Pack Mentality: Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin Howls at the Band’s Unlikely Tracks of Success

By Web Behrens

Steve Berlin remembers exactly when he first heard the band that would come to define his career. But that first encounter 40 years ago was not a magical one. Things didn’t go so well for Los Lobos that night, and it wasn’t at all clear to Berlin that he would eventually join them and help the band evolve to a place of collective fame and fortune.

In 1978, Berlin was a young musician who’d left his hometown of Philadelphia to make his way into the music scene in Los Angeles. He was a session player and soon-to-be producer when he went to catch a punk show, headlined by Public Image, at an enormous venue. “It was at a boxing arena called the Olympic Auditorium,” Berlin recalls. With his penchant for blunt talk, he quickly adds some colorful descriptors: “It was a real shithole—just a horrific place for anything other than boxing.”

That already sounds like an odd venue for Los Lobos, an unknown quartet at that point in time. But the match was even worse because the band was still in its earliest, unplugged iteration. “That first time I saw them, in ’78, they were playing folkloric stuff,” Berlin continues. “And I guess [Public Image frontman] John Lydon thought it would be great to have Hispanic bands open that night.

“It was just unbelievable. It was red meat for the lions, to have this acoustic folkloric Mexican band open a punk rock show. People were throwing everything they could get their hands on—but [Los Lobos] hung in there. They stood their ground, and I was just amazed.”

Although they didn’t meet that night, Berlin never forgot the determination of those four guys onstage, courageously playing their set. So he knew exactly who they were when they actually spoke two years later.

Plenty had changed by then. For one thing, the quartet of friends from East LA’s Garfield High School—Cesar Rosas, David Hidalgo, Conrad Lozano, and Louie Perez—had changed up their act. They’d incorporated electric guitars into their sound, and they were starting to develop their distinctive repertoire, mixing American rock into Mexican norteño and pan-Latin folk traditions.

Most important for all five men—the four members of Los Lobos and Berlin—they were now on the same bill. Berlin had become the newest and youngest member of The Blasters, another LA rock outfit, and that night, Los Lobos were opening for them.

“By that point, [Los Lobos] had changed into a very different band. From the very first moment, I loved their music,” recalls Berlin, chatting with Ravinia Magazine by phone while the band toured Massachusetts earlier this spring. “I loved the polarity of having David and Cesar—two different singers, two different writing styles, two different viewpoints—so it kept things interesting.”

Los Lobos was, in those days, a band segregated away by Los Angeles County geography and culture—yet here they were, opening for The Blasters. “Everybody thought they knew everything that was happening [in the music scene],” Berlin says, “and here’s this band from just over the river that no one had ever heard of, blowing everybody’s mind. It was like, ‘Where did they come from?’ ” (The group would play on that mindset with the title of their first album, Just Another Band From East LA, and then use it again for an early-’90s, two-disc retrospective of the band’s career, complete with live versions and outtakes of well-known tracks.)

No figurative trumpets blared that night either, but Berlin was clearly impressed, and the other guys must’ve liked the way Berlin played the sax. Everyone was very friendly, he recalls, and they made a casual offer: “They said, ‘Some of these songs have horn parts. Do you want to learn them?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, of course I do.’ That’s where it started. Song by song, I learned, and it grew from there.”

Thus began Berlin’s interim years, when he played with both The Blasters and Los Lobos. A multi-instrumentalist, Berlin gets credited on the official Los Lobos site as “saxophonist, flutist, and harmonica player.” Nevertheless, he’s more modest about his skills: “I can noodle on a couple different things; sax is the main one. I’m a mediocre keyboard player, but that’s about it.” (He’s similarly self-deprecating about his Spanish skills, which he describes as “very crappy. I took it in high school, and I haven’t gotten any better. To be perfectly honest, it’s not really a prerequisite for the job. I’m not signing or writing. It’s not that big a deal to anybody.”)

Before joining the band, Berlin had started producing records, fatefully co-producing (with T-Bone Burnett) Los Lobos’ 1983 release, …And a Time to Dance. Naturally, then, he began gravitating to his newly adopted band, despite his utter lack of familiarity with the Mexican music that formed the bedrock of Los Lobos’ signature sound. By 1984, he had officially left The Blasters (“I don’t even think they noticed for a couple months,” he jokes), turning Los Lobos into a quintet.

That same year, the band recorded How Will the Wolf Survive?, their first major-label release; it won critical acclaim and cracked Billboard’s Top 200. The title track, in particular, is a special one—it was inspired by a National Geographic article about wolves, but you don’t have to be an English major to suss out the metaphor. (“Los lobos” is Spanish, of course, for “the wolves.”) Co-written by Hidalgo and Perez, the song’s lyrics clearly reflect concerns about their place as artists and citizens in a country of immigrants that paradoxically remains hostile to its newer arrivals: “Sounds across the nation / Coming from your hearts and minds / Battered drums and old guitars / Singing songs of passion / It’s the truth that they all look for / Something they must keep alive / Will the wolf survive?”

The mid-’80s were a fertile time for the group, even before the enormous break that made Los Lobos famous. Berlin still played sessions on his own; for example, he lent his sax to R.E.M. for Document, most prominently on “Fireplace,” but also on the superior Mutual Drum Horn Mix version of “Finest Worksong.” (He remains friends with the band’s Mike Mills and Peter Buck.) Collectively—and more notoriously—Los Lobos appeared in studio to help Paul Simon when the latter recorded Graceland; according to Berlin, Simon outright stole a nascent Los Lobos song, which became “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.”

Then came La Bamba, the biopic about rock prodigy Ritchie Valens, whose life ended on the infamous “Day the Music Died”—the small-plane crash in February 1959 that took the lives of all four men on board, also including Buddy Holly. Valens was just 17. The 1987 film about Valens’s sudden fame and early death is named, of course, after his huge hit of the same title, which he adapted from a Mexican folk song. With Berlin producing, Los Lobos provided the lion’s—er, wolf’s share of the double-platinum soundtrack, comprised largely of the band’s covers of Valens songs, from “La Bamba” to “Come On, Let’s Go!”

“When we went into the whole La Bamba experience, we had no expectations,” Berlin reflects. “It had a first-time director and people [in the cast] who had never been in anything before. It was about a kid who died at 17, who’d written a total of 19 songs in his whole life. So none of that screamed ‘international blockbuster’ to any of us. When you think about it, it’s amazing it happened. We never thought it was going to be a big deal.”

But the film was a surprise hit, and Los Lobos’ version of the title song began flying up the charts. Ironically, the band was on tour in Europe at the time, missing the Bamba fever as it kept climbing in the States. “This was pre-internet, and phone calls were really expensive,” Berlin says. “So we’re hearing, ‘You’re top 100,’ ‘top 80,’ ‘top 60,’ and we’re like, ‘That’s bullshit. How could that really be?’ Seriously, we did not believe it. By the time we came home, we were in the top 20 or something like that. The whole thing was surreal.”

It probably seemed almost as impossible for a Spanish-language song to soar up the US charts in 1987 as it did three decades earlier. But when the single eventually hit the top spot, Valens was posthumously credited with a number-one songwriting hit. Suddenly Los Lobos had a much higher profile, which led to some strange bedfellows on the road.

They opened for U2 during that band’s Joshua Tree heyday, an experience that somewhat recalled the band’s experience 10 years earlier at the Olympic Auditorium. The U2 crowds were often rude, Berlin says. “It was remarkable, how stupid their fans could be. We were doing what we do, playing our combination of rock with this and that, but those people just wanted to hear U2. I can’t say it’s that unusual. Opening for ZZ Top wasn’t too dissimilar.”

One place they’ve never had any trouble is Chicago, which Berlin refers to as “more home than home. It’s our best market by far, beyond a shadow of a doubt. WXRT is a big part of it, frankly; they’ve always been in our corner. And we’ve had some remarkably cool shows in the city, at Navy Pier and various festivals, and of course at Ravinia too. Chicago just brings the best out of us.” Pressed for other hotspots, Berlin cites the San Francisco Bay Area, but adds, “We’re lucky. We can go anywhere and people kind of like it.”

They’ve won plenty of fans among their peers as well. Los Lobos has a long list of collaborations—one of its most recent is an EP made with The Shins for Record Store Day (released April 21). And they’re just about to sign with the label created by Dan Auerbach (best known as guitarist and vocalist of The Black Keys), with an aim to record in the studio sometime in June.

Asked whom the band might still want to work with that they haven’t, Berlin allows, “That’s a tough one. We’ve crossed most of them off already.” For him, Los Lobos’ 30th-anniversary celebration, The Ride, is responsible for ticking many of those boxes. It mixed original tracks with new recordings of early Lobos songs—and a top-drawer list of guest musicians, including Rubén Blades and Elvis Costello. “If you had a magic wand and could say who you’d want to work with, that record was The Ride,” he observes. “Bobby Womack, Tom Waits, Mavis Staples—I mean, everybody who was on that thing was someone we really, really wanted to work with. That whole experience was pretty great.”

Looking back over the course of a lifelong career, is there any advice today’s Steve Berlin would give to his younger self? “Be nicer,” he chuckles. “I was kind of an asshole for a few decades there. If I wasn’t so full of myself, I’d probably have more friends. … And I’d probably have gotten a written contract from Paul Simon before we did Graceland, that’d be one thing I’d go back and change!”

But in a split second, he adjusts perspective. “Seriously, I’ve been very lucky,” Berlin says. “I’ve had a very rich life and career, doing pretty much exactly what I want to be doing. We’ve had our ups and downs, but the simple fact that we’ve persevered this long means we’re doing something right.” ▪

Web Behrens covers arts, culture, and travel for the Chicago Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business. He’s also worked as an editor and contributor for Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Reader.