Steve Berlin on Native Sons, L.A. Music and 5 Decades of Fun with Los Lobos

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Steve Berlin on Native Sons, L.A. Music and 5 Decades of Fun with Los Lobos

Wondering how it feels to amble into your favorite old nightclub haunt after 17 post-lockdown months, and prepare to rock out with at least a smidgen of familiar abandon? Let Los Lobos keyboardist/saxophonist/producer Steve Berlin file a timely, and decidedly optimistic report from the slowly reopening frontlines of his native Portland. He was phoning to discuss Native Sons, his quintet’s rollicking new lockdown-completed collection of cover songs by some of the members’ favorite Los Angeles musicians, from obvious inclusions like Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth”), Jackson Browne (“Jamaica Say You Will”) and War (“The World is a Ghetto”), to less well-known artists like Chicano rock trailblazers Thee Midniters (“Love Special Delivery”) and Puerto Rican-born Willie Bobo (“Dichoso”). It was cut at the Grammy-winning group’s Nest Studios in their stomping grounds of East L.A, in the same fun fashion as their last all-Christmas anthology, 2019’s cheery Llego Navidad. But first Berlin bore news of that almost forgotten artistic medium, the Live Rock Concert, which he’d just bravely played last week at a small venue called Mississippi Studios.

The crowd’s reaction was instantaneous, says Berlin, 65, who was appearing with late saxophone legend Ralph Carney’s old Oregon outfit, Thumper. “It was they were being let out of jail—it was very, very emotional and strong, and people were just so happy to be back in that place, which hadn’t been open since March of 2020. Or happy just to be back in a club, period.” If you had asked him a year ago, mid-pandemic, how he felt about performing shows again, he would have waffled, filled with ambivalence at the time, he adds. “But now? We fucking need that shit! And now we know how much we all actually miss it—it is really powerful.” He had his fingers crossed that San Francisco’s historic Fillmore would be open by January, when Los Lobos usually plays its annual Bill’s Birthday Bash, a benefit in honor of late promoter Bill Graham. So his prediction? “As far as I know, the Fillmore’s gonna be back, and slowly but surely, a lot of these places are coming back—I’m playing the opening of another one here in Portland soon.” Berlin also has a few other irons in the fire, like a busy record-production cottage and a new company called AirHush he’s overseeing. Mainly, he’s just glad to have further news to report on his longtime Los Lobos comrades, drummer Louie Perez, bassist Conrad Lozano, guitarist/lyricist Cesar Rosa and guitarist/vocalist David Hidalgo, still together as a unit since 1973 (Berlin, fresh from The Blasters, joined in 1984 after producing their debut EP …And a Time to Dance).

Paste: The upcoming Costa Mesa concert—with X and The Blasters—looks awesome. And tons of bands have fallen apart over the years, decades, but you L.A.-scene founders have not only stayed together, you’ve remained close friends, down to you just co-producing John Doe’s forthcoming solo album, Fables In a Foreign Land.

Steve Berlin: Yeah. And it’s a miracle. And you know, honestly, I would attribute that to a couple of things. The band was together for seven years before anybody had any idea who they were or what they were doing outside of their own neighborhood, so they got to work out a lot of shit in those seven years, not unlike, say, The Beatles in Hamburg. And when you get to work out your stuff while no one’s watching, and you get to grow up and do all that stuff behind the scenes? That’s super helpful. So that helped a lot. And we don’t have any unfulfilled ambitions, things that break up a lot of bands, like, “Oh, I can’t do my tribute to English show tunes,” or whatever—whatever that is. With us, if anybody wants to go do a thing with show tunes, go do it—just don’t be late for the gig. That helps. And I think at the end of the day we realized that what we do together is bigger and heavier than what we would do if we weren’t. And, most importantly, we’re firm believers in time heals all things. So if we’re really angry and pissy at each other—which happens, that doesn’t not happen. But over time, it just goes away, and you just forget about it, do a show, have a drink, and it’s all good. So that’s the secret sauce, man—there’s not much to it. And you don’t really think about time passing. I’m always amazed when it’s another milestone, like 30, 40, 50 years. And you’re like, “How did that happen? If you’d asked me 50 years ago, I would have said, “Oh, this could go on for a couple of years.” But that’s what I would have said about anybody, especially in that era, the early ‘80s—it seemed like none of this stuff was built to last decades. We were just having fun. We’re still having fun. And that might be another part of it—it’s still fun to do this stuff. It’s fun to make new records, it’s fun to play good shows, so as a job goes, it’s pretty hard to beat it.

Paste: X’s latest album Alphabetland, unfortunately released just as lockdown hit, is one of its best, ever. Same for your new Native Sons set. So both groups are still finding some great inspiration, four decades later.

Berlin: Well, it’s the same knuckleheads doing the same stuff the same way. We haven’t really learned a bunch of new tricks over the years, except that I think we learned to trust ourselves and trust our instincts more than anything. But that would be the only thing that I could specifically point to and say, “Well, that’s something we didn’t have at the beginning that we have now.” Because we really don’t care what a lot of people think or say to us, to be perfectly honest. We just kind of follow our own path, more or less, and that’s something we learned the hard way, I would say. So that’s different. But everything else? We kind of do what we do in the same way we always have. The guys still can’t figure out modern technology to save their lives. It’s not like we’re computer-streamlining all our records and doing all these things remotely. No, they’re still analog recording to tape.

Paste: Did you try to show them PDF files for emailing songs back and forth?

Berlin: I’ve tried to show ‘em tricks over the years, but it doesn’t really take. They can barely figure out their songs, so I just abide with it. Early in the lockdown, we were trying to do a Zoom something or other, trying to create Zoom livestreams, remotely. And I bought all this gear and brought it to L.A,, and I said, “Here’s how you do it—just call me and I’ll set ya up!” And they didn’t even try. They didn’t give a fuck. It’s like, they can only do this the way they’ve always done it, which is fine. So that’s how we do it. And whatever works, right? If that makes you happy, then fine. I happen to think there are things about modern technology that are useful, but that’s just me.

Paste: How and when did you guys get together for this album? And how do you go about selecting California-related covers?

Berlin: Well, with the song process, we learned a few things when we made the Christmas record in 2019, so we kind of followed the same methodology as far as that. Everybody was like, “Okay—think of your favorite L.A.-based songs.” And then we reached out to our DJ and record-collecting pals with cool record collections and said, “What do you think? Do you like this idea? And if you have any ideas please send them.” So we did a Dropbox—there ya go— and people just had friends send stuff. And again, much like in the making of the Christmas record, what would happen is, somebody would pitch a song, and we’d be like, “Oh, yeah! That reminds me of this other song that I really like!” So suddenly we’d end up doing that song. But there were a couple of givens. Like, we knew we were gonna do a Blasters song, we knew we were gonna do a Midniters song, we knew we were gonna do a War song. So those were the automatics, I guess you could say. If we were gonna do an L.A. tribute record, there was no way that we could not pay tribute to those people because they were so hugely important to our development.

Paste: I’d never heard of Thee Midniters before.

Berlin: Thee Midniters were like The Beatles in East L.A. They were on all those local ‘60s American Bandstand-type shows.And I didn’t grow up in L.A., so I didn’t know what they were. But they were on TV all the time, they were on the radio all the time, so the guys growing up just thought it was a Rolling Stones/Beatles/Midniters kind of thing. They thought that they were all more or less equivalent somehow. So they were a big influence, and the fact that they were from the neighborhood was huge, so the guys grew up with the idea that you could make it out of here—you weren’t locked in. So on a lot of levels, it was a big deal, and Wilie G[arcia] the singer, became friends with us over the years, and he’s been on a couple of records of ours now. So Willie G’s still with us, and he’s pretty happy with this album, and we also had his son sing on it, as well. So it was kind of a big deal to us, to let those people know how much they meant to us. And then as far as the making of, we started in February of 2020, so we started it pre-pandemic, obviously not knowing a fucking thing about what was about to go down. Didn’t see that one coming, and we were very naively thinking it would be over in a couple of months, that somehow it would just stop. I’m sure everybody was that naive for a minute. So once the reality of it hit home, once it dawned on us that this wasn’t going to go away any time soon, it was like, “Alright. Well, what are we gonna do about this record?” And since I don’t live in L.A., the question and the issue more or less was, “How are we going to actually get together?” So we cut three or four songs in February, and then we shut it all down for three or four months, and then I think it was in June when we got back together again. The studio is big enough and it’s well-ventilated—it’s a pretty big space— so we were able to do it right. Like, we were able to distance ourselves, and we got a nurse to come test us before every session, which was… interesting. But basically, we just made it work. So we would do three or four days a month, work on a couple of songs, take a break for three weeks, do it again, take a break for three weeks. And, lo and behold! It was the long way around, but we actually got through it all and we woke up one day in September and added the songs up, and we had 14 songs, which I was shocked by. I wasn’t really keeping a running count—I was just letting stuff happen, and was happy that we were able to work, and somehow, we magically accumulated 14 songs.

Paste: Who sings on Jackson Browne’s “Jamaica Say You Will”? It actually almost sounds like Jackson Browne himself. And people forget the brilliance of his work in the Pretender era. Where does he fit into the Los Lobos pantheon?

Berlin: Ha! No, that’s Dave [Hidalgo, guitarist/vocalist)], and then Louie [Perez, drummer] sings one verse. I was actually just going to check out his new album today. But he was a huge influence on Louis, in terms of songwriting. That first album? I remember it affecting me, too, even though I wasn’t a songwriter. I remember thinking, “this is about as good as it gets.” Just the sense of economy, and just the directness of the language—it wasn’t Dylan-esque, and it wasn’t metaphorical. It was all just being able to tell a very deep and profound story with the absolute minimum of language, which is something I think Louis took to heart as a songwriter. So yeah, he was significant. And when the subject of that song came up, I thought, “Wow. That’s gonna be a challenge.” But to their credit, the guys really hung in there and pulled it off, I think. I’m really happy with the way that one came out.

Paste: Who originally did “Farmer John”?

Berlin: So with that one, we kind of killed two birds with one stone. It’s Don and Dewey—which is Don “Sugarcane” Harris—which I think was the original version is also because Thee Midniters also did that song, so our version is kind of like Thee Midniters’ version, or more Midniters than Don and Dewey, but we were looking for a Don and Dewey song, initially. We were trying to find one that would fit because they were also really big influences, especially on Dave.

Paste: Are you thinking about a possible Vol. 2 for this?

Berlin: I don’t think so. I’d be surprised if we did, actually. It’s kind of like, the whole rationale for this was trying to do something that we could do in pieces, because when we set out to do it, it was more because we had a busy touring schedule than what it turned out to be, because we were dealing with Covid. But if somebody asked us to do it? If somebody at the label said, “Hey, this is great! Let’s do a Vol. 2!” I would do it. But it’s been six years since our last non-covers record, so I kind of feel that clock ticking a little bit myself. So I would love to see us do another non-covers record, maybe for 2023, 2022. We’ll see. It generally takes us about 18 months between records. But I would do it again, because it was certainly fun. And the one thing we didn’t cover and we should’ve was a non-Blasters, L.A, punk-rock, early ‘80s thing. Something that pointed to how influential that moment was on us, because really is one of the biggest influences—those bands and those people, and the whole ethic of helping people along the way. If you get a a gig, you bring your buddy in on the gig. It’s like , we’ve always kept that kind of ethos in our hearts. That thing is still with us. If we’re going out on tour, we always try and take our friends with us or somebody that we think deserves it. So that’s my only current regret—not getting that early-L.A. punk scene song on there.

Paste: Dave Grohl and his daughter Violet just covered X’s “Nausea.” Which song would you pick?

Berlin: Well, the one that I wanted to do—which I couldn’t get anybody to go for—was a song by The Plugz called “El Clavo Y La Cruz”—it was on the second Plugz record that I was on, too, actually. It’s a really cool song, and I think that we could pull it off. But I couldn’t get anybody to go for it. And then I thought about the X song “The Have Nots”—I like that one a lot. So those are the two that were at the top of my list. And I was trying to find other stuff, even more obscure, but it was not to be. But the other thing, with more time and another volume to think about, would be that there’s a great scene happening in East L.A. right now that’s kind of where the Chicano Batman vibe came from. There are all these good, young Latin R&B bands happening now, which I would have loved to have highlighted, like The Sinseers. There are a couple of bands like that, doing really exciting cool stuff. But we go to those 14 songs without actually thinking about it too much, so if we do more, that’s where I would go.

Paste: And boomeranging back to what you said earlier, Tony Marsico and The Cruzados—formerly The Plugz—are also back with a new album this year called She’s Automatic.

Berlin: Yeah. I’m on it—I play the sax on two of the songs. And I’ve only heard the two songs that I worked on, but I would imagine it’s fantastic.

Paste: The last time we spoke, pre-pandemic, you had just finished producing The Greyhounds and The Suitcase Junket. What have you been working on since?

Berlin: Oh, I’ve done a bunch of records since then. So what’s coming out? There’s a band called Southern Avenue from Memphis, and I think that one comes out in a couple of weeks. There’s a guy named Taylor Scott that I just finished, but I’m not sure when it’s coming. And John Doe’s record, of course, but that won’t be out till January. A lot of people are waiting, because it seems like there’s gonna be a glut of stuff, with the hopeful end of the pandemic. And Fastball—I just finished that. They’re back, and I actually did their last record, too—this one they put out in 2019 that I think is really good.

Paste: The movie La Bamba that Los Lobos took part in has been popping up on TV recently. And I totally forgot that Marshall Crenshaw was cast as Buddy Holly.

Berlin: Yeah!A nd he did a great job! I thought everyone was good in that film, everyone did a great job. And the movie does hold up, it does indeed. But I have to say, going into it, when we were working on it, that was not the way I was feeling. I mean, it was pretty much a giant mess until the very end. It was a much longer movie, and we had actually scored an extra half hour of it that was completely superfluous—it was a whole dream sequence or some other weird thing, where Richie goes to Mexico and takes peyote and envisions his whole career. It was just really silly, inconsequential, it had nothing to do with anything. Just pointless. But as we were working on it, it got better and better. And the last cut of the movie I saw before it got released was literally the last thing I did before we took off for a European trip back then, And I remember thinking, “Wow! They’ve kinda pulled this together! It’s a shame nobody’s ever gonna see this thing!” Literally, that was going through my head as I was watching it.

Paste: What happened with this National Endowment for the Arts giving Los Lobos a Heritage Fellowship?

Berlin: That was kind of awesome. We were nominated by some friends of ours who had been doing some stuff for the NEA. And they were like, “Yeah—let’s get Lobos in here!” So it’s a really prestigious honor, and normally there’s a party at the White House that goes along with it—unfortunately, we had to miss that. But just to be considered among the pantheon of American artists? It’s a big deal. They don’t throw those honors around—it’s a long vetting process. But it was all done remotely this year, so we did it, and it’s cool. We get awards here and there, and it’s always lovely to receive them. But this one is kind of a big one, and that’s no joke.

Paste: Last time we spoke, too, you had created an inflatable sound baffling system called AirHush. How is that going? Build a better egg carton, and the world will beat a path to your door, right?

Berlin: It’s going. But it’s just a challenging time to be doing hardware stuff—a lot of companies can’t quite figure out what their offices are going to look like, or if they’re even going back. But we’re talking to some big names and hoping that everything will work out, and they’ll buy a bunch of panels and we’ll be fine. But it’s like with any other startup—you have good days and bad days, and there’s hopefulness. But you’ll get all excited about something and then it doesn’t happen. But any startup anywhere is going through what we’re going through right now.

Paste: You would think that a convenient, inflatable sound-muffling device would sell like hot cakes during a pandemic. Especially with apartment neighbors banging on your walls and yelling, “Keep it down with that damned guitar music in there!”

Berlin: You would think. But what we’re learning is, one of the things that’s not working in our favor is that it’s never existed before. So you have to sort of teach people what it is, how it works, why it works, because history is littered with failed firsts—the original inventor is rarely the guy that gets the glory. It’s usually the guy who makes it easier, cheaper, more portable, or whatever, all the way down to personal computers. Being first to market is not often the place you want to be. And we are the first and only ones on the market, so it’s a bit of an educational process, all told. A lot of times, there’s the guy who makes the original, and then another guy who comes along and says, “Oh, I can do it for half that price!” So it’s an interesting place to be in, I have to say, especially being a musician. But everybody who sees it and gets it says the same thing—“Oh my God—why aren’t there a billion of these out in the world already?”

Paste: In conclusion, looking back on that early’80s era of Los Angeles punk—combined with everything happening in San Francisco, like The Avengers—it’s hard to recall or even imagine a more magical era. Was there just something in the West Coast water?

Berlin: You know, it’s like critical mass. You get the right people in the right place, all of them trying to—not do the same thing—but do similar things, and things just ignite. And it’s just fun. So I’m really glad that I got to be a small part of it. I don’t know why it happened—nobody knows if there was a real reason why. And sadly—and why it’s hard to imagine any of it happening again—a lot of it was because the city was so cheap. It was cheap. Like, my rent was $160 a month, and it was great to be in this cauldron and be doing stuff and making art and trying to come up with really cool ideas about shit without having to dedicate 80% of your income to your rent. But that’s very much the case now. So that’s the real tragedy of our time— any place where artists would want to go is too expensive to live, like San Francisco, Seattle, and now Portland, sadly.

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