The four original members were Mexican-American kids growing up in an American-American culture, listening to rock and roll and shunning the music of their own pasts. They played in Top-40 cover bands, loved Elvis, and hid their brown faces by playing "white" music.
"I wouldn't even listen to the Mexican folk music in the neighborhood," says Conrad Lozano, Los Lobos' bass player and, like his other bandmates (save gringo Steve Berlin, who quit the Blasters and joined Los Lobos in the early '80s), one of the band's founding members. "I would close my ears to it. I was into rock and roll. I was totally oblivious to it."
Yet during the early '70s, a new Chicano awareness began to emerge in the universities, and the members of Los Lobos--guitarist-vocalist Cesar Rosas, multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo, guitarist Louie Perez, and Lozano--became intrigued with the idea of discovering their roots through music. And so Los Lobos was born, a band of young men just out of their teens trying to learn their way around such exotic and foreign instruments as the guitarron and the bajo sexto, even as they struggled to maintain their chops in the rock-and-roll side of things.
"I spent eight years learning how to play the guitarron," Lozano says of his instrument. "I looked at it a whole year before picking it up. I was like, 'What the fuck is that thing?' But once you were able to play it and play it in time was really an accomplishment. I mean, we were just practicing at one of the guy's houses in East L.A., and people would just come by and say, 'You want to come play? We're having a party. All the beer you can drink.' And we were like, 'Oh, yeah.'"
But they weren't torn between two worlds. Rather, Los Lobos threw those worlds together. During the early '80s, Los Lobos was merely the best bar band in the world: ...And a Time to Dance, How Will the Wolf Survive? and By the Light of the Moon were roots-R&B records born in the barrio and raised in the juke joint. Los Lobos grooved to a soul-music sound but pulsed out a border beat.
If Los Lobos began, as Lozano says, as some sort of reaction to the burgeoning Chicano-roots movement of the early 1970s, then a decade later, its members learned how to mesh their rock-and-roll influences with their norteo and corrida infatuations with such ease you'd never know there was much of a difference. By the time they got to "Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)" on By the Light of the Moon, you could have even figured them for a Motown band.
But somewhere along the way, the best bar band in the world became the best band in the world, qualifiers--Mexican-American, roots-rock, R&B, rockabilly, bar--rendered all but useless and unnecessary. There has been no band like Los Lobos since The Band (whose drummer, Levon Helm, would guest on 1990's The Neighborhood), no single group of musicians who could assimilate all the sounds around them and then regurgitate them as a cohesive whole. They had connected the dots, created a line, then erased it.
You could almost tie the growth to the addition of producer Mitchell Froom, who first worked with the band on "La Bamba" then produced The Neighborhood, as the "sixth" member of the band. Where the Fort Worth-born T Bone Burnett was a good guy for the roots stuff--at that point, his idea of avant-garde was Elvis Costello--Froom would turn out to be a studio guy who had equal care for the technical and emotional aspects of music.
"Mitchell has a better way of communicating with us because he knows how to draw the best out of each musician during the performance period," Lozano says. "He seems to know how to draw that from a musician. He knows the first take is usually the best--the most emotional, the most honest--and he doesn't break your ass doing it, whereas T Bone was like, 'Great, that sounded great, let's do it again.' It gets tiresome, and it gets old."
Froom could take a guitar and make it sound like a siren, and then make that siren sound like a scream. By the time of the daring Kiko in 1992, Los Lobos had turned an avant-rock band, like Tom Waits fronting Zappa's band in a Mexican restaurant: The music had grown richer, the effects had become as much a part of the music as the instruments themselves, and the lyrics had grown increasingly abstract. Where the early albums were filled with the poetry of childhood memories and social inequities (i.e., the life of the immigrant), Kiko was more like haiku when you got around to songs like "Kiko and the Lavender Moon" and "Whiskey Trail."
Then came Latin Playboys in 1994, the sort of unexpected album every band makes just before it breaks up or becomes totally great. Originally, Latin Playboys was meant as a one-off, a side project that would allow Hidalgo and Perez a chance to blow off some steam outside the band; the other guys in Los Lobos understood this and waited patiently on the sidelines while Froom and his partner, engineer Tchad Blake, took their places on the field.
The result was an oddball concoction that previously had no place within Los Lobos--fragments instead of complete pieces, a synthesized symphony of ethereal techno-effects, spaghetti-western soundtrack music filtered through a busted speaker. It was disturbing, droning, hypnotic, as though someone had published a collection of rambling and insane notes instead of an edited manuscript.
"My first reaction when I heard Latin Playboys was, 'Wow, we're going to do crazy stuff like that,'" Lozano recalls. "I mean, just the time signatures are really different, and I come from the old school and the basic rock-and-roll time signatures, and on that record David's experimenting with time signatures. I know David's crazy so I expected him to come up with something crazy. But we didn't know it would have the impact it did."
In the end, the side project would become the band: If By the Light of the Moon is Los Lobos' Meet the Beatles, then the new Colossal Head is their White Album--the familiar blurred and distorted till it takes on new life, a future that only glancingly acknowledges the past. Los Lobos has imbued new energy into sounds as fetid as the blues ("Everybody Loves a Train"), conjunto ("Marciela"), and Bar&B ("Manny's Bones"), plugging them in to a 220-volt socket and then dropping them in water. It's a brilliant shock to the system, all right, one more leap forward for a band that insists it hasn't changed one bit.
"All the things we're doing on this record we've been doing for years," Lozano says. "They used to call us for parties in the old days, and we'd take stuff to experiment with. It was something fun to do, to just make noise in the weirdest way you can. It's just the way we're putting it together. You make all the mistakes and do everything people tell you how to do, and then you learn how to do it right."
Los Lobos perform April 21 at Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth.