Steve Berlin Interview from this date:
On The Trail of Los Lobos With Saxman Steve Berlin
By Len Righi
Staff Reporter, The Morning Call, Allentown PA
Saxophonist Steve Berlin takes all the critical honking and bleating that Los Lobos has received for its "By The Light Of The Moon" LP with a big grain of salt. "A lot of it is because we violate so many of the rock norms," Berlin said Tuesday during a telephone conversation from New York. "You have all these writers listening to bands like Cinderella for a living and when a Los Lobos album comes their way, they're grateful." Then, realizing what he'd said, Berlin added wryly, "Now I'm gonna have to worry about running into those guys!"
Self-deprecating though Berlin may be, the praise accorded Los Lobos' new LP has been extraordinary. Some representative remarks: "A landmark album - the most culturally arresting and musically embracing work by an Los Angeles-based group in nearly a decade" (The Los Angeles Times); "The album's most important songs are those that evoke a mystical populist in the tradition of Woody Guthrie" (The New York Times); and "Los Lobos balances its traditional party raunch withthe kind of enlightenment we've been taught not to expect from Latin cultures" (Knight-Ridder). The album has reached No. 47 on the Billboard chart, and rock radio and MTV have been playing the single "Shakin' Shakin' Shakes."
Berlin, a native of suburban Philadelphia, was the last to join Los Lobos, which performs tomorrow at the Chestnut Cabaret in Philadelphia, and is the band's only gringo. The others - David Hidalgo (vocals, guitar, accordion, lap steel, violin); Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitar, mandolin); Conrad Lorenzo (bass), and Louie Perez (drums) - were born and raised in Chicano East Los Angeles. They started out in 1974 as an acoustic quartet playing traditional Mexican folk music, recording two albums. But by the late '70s Los Lobos had evolved into an electric rock band playing rootsy rock 'n' roll and Tex-Mex music.
Berlin, who had been playing in numerous groups in and around Philadelphia and at the Jersey shore, arrived in Los Angeles in 1975 to work with the Beckmeier brothers. He had become friendly with them when the Philadelphians were part of the Soul Survivors (of "Expressway to Your Heart" renown). Berlin worked with the brothers for three years, but the band broke up after recording one album of Boz Scaggs-style white R&B. In the meantime, Berlin had become friendly with many of the musicians of the fertile L.A. scene. He subsequently played for a couple of years in the Plugz and then The Blasters. "My role in The Blasters was pretty minimal, even though I had a good time," Berlin said. "I had been through a great deal and I wanted to put my two cents in where I thought it would make a difference. But those guys already had a core membership that was together for years . . . and it was hard to get them off the dime."
Los Lobos, on the other hand, saw Berlin as "another voice to use. Also, Mexican and norteno (Mexican folk music) has a lot of sax in it, which I didn't know at the time." So in 1983 he became a full- fledged member.
"By The Light Of The Moon" finds Los Lobos redefining its musical attack. The ethnic instruments play a lesser role and are used more for coloring. Berlin explained it this way: "On our last LP (the well- received "How Will The Wolf Survive?") we used those instruments in their historical context. This time we were trying to create a more individual (band) sound. We use them all but create something different."
Another reason for the album's more mainstream rock sound may lie in the number of outside musicians that were used. Whereas "Wolf" used only Alex Acuna (on guitar) and producer T-Bone Burnett (as a backing vocalist), several others, including drummers Anton Fier and Mickey Curry and keyboardist Mitchell Froom, helped out on "Moon."
Berlin admitted that using outside help was "a sensitive subject" within the band. "It was a matter of wanting to make everything sound special," he explained. "Most of the (session help) were just the right people for the job. That's not to take anything away from anyone in the band . . . but when you want to make a large record, it's important not to keep anything but perfect tracks. That's all I'm going to say about it."
It was more than two years between the release of "Wolf" and "Moon," which is a long time by industry standards. But Berlin pointed out, "We were on the road for a solid year and a half, and then we spent a few months writing and recording ("Moon"). It doesn't seem like such a long time when you're doing it."
During that period, Berlin has produced records for Faith No More; the Paladins, and one-time Blaster and now X guitarist Dave Alvin, while Los Lobos has worked on the soundtrack to a movie based on Richie Valens' life; contributed a cover of the Fats Domino tune "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel" to the "A Fine Mess" soundtrack, and worked with Paul Simon on the "Myth of Fingerprints" track on Simon's "Graceland" LP, a not-altogether satisfying experience to hear Berlin tell it.
Simon "was a fan. He came to see us in Passaic, N.J., and was just formulating the idea for ("Graceland"). He said, 'I want you guys to be involved,' and we said, 'OK.' In June 1985 we spent three days in a studio in L.A. listening to tapes (of music Simon had recorded with musicians in South Africa) until we came up with an idea we could live with. (The song) turned out OK, but that's not the way we work. We pretty much work out a song before we do it."
The band also is featured on one track on the new live Roomful Of Blues LP. "We played two shows in Rhode Island and went to see them perform after the second show. I knew the horn section guys for years. Our road crew brought our instruments, so we just jumped up on the stage and played for more than two hours. We were incredulous when we heard what song was going on the album" - Willie Dixon's "300 Pounds," which is part of Los Lobos' live set. "It was probably the worst song we did together."
Los Lobos and The Ben Vaughn Combo perform tomorrow night at the Chestnut Cabaret, 3801 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. Ben Vaughn is scheduled to go on at 7:30 p.m. and Los Lobos at 9 p.m.. For ticket information, call 896-6420 or 382-1201.