For 30 years, East L.A.’s Los Lobos has made a habit of crossing borders. One look through their discography reveals the Latin rock quintet’s frequent movement between Mexican folk and American R&B, with regular stops along the Mississippi for funk and blues. Recent albums have even showed a moody, experimental side, but Los Lobos (Spanish for “The Wolves”) move fast enough to defy classification. Their latest release, “The Ride,” features many of their influences, including Richard Thompson and Tom Waits. Los Lobos’ saxophone player and keyboardist Steve Berlin spoke with The Japan Times about the band’s 30th year and the new album.
Has the anniversary received a lot of attention?
We’ve consciously underplayed it. If we harp on it too much, then we’re telling the world we’ve been around too long (laughs). But how many bands create challenging music for 30 years? Most just play their hits for the millionth time . . .
Exactly. The 30-year mark is usually the time to drop a box set and set up farewell tours.
We’re not planning to stop, or even slow down, and I guess that’s the fine line: trying not to sound like you’re on the down slope of things.
Los Lobos has evolved through so many musical styles. Were these transformations planned?
It just kind of took shape in the moment. But we did more planning for the new record because of the logistics. When you’ve got Rueben Blades and Elvis Costello coming to your house, you’ve got to be on it (laughs).
Yeah, these guys have schedules, too.
Exactly. And we really wanted to honor them for what they meant to us, and for being part of our little parade.
It’s interesting that you say “honor.” Critics constantly write about how Los Lobos “honors” this or that rock tradition or classical Mexican traditions. Is this a conscious effort?
Up until this record, the answer would be “no,” but because now we want to celebrate our influences, then yes, absolutely. But we spent a lot of time making this our record and not a Tom Waits or Elvis Costello record. We left broad clues on how these people informed our music, but from top to bottom, it’s a Los Lobos album.
I noticed that on the Bobby Womack track. You cover his song “Across 110th Street,” but blend it into one of your own.
That was the idea. When you think about it, all these guys on the record straddle different worlds, like we straddle rock, Latin, blues, folk . . .
Yeah. Mavis Staples straddles gospel and pop, Cafe Tacuba, Latin and rock . . .
They’re all mold-breakers the way we’d like to be thought of ourselves. So, yes, this time around we wanted to say: “This is how we got here.”
Who else did you want on the album?
We thought about [The Pogues’] Shane McGowan, but it proved too logistically challenging. The one guy we really wanted and couldn’t find — oddly enough — was Peter Green. A couple people claimed to represent him, but no one could get a phone number. We spent the better part of a year trying to find him.
Hmm. The Invisible Peter Green . . .
Yeah, who’d a thunk, huh?
How did you present these songs to the artists? Are they friends?
Yeah, kinda. I’ve worked with Mavis on a couple of things. Elvis we’ve known forever. Richard [Thompson], we played at his wedding. But we had never spoken with Bobby before, so it was a bit different. He told us Al Green called him the same week. Bobby told him he was playing with us instead and we said, “Are you crazy?”
You do a lot of soundtrack work, but most people only know “La Bamba” and maybe “Desperado.”
Yeah. We scored a season for a TV show called “Greetings From Tuscon” last year and did some stuff for “Spy Kids” and “Feeling Minnesota.” Lots of other stuff. I wish there was more. You get to be as experimental as you want to be, which is always fun. It’s not at all like making a record. You use a totally different set of brain muscles.
Do the other guys in the band feel the same way?
Maybe not all of them. The hardest part for them, I think, is making someone other than themselves happy with our music.
What’s the time difference between scoring a movie and finishing an album?
It really depends on the nature of the movie. Like with [the movies of director] Richard Rodriguez. It’s a lot of work because his movies are wall-to-wall music. And he wants the music done before he starts shooting because he has it playing while he’s filming. Soundtracks are a little less time-consuming. Our records these days average about five to six weeks, from beginning to end. Movies take about four weeks. In our experience, you spend a lot of that time waiting for the director to get his act together. More often than not, the ideas are in flux themselves.
The sound of Los Lobos has been in flux, as well. Has this changed the fan base?
I think so. Some have grown with us, but now there’s this diaspora of people in search of “the new [Grateful] Dead,” and that’s filtered into our shows. I wouldn’t call us a jam band though.
I’ve read that, too. I don’t get it.
I meet these guys every time we play. They talk about us alongside Widespread Panic, Government Mule or some other bands in that realm. It works for us, I guess.
Do you see a parallel?
We certainly have the willingness to experiment. But to be honest with you, we’re just not built that way. I mean . . . well, I’ve never sat through an entire Phish concert, but I don’t really think what we do is the same. But it seems like a lot of fans of those bands collide on our music. It’s different now, but if they leave happy, we’re happy.
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