “Hey, can we do that?” and we just thought, “Yeah — if it will get us out of this fucking studio!” So we started playing it and captured a take of it and finally escaped and thought, “Thank god this is over with!”

RCM: But you were never credited on the album, right?
SB: It was six months later the record comes out and we said, “Oh, look at this: words and music by Paul Simon.” We thought, “Well, obviously that’s a mistake.” So we called up Lenny and the record company people that we had for Paul and asked them to fix the mistake.

RCM: What was their response?
SB: Silence, silence, silence. We’re asking and asking, then finally six months later we hear from Paul and he says, “Sue me. See what happens.” That’s a direct quote, so that gives you an indication of what kind of guy he is.

RCM: Did you take legal action?
SB:  We should have sued him, frankly.  I would have loved to have seen what would have happened.  But I guess in a weird way we just naively started fooling around with a song – a song we didn’t have a pre-existing recording of – and I don’t know if we could have proven in a court of law, at the end of the day, that he stole it.

But he stole it. There’s no two ways about it. Paul Simon fucking stole our music.

And I would say the indicator – and this is another thing many people forget over time — is that Paul claimed that he wrote a lot of the African stuff on that album.  Then he had to retroactively give a lot of the African records credit, because those recordings actually did exist.  If you can believe it, those were actually popular records in South Africa that he just appropriated and alleged to have written the music to.  It really gives you an indication what kind of person this prick is. It’s pretty obvious.

RCM: So to this day, Los Lobos has never received a penny for your work on Graceland?
SB:  Zero.  Zip.  We got nothing for being a part of that record.  I think it’s important to point out that not only did we never get a penny for it, but they didn’t even pay us union payments.  In closing, everybody I know who has ever worked with Paul Simon says he’s the biggest jerk in the world. Yeah – he’s a fucking idiot.

RCM: In contrast to Paul Simon, can you name an artist you truly admire?

SB:  Levon Helm.  We were part of his last performance and played with him at his barn at the Ramble just two weeks before he died, back in April.  He asked to see us before the show and I have to say he did not look well.  It was scary how ill he looked, but then he went out and absolutely crushed it!
He was amazing that night and played his fucking ass off! Everybody, all of us thought, “My god this guy’s incredible!”  And who knew it would be his last performance.  I knew he had been sick and that he’d had good days and bad days, but none of us felt that he was that close to the end, certainly, based on the way he played that night.

We should all be so lucky. The guy (Levon Helm) had an amazing career and went out playing.  He never stopped and was still making incredible, vital music right ’til the very, very end.  He was truly amazing, and I deeply value the opportunity we had to play with him.

RCM: What qualities do you think the artists you’ve produced value in you?
SB:  Wow, that’s an interesting question – and a tough one to answer. I like to think that I at least broaden people’s horizons when we work together.  I’ve certainly done enough different stuff at this point in my life that I think I can bring a different viewpoint and a willingness to experiment.  And that’s all I basically ask from anybody I work with.  You’ve got to be willing to explore because that’s what it’s all about for me.
I need to feel that at the end of the day, we’ve gone someplace. Because if you just want something captured and not fucked with and left alone, then I’m probably not the guy you want to hire.  The fun part for me is seeing what can happen, because if you jack around with stuff long enough, sometimes you find some really, really interesting shit. And that’s where it starts and ends for me.

Photo by Drew Reynolds

RCM: Do you become emotionally invested in the music you’re producing?
SB:  I do become very emotional about the songs, as I have to fall in love with an idea -probably in some cases, too much so.  But I think you’ve got to be passionate about it, because we’re trying to create something that is going to last forever. So, I’d like to think that I invest my heart in everything I do.  And I’ve been very lucky that a lot of people who I’ve worked with value that.

RCM: What was it like producing Faith No More’s second album, Introduce Yourself?
SB:  Oh gosh, we’re going back to the early ’80s there.  Los Lobos were signed to Slash Records and I used to hang out more or less at the Slash office.  It was a cool place to be with lots of exciting stuff going on.  Oddly enough, I vividly remember the day when I was in the A&R department’s office when that Faith No More demo came in, along with the first Violent Femmes demo.  I remember hearing Faith No More for the first time and saying, “Oh my god – that’s amazing!  Tell the president of the label you’ve got to let me produce this.  It’s unbelievable!”
We were collegial enough back then to actually let things like that happen (laughs), so I went to San Francisco and met with them.  And I have to say, in that era, they weren’t the easiest guys to get to know…!

RCM: How so?
SB:  They were very guarded.  I think to a certain extent they initially thought I was a label guy or something like one.  So it took a while to get comfortable, frankly, them with me and me with them.  It took some time to figure out what their deal was.

RCM: What were they like to work with in the studio?
SB:  They were extremely well rehearsed.  The songs were ready to go and required almost no arranging.  It was astonishing how much work Matt Wallace, who was the engineer, had already put into the band.  In a very short order, I went from producing to co-producing it, because it didn’t seem right to take full credit when Matt had done so much of the work.  It’s not surprising on any level that he went on to have a pretty amazing producing career (Susanna Hoffs, Blues Traveler, Maroon 5).

RCM:  What about Faith No More’s vocalist, the reputably dark and mysterious Chuck Mosley, who was later replaced by Mike Patton?
SB:  Chuck was definitely a dark character and had a lot of demons.  There was a lot of self-loathing and acting out on that self-loathing, so it was a challenge to capture what we needed from him.  He had these moods that made it tough, but then he would want to work for 30 hours straight. But the band itself were amazing and made up of such great musicians.

RCM: Like drummer Mike Bordin?
SB:  Yeah, I consider Mike to be if not the best rock drummer in the world, then certainly one of the best rock drummers there is.  With Faith No More, he just anchored everything down.  And once we worked around Chuck’s issues, it was a fairly easy record to make.

RCM:  Did you have a sense they were on the verge of a commercial breakthrough?
SB:   I remember back then hearing the beginnings of what was to be Epic, their big hit. They had this odd sense of gestation.  A song had to be burned in for a year before we could record it.  So they were not at all open to the idea of, “Hey, that’s a cool song — let’s just use it!”  Everything they did had to be battle-tested, they were just so adamant about everything being just tight beyond anything rational.  Certainly in the ’80s, where tightness really wasn’t in the game for a lot of people.  They wanted everything to be just rock solid.  I’m talking mind-numbingly solid and tight, which I very much appreciated. It was a healthy attitude they had, I think. They’re very serious about their music and they were incredibly ahead of their time.

Music@Work & Phantom Power by Tragically Hip/Steve Berlin; producer

RCM: You’ve also produced some well known Canadian bands like Crash Test Dummies, Great Big Sea, and The Tragically Hip. When you signed up to produce the Hip, were you aware of their huge following in Canada?
SB:  I really wasn’t.  I had no idea how huge they were in Canada until I was doing something else in Vancouver and made mention to somebody that I was going to be producing The Tragically Hip.  They just about fainted and said, “Do you have any idea what the Hip mean to Canada?”  I very innocently replied, “No, not really – can you tell me?”  I came to learn as we did a tour with them and saw firsthand what it’s all about.

To this day, I really honestly think they (The Tragically Hip) are one of the best bands on Earth and wish to god they were at least a little better known in America.

RCM: Why do you think they aren’t better known in the U.S.?
SB:  They’ve had some pretty shitty luck.  They’ve made great records on shitty labels and the timing has always been one tick off in terms of when they showed up, and when the world was ready for them.  There’s a lot of great Canadian bands who don’t get a fair shake in America.  It’s a tough market here, especially now with radio being the way it is. It’s almost impossible now, unless you look at a band like Arcade Fire. Somehow, they figured it out without radio’s help – but it sure ain’t easy.  It really takes a lot of hard work, and it’s so much about the timing.  It has to be the right record at the right time and all the dominoes have to line up.

But I’m certainly happy the Hip are still going and making new music.  In fact, they called me a while back while they were mixing their new record with a friend of mine. They were just checking in to say hi, which I always appreciate, and I’m honored to be a part of that fraternity.

Berlin with Phast Phreddie; circa 1981

RCM: Does being a saxophonist feel like you’re part of a fraternity?
SB:  It does, and as far as instruments go, for me it’s always been the one that’s the closest to a human voice.  I’ve always thought it’s very, very akin to a human voice because you can get so many different colors and variations.  There’s so many different ways to play it and approach it, that for me it’s this endlessly shape shifting beast and I’m mildly upset with myself for not giving it enough time these days, to give it what it wants from me.

I can tell when I play it, that if I just had a few more minutes in a day I could probably get done what I want to get done. But the beauty of the saxophone is, there are nights when everything is right and it’s just this amazingly fun place to be. To be behind the horn and letting it rip, it’s just great. It’s a really exciting instrument and to me, you can get more out of a saxophone than anything – with the possible exception of an electric guitar.

RCM: Well what’s keeping you from giving your saxophone more time these days?
SB:  I’m too busy producing other people’s records, like The Matinee in Vancouver. They’re a pretty great band. I wish I had more time to practice and hone my craft, but to get much playing in at all is challenging.  I can tell you that I used to work a lot harder at it, and I can hear it in my work, that my technique has eroded, which may seem sad but I have to make the call where I invest my energy these days. And that’s how I choose to do it.

RCM: What other changes do you hear when listening to Los Lobos albums you’ve made over the years?
SB:  A lot of times I think, “God, I wish I could think of those kinds of ideas now!” (laughs)

RCM: The 20th anniversary re-release of Los Lobos’ landmark Kiko album is coming up this August, packed with bonus tracks and a live DVD. It’s been hailed by critics as Los Lobos’ defining moment. Do you feel Kiko was a real departure from everything you’d done before?
SB: Prior to Kiko, we had been segregating our influences, treating them parochially. With Kiko, we let our imagination take over and didn’t try to control it.  We cut 7 tracks in a week or two and it was cleansing.  It was very dreamlike as it was going down. Everything was working.  Even mistakes sounded good!  The tracks sounded really good and we weren’t holding back.  We didn’t filter ourselves to do anything other than play.

RCM:  On Kiko, you brought in super-producer Mitchell Froom and engineer Tchad Blake, whose credits include Crowded House, The Bangles, Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello, and Paul McCartney. What was it like working with the dream team of Froom and Blake?
SB:  Mitchell is a unique dude, probably one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever worked with. He’s a genius orchestrator and genius arranger.  He and Tchad, who is also brilliant, were in a similar state of mind, wanting to do it their own way.


RCM:  Having self-produced your latest release, Tin Can Trust, do you have a favorite song on that album?
SB:  The Lady and the Rose. That one, I will tell you, came very, very late.  We practically thought we were done with the record and I guess Louie or Dave – I’m not really sure which one – came up with that chord sequence.  The lyrics came quickly and we kind of had to scramble to get back in the studio to capture that one, but I’m sure glad we did.

The closing track on a record always shows up extremely late for us, and in a weird way it’s always the most special song for whatever reason. I love that song and it’s my favorite song on the record. It seems to have become our thing, recording the last song on our albums very late in the record making process (laughs).

I feel incredibly lucky when it all comes together like that, and to be still making music with the same lineup after all these years.

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