"It wouldn't be the record it is without that song," says Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin by phone from a New York tour stop. "We didn't know that when we did it, but for a lot of people, it really sums up what the band's all about. ... We've always sort of felt like we're out on some fringe. Even when we were very successful, we still felt like we were on the outside, like it was us against the prevailing trends in music. It's created a kind of survival mechanism in the band."
Los Lobos haven't just survived -- almost 30 years after their formation in 1973, the band remains a thriving and dynamic rock 'n' roll ensemble. Their new album, Good Morning Aztlan, is one of the strongest in the band's formidable canon -- and contains another example of the band's sixth sense in the recording studio.
"On the new record, it didn't feel balanced, and we felt like we needed one more rock thing to complement 'Done Gone Blue' that grooved hard," says Berlin. "'Done Gone Blue' was sort of off on its own, and quite literally at the very last second, we recorded 'Good Morning Aztlan.' That song really made it all make sense, and there was our whole album.'"
The title song of the new album is a microcosm of the brilliant musical and spiritual multiculturalism that shines through Los Lobos' music. For a song named for the mythical birthplace of the Aztecs, its lyrics are suitably swirling and mysterious -- encompassing a nod to a place, a call to consciousness and a wanderer's goodbye, all told through successive images unfolding like stanzas in a poem. It all comes to life through David Hidalgo's aching tenor vocal, the locomotive Bo Diddley beat of the rhythm section, and a wall of wailing Telecaster leads and solos from Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas. It's no accident that the band's musical melting pot evokes New Orleans at times.
"New Orleans has an awful lot to do with the way we sound," says Berlin. "It figures very prominently in my life, and I think about those things every day. It's an enormous influence, with the R&B and jazz, and the idea of all these cultural collisions happening in a better place than most of the world lives in."
For Berlin, his love of the Crescent City is permanently intertwined with his memories of New Orleans saxophone great Lee Allen, whom Berlin played with during his pre-Los Lobos tenure in the Blasters. "He was such a god to me," says Berlin. "More than anything, he was as gracious as a human being could be and utterly humble. And he invented rock 'n' roll sax and the sax solo. I thought he should be carried around in a rickshaw all day long. I remember seeing him play with Fats Domino one time, and some other saxophonist was up there playing Lee's solo -- and I can't imagine how anyone would have the balls to play where Lee's part goes while the man's onstage with him. But Lee never said anything, and always dealt with everything with humility, and enjoyed living and playing to the very end."
Berlin is the "newest" member of Los Lobos, joining in 1983. The core group -- Hidalgo, Rosas, Perez and bassist Conrad Lozano -- had already released a pair of independent albums and were starting to make inroads into the L.A. rock circles that Berlin traveled with the Blasters. Berlin still remembers the incredulous feeling of hearing Los Lobos for the first time. "What captivated me back then, and still does, is that they had two amazing voices in the band," he says. "There was a lot of stuff happening in L.A., but not many people could really sing. Then I heard this band with two magnificent singers."
The vocals of Hidalgo and Perez remain one of the band's signature sounds, and on Good Morning Aztlan, Hidalgo's testifying on "The Word" and "Hearts of Stone" hits bona fide Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye territory. "The soul stuff is one of the things I think we can do as well as anybody," Berlin says. "There really isn't a whole lot we can't pull off with some sense of authenticity."
And after almost three decades, Los Lobos is still roaming musical paths with a sense of adventure. "We don't like our albums to sound like they've been carved out of granite," says Berlin. "We like the sound of things breaking. We're constantly sculpting and inventing. It's not like anyone has this vision, there's always just this endless quest for the cooler part or sound. It's just the sound of searching."