A few days before the 2022 Grammy Awards on Sunday, April 3, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin (keys, sax) might have sealed the band’s fate—in a good way. Even though the group’s 2021 Native Sons was up for Best Americana Album, the rest of the band—David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Jr., Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano—stayed home. Berlin said that he was only attending to catch up with some old friends.
“I don’t think we’re the front runners, but I appreciate the sentiment,” Berlin said before the awards. “We have a few [Grammys] already, so we’re good. It’s just nice to be in there somewhere.”
Over the last 45-plus years, Los Lobos has picked up 12 Grammy nods and won three, including two for “Best Mexican-American Performance.” The band was thrilled to be nominated in the same category alongside Jackson Browne and John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band and Allison Russell. Still, as Berlin noted, none of the band members expected the win, making it that much more exhilarating.
“The concept of this record was gratitude,” Berlin said after accepting the award. “It was a thank you to the city that we started in and the artists and records that inspired us to try to make a living out of this.”
Berlin describes the Grammy Award-winning record as Los Lobos’ version of a “love letter to L.A.” that wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic-induced time. It was not an easy feat; a band of five strongly opinionated musicians can potentially lead to many arguments.
“We weren’t 100% sure if it was going to work because there was some sentiment among the band members that [the songs] shouldn’t be limited to [Los Angeles bands],” he says. “Then, we all just leaned into the idea.”
War’s soul-saturated political anthem, “The World is a Ghetto” marked Native Sons’ starting point. Ultimately, the album’s concept centers on the music that influenced the band, some of whom have personal ties to the group.
“There are a few other [bands] who we felt an obligation to thank,” Berlin says. “That’s the case with the Blasters’ [‘Flat Top Joint’]—we wouldn’t be where we are had it not been for the Blasters’ early support.”
Meanwhile, Lalo Guerrero—dubbed the “Father of Chicano Music” in the ’50s—is considered by Los Lobos as the “first authentic Chicano rock musician” and hugely influential to Los Lobos.
“[Guerrero] was the first guy of Chicano ancestry to lay out his own sound and his own vibe and speak to an emerging part of America,” Berlin explains.
Los Lobos’ take on Guerrero’s “Los Chucos Suaves” features a staggering sax solo, courtesy of Berlin, engulfed in an orchestra of percussion. Each band member had a clear vision of musicians/bands they wanted to showcase, from the Beach Boys (“Sail On, Sailor”) to Percy Mayfield (“Never No More”), which Berlin brought to the record.
“Everyone brought in something they wanted to say,” Berlin says. “Something that mattered to them.”
Recording began early in the pandemic; a song here, a song there, and a few months later, there was enough for a full-length album.
“We didn’t set out to do a Covid project,” Berlin says. “But it just turned out that way.”
For the most part, Los Lobos marks all 13 covers with their own stamp, except Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird,” which bleeds into “For What It’s Worth” on the same track.
“We wanted to see how close we could get,” Berlin says. “We were trying to compare, like, ‘Okay, how did they do this, how did they do that?’ We were doing it during the run-up to the election, so we didn’t want to waste the opportunity to say something—we were sweating it out like everybody else.”
As an unsaid rule, Los Lobos doesn’t intentionally mix music and politics, for the most part.
“Sometimes [politics] get in the way of the music—people tend to read an agenda into stuff when there really isn’t one. We try to be cautious about what we do, what we say, who we align ourselves with,” Berlin explains.
CRAFTING A WINNER
Change is difficult, and Los Lobos went from performing over one hundred shows per year to doing none throughout 2019-2020.
“It was a challenge,” Berlin says. “The good part was we got to spend more time with families, which was pretty awesome.”
The time away from the road also gave the band time to make what would be a Grammy Award-winning record. The forced hiatus was also a reality check for the band. Berlin refers to it as “therapeutic.” He never realized how much time away from his family he had sacrificed over the years. Berlin relayed his epiphany to his bandmates, and moving forward, Los Lobos is changing things up a bit.
“We never used to put any breaks in our schedule,” Berlin says. “Now, we’ve been trying to take at least like 10 days off a month.”
While the band hit the road again in August 2021 and has been going strong ever since, there have been occasional hiccups, including last-minute show cancellations, and Berlin got Covid. Fortunately, no one else in the group caught it.
In addition to Los Lobos, Berlin continues to add production notches to his belt. He recently finished X frontman, John Doe’s, forthcoming solo record, Fables in a Foreign Land, due out in May 2022.
Berlin concluded his Grammy acceptance speech by mentioning that next year will mark Los Lobos’ 50th year. There’s still a lot of music that needs to be spread.
Los Lobos and Tropa Magica play Saturday, April 9, 8pm. Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Proof of full vaccination or negative Covid test required. $40. folkyeah.com.