How the Wolves Survive
David Lee Simmons
When Los Lobos left Warner Brothers more than a year ago, this extraordinary grouping of talents didn’t exactly wait around to find out what was going to happen with its future.
“We were free to do anything we wanted to do because we didn’t have to answer to anyone,” says David Hidalgo, one of the group’s founders.
And so, interestingly enough, the members strayed from the pack — collectively and separately. Frontmen Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas formed a Mexican folk-rock supergroup, appropriately named Los Super Seven and featuring legends such as Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez, and the eponymous CD — produced by their drummer, Steve Berlin — promptly won a Grammy. Hidalgo and bandmate Louis Perez picked up where they left off with their Latin Playboys side project — featuring Los Lobos collaborators/production wizards Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake — and crafted Dose , a fascinating followup to 1994’s self-titled debut.
Hidalgo formed Houndog with Mike Halby of Canned Heat for a dark, postmodern blues album. He also appears on yet another group effort, teaming with guitarist Martin Simpson and others on the New Age-spirited Kambara Music: Water Lily Acoustics.
Meanwhile, Rosas created Soul Disguise , his solo debut CD, a meditation on his blues and R&B influences while revisiting some of the Mexican rock that gives Los Lobos so much of their muscle. And if that all weren’t enough, Los Lobos finally settled on Hollywood Records as its label and went into the studio for their long-awaited followup to 1996’s Colossal Head , due out in June.
Taken individually, this impressive body of work shows how this 25-year-old band shows no signs of artistic wear and tear, partly because of their seemingly endless energy but also because of their passionate appreciation of so many different musical forms: Mexican folk, American folk, soul, blues, funk, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and so on.
The solo and collaborative projects are a logical progression from a group known for hitting so many points on the roots-music spectrum. Because Hidalgo grew up listening to so many different forms of music, he couldn’t help but absorb it all. “Everything was jumbled up to begin with,” he recalls. “You had Mexican music playing in the radio, then your folks are dancing to Louis Prima, then you go home and your brother’s band is playing James Brown in the garage, then you turn on the TV and it’s the Beatles and Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds.”
Still, Los Lobos was little more than “just another band from East L.A.” (to quote their sarcastically titled greatest-hits compilation) until 1984’s How Will the Wolf Survive? , in which they began wearing their rock and folk influences on their sleeves to the delight of critics. For their next album, instead of cashing in on their popular cover of Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” for the 1987 bio-pic, they opted for the all-Latin La Pistola y El Corazon .
That set the stage for their work with Froom and Blake, which led first to 1990’s The Neighborhood and then the breakthrough masterpiece, 1992’s Kiko , a tour de force of exotica, funk and haunting folk that many critics hailed the best album of the year. This also led to Hidalgo and Perez working with Froom and Blake on the Latin Playboys spinoff before the return to Los Lobos with 1996’s Colossal Head , another indication that the band wouldn’t rest on its laurels.
“I think [Froom and Blake] hate everything as much as we do, if not more,” Hidalgo says, half-jokingly, of their partnership. “They have an adventurous spirit, anything goes. Tchad is an amazing musician in his own right. The studio is his instrument, so he brings a lot to the table. And Mitchell has such a sophisticated ear.”
Now that the band members have flexed their own individual muscles, the question is just what the new album will sound like. When asked to describe the new album’s sound, Hidalgo says it started in an aggressive direction before becoming more laid-back. “We’re starting to sound a lot more like War,” he says, referring to their L.A. soulmates. “I don’t want to sound more mature, but more our age. Things have settled in.”
Hidalgo pauses to consider the state of modern rock ‘n’ roll, which he considers a tremendous disappointment, something that challenges Los Lobos even further. “So much of the music out there has no root, you can’t feel any kind of history or purpose to it,” he continues. “Who is this for, and why? At least we’ve managed to stay grounded for a while.”