A Conversation with Los Lobos' Steve Berlin
Mike Ragogna: Steve, Los Lobos music has embraced culture and lifestyle, and your new one, Gates Of Gold, seems to be coming from the immigrant's perspective. Was that the goal?
Steve Berlin: To be perfectly honest with you at this point, we're just trying to get to the end. It's not like we really have any kind of overarching anything. It's just that all that youthful enthusiasm, all that other shit went away seventeen records ago. I don't want to sound like a crusty old man, but it's not like we really do that anymore. We're trying to create something that stands with the rest of our work. I have to say, we don't look at the conceptual aspect of anything until the end. Even The Town And The City, we didn't realize that was going to be a concept record until way into it. It's not like we set out to do anything like that, I think it's just Louie being the lyricist for everything but Cesar's songs, he gets into a headspace once the music starts appearing and then the songs take their shape. You may have to ask him about that but very, very, very rarely do I set out to do something with that kind of intent, especially when I don't even know how many records this is. It's simply just a matter of him getting ten, eleven, twelve good songs. That's harder than it may seem. Let's put it this way: It gets absolutely no easier. It may get considerably harder to get something we like and doesn't sound like something we've already done twice.
MR: What's at the core of Los Lobos these days? Is it studio work?
SB: No. It would be the polar opposite of the studio work. It is the live thing, that's really what we do on a daily basis and that's kind of what it's all about. The record-making process--it's a funny thing to put into words. It's like at a certain point it's so challenging, especially for us having touched a lot of bases over the years it gets hard for us to write something that is resonant and stands up with the rest of the work we've done already. It just seems like we've covered so much ground at this point, we don't want to be one of those bands who writes the same song over and over. We're the same five guys, it's not like we've gotten an infusion of new blood or new songwriters or anything. It's tough at this stage of our career to find that spark, to find that enthusiasm. I think we got it done on this record but speaking for myself it's not like it used to be where you couldn't wait to get to the studio to see what's gonna happen that day. I think all of us are just trying to get there and get the work done and do something that feels good and sounds good, more workman-like as opposed to an artist looking at a blank canvas and getting all excited about what it's going to be. It's more like, "Let's just get the job done."
MR: It's funny because Louie Pérez calls "There I Go" "Something meaningful, though we're not always sure what it is."
SB: [laughs] Did he really?
MR: Yes...well, in the press release anyway.
SB: That's pretty funny. That's a good one. I wouldn't throw that out there, I'm glad he did. We didn't really quite know what that was. That was probably one of the older ones; that was bandied about for Tin Can Trust. That's one of the few that have been lying around waiting to come to life. "When We Were Free" is another one that has been waiting for its moment.
MR: How about "Made To Break Your Heart?"
SB: That one was actually brand new. It's funny, that one was the one that broke the ice for us. We said, "Okay, we're gonna do a new record," we had it on the schedule, we knew it was going to happen and Hidalgo was listening to a lot of early Manassas records. There was a YouTube video he watched that just kind of flipped him out, it was a hot topic of conversation for him for a week. "Did you see that video?" They're studying it like it's the fucking Zapruder movie. They're going through every detail of this Manassas YouTube thing because we sort of like the idea of--to use this word that we never use and I wish there was another way to say this--but Americana with a really cool Latin percussionist and that's kind of what Manassas was. I guess to a certain extent that's where we started with this, but if I see that in the headline I'm gonna come over there and kneecap you. [laughs] That's like the last thing in the world I would ever want to see or hear and if you can think of a better way of saying it please do, but that's kind of where we started. "Wouldn't it be cool if we could do a record that had this flavor but had really authentic and beautifully played Latin percussion and it was really loud. That was the thing about Manassas, almost every record that has Latin percussion on it, it's just there. It's not like it's loud like it would be on a Mongo Santamaría record. That's what was the cool part about Manassas, the percussion was really forward, it was as much a feature of the music as anything else in the track, so that's where "Made To Break Your Heart" started and that was where the record started. That was the first thing we cut, that was the one that probably got the most initial attention. That's kind of how we do it these days, we get one song and we push it as far as we can push it and then the rest of the record happens in the slipstream of the one song that everybody's really into and excited about doing.
MR: So maybe you don't have the wild enthusiasm of a band that's starting out but you do include "Too Small Heart," which seems to be more about having fun garageband-style. Plus it's got some Hendrix vibe.
SB: That one was fun. Once we hit our stride, then the fun stuff starts coming out. I know I'm making music for a living so I can't complain, that's the best job in the world, but it is a challenge for us at this stage just to get someplace, to get the framework of the record set so everything else can happen. I think "Too Small Heart" was cut early but it was one of the last ones to get finished. I think part of it was because it seemed like an outlier at the beginning. I think part of it was just trying to find something that could work in the solo section that wasn't silly. The solo section was the make-or-break on that one. Any regular rock guitar solo we tried on that one sounded moronic, so Dave came up with the composed thing, which could be my favorite moment on the record. That one and the one on "Magdalena" are just so great. Those are prideful moments for me. I just think both of those things are pretty awesome. Once that happened, it was like, "Okay, now we get it. Onto the next one." It's just getting each one into something that sounds like us. And we do triple check that we haven't already done the same exact idea and then we move on to the next one. It's not drudgery but it's not like it used to be. Once upon a time, all these ideas were out there to be taken and you just take them and use them like Kiko and Colossal Head but now we really have to go back and do the forensics and make sure it's not something we did. Some cases we get something we're really excited about and it's something we've done not only once but probably twice.
MR: That's also called having a style sometimes.
SB: I was talking to my friend about this record and I told him what I just said and he said, "You know, you guys have kind of earned the right to do that. It's totally okay, everybody will understand if that guitar sound sounds like something you've done." He was trying to make me stop worrying about it but we still do. We are one of very few bands going at this stage, it's important to me and I think 's important to all of us that nothing sounds repetitive, in a way that we can correct. Some of it's built in and you can't touch it, but if there's a way to make it sound like something we've never done I think it's incumbent to not do that idea, to not take the easy road. "Let's see if we can come up with something that works in the same way but is not effectively a direct quote of something we've already tried.
MR: Earlier, you mentioned "Magdalenía," which dives into spirituality. And the title of the record is Gates Of Gold, which also carries a little spiritual nod. Were you guys conscious of the topic during the album's creation?
SB: I hesitate to speak for Louie, he is a very private artist in the sense of where the ideas come from, but at this stage it's kind of hard to write about being lonely and heartbroken, we're fucking grandparents already. Some of us, not everybody. A lot of those themes now don't resonate the way they used to. The things that do resonate are the bigger things and the bigger ideas and obviously that's a very big idea. That's a fair assessment, but again I would hate to say, "It's this," when Louie's idea might be something less specific and more about wherever the poet in him writes from.
MR: And then you did "La Tumba."
SB: We've fooled around with that song for many years, it's come and gone from the set lists about fifteen times already but we just wanted to have something that was a different idea of a traditional song that we've done in the past, so that one fit right in there.
MR: You've been playing with Los Lobos from the beginning, but way back, you were part of The Blasters. How do you feel about the progression of what you've been doing as an artist over these years and how Los Lobos has become such a cultural and Americana staple?
SB: That's a hard question to answer. I think for both myself and the band, unless somebody asks the question like you just did it's nothing we ever think about or talk about or say, "Gee, isn't it awesome that we're still doing this after so many years?" Every day that we're thinking about Lobos stuff, it's the next thing, the tour, the show--in some cases the record, but these days kind of rarely. It's never a matter of stopping to reflect upon what the legacy is and what it means and how we got here. I've never heard anybody in my band ever talk or think or say any of those words, it's just kind of a workmanly approach to doing this for a living. You try to make it work and very rarely think about what it all means in the bigger picture. I'm certainly proud of it, I think we all are. It's not an easy thing to stay together for forty years and not kill each other or somebody else but we've done it somehow and we continue to do it somehow. Obviously when you make a record you've got to think about how this one fits in. It kind of gets into what I said before about not wanting to repeat ourselves.
MR: Does your career make sense to you?
SB: [laughs] That's a great question. It had better make sense to me. I don't want to get this far and realize I should've been a computer programmer or something. I think it makes sense. I'm certainly proud of the work. I feel like between Los Lobos and the other records I've produced or been part of I think I've got something that counts. It wasn't a waste of anybody's time or energy. I'm very proud of the records, this one included, and I think we all are. We're in an interesting place, there's not a lot of bands that could sit here forty plus years on and say, "Check all this out. What have you got, young whippersnapper?" I saw D'Angelo last night and it was an unbelievable show. Wilco was in town, Alabama Shakes was in town, all these great bands were in Portland this weekend and just for one tiny second I let my mind think about what all of those bands are going to look like when they're at this stage. That's a hard thing to actually do. I didn't stay there very long but I had to think about what a sixty-year-old Brittany Howard would look like and I mean that in the best possible way. They'll probably be f**king awesome. Not that Wilco's that far away but it's an interesting idea, what it looks like to get where we are. I'm not saying we're any kind of elder statesman and this is getting into a dangerous place...I should probably shut up.
MR: [laughs] No, you're good. For the kind of influence you've had on the culture, you get to have an opinion!
SB: And I'm actually looking forward to what these bands who I think matter hugely and are doing incredible work, all of these bands I just mentioned are doing amazing work. The question you're asking in terms of legacy, I'd imagine they're probably feeling the same. They're not slowing down or looking back and thinking about those questions at all, I think they're just going to keep the pedal to the medal and keep moving forward. In this stage it's kind of all you can do, really.
MR: Speaking of young whippersnappers, what advice do you have for new artists?
SB: Give up! [laughs] I would like to wish them the gift of restlessness. Be as restless and positively self-analytical as you can possibly be. That's what it takes to get to forty plus years. You should never assume or say, "I'm going to take this lateral move because I got to here." What Lobos does, I can't say we pretend we're a brand new band but we're certainly not far from it as we make new records and stuff like that. The impulse is less like what I imagine an Eagles record would be and a lot more like what a Saint Paul & The Broken Bones record would be like. They're not thinking about a legacy or where they're going to be in forty years, they're just trying to make a great record and I would say that's what we do as well.
MR: Yes, but you also shone a light on Hispanic American creativity and how you can contribute to the culture in that way.
SB: Yeah, and again, it's something we quite literally never think about. I hope that's not a disappointment to anybody but we're just an American band. The culture part comes in as we source it and as we reference it. "La Tumba" was something where we said, "Okay, we have to do at least one and let's make it something we haven't done before. So yes, it's there, it's not like we ignore it, but again it's never a thing where the culture becomes part of the DNA of anything other than the unspoken part. We never think about it. Although I guess that contradicts what I was saying about wanting to do something like Manassas specifically because of the percussion. We talked about that as a cool concept, but that's one song of eleven or twelve, not an overarching thing. That's a cool thing we hadn't really looked at as a starting place on that song. We'd gotten to it in the middle of songs before, but we had never tried to start a song based on more specifically this five or ten minute YouTube video.
MR: Is this Manassas fascination going to steer where Los Lobos goes for the next project?
SB: No, it was really just "Made To Break Your Heart." I don't think anybody's going to mention it again for months.
MR: So where will Los Lobos be heading?
SB: Well the cycle begins, so we'll be touring this thing for a while. For the first three months of next year we're doing this folkloric thing with dancers, a folkloric ballet where we're playing our music and they're dancing to our songs. That'll be a little different, something we haven't tried. Then once that tour ends there's another big tour planned for Spring and that's kind of about as far out as we're looking right now. Usually, we're looking twenty minutes into the future, so to have plans for next June is kind of rare and amazing for us, actually.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
CINDY ALEXANDER'S "AN AMERICAN GIRL" EXCLUSIVE
According to Cindy Alexander...
"Most of us have that 'one song' that we turn to when we need a pick-me-up. It's a song about the healing power of music."
A Conversation with Meg Myers
Mike Ragogna: Meg, it's been about a year since your EP Make A Shadow was released, it featuring a couple of popular songs in the title track and the song "The Morning After." Your new album Sorry already features the radio-focused title track, the hit "Desire" and your latest single "Lemon Eyes." Do they allow you food, bathroom and sleep breaks?
Meg Myers: Hahahaha! No, if I'm not recording, then I'm touring. That's been my life for the last few years. It's funny how you set out to do something and then when it starts to materialize it's not exactly what you thought it would be. Don't get me wrong, I'm very grateful for all of the people who have helped along the way and the response from fans.
MR: An album title sometimes implies a bigger picture, beyond the applicable song lyrics it might be named after. So who's sorry here and why?
MM: That's interesting. I didn't intend for "Sorry" to be the title track until most of the songs were already written. But you're onto something. It kind of represents a phase I've been going through personally. In the past my music was a vessel for me to express my anger and frustration but with "Sorry" and a lot of the songs I wrote on this album it's a little more reflective on how I've been coming to terms with myself and maturing.
MR: How did your becoming a performer and recording artist begin and when did you feel you were "ready" to follow that path?
MM: My brother plays guitar and he taught me how to play bass. We had a band when we were teenagers. I moved to Los Angeles when I was 20 to pursue music more seriously. I played acoustic sets mostly at that time. When I met my producer, Doctor Rosen Rosen, is when my sound really started to become more focused and I felt that I was on a more clearly defined path.
MR: What do you demand of your original material and recordings and are there any songs on the new album that went beyond what you were trying to achieve?
MM: Feather and Motel were songs that really took on another dimension for me and honestly surpassed my demands of the other songs on the album, which was a nice feeling and has given me a clearer picture of where I want to go in the future with my songwriting.
MR: Do you ever compare your success or career to those of your contemporaries and what do you think of today's music scene in general?
MM: The people I admire and look up to the most as far as what I want to do with my career are probably not what you would think. I've been really into Ryan Adams lately. His self titled record is incredible and his live at Carnegie Hall is so beautiful and genuine. He goes off on this weird tangent about Terminator 2 and that's amazing. I've also been really inspired by Townes Van Zandt. We even put a clip of one of his interviews in the opening track of the record.
Today's music scene is interesting. I don't really understand what people get out of most of it. There's just not much substance. But there's also a lot of really amazing things at the same time. It's been nice touring with some people and getting to know other artists that are really doing great work. We played some shows with Alt-J last year and that was so incredible because their music has meant so much to me. There's a lot of good stuff coming out but people are usually too distracted by what lies on the surface.
MR: Who are your favorite artists and why?
MM: Well, I've listed a few already but really just anyone who can express their feelings seems to strike a chord with me. I listen to a lot of classical and some alt country stuff like Sturgill Simpson and Ryan Adams.
MR: In your opinion, what else do you think you have potential in, for instance, acting?
MM: I think I have a very strong potential to take care of multiple gorillas at one time in a kingdom that I've created for only gorillas. But yeah acting could be cool.
MR: What's the best advice ever given to you?
MM: Follow your gut and don't be afraid to be yourself.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
MM: Don't let industry people take control of your art. It's sacred and it's an extension of you. They want to help and you should be open to what they have to say. But at the end of the day it's your music with your name on it and you need to make something you can look back on and be proud of.
MR: You've released a few projects already but is it all still pretty exciting?
MM: A lot of times it's difficult to be excited because there's so little time to rest or have a personal life. But when we're playing shows and the crowd responds well then it makes it all worth while. Seeing people connect to the music that I poured my soul into makes this line of work make sense.