For Los Lobos, a long, strange trip
August 10, 2005
Some years before they made such multicultural, mixed-language, cutting-edge classics as “Kiko” and “Colossal Head,” Los Lobos recorded “Just Another Band From East L.A.” The 1978 album had the band – known then as Los Lobos Del Este de Los Angeles – playing virtually all traditional Mexican tunes from their parents’ generation and before. The music was all acoustic; the singing was all in Spanish. And as it was the band’s first widely released album – they had recorded “Sí Se Puede,” another album of Mexican songs, in 1976 as a benefit for the United Farm Workers Union – it created the impression that Los Lobos was a band that had migrated from their Mexican roots to Spanish-accented American rock.The reverse is true. Despite the Mexican roots, the origins playing parties in their ethnic East L.A. neighborhood, and the early recordings, Los Lobos began life playing American rock ‘n’ roll.”The Mexican music was in the background. That was my parents’ music,” said Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. “My older brother’s band played r & b, but at weddings they’d play cumbias and boleros. Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.” It was part of what was there, but you took it almost for granted.”Hidalgo, a drummer back then, first fell for the twang guitar sounds of Duane Eddy and the smooth vocals of the Coasters. Then, through his older brother, he gravitated toward the era’s rock: The Beatles, the Yardbirds, Chuck Berry. “The big attraction was the electric guitar,” he said.When Hidalgo, who by then had taken up guitar, first formed Los Lobos with his junior high school friend Cesar Rosas and two more pals from L.A.’s Garfield High School, Louis Pérez and Conrad Lozano, they played straight-up rock music. But in the early ’70s, cultural awareness – black culture, Mexican culture – was being raised around them. And at the neighborhood gatherings where they played, people wanted to hear the popular Mexican music that was part of the East L.A. culture.
“It was the climate, and that’s what we wanted to do,” said Hidalgo, whose American-born parents spoke Spanish in the house “only when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying.”See Los Lobos on page A6The band’s heart wasn’t completely into the Mexican music at first.”It was kind of tongue-in-cheek, a goof-off to surprise our parents,” Hidalgo said. “But we couldn’t play it. It became a challenge. You could compare it to country blues, or bluegrass – there’s a tradition of form, a high standard of musicianship. That really attracted us.” Hidalgo had become a big fan of Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson’s British band that put a virtuoso spin on English folk music. “To find something comparable to that, but in our own culture, that was refreshing.”By 1983’s “… and a time to dance,” their first album for Slash Records, Los Lobos was mixing original English-language rock with their versions of Mexican songs. The record label had questions about how to market such an album, and Hidalgo and his mates had a definite answer.
“We thought it was mainstream,” Hidalgo said. “We said, do it mainstream. We’re American. We grew up here with everybody else. We thought the music would appeal to everyone, not just a certain ethnic group or age group. We thought it was universal.”In the mainstreamAlong with the mainstream rock he grew up on, Hidalgo also was exposed in the late ’60s to more eclectic fare thanks to KPPC, the free-form L.A. radio station.”It was wide open. So I heard a lot of stuff I’d never heard before: the Incredible String Band, Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Albert Collins,” he said. “It was wide open and available and I was open to it.”Hidalgo seems to be the most prominent among equals in Los Lobos. He sings, plays guitar, fiddle and accordion, and, with Pérez, writes the majority of the original material. When Los Lobos began getting further and further from its Mexican and mainstream roots, creating avant-rock albums like 1996’s “Colossal Head,” it seemed as if Hidalgo was leading the way.
Hidalgo and Pérez – along with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, who co-produced “Colossal Head” and the 1992 Los Lobos masterpiece “Kiko” – formed a side project known as the Latin Playboys and veered even more from the center line. That band, which released two ’90s albums, is one of a large handful of projects Hidalgo has pursued outside his main gig. He recorded “Houndog” with Canned Heat singer Mike Halby, an album on which Hidalgo plays mostly fiddle. He was part of the core for the first two albums by the Mexican-American supergroup Los Super Seven. (He didn’t appear on the recent, star-studded Super Seven release “Heard It on the X,” explaining that “that was a different kind of album.”) Hidalgo has produced albums by bluesman John Hammond and L.A. Mexican-American singer Little Willie G.”I never knew where it was headed,” said the 50-year-old Hidalgo of Los Lobos’ direction. “But it seemed to happen naturally. We started one place and ended up where we are.”Los Lobos now dwells in a unique spot in rock history. They have had their moment of mega-fame, back in 1987 when their cover of “La Bamba,” from the soundtrack of the movie of the same name, became a monster hit. Their admiration in various corners of the music world is reflected in their inclusion on tribute albums to the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Doc Pomus, NRBQ, Queen and Phish; most recently their mesmerizing version of “Pawn Shop” closed “Look at All the Love We Found,” a tribute to hardcore band Sublime. Los Lobos’ last studio album, “The Ride,” featured such guests as Elvis Costello and Tom Waits, and from the Latin American realm, Ruben Blades, Little Willie G and Mexican group Cafe Tacuba. This year, the band even covered new ground, releasing their first DVD, “Live at the Fillmore,” and a companion CD, the first live recording of their 30-plus-year career.This fall, the band is set to play a tour that brings them almost all the way back to their origins. The all-acoustic tour will have Los Lobos playing the sort of Mexican songs they once played as something of a joke.”We haven’t forgotten that,” Hidalgo said. “It’s something we draw from always.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org