“We’re a Mexican American band, and no word describes America like immigrant. Most of us are children of immigrants, so it’s perhaps natural that the songs we create celebrate America in this way.” So says Louie Perez, the “poet laureate” and primary wordsmith of Los Lobos, when describing the songs on the band’s new album, Gates of Gold.
The stories on Gates of Gold are snapshots of experiences that Perez and his band mates have had, based on where they are emotionally and how they respond to evolving life circumstances. “We live out loud most of the time and share our life this way, but then there are more intrinsic things that happen, and our songs are part of the way we react to them. We sit down and basically tell people what has happened. We certainly didn’t start this project with aspirations to create the musical equivalent to great American literary works.”
After celebrating their 40th anniversary with the cleverly titled 2013 live album Disconnected In New York City, the hard working, constantly touring band – David Hidalgo, Louie Perez, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano and Steve Berlin – leaps headfirst into their fifth decade with an invitation to join them as they open fresh and exciting new Gates of Gold, their first full length studio album since 2010’s Tin Can Trust (a Grammy nominee for Best Americana Album) and second with Savoy/429 Records.
The dynamic songwriting, deeply poetic lyrics, thoughtful romantic and spiritual themes and eclectic blend of styles on the 11 track collection has resulted in an American saga in the rich literary tradition of legendary authors John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. Yet true to form, these typically humble musical wolves started in on the project without any grand vision or musical roadmap. Over 30 years after Los Lobos’ major label breakthrough How Will The Wolf Survive? - their 1984 album that ranks #30 on Rolling Stones list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s – their main challenge when they get off the road and head back into the studio is, as Berlin says, “trying not to do stuff we’ve already done. To a certain extent, we are always drawing from the same multi-faceted paint box, and we sound like what we sound like. We’re proud of what we feel is an honest body of work. We just want to keep finding new ways to say things.”
In the band’s early recording days - those years just before and after “La Bamba,” their worldwide crossover hit from the 1987 film which reached #1 on the U.S. and UK singles chart - they prepared for album recording sessions with top producers like T-Bone Burnett with pre- production that included multiple rehearsals and “outlining” what the project was going to be.
The more spontaneous approach to writing and recording that they took on their 1992 Mitchell Froom co-produced set Kiko still exists today; Rosas says, “When I listen to our catalog, doing things more spontaneously in the studio has led to some of our best work.” Unlike many bands that write, gather and catalog material between studio releases, Los Lobos prefers to create their magic on the fly when they decide it’s time to record. Perez says, “We never come in with a cache of 20 songs. Our thing is to write as we’re recording. It’s like starting with a blank canvass every time.”
The journey to Gates of Gold began with Hidalgo bringing in a batch of ideas, outlines and chord progressions with no lyrics. As he and Perez began fleshing things out, developing grooves, melodies and lyrical themes, Hidalgo, his son, drummer David, Jr. and bassist Lozano began tracking those tunes. The collection opens with the reflective, mid-tempo rocker “Made To Break Your Heart,” featuring female vocalist Syd Straw, whose vibe was partially inspired by Hidalgo’s love for Manassas, the early 70s blues-country-rock band created by Stephen Stills.
The moody, atmospheric rocker “When We Were Free,” whose lyrics of what Berlin calls “beautiful melancholy memories” are underscored with the increasing drama of booming drums and distorted electric guitars. Filled with hypnotic sound effects and cool vocal and guitar distortion (created via an eight track analog Cascam cassette recorder!), the soulful, reflective “There I Go” touches on the universal search for what Perez calls “something meaningful, though we’re not always sure what it is.”
Further Hidalgo/Perez collaborations include “Too Small Heart,” a raw and raucous nod to both Los Lobos garage band roots and the wild abandon of Jimi Hendrix; the easy grooving folk- rocker “Song of the Sun,” which taps into the elements of life (water, fire, earth) and creation myths while touching on the way we choose to live in the present; the slow burning blues/rocker “Magdalena,” inspired by the Biblical Mary Magdalene and visions of flowing robes; and the folk-influenced, image rich rocker title track “Gates of Gold,” whose lyrical abstractions allow for multiple earthly and spiritual interpretations.