Steve Berlin, of Los Lobos: Something Else! Interview

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The release this week of Disconnected in New York, a nervy live rethinking of Los Lobo’s ever-intriguing catalog, has given long-time member/producer Steve Berlin a chance to reflect.

“We were casting about, trying to figure out how to properly acknowledge 40 years in the business,” the multi-instrumentalist says in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “We couldn’t really do another studio record, and do anything special enough for it to carry the weight of four decades. It’s hard enough just to make a decent record, much less saddling it with that. So, this idea of retrofitting the old songs, I liked it.”

Berlin talks more about Disconnected in New York, life after “La Bamba,” and career intersections with the Replacements (on what would become their final studio effort), Paul Simon (they shared a controversial collaborative moment for which Berlin says Los Lobos was never properly credited), Levon Helm (in what would become his final public performance) and the Grateful Dead, among many others …

NICK DERISO: Disconnected in New York finds Los Lobos revisited nearly every era in its storied history, even “La Bamba,” which can’t be that much fun to cover anymore.
STEVE BERLIN: As albatrosses go, it’s not that hard to carry. (Chuckles.) It defined us, in a way, so it’s no big deal. I don’t want it to sound like we’re whining about it. We’re happy to play it. It makes people happy.

NICK DERISO: The recent reissue of Kiko offered listeners another chance to experience one of Los Lobos’ most varied, complex albums. What made that album such a creative breakthrough?
STEVE BERLIN: I would say part of it was, we were angry and frustrated going into it — oddly enough. It was a culmination that was an object lesson for us, in that we’d sort of gone through the whole “La Bamba” ride, if you will. We’d gotten to the top of the charts and pretended, to a certain extent, that we were a big deal — when the truth of the matter was, our success with “La Bamba” was 100 percent tied to the success of the movie. So, when the movie the died down, which inevitably it does, we were in a funny place. We were back where we started, but we refused to acknowledge it. We were touring at a scale that we couldn’t support — with multiple busses and a lighting guy. Stuff that just wasn’t really useful, for what we do. It certainly wasn’t necessary. We had made a record, In the Neighborhood, which I quite liked and had some pretty good material on it. But the process of making that record was, again, something that wasn’t really us. It had taken a really long time, and we sort of went against a lot of our instincts in terms of how it was put together. We had recorded the songs many times, over and over and over again, so by the time the record came out, we were really tired of playing those songs. None of that was really necessary, at all. So, here we are in 1991, and we had wasted all of this time and all of this money, and we really had very little to show for it. So, when we went into the studio for Kiko, the mindset was really: “What do we have to lose?’ Let’s do it the way that we want to do it; let’s make ourselves happy, and if this is the end, then at least we went out with our boots on. Frankly, that’s how frustrated we were. Then, not very long into it, we saw that we were coming up with stuff we liked, but that was very different, and we weren’t really sure if it was even that good, so we went to our label and to his enormous credit, Lenny Waronker — the president of our label — said he loved it, as well. The only suggestion he had was that we talk to Mitchell (Froom) and Tchad Blake about working with us. Mitchell had produced the “La Bamba” single, so we knew him pretty well, and I think that’s where it kicked into another gear. Working with those guys really made it go. A couple of short weeks later, we were done, pretty much.

NICK DERISO: After the success of “La Bamba,” doing a folk-based album (1988’s La Pistola y El Corazón seemed like a risky move — though of course in retrospect, it worked perfectly. How did you come to that decision?
STEVE BERLIN: The mindset was, we wanted to reclaim ourselves. We thought that the movie, to a certain extent, had defined us — as a party band or a band that wasn’t serious about making an artistic statement. So, we sort of cleared the air, to a certain extent. We won a Grammy with it, and that was pretty swell, and it was a very popular record which still, to this day, every other year we’ll do a tour playing those songs. That’s sort of like our group conscience at work. On one level, there’s a voice in the back of our collective heads telling us what’s good and what isn’t. So, to go back to an earlier question, Kiko was the last time we stopped listening to that voice. We had something very good there, and we did it while ignoring every one else’s advice.

NICK DERISO: David Hidalgo has continued to work not only as a creative spark plug for your band, but as a key collaborator with Bob Dylan, among others. How has your relationship with him grown?
STEVE BERLIN: He’s become quite the sideman to the stars, these days. I guess, I look on all of that stuff with pride. I’ve known he’s one of the best musician on earth for more than 30 years. It’s nice that other people learning the same thing.

NICK DERISO: Let’s talk about the moment it all came together for you with Los Lobos, when they opened for your old band the Blasters. What clicked that night?
STEVE BERLIN: That night, it wasn’t like I saw them and said: “I want to be in that band.” To be honest with you, it was more like: “Where in the fuck did these guys come from?” In that moment, I know I was on top of the whole scene. I was playing with every band in L.A., pretty much. Me, and all my musician buddies, we thought we knew everything. And here these guys literally come out of nowhere that night, and blew everybody away. Turns out they were working in secret, 10 miles away from us. No one knew that there was this amazing band, working on their craft for years and years and years. So, when they showed up at the Whiskey and did that show with the Blasters, it was mind boggling. I mean, literally, everybody the next day, that’s all they wanted to talk about. It was like one of the Hollywood movies, like “A Star is Born.” People were just flipped out. It wasn’t like I saw them and said: “I want to play with them.” It was more like, we started hanging out. I had no knowledge of that kind of music at all. My background was jazz, first, then R&B and then rock ‘n’ roll. I had zero knowledge of norteño, and that saxophone tradition and how it fits into that tradition. So, I was intrigued and fascinated. They asked me to do some parts, and I said: “I’d loved to learn; just show me what to do, and I’m there.” That’s how it started. I learned a couple of their songs, and then a lot of their songs. Then, I produced a track with them on a rockabilly compilation — and then they got signed to Slash. When they started that record (1983’s …And a Time to Dance,), I was still in the Blasters and by the time the record was done, I was in Los Lobos. I liked the equanimity with which they dealt with each other. They weren’t much older than the other people I was working with, but they seemed to be much wiser — because they had, I think, already worked their stuff out. They had been together for seven years before I’d even heard of them. They were mature in a way that no other L.A. band was; they were way more grown up.

NICK DERISO: Your contributions to the Replacements’ All Shook Down still rank as some of my favorite sideman moments. What was it like working with Paul Westerberg?
STEVE BERLIN: It’s still on my iPod. That was quite an honor to be a part of that record, and get to know Paul a little bit. It was an amazing experience, though that was actually supposed to be Paul’s solo record. But the record label didn’t want to call it that, so it was a Replacements record only one Replacement on it. As a fan I really like that record. There’s some great stuff on it.

NICK DERISO: I was curious to see, when the huge 25th anniversary box set for Paul Simon’s Graceland came out, if there would be updated credits for “All Around the World: The Myth of the Fingerprints,” but there was not. That would have been a great opportunity to make that situation right.
STEVE BERLIN: Well, he never thought he made a mistake. That’s been his position from the moment it was done. He thought that, somehow or another, him being in the same room with us equalled songwriting. You can’t go through a 40-year career without having a couple of low moments, and that was one for us. We’re not the only people who think he’s a douchebag. It’s not like accusing him of that behavior is a novelty, or anything. There are a lot of people who feel the same way we do. That’s how he choses to do business. You can’t fix that.

NICK DERISO: You ended up playing on what would become Levon Helm’s final live performance, just before he succumbed to cancer. By all accounts, he was still a force of nature that night.
STEVE BERLIN: It was something. We were supposed to have played with him the night before, and he cancelled at the last minute. We knew he wasn’t well. But he said the Barn show was still on the next day. When we got there, someone said: “Hey, Levon wants to talk to you guys.” He had like a little bedroom in the back of the barn, more or less, and we walked in there — and he looked about as close to dying as I’ve ever seen anybody. It was just terrifying. He looked small and frail; he was shivering. He could barely talk. We just sort of shot the shit with him for a while, and then we walked out of there going: “There’s no way this guy is going to play a show tonight. There’s no way.” He looked like he was basically about to go. So we did our set, and here comes Levon. He’s dressed to the hilt, and he sits down and plays his ass off. He was unbelievable. He just killed it that night. An unbelievably powerful performance, and then a week later, he left us.

NICK DERISO: You included a Grateful Dead song on Los Lobo’s most recent studio effort, and toured with the band, as well. What’s the deeper connection there?
STEVE BERLIN: (Dead leader) Jerry (Garcia) was a huge fan of ours, and that was in a moment where having his approval was bigger than huge for us. He really loved us, and it was really big for us. He went way out of his way to make us feel comfortable. Whenever we played with him, he would always hang out with us. He was as generous as possible. He ended up giving David a priceless guitar, because he wanted him to have us. It was something. And of course, we maintain a relationship with the Dead tribe. We’re still in the family, or I’d like to think so.

NICK DERISO: Certainly, neither band ever played the same concert twice. You create the band’s set lists, but they often seem more like guidelines in what has always felt like a very improvisational experience. Is part of the fun for you guys on stage — deciding what to do next?
STEVE BERLIN: Well, we’ve actually gone to a no-setlist thing lately, and frankly I’m not sure it’s working. (Laughs.) It’s odd, without a setlist, we seem to be doing the same show over and over. So, I think we’re going to have to go back to a setlist. But I think it’s important to do something different. I think we owe it to our fans to come up with something new every night. Mathematically, it might be impossible at this point — but I think we should try.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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