In just a couple of months, Los Lobos will mark its 42nd anniversary. In many ways they are the quintessential L.A. band, having started out playing traditional Mexican music in East L.A., then branching out to explore their wider musical interests, including rock, folk, blues and jazz.
The band has a new album out Sept. 25 called “Gates of Gold” and it marks Los Lobos’ first studio album in five years.
Most of Los Lobos’ songs are written by David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez. When Pérez came into The Frame’s studios recently, he spoke with Oscar Garza about the five years since the band's last studio album and how the process of writing songs has evolved with his longtime partner over the years.
Why has it taken so long to produce a new album?
Time certainly just evaporates. I can’t believe it’s been five years. It’s not intentional. As you know, we tour incessantly. We’re on the road all the time. Even the whole proposition of writing and recording seems like a huge undertaking because we work so much. And then it takes awhile to find somebody who’s crazy enough to pay for a new record.
There’s a lot of bands like yours, who have been around for awhile and for whom touring is an essential part of your income. But how do you keep that experience fresh for yourselves? Because you are at it quite a bit.
Things have changed a great deal. That's why, as you mentioned, many bands like ours are on the road. But because of the industry changing as it has, nobody’s buying [physical CDs] anymore. The way that music is accessed and purchased these days, there’s no such thing as artist royalties, unless you’re Taylor Swift. But you’re working, you’re on the road, you’re playing live — which is good. It just means that bands who have been around as long as we have, we have to work hard. We have to work just as hard as the young bands. The 22 hours aside from the two hours on stage are what really beats you up. The two hours on stage is great. That, I think, is where we try to live. The business part, it’s kind of tough.
Do you go into the making of a record with a vision of what you want it to sound like?
No, there’s no formula. When we finally get to writing and recording, sometimes it feels like I’m inventing the wheel again because it’s been a while. I’m not always writing. I’m not always calling David up in the middle of the night at the Comfort Inn in Duluth and saying, “Hey, I got an idea for a song.” You know, there’s time we need to spend with our families. We’ve been gone from them for the past 30 years [of touring]. The band’s been together for 42 years as of November. Thirty years we’ve been saying goodbye. So we need to spend more time at home.
You mentioned David Hidalgo, who is a guitarist and singer with the band. You and he have been writing songs together since right after high school. How has that process evolved with you and David over the years?
It hasn’t changed very much. The logistics have changed. But to say that I’m the lyricist only and that David is only the musical component would be discounting us, because we are [both] songwriters. We start to put down a track, an idea that David might have, and I’ll be in the control room and that will inspire something. And we start talking and things sort of evolve from there.
I’ve been listening to this band for long time. And it’s still really emotional for me to hear David’s voice on a new song. I’ve always described his voice as having a plaintive quality. What do you hear in his voice that wasn’t there five or 10 years ago?
A deeper, deeper soul, absolutely. He can sing just about anything. He’s one of the greatest interpreters of song. You think about people like Sinatra — they weren’t singing songs that they wrote. They were interpreters and they were incredible doing it. And David just gets better and better... So when I write, I think of his voice all the time.
What are you listening to these days?
Not much of anything right now. I think my head is still kind of recovering from [making] this record. I just got the courage to listen to it again. Because you go through this sort of post traumatic record syndrome... One thing I think maybe we should touch on is that we’re literally writing as we record. This record, we came in with absolutely nothing. David had a couple ideas sketched on his cell phone. And that very first sketch, one of them became “Made to Break Your Heart.” So we’re writing as we record... And after the whole thing’s done I have to get away from it for a bit.
The band just received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Americana Music Awards in Nashville. Where does that rank with all the honors and awards you’ve been given over the years?
...I guess being a band that’s been together for as long as we have, they give you an award for just not going away. And we appreciate it. We don’t take all these awards and platitudes lightly. We appreciate it. We’re glad to be doing what we do. We’re very fortunate coming from where we were in East L.A. to where we are now. We’re deeply grateful for our fans and the opportunity to be in this business. And, hey, I’ve got these great guys, these great musicians I hang out with and happen to be my best friends. You know, we’re still out there.