Los Lobos – Back to the future
“We try to take the music to different places, to challenge ourselves to come up with something we haven’t done before. But at the same time, everything we do is rooted in American music or Latin American music.”
— David Hidalgo
Once a veteran band marks its 30th anniversary, it can be difficult to distinguish a milestone from a tombstone. A band that becomes an institution carries the weight of previous accomplishment and audience expectation. A groove can become a rut.
Thus, as remarkable as it is that Los Lobos has remained together for more than three decades — something that typically happens only with financial juggernauts and corporate institutions such as the Rolling Stones — it’s even more amazing when its interplay sparks something as creatively vital as The Town And The City. The album, due out September 12 on Mammoth/Hollywood, is easily the band’s most thematically ambitious and sonically audacious in more than a decade. It is also their darkest, a reflection of times in turmoil. And it didn’t come without a struggle.
By contrast, Los Lobos’ previous studio album, 2003’s The Ride, was a snap. It was a joyous celebration of the band’s 30th anniversary, featuring guest turns by an array of musical heroes and inspirations including Elvis Costello, Ruben Blades, Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Willie G. and Mavis Staples. The range of older material, covers and a few new tunes underscored the band’s range and legacy. It was like the CD equivalent of a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars or Grammys, which typically honor artists ready to be embalmed.
Following that, the band released Live At The Fillmore, the first concert album ever from one of rock’s greatest live bands. Even so, live albums are also stopgaps, marking time, looking back. And Lobos already had done an exhaustive job of retrospecting itself with the millennial release of its four-disc box set, El Cancionero Mas Y Mas, including a 75-page book annotating the band’s career.
“Man, that was spooky,” admitted Louie Perez, collaborator with David Hidalgo on most of the band’s material. “It seemed so final. There’s something creepy about anthologies.”
So, with the burden of all that history on its back, it was imperative that the band now release something that would not be perceived as just another Los Lobos album, that would be seen as a leap forward after so much looking back. Though looking back ultimately provided the key to pushing onward.
“Before we started, we had done a series of shows that were basically ‘Kiko Live,’ where we played the album sequentially,” says saxophonist Steve Berlin, referring to the 1992 album that is universally acknowledged as the band’s creative masterwork. “So that was in our heads profoundly.
“We got back to a place where we were excited by the idea of creating cinematic soundscapes, if you will, and playing with the idea of sound manipulation. Mind you, it wasn’t like we were trying to micromanage what made Kiko Kiko, rewrite this song or redo that one. It was more that those shows were an awful lot of fun, and we wanted to see if there was anything we could take from that into this.”
Because the band hadn’t worked in such fashion for a long time, it was slow going at the start, stretching impressionistically, trying to pull something out of the air. “We found ourselves sitting around a lot going, ‘You have anything?’ ‘No, what have you got?'” continues Berlin. “But eventually a little piece of a song would turn into something a whole lot bigger, and the record just kind of appeared to us.
“And as we went along, we realized we had this thematic thing going on. Not that we had gone in there with the idea of making a conceptual record at all. Anything but.”
A song cycle that can be heard as an immigrant’s journey, the dark night of an individual’s soul, or maybe even a band in the midst of a midlife crisis, The Town And The City will inevitably draw comparisons with Kiko. Yet for all that the two albums share in terms of creative experimentation and impressionistic songwriting, they are like the reverse images of photographic negatives.