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THE WOLF LIVES ON: Louie Perez reflects on four decades of being in the biggest band to come out of East L.A.

Photo courtesy of Los Lobos
Multiple Grammy Award winning American Chicano rock band, Los Lobos, will be performing Friday, Nov. 10 at the Tower Theatre.
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OKLAHOMA CITY—Growing up Chicano in the 80s, if you were a rock fan, your list of guitar heroes was muy delgado. That all changed however when East L.A.’s hard-driving Los Lobos burst onto the alt-rock scene in the early 1980s, unleashing one classic album after another including How Will the Wolf Survive?, By the Light of the Moon and Kiko.

Over the past 40 years, they have gone from “just another band from East L.A.” into the premier Mexican-American roots rockers, mixing a traditional sound with a punk attitude, most recently earning a well-deserved nomination for a much-vaunted—and much-needed—spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Represent.

Los Lobos circa 1987. (Warner Bros. Records)

In preparation of their concert this Friday at the Tower Theater in support of their latest album Gates of Gold, songwriter and guitarist Louie Perez sat down with Red Dirt Report to talk about the band’s birth, their rise to fame and, most importantly, how these wolves have survived for well over four decades. ¡Cómpralo ya!

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Louis Fowler: When you guys started, everyone in the L.A. scene was going punk and glam. How did Los Lobos go from playing traditional Mexican music in East L.A. to becoming part of that West L.A. rock scene?

Louie Perez: It was nothing by design at all. We’re separated from the West side of L.A. by the L.A. River, with East L.A. was on the opposite side. We were comfortable doing what we were doing, but at one point it just got stagnant after ten years and as an aside, we were always listening to music other than traditional Mexican music.

Music during this time, when it was kind of taken over by disco, you really had to dig to find other music. By the end of the 70s, however, I got interested in punk rock because I just loved the energy and it was certainly a break from what was going on commercially, which was making everyone crazy, so myself, David, and a friend of ours, Eddie, cause he had the car, we would go across the river to go listen to bands at the local punk rock clubs and it was exciting.

As that scene grew, the roots-rock thing started to enter the scene; we had bands like the Blasters, and Rank and File, and the Long Ryders…a lot of bands that were bringing that energy to roots music. We went to go see the Blasters a few times and we actually approached them backstage once and talked to them and said we’re from East L.A. and they said “Hey, we’re kind of from East L.A. too!” and we just started talking to them and the whole thing started to make sense to us. We felt that what we were doing at the time because we had moved into another area of traditional Mexican music, we were doing norteño music, but when you think of a Tex-Mex band, it really is pretty close to a rock and roll band, it takes the same kind of instrumentation. We said, “Wow, what we do kind of fits here!”

So after we met the Blasters and a few other people, we just loaded up the van and made the trip to start playing these clubs out there and it was so different. The scene was so cool back then. There was camaraderie almost no matter where you played, whether it was the Circle Jerks, the Blasters or us. Somehow it all mixed together and made sense to everyone and was a really fun time.

One of your first big gigs was opening for Public Image Ltd. How did that crowd take to Los Lobos?

They threw everything they could get their hands on us! We lasted about ten minutes before the real serious stuff started flying, the stuff where you could get hurt. We left the stage, but one thing about it was we felt no one was going to hold us back. In the words of a friend and fellow artist, we weren’t gonna back down. At that point, it was just the proverbial jumping into the deep end, instead of testing it with your toes. And it was good, and after that, we just came back for more. We could have easily run back to our safe little spot, our little corner of the world, but nah. The music was much larger than us, that’s how we felt. There was still so much left for us to do.

T-Bone Burnett produced your first couple of records and the sound on those records really came to define the band at the time. How did you come to the attention of Burnett?

A few bands, in particular, the Blasters, lobbied Slash Records, the label, to sign us and they really didn’t know what to do with us. They got some of their singers at the label to come in and listen to us and they said “Yeah, ok cool,” but they’re still not sure of us so they only gave us enough money to make an e.p. with seven songs, I believe, and T-Bone Burnett was the guy that produced it.

Back then I think he was just a producer for hire and he had done some interesting things and he had made some cool records, but it was still the point early in our career where things aren’t suggested to you, they’re rather “Hey, this is the guy that’s gonna do your record!” and he was great. We lasted a few records before he moved on and we moved on.

Out of all your classic 80s albums, which one do you feel perfected the Los Lobos sound?

How Will the Wolf Survive? was certainly an important record because we were able to spread out and make the record we needed to make at the time, instead of trying to follow what was going on. The first record had some traditional music and some old time rock and roll and when we moved over to Warner Bros and were going to make the real record, instead of feeling intimidated about it, we were able to find our own way.

We came to a fork in the road, in a way: we’re either going to become this big time rock and roll band or we can be a band that plays music that is not only fun and a good time, but intriguing and then something. That’s where songs like “Will the Wolf Survive?” and “A Matter of Time” and those songs on that record came out and really solidified who we are and our sound and our voice.

You guys have done a lot of soundtrack work, from Colors to Desperado, but most people probably know La Bamba best. Did you guys feel honored to not only re-popularize but bring back from obscurity, a Chicano music hero like Richie Valens?

Yeah, all of the above. It was an honor to be approached by Richie’s family, it was heartfelt since it came from the family. Of course, we always grew up listening to his music all the way back to when we were very young and didn’t even think of him being a Mexican-American like us. We would just listen to the music because it was cool music, but, of course, as we got a little older we realized that, wow, we can identify with him.

There was something going on already in East L.A. –historically it’s called the East L.A. sound with bands like the Midnighters, Cannibal and the Headhunters, those bands that did Chicano interpretations of  rhythm and blues, which was unique—and to us, during Beatlemania, they because surrogates for the Beatles for us and were certainly more approachable. They were homegrown but we supported it; I was really young, but even then, I recognized it.

So becoming the band that was going to recreate this music for that movie was certainly done with a lot of respect and history and a way for us to be a part of bringing back his legacy, whatever that was going to be. We never thought it was going to turn into what it did.

You guys are playing Oklahoma on this tour. Have you ever played here before? As long as I’ve lived here, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard you guys playing Oklahoma City.

Yes, we have a long history of playing in Tulsa at Cain’s Ballroom, from way back in the day. Some people would think, for a band like this that a place like Oklahoma would be a flyover state or something, but no, we feel an affinity for the music that came from there and it’s a cool place. We always have a lot of fun playing there.

What can people who’ve never seen you guys live expect from a Los Lobos show?

We’re just going to be doing what we’ve always done. Every time we make a new record, we add new songs to the set and then there are some songs that kind of fall away for a while and then they come back…right now we’re doing exactly that; we’re doing music from way in the beginning and to the more contemporary stuff of ours and also a few covers because we not only enjoy it, but it’s a nod to our influences and our history.

Other than the latest album, what albums do you pull from pretty regularly? What are the songs that people often request to hear live?

Um…what’s really interesting is that after “La Bamba” came out there were so many people that only knew us from that—of course, there were those die-hard fans that knew us for more than that—but we were always getting requests for “La Bamba” all the time. It eventually got to a point that we had to look back and realize that, wow, it’s 15 years…it’s 20 years…it’s been 30 years since that and there’s frankly just a lot of people who weren’t even born when that song was a big hit, so it isn’t that much of a most requested song anymore.

Of course, when we play festivals and more family-oriented things like street events, street festivals, we always play “La Bamba” because it’s something that we can really connect with the audience and all the different generations.  We’ve been around long enough, however, so people have really digested what all we’ve done. There are people that will call out for songs that you don’t even expect, like from Colossal Head and you think “Wow, I haven’t heard that one before!”

I was just listening to that this morning…

Yeah, that’s a cool record. This is something that you’d probably like to hear then: we’re thinking of doing a run here we do Colossal Head all the way through. We did that with Kiko and that was very fun and it felt really good, so we were thinking maybe we’d do another full record live.

I think the Latin Playboys albums are really underrated too. They’re so much fun.

Yeah! We did only one tour, that was in 1999. We did a full tour of the U.S. and it was great. It’s hard to get us all in one place, especially Tchad (Blake) being in England now and…I know Mitchell (Froom) would really like to do it again; every now and then I’ll get something from him or we’ll talk after many months and the conversation always goes back to like “Wow, we should do something…” At one point he even said, “If we would just do one song a year, we’d probably have a record already.” It’s not out of the question, but it’s a weird phenomenon…you look back at something you did years ago and you can’t possibly imagine having all that time to do it again.

Gates of Gold came out in 2015. Are you guys currently working on a new album?

Right now, we’re not. It’s all a cycle, we put out an album and then we go out on the road. Of course, time, as it always does, now more than ever, time evaporates and so you’re saying, “Wow, it’s been a couple of years since the last record.” I’m not sure we have anything up our sleeve at the moment; we don’t necessarily have a record label because the way it works now is that nobody wants to sign their life away to a record label for seven years, it’s just usually a record at a time. We don’t really have anybody that we’ve approached…there will be takers I’m sure, but we just haven’t gotten to the place where we’re ready to do another record yet.

Coming all the way from those early days in East L.A. to being this staple of American music, when you heard the news that you were nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, how did that feel to look back and see how far you guys have come?

That’s a really, really good question…it feels great, but of course, just the sense of time as it passes, yeah, we’ve come such an incredibly long way from playing in the backyard with friends, because that’s really how it started. We knew each other from high school and hung out together as friends, we were musicians but we never had a band together. After high school, we just hung out together and it’s just like people say:  if you hang around a barbershop long enough, you’ll eventually get a haircut. Here we are just a bunch of musicians hanging out as friends and the natural progression would be to pick up our instruments and start a band and that’s what we did.

From those early, early days, it’s just quite remarkable what’s happened to us…I’m grateful. I’m very grateful. I look back on that and you know how people always ask at this point, especially as you get older, and for us, since we’ve been around 44 years, people ask “What would you do differently if you did it all again?”  And there isn’t too much. There isn’t really any regrets. Just a lot of gratitude for all of these very cool things that have happened and now, as we get older, and the band has been together a long time and we’re getting Lifetime Achievement Awards and nominated for the Hall of Fame, I guess they’ve just finally realized that after 44 years, we’re really just not gonna go away.

44 years! Most bands are lucky to last ten years. I guess my final question is what is the secret behind your longevity as a band?

You know, it’s a secret to us too. We don’t really know what it is but we can theorize about it…we were friends before we played music together. We weren’t put together by classified ads or an index card pinned up to a bulletin board somewhere. We grew up in the same area, went to the same high school…East L.A. was a very close-knit community, like a lot of our communities around the U.S. that gravitate towards each other and it was all about friendship and family. Music at that point was almost like secondary because we were friends first and musicians second. That could possibly be the key.

I’m not gonna tell you that it’s all been Disneyland….we’ve had tough times, things around us that have happened, things that we’ve had to get through, I’d be lying if I said we’ve gotten along perfectly after being together this long. It’s like a marriage and marriages they have rough spots and we have. But I think what has helped us through that is that when you take this all away, you take away these degrees of success, you take away the music, what do you end up with? You just end up with four guys that are friends who grew up together in East L.A.

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Louie Perez and the rest of Los Lobos will perform live at the Tower Theater, 425 N.W. 23rd St, in Oklahoma City at 8 p.m. on Friday, November 10th. For more information, including tickets, click here:  https://towertheatreokc.com/tower-theatre-events/2017/11/10/los-lobos

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Louis Fowler

Güicho. Gadfly. Chicano. Choctaw. Cristero. Freelancer. Leftist. Activist. Vilified. PKD....

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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