Los Lobos Celebrates Los Angeles On New Cover Album, ‘Native Sons’

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit for the legendary Californian rock band, Los Lobos, they, like many other artists around the world, weren’t quite sure what to do. Uncertain about what the future would hold, the genre-bending virtuosos hunkered down at home and hoped for the best.

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Yet, in the midst of everything that was going on, they still found ways to be productive. See, prior to the pandemic, they were touring so much that it made finding time to record a challenge. So, they came up with an idea: record a casual album of cover songs. It would be perfect—they could still tour, but in their pockets of downtime, they’d get together and work on something without quite as much pressure as a full-fledged, new original work. That seemed like a great idea… before everything shut down.

Once 2020 got into full swing, though, the idea blossomed into a whole new beast. With an abundance of time on their hands, they developed the concept further, choosing the city of Los Angeles as the main subject of its admiration. Showing off their knack for effortlessly jumping from one genre or style to the other, they picked 13 songs from all sorts of different Los Angeleno artists, including Jackson Browne, The Beach Boys, WAR, Buffalo Springfield, The Blasters, and more. Titled Native Sons, the record is out tomorrow, July 30.

Los Lobos Native Sons track listing (with the original artist listed as well):

  1. “Love Special Delivery” — Thee Midniters
  2. “Misery” — Barrett Strong
  3. “Bluebird / For What It’s Worth” — Buffalo Springfield
  4. “Los Chucos Suaves” — Lalo Guerrero
  5. “Jamaica Say You Will” — Jackson Browne
  6. “Never No More” — Percy Mayfield
  7. “Native Son” — a new Los Lobos original
  8. “Dichoso” — Willie Bobo
  9. “Farmer John” — The Premiers
  10. “Sail On Sailor” — The Beach Boys
  11. “The World Is A Ghetto” — WAR
  12. “Flat Top Joint” — The Blasters
  13. “Where Lovers Go” — The Jaguars

A few weeks ago, saxophonist Steve Berlin hopped on the phone with American Songwriter to talk about the journey Los Lobos has gone on. Gaining everything from a stronger appreciation for music to just more knowledge about what elements make for a magic song, the band found the entire process of crafting Native Sons to be highly rewarding. Getting to open the hood on their influences and think about how far they’ve come, it felt good to be able to use this moment in history to craft something so meaningful and holistically musical. Read the conversation below:

American Songwriter: When did y’all start working on this record? How did the idea come together?

Steve Berlin: It was around late 2019. We sorta have an internal clock that tells us when it’s time to start thinking about making a record again, a proverbial alarm goes off. We had interest from New West, so we had a label, which is always nice. Before everything happened, we had a pretty busy touring schedule. Usually, when we made a record, we would block out, like, six weeks or so to just focus on making it. That way we’re not encumbered by anything other than making the record. But we didn’t have that luxury then and 2020 was looking like it was going to be a pretty busy year. So, the idea of doing a covers record that we could sorta do in bits and pieces and take our time with came about. It just didn’t require the same focus and time commitment that our past few records have called for. 

So, that was the plan we hatched. Then, we had the idea to make it specifically about Los Angeles, which seemed like a pretty neat thing… although, we weren’t really sure if it was going to work or not. “How would it go? What would it actually look like?” Lo and behold, though, we were able to figure it out.

We started recording in February 2020 and then… everything started happening. We were dead in the water for a couple of months. We certainly weren’t traveling. The first few months were really brutal in Los Angeles. Once things started easing up a little bit to where we could travel again, we came back together. We were able to record two or three songs at a time, taking our time and reflecting on what the record was turning into. Obviously, I would never want to go through it again, but basically, it all worked out. In retrospect, it was a great idea, but at the time, I can’t say we had any clue what was going to happen.

AS: It sounds like in that regard, it was rather serendipitous.

SB: Yeah, in a sense, it was. You know… I don’t know if anybody, artistically, has been able to properly reflect on what an insane year it’s been. I think that if we had tried to make a regular Los Lobos record… well, the subject matter would’ve been a real challenge. I don’t know how we would’ve figured out what the hell to say. This record of covers reflects our upbringings and the city that formed and made us. I can’t say we saw what was coming in 2019, but in 2021, I think it seems like a pretty cool idea.

AS: Do you feel like digging into these songs from Los Angeles revealed anything to y’all about the character of the city’s music scene and the impact it’s had on y’all’s lives? 

SB: It really came out as an homage to the influences, people, bands, and sounds that shaped us. I would say that the philosophical line ended the minute we said “Let’s make it about Los Angeles.” We didn’t really make it any deeper than that, just because it was such a moving target. It really grew to be about Los Angeles through our eyes. Something I love about this is: when you look at what makes someone a Los Angeleno… Well, most of the artists we covered were actually people who came to Los Angeles from somewhere else, like me. That’s one of the beauties of the city—people come from all different places. But once you get there, you’re there and you know where you’re supposed to be. But the other guys in the band, they’re natives, which is where the title came from. 

AS: What was the process of getting the tracklist together like? How did you narrow down which songs to record?

SB: It was a big list at first. We were reaching out to our friends who were collectors and DJs and people who had big libraries and big ears, we were asking “What do you got?” A lot of our friends really stepped up—that’s where the instrumental from The Jaguars came from. Then, one song would remind us of another song. At first, I think we narrowed it down to a big list of, like, 100 or so. Then, we sorta separated them into different folders, like “R&B songs” and “Latin songs” and “punk rock songs” and “singer-songwriter songs.” My only regret, actually, is that we didn’t find a really good LA punk rock song—that was a huge part of what formed us in the early days, and it still holds true for a lot of how we approach what we do. In the end, for whatever reason, we whittled the final tracklist down to those 13 songs.

AS: This record is a great example of how a band like Los Lobos can utilize genre incredibly effectively—it pays homage to a lot of different styles without necessarily being tied to anyone in particular. How do y’all think about something like genre? 

SB: I think we look at it like colors, you know? It’s something that was built into our DNA from the beginning. We talk about them and mix them the same way an artist would with paint colors on a palette. Early on, we thought about it in more specific categories, but now we’ll try to combine a Latin rhythm with a rock song or some bizarre percussion thing, or we’ll try to do, like, an Americana rhythm over some other genre. I think we look at it as different tools in our toolbox, and we get to play around with some authority. I’m really gratified that people are opening their imaginations and ears to all this stuff, but there are bands like Vampire Weekend which really just appropriate rhythms without understanding them at all. I don’t mean to pick them out specifically, I’m not against anybody doing anything, but there’s a danger to seeing everything as just taking one part from “column A” and putting it over in “column B.” I think we try to go pretty deep on the history of the music and the history of the rhythms. We just have that in our background, I guess. It’s nice to be able to go super deep on this stuff we’ve loved for 50 years.

AS: To that end, tell us a little bit about how y’all approached recording covers as opposed to original songs. Was there anything that surprised you about the process of unpacking and rearranging these tunes? 

SB: Well, something that’s true about a lot of these songs is that they seem simple on the surface, but you kinda have to uncover the thing that makes the song so special. The Jackson Browne song was a good example of that—we cut a version of it that sounded like the song, but it just didn’t have the magic. We realized that the magic on Jackson’s version came from the background vocals. The chorused harmony is so beautiful and powerful, but it’s also unusual—it’s not a standard harmony arrangement. So, we had to decipher all those parts.

SB: It was the same with “The World Is A Ghetto”—the song called for this relaxed feel that took us a minute to achieve. You can’t just play the song and expect the feel to fall into place, we had to sorta solve that. In the end, we tried to honor the songs and, in some small way, make them ours.

AS: You’ve got this record coming out and a new string of tour dates—how do y’all feel now?

SB: It’s gonna be different, it’s gonna be really unusual. I guess we’ll probably develop the rules as we go. We’ve done a couple of regular shows with people in the audience and they felt great, it was really amazing to get that interaction with an audience again. We all really missed it, so it was profound to get to return to that. So, I think the next few months are going to be interesting. I really hope there’s not a resurgence that screws everything up. Right now, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Los Lobos’ new record Native Sons is out tomorrow, July 30—check out the band’s tour dates HERE and watch a promo video with the band below:

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