Los Lobos: ‘La Bamba gave us an identity crisis’


Los Lobos reached pop’s pinnacle in 1987 when their cover of La Bamba, recorded for a film of the same name, reached No 1 around the world. On their way up, and indeed back down the other side, the Los Angeles roots-rockers have mastered multiple musical styles during nearly 50 years together – from traditional Mexican folk to jump blues and avant-rock – and have earned 11 Grammy nominations (with three wins), working or appearing with Paul Simon, the Clash, film-maker Robert Rodriguez and more along the way.

Now, to move forward, Los Lobos decided to look back. Native Sons, their 17th studio album, is a wide-ranging celebration of the LA artists that inspired the band early on. With covers of well-known pop tunes by the Beach Boys (Sail on Sailor) and Buffalo Springfield (For What It’s Worth) sitting alongside rare cuts from 60s garage rockers Thee Midniters and Latin jazz legend Willie Bobo, it’s the perfect polyglot collection for this multi-faceted ensemble. “You wouldn’t run into [these artists] at the same party,” says guitarist Louie Pérez Jr. “But once they all got to the party, everyone in the band thought, ‘Hey, this is kind of fun.’”

It’s brought the band back to their roots as an in-demand wedding band in east LA where the remit is to play the hits. “Normally when somebody does a tribute record, they do their versions of whoever is the object of the tribute,” Pérez says. “We didn’t do that. We try to play it just like it sounded on the original records. It doesn’t make it about us. It makes it a real tribute.”

Trying to perfectly replicate the sounds of the past has been a hallmark for the band. The core members – Pérez, singer-instrumentalist David Hidalgo, guitarist Cesar Rosas and bassist Conrad Lozano – were initially drawn together in the 1970s by their love of psychedelic rock and cut their musical teeth in various LA cover bands. But what bonded them was the traditional Mexican music that was a mainstay in their respective households. “It was kind of like car alarms,” remembers Pérez. “It was in the background and we didn’t even hear it any more. Then we got totally immersed in it.” The group studied the records in their parents’ collections and snapped up instruments such as the guitarrón and requinto jarocho from pawn shops.

Soon, the band was playing all over east Los Angeles, looking, as Pérez puts it, “more like [Neil Young’s] Crazy Horse than a Mexican band,” and making connections with multiple generations of Chicanos. “We’d be at some event in the park and the old people would be rolling up their blankets, ready to leave. Then we’d start playing and all of the sudden, they’d unfurl the blankets. These grandmas would come up and bless us.”

As their sound evolved to once again incorporate electric instruments and rock rhythms, the band found their way to the other side of the LA River and the thriving punk and roots rock scenes of the early 80s. Getting gigs with fellow artists such as the Blasters (from whom they pinched saxophonist Steve Berlin) and Latino punk group the Plugz, Los Lobos wowed and angered audiences. At one notorious gig, they played a set of acoustic Mexican standards when opening for post-punks Public Image Limited. The crowd responded with spit, jeering and projectiles. “The pennies and the dimes started coming in, and then the quarters started coming in,” Rosas told author Chris Morris in the biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue. “I remember they threw this big wad of wet paper, and it hit Dave in the face.”

Los Lobos in Chicago, 1984.
‘If nobody likes it, we don’t care. We’re gonna do it anyway’ ... Los Lobos in Chicago, 1984. Photograph: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Things got better. The band’s reputation for thrilling live shows grew, and they won their first Grammy for Anselma, a rousing tejano number taken from their 1983 EP ...And a Time to Dance. Their breakthrough came in 1987 when they were asked to record a handful of Ritchie Valens songs for a biopic about the late rocker. “The request came directly from Ritchie’s family,” says Pérez. “La Bamba was the single in the stack of 45s that everybody carried around when we were growing up – sure, let’s pay tribute to him.”

Exciting as it was, the band’s expectations were low. “I remember seeing the film and thinking, ‘That’s actually a decent movie. Shame that no one’s going to see it,’” says Berlin. La Bamba wound up being a huge box office hit and Los Lobos’ version of the song shot to the top of the US and UK charts.

While they relished the financial windfall and opportunities that came along with the success, the band, says Pérez, faced “a little bit of an identity crisis. We had been doing this a long time and that song eclipsed everything we’d done before.” Rather than chase down another hit like it, Los Lobos followed up with La Pistola y El Corazón, an album that returned to their traditional Mexican music roots. “We played it for [Warner Bros Records president] Lenny Waronker and he had a kind of glazed look in his eyes,” says Pérez. “He said, ‘This means a lot to you? OK … We’ll make a record. Let me take care of the rest.’ Which meant that he had to get up and explain to Mo Ostin, the CEO, that we were gonna commit commercial suicide.” That album went on to win another Grammy for the band.

Los Lobos’ insistence on following their own instincts and interests only grew stronger. In the 90s, they collaborated with producer Mitchell Froom on Kiko and Colossal Head, a pair of daring albums that brought in touches of funk, noise rock and experimental music. “We decided we’re going to make uncompromising music that makes us happy,” says Berlin. “And if nobody likes it, we don’t care. We’re gonna do it anyway. The attitude going in was, ‘Fuck everybody.’ Sometimes that’s the way you’ve got to be to get some good stuff out of yourself.”

Los Lobos in 2021.
‘The secret is that we were friends before we were a band’ ... Los Lobos in 2021. Photograph: Piero F. Giunti

The band have settled into a comfortable groove of tours and recording sessions without becoming complacent – they recorded a children’s album with musician and labour activist Lalo Guerrero, and backed up actor Antonio Banderas on a song for the film Desperado – while keeping the same lineup. “The secret is that we were friends before we were a band,” says Pérez. “We didn’t meet each other through the classified ads. I think we’re all still really good friends and brothers.”

That feeling was apparent during the sessions for Native Sons when Hidalgo decided to surprise Pérez by laying down a version of Jamaica Say You Will, a song from Jackson Browne’s debut album. “I said, ‘Wow! Whose idea was that?’ David was looking at his shoes and said, ‘Well, I know this record meant a lot to you.’ And then he said, ‘And you’re gonna sing it.’ They managed to get one verse out of me.”

An extended break during the pandemic – “for us to regroup and refresh and put ourselves back together again”, Pérez says – will hopefully serve Los Lobos well ahead of an autumn tour and then celebrations of their half-century. “We’re all lucky and thankful,” says Berlin. “It didn’t look like it was going to last this long when we started, that’s for sure.”