LA Beat Interview: Steve Berlin of Los Lobos

For thirty years, Los Lobos has been one of Los Angeles’ defining bands. In the early eighties, they infiltrated punk and new wave clubs with accordions, earning a reputation as a must-see live act even before they’d recorded an album’s worth of their own songs. As they grew, their songwriting skills sharpened as their range expanded to dizzying heights, reaching its farthest-out peak in the mid-nineties, between the albums Kiko and Colossal Head. There’s a rich history at their fingertips every time they take the stage, the authority that comes with decades of dedication to their craft. But most crucially, even when they get weird, they never lose that essential feel-good element that allowed them to get over back when they were playing norteno music for hardcore cretins. It’s music best experienced while on your feet, with their latest, Tin Can Trust (Shout! Factory), being no exception.

This week, the band will join Neil Young and Crazy Horse as the support act on their fall tour, which hits the Hollywood Bowl on October 17. It promises to be a battle of the great North American bands, two acts with a lot of history that are still seeing plenty of  highway ahead.

We spoke to sax player Steve Berlin from the road, where the band is wrapping up a series of gigs centered on the Kiko album. Steve filled us in on his own production work, his favorite sax sessions, Lobos’ experience with their new label, and the possibility of a Minute To Pray-era Flesh Eaters reunion.

I wanted to ask you about Shout! Factory, they’re a very respected label for reissues but we haven’t seen them handle a lot of new music. Have you enjoyed working with them and do you expect that to continue?

I have enjoyed it greatly. I think, needless to say it’s kind of tough being a record label these days. But they have done everything we’ve asked, I think, and they continue to do so. So it’s hard for to imagine – unless they didn’t want to work with us anymore –  that we would leave them. So yeah, it’s been a good relationship.

 The record industry has changed so much since you guys were last associated with a major label, do you think there’s any upside for established artists like yourselves to keep working in that way?

Well I think that as long as the label understands that game has changed so much. I mean one of the reasons why we get along so well with Shout is that we have a very non-traditional deal. We basically share profit after after a certain point so, I think deals like that make sense but those are very, very hard deals to make for majors, most of ‘em. These days if you’re signing to major, you’ve got to sign a 360 deal, which I think is an outrage, personally. Record labels are not merch companies, and they’re certainly not booking agents. So the idea that they have enough expertise to share in what is now basically the only income stream most musicians have, I think is ridiculous. There are bands out there for whom that model works but, I haven’t heard from too many bands that are happy about it. And I don’t think it’s a net benefit to anybody, especially when your labels getting into all your other business. That’s certainly something that Shout’s never been any part of. Our relationship with them is solely for the records and the promotion of those records, anything else is on us.

What was your first gig when you first started playing on the LA scene?

That’s a really good question! The guys, I came to California from Philadelphia with some guys that I had played with in Philly, for a couple years. So that was my first gig. We put a band together in ’75. ’76. we played every Monday night at, oh what the hell was the name of that place, it’s now called the Bourgeois Pig on Franklin. But at the time it had another name that escapes me right now. So that was probably my first gig in LA, now as far as the “scene”, you’re referring to in ’79, I really don’t recall. Seems like I was playing all the time back then, I don’t remember. Certainly, the first of them didn’t really stand out to me very much.

What was the name of that band in ’75?

It was called the Beckmeier Brothers. We made a record on Casablanca and see that whole bill was like in the mid-seventies. But it didn’t last very long.

How did you end up initially working with Los Lobos as a producer?

Well I was in the Blasters at the time. Lobos opened up for a Blasters show at the Whisky A Go Go, and basically we just became friends and started hanging out with them, working with them a little bit. I actually produced one song on a soundtrack that they were part of, again the name of which escapes me. It went pretty well. When they got signed to Slash, I started out as co-producer of that record with T-Bone Burnett and about halfway through the record, I was in the band.

Since you’re an experienced producer yourself, when you’re working as a session player, do you ever feel the desire to go head to head with the other producer over production choices?

Honestly, very, very, very infrequently. Most of the guys I work with are pros, and certainly I can understand how it’s a different vision. There’s maybe something I agree or disagree with but I would say that’s almost never the case. When I’m a session guy, I’m just trying to do what the artist and the producer want me to do. It’s a big difference being a session player and being a producer, I try not to get tied into that shit, basically.

Given the myriad of session work that you’ve done, are there a couple that stand out to you as particular favorites?

Well I would say certainly the Paul Westerberg – well the Replacements record but it was Paul’s solo record, just Warner Bros didn’t want to call it a solo record. But All Shook Down certainly stands out as one of my favorites just because I really like the record a lot. What else? I loved working with REM, that was fun. We’re still friends, I see Peter quite a bit socially, we live near each other in Portland. And what else? (Pauses.) It’s kind of funny, I’m been doing so much more producing than playing these days. Oh, and I would say the Neko Case records, both of them. I actually just did some stuff on the brand new one which is great. So those certainly stand out as well, those were amazingly fun records to be a part of, and she’s amazing. I just love her to pieces.

Who are some of the artists you’re working with as a producer now?

The one that’s in process right now is a group from Austin, Texas called Grupo Fantasma that are pretty awesome. They’re fundamentally a salsa band but they’re also really amazing funk players. They’ve actually been Prince’s backup band for certain stuff and then they also back GZA from the Wu-Tang when he tours, so they’re a pretty interesting group. Really they’re just amazingly polyglot. I think it’s kind of amazing that a really authentic salsa band could also be an incredibly funky soul band as well, but they really are.

And then, a group from Kansas City called Making Movies, I’m not sure when that’s gonna come out, hopefully some time this year. And a record I did, I went to South Africa in May and produced a record there with a band called Freshly Ground.

What led to the decision for Los Lobos to revive Kiko for a number of shows this summer?

We had actually shot a DVD of it years ago when we were still on Hollywood, but sadly it never saw the light of day. So with the twentieth anniversary coming up, we wanted to commemorate it in some fashion. And then we sort of had this video sitting there doing nothing. So luckily for us, Shout Factory was able to make a deal with Hollywood to extract it and put it out, we’ve been very happy with it.   And personally. I really enjoyed doing the shows and reliving the moment somewhat, I think it’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit. We’re touring with it right now, and the shows this last week have been phenomenal, really enjoyable.

Any chance of Colossal Head ever getting a similar treatment?

I’d love to. It’s one of my favorite records. I can’t imagine why not, it’s certainly reasonable, once all the Kiko hubbub dies down that would probably be something we’d certainly consider. For me, I’d really enjoy it, like I said I really enjoy that record a lot.

So with the tour coming up, curious to know, what’s your favorite Neil Young album?

Oh boy… I still think Harvest stands out. Tonight’s The Night I like a lot too. I’m not as fully completist as some of my friends as far as specific records, I’m just a fan of the guy. And having done a show with him, that was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. So I’m really looking forward to the rest of the tour. After I think Tuesday of next week we pick up with them again, and then it’s pretty much all Neil til around Thanksgiving.

Are you continuing the Kiko sets on that tour?

There’ll be one or two but not many, not a lot of them will be Kiko shows. At this point the Kiko thing is kind of slowing down a little bit. But Portland is gonna be one and, I think there’s one or two more in there. So there will be more but I’m not sure just when.

I wanted to ask you about the Flesh Eaters, did that band (the 1981 lineup of Berlin, John Doe, Dave Alvin, Bill Bateman and DJ Bonebrake backing singer Chris D) – ever discuss getting together to do a second album or was that just destined to be a one time thing?

Well the Flesh Eaters continued, and I played on the next two records although it wasn’t with the same guys. So as a concept it went on, just not with the same dudes. But, it was hard to get everybody together even back then. So I’d have to say… every time I’ve seen John Doe and Dave (Alvin), we always talk about doing another one. But I’m not sure if Chris into it to do another one. It might be a little bit harder for him to get there. And obviously it doesn’t go anywhere unless Chris is fully committed to it so…

But yeah, any time, any place that they wanted to do one I’d be more than happy to do it. That would be a huge pleasure for me, I loved playing those shows and maybe we’ll see. It looks like we’re going to do another Cinco De Mayo thing, we did one last year, and at the time I really wanted to make it happen there, I wanted to do the Flesh Eaters as part of that thing. But by the time, we were sort of over-committed, we had more than enough people to play and there was no room for anybody to play so, hopefully this time around… next time around rather… we’ll be able to do it, make a plan with enough time and really make it happen.

Los Lobos performs at the Hollywood Bowl on October 17 opening for Neil Young and Crazy Horse with special guests Infantree. Tickets at Ticketmaster. 

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