Don’t think Los Lobos has had an impact on the tastes of the public and other musicians? When was the last time you saw a “Play an accordion, go to jail” bumper sticker?
If making the world a safe place for accordionists to rock out were the group’s only accomplishment, their place in rock history would be secure. Of course, their many contributions are much greater. Los Lobos are arguably the most important American band to come out of the ’80s, both musically and sociologically.
When they began playing Hollywood punk and rockabilly clubs, “across the river” from their home base in East Los Angeles, word spread quickly. They could out-swing the rockabilly crowd, play a conjunto polka with the intensity of a punk band, or mine a world’s-best-blues-band-if-they-wanted-to-be groove, and still have options to spare, while maintaining a strong, immediately recognizable identity.
How could this “new” unknown band be so good? Having an inordinate concentration of talent in one group was a big plus. And having already played together for 10 years was another.
Tired of the cover-band scene in East Los Angeles, David Hidalgo, Conrad Lozano, Louie Perez and Cesar Rosas – four recent graduates of Garfield High in East L.A. – formed Los Lobos in 1973, with the specific intent to play the traditional Mexican folk music of their ancestors. Countless weddings and backyard parties later, they started incorporating more instruments and subgenres, eventually adding drums and going electric. They came full circle, back to their rock and roll roots – this time with a fresh direction and strong sense of self.
In 1983 they released an eight-song EP, …And A Time To Dance, with an assist from Blasters saxophonist/keyboardist Steve Berlin, who joined the group full-time before the end of the year. Their revved-up rendition of “Anselma” won the Grammy for Best Mexican-American Music Performance. The fact that the category hadn’t even existed in the awards’ 25-year history could be a coincidence, but as Perez muses, “I don’t even know how it came about. Not to sound edifying or anything, but maybe it’s because we made such a big impact at that point.”
How Will The Wolf Survive, their first full-length album, from ’84, revealed the band’s ever-broadening palette, mature songwriting, and the two-guitar attack of Rosas and Hidalgo. The surging, blues-drenched “Don’t Worry Baby” is a prime illustration of their contrasting styles, with Cesar’s gritty, muscular solo followed by David’s more melodic, ornamental approach.
When Connie Valenzuela was asked for permission to make a movie based on her son’s life, she replied, “Only if Los Lobos play the music.” The band finished recording By The Light Of The Moon and immediately went to work on the soundtrack to La Bamba, the silver-screen story of Ritchie Valens. The latter LP and its title track shot to #1 on Billboard‘s album and singles charts.
In true Lobos spirit, they took advantage of the resultant mass exposure by recording an all-acoustic album of traditional Mexican music and originals in that idiom, La Pistola y El Corazon. As expected, it didn’t match La Bamba‘s numbers, but it brought Mexican folk music to such unlikely places as the stages of “The Tonight Show” and “Austin City Limits.”
A half-dozen albums, several soundtracks, a couple of children’s records, untold miles of touring, and cameo appearances on other artists’ records and tribute albums to numerous to mention followed. To express other sides of their personalities, splinter groups like the Latin Playboys, Los Super Seven, and Houndog released albums, and Rosas cut a solo CD, Soul Disguise. The arsenal of stringed instruments the band of multi-instrumentalists has incorporated includes (deep breath): electric and acoustic six- and 12-string guitars, upright and electric basses, baritone guitar, six-string bass, guitarron, jarana, requinto jarocho, violin, steel guitar, bajo sexto and bajo quinto, gut-string guitar, tiple, tres, banjo, huapanguera, cuatro, mandolin, koto guitar, tenor guitar, varrana, vihuela, and a custom-designed “hidalguera.”
Two retrospectives chronicled the band’s history: the double-set Just Another Band From East L.A. and the four-disc El Cancionero – Mas y Mas. And along the way, the dual-pronged guitar frontline became a trio, when Louie returned to his original instrument, leaving the percussion section to Victor Bisetti and Cougar Estrada.
To mark 30 years of musical comraderie, Los Lobos released The Ride (on Hollywood Records), their eleventh album, not counting anthologies and soundtracks.
“We came up with the idea as sort of an unofficial anniversary record,” says Perez. “Not celebrating only ourselves, but also our friends and cohorts and heroes.”
With Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Dave Alvin, Richard Thompson, Bobby Womack, Mavis Staples, Ruben Blades, Midniter Willie G., Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Huner, and Mexico City rockers Café Tacuba on the guest list, they reinterpret four songs from their catalog and offer nine new gems.
Never sitting still, the band has a flurry of releases set to follow.
“There will be a mini-record of cover songs we recorded of the artists who helped on The Ride,” Louie reveals. “We’re going to do a concert DVD and a live record when we play the Fillmore – all available in the fall. And we recently got the okay to actually start recording our own shows and sell them at our gigs. So it’s going to be a chock-full Year Of Los Lobos.”
Definitely a year to remember.
Vintage Guitar: As a group, you cover so many styles, you must have a wide range of influences individually. Conrad, what was the early inspiration for you?
Conrad: I still love the old ’60s stuff – Mountain, Cream, and all that stuff. I’ll dig that forever. Heavier rock stuff, like Blue Cheer. And the Yardbirds were wonderful; they were badass.
Was bass your first instrument?
Conrad: Actually it was – when I was about 15 or 16 – because of the Beatles. Paul McCartney was one of my favorites in the early days; I loved his bass playing. And Brian Wilson, when he used to do his stuff with the Beach Boys, he did some amazing things. I liked [Yardbirds bassist] Paul Samwell-Smith a whole lot, so originally I played with a pick. Also Chas Chandler with the Animals; the stuff he played was amazing. That thud sound he had was great.
David: What about on the soul side?
Conrad: On the soul side, James Jamerson, man. It was funny, because that was such an effective thing Jamerson was doing with that whole [Motown] sound, and nobody knew who he was forever.
Cesar, what music had the biggest effect on you?
Cesar: Early on, in rock and roll, it was Elvis and Scotty Moore. I didn’t know what kind of music it was back then; I just knew it was different than regular rock and roll. Later, somebody said “It’s rockabilly.” Then, of course, the Beatles were a big influence, too, and the Stones, and of course a lot of R&B and soul music – Curtis Mayfield, all the Stax stuff with Steve Cropper. And just so many great, soulful black R&B guitarists who weren’t even mentioned on the records.
Then, with Jimi Hendrix, his soul contribution, he was kind of trying to do like a Curtis Mayfield kind of thing. I’ve got this bootleg where it’s just the rhythm track of “Electric Ladyland,” with him just playing rhythm guitar. Just amazing! I’ve kind of always just loved to play rhythm guitar. Especially early on when I had my own R&B garage bands; I was the only guitar player, so I had to had to keep it all together and just play rhythm.
But there’s also the folk part – the traditional Mexican folk music. I love the old ’40s trios, like Los Panchos and Los Tres Ases – the romantic period. Amazing guitar players.
Were you exposed to much music when you were living in Mexico?
Cesar: I was born in Hermosillo, which is the capitol of Sonora, Mexico, and moved to L.A. when I was nine. I learned to speak English very quickly, because when you’re a kid your brain is still developing, and you adapt. But the whole culture was pretty much a shock. I was raised in the desert, living with Indians, because my father was a diesel mechanic at an agriculture post. The way we lived was extremely primitive. We had no modern conveniences – no running water and no electricity for awhile.
But that was where I had my first experience with music. Every so often, all the neighbors would get together and have a dance. All the mothers would make food, and they’d hire a group. The type of music that was fashionable in that region was norteno music, similar to Tex-Mex conjunto. These men would play this music, and I was totally blown away by the bajo sexto – but I didn’t know what it was called.
So did you not have a radio?
Cesar: Well, believe it or not, we had no electricity, but we did have a generator. So the radio was sacred to us. Every night after dinner we would crank up the radio and get these stations from Hermosillo, playing Mexican pop music. But when we came to the United States, the whole encounter with rock and roll was amazing.
And everywhere I saw a guitar, I’d pick it up and want to play it. When we first immigrated into the United States, we went straight to East Los Angeles, and my older brother, Pete, got a guitar. When he would leave the house I’d grab the guitar and try to play. My brother was right-handed, so I was playing upside-down for a few years. I took a piece of paper and wrote down where he was pushing his fingers down, on which frets and strings.
After a few years, he handed the guitar down to me. I changed the strings on it and re-learned everything. There was a community youth center where music teachers would give free lessons. I used to take my skateboard there and take guitar lessons. By that time I already knew how to play a lot of the basic chords, but I didn’t know what they were called.
When you eventually got into playing Mexican folk music and then came back around to rock and roll, did any of the folk styles seep into your electric playing?
Cesar: Sometimes when we do a song that has a certain Latin twist to it, that sort of helps – to go back in your mind. Dave and I will be talking, and he’ll mention an artist, and it’s like, “Yeah, okay, I dig.” A reference point.
And then there’s the Cuban stuff, like the tres players, and the fundamentals of all that music. I still can’t play it for ****, but I love it. Like Yomo Toro, a great cuatro player from Puerto Rico.
David: Nieves Quintero is another fantastic cuatro player. Nino Rivera is one of my favorites on tres, and Lino Chavez is a great requinto jarocho player. And I love the guitars of Los Incas.
Cesar: We’re just music lovers – anything that’s good that has soul. Like surf music, man, or the kind of stuff Conrad mentioned, like the Yardbirds and Jimmy Page.
I was also influenced a lot by Dave. I already knew how to play, and I obviously grew up with a lot of musical heroes, but to have a guy in the band who could actually play it and was such a great guitarist, it was like, “God!” Before, whatever song I learned, I’d have to copy the solos off the records the best I could. It wasn’t so freeform until funk music came in, like Tower Of Power. They were borrowing more from jazz. I fell into that and had to learn to use different scales and play that style. After that, I got into trying to play heavy blues more. I think my style comes more out of that now. We could sit here talking for days just about the blues – the three Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie) and Albert Collins. That’s another heavy influence in our music.
And you got to work with some of those guys, like John Lee Hooker.
David: And Willie Dixon. We learned so much from just the one day we worked with him. We did “Who Do You Love” for the La Bamba soundtrack. We had two bass players, like four guitars, and he just told everybody what to play. When we played together, it was like bam! Carlos [Santana] was on that, and Willie said, “Excuse me – you with the white pants – what was your name?” He said, “Carlos.” Willie said, “Are you capable of taking a solo?” (laughs). And Carlos was cool; he said, “Yes, sir. I think I can do that.” “All right then.”
Louie, where were you coming from musically?
Louie: When I was a little kid, my mom always had Mexican radio playing, and country music. She was from Wyoming; I don’t know if that’s why she listened to country music, but she listened to all those country music marathons that played on Saturday afternoons, sponsored by some local car dealer.
David: Cal Worthington. And “Town Hall Party” was filmed in Compton.
Louie: Then my older sister brought home Beatles records, and a cousin came over with a Ray Charles record, and I never heard anything like that. I was eight or nine.
What was your first instrument?
Louie: Guitar, at about 12. I showed that I was really interested in it, and I had some cheapo little nylon-string toy guitar. Then some friends and I started a band. We didn’t have any instruments – we just started a band. We got matching Ben Casey shirts, with the buttons on the side of the neck, and wraparound shades, and we just walked around together. We didn’t play anything; we just walked around, as a band.
I think that’s called a gang!
Cesar: A social club.
Louie: No, I knew what a gang was. Then I played guitar; that’s all I did. When Hendrix came along, it changed my life forever.
Has he continued to be a big influence?
Louie: I’m tellin’ ya – don’t get me started. I was 14 years old, and he was playing at the Hollywood Bowl. I already had Are You Experienced?, and Bold As Love had just come out. I begged my mom to let me go, so she got a friend who was about 19 to take me. I wore these brand-new jeans, a neatly pressed Army shirt, and my little Catholic boy’s haircut – and one string of beads. He opened with “Spanish Castle Magic,” and went into this whole feedback thing – man, that was it.
The records and the live albums – you listen to all that stuff – but there was nothing like seeing him in person. He was like 200 percent. There was something that happened there that you could never get off a record.
David: This friend of mine has a cassette he made from the audience of an outdoor show in Santa Clara or someplace in ’68 or ’69, and they’re all on acid. Jimi just hits a chord, and it’s like you can feel the air, you know. And they’re like, “Allrriiiight!” (laughs).
Louie: I thought it was maybe because it was my first experience, my first concert. But then I went back three more times, and it happened every time. Without a doubt, something happened there. There was nothing like him.
Who were your earliest influences, Dave?
David: The earliest stuff was the guitar instrumentals, like Duane Eddy and “Caterpillar Crawl” – I don’t even know who did it. I had that single [by the Strangers] and “Rebel Rouser” by Duane, and then some Coasters, and “Purple People Eater.” Surf guitar and stuff like that; just drowned in guitar.
And then watching the country [TV] shows, like “The Ernest Tubb Show.” His band was so good. Steve Chapman, his guitarist, was my favorite, and [singer] Jack Greene on drums. I was also a big Merle Travis fan.
Cesar: But you know, that was a different feel of country music. It’s not anything like today’s country music. There are a lot of amazing young cats now, but back then it still had that almost jazz approach. It was swing.
David: There was that stuff, and then my brother’s band was playing James Brown, around ’64. And when the Beatles came out, I really liked them. I liked George Harrison’s playing alot. I like him even more now; I appreciate him. I watched the “Ed Sullivan Show” stuff the other day and saw what he was doing; damn, the cat could play. And it was a struggle when he was playing; his whole body would pull the guitar.
Then my brother brought home the first Canned Heat album, with Henry Vestine. I loved that. He bought Canned Heat and Are You Experienced? on the same day. That was a good day. Before that, I didn’t know who Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton were, but I liked the Yardbirds records. Jimmy Page, too.
Different influences keep emerging the longer you make records. On Colossal Head, some of your playing is reminiscent of Peter Green.
David: Peter Green was cool. And that’s another one of those three-guitar things. Fleetwood Mac, Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape – they were some of my favorite bands. Early on, [Moby Grape’s] Jerry Miller was one of my favorites – the first album and Grape Jam. So we always talked about how it would be cool to have a band with three guitars. Didn’t know it would take this long to put it together, but that’s just the way it worked.
With three guitars, is it hard to figure out who’s going to play what?
Louie: I just play a complete supporting role. I just find a spot in there, and I keep it real simple – even if it’s like doubling Conrad’s part. Because there’s plenty of information going on.
That’s almost like the Muddy Waters band concept. Everybody did something real simple, and if you heard them individually the parts almost didn’t make sense.
Cesar: Exactly. It’s the arrangement. It’s usually kind of just support, and stay out of each other’s way.
David: That’s part of what we learned from Willie Dixon. He’d fire off these little parts, and then you put them all together, and man! And it depends on whose song it is. If he’s leading the song, then we follow him, and we find spots to stay out of the way. And vice versa.
You’ve got some influences that guitarists seldom mention, like Muddy Waters’ guitarist, Sammy Lawhorn.
David: I love his playing. Where he got me was on those Victoria Spivey records, where she had jam sessions in her apartment in Brooklyn. There’s one with Muddy’s band, where Otis Spann is playing organ, and Sammy’s playing the guitar. He used the Bigsby when he bent and shook strings, which gave him his own Hawaiian kind of tone. It knocked me out. Robert Nighthawk is another favorite, along with Mike Bloomfield and Otis Rush. And Jimmy Reed.
Was he an influence just in terms of his music or as a guitarist?
David: All the guitar playing. I know that Eddie Taylor was the rhythm guy, right? Those records sound like there were three guitars. He had the one doing [hums bass-line shuffle], then one playing a little upstroke thing [hums the backbeat], and then Jimmy’s guitar fills and harmonica.
Jerry Garcia could do all that. One time he and Cesar started playing “Big Boss Man,” and he knew all those little turnarounds and licks. He must have been a kid when he first learned it. It was in him.
Another guitarist I loved was Jesse Ed Davis. He played a Tele through an old Bassman and got this great sound and a great slide tone, too. He’s the guitarist on “Watching The River Flow” by Bob Dylan – some great playing on that one. He does this little stutter on there, and it almost sounds like a mistake, but then he does it twice – like, “I meant to do that.”
It’s funny because there was a period when he was playing slide through a Leslie, and George Harrison was hanging out with him. Then Harrison went back to England to do Let It Be, and he started playing slide with a Tele through a Leslie! I think he was a big fan of Jesse Ed Davis; it changed his way of playing.
It’s interesting that none of you listed Ritchie Valens as an influence. When did you become aware of him?
David: His music was around, and we just kind of took it for granted growing up. Everywhere we went they were playing his music. But it wasn’t until the ’70s, after we went back to the hardcore regional folk music of Mexico and started studying that from the ground up. We went through all that, and then worked our way through Latin America, and then up to norteno music and Tex-Mex, and finally got around to the chicano rockers, like Thee Midniters and Ritche Valens. It wasn’t until the ’70s that I realized how important he was. “Wow, this stuff’s really good!”
Yeah, we should have mentioned him. We do love him. That’s an example of, as a group, we discovered him. When we started doing the Tex-Mex stuff, we got the accordion and a snare drum at first, then the electric bass. That kind of led back to rock and roll, so Ritchie Valens was the next step. We started getting into the Premiers, the Jaguars, and all the stuff we’d grown up with. We came full circle, back to where we started as kids.
Did you add instruments or change roles because the music dictated it – like, “We need a drummer”?
Louie: Yeah. After 10 years, you’re not going to put out classified ads. And I just did the best I could for a long time – until things started to get where we really wanted to push it a bit. Then I just couldn’t go there. My timing was always kind of funny. So we got Pete Thomas to play on the records. Then we got Victor, and we started switching off, and I started moving out to the front and playing guitar again. Then Cougar came up, and I really kind of moved out of the drum section.
When I stopped playing electric guitar, we started Los Lobos, and I played jarana and the little acoustic instruments for about 10 years. Then we electrified, and I became the drummer, and we continued on for another 10 years. Then I made it back to guitar. But it’s weird, because my guitar playing was like I was in this vacuum. So when I started playing guitar again, it’s back like in 1972. It’s like I’m 16 years old.
David, did you take up accordion the same way Louie learned to play drums – because it was needed for the kind of music you were doing?
David: We tried doing some of the stuff using an echo harmonica – a double-reed harmonica, almost like an accordion – and kind of fake it that way. Cesar got a bajo sexto and wanted to play some of the polkas. My brother-in-law loaned me a button accordion; that’s how I ended up playing accordion and incorporating it into the group.
When we started, we were doing all this mariachi music, but none of us played violin, so we used mandolins. That gave me an excuse to learn mandolin. Early on, we did a recital at UCLA, and a musician named Art Gerst was there. He plays harp with Los Camperos – one of the best L.A. mariachis – and knows all the traditional Mexican music. He said, “You sound great. You do everything wrong, but you sound good.” So he took us under his wing, showing us the different strums and instruments. He got me started on the violin. We owe a lot to him.
When we learned about the different instruments, we started to notice that you could get all these things at the pawn shops for 30 or 40 bucks. In the same way that I took up accordion, we took up everything else – as we needed it.
What’s the main equipment you use onstage?
Conrad: I use Lakland basses, and I’ve always used Ampeg amps. I’ve been working with SWR a little bit; I like their cabinet sound. Then, I’m really into Fenders and Gibsons and some older basses I have. But I really love the Lakland I’m using; it feels good. The one I’m using now is like a Precision bass, but I have one being made now that’s like a Jazz Bass, like a Joe Osborne copy.
Louie: Gibson was nice enough to give me a ’60 reissue Les Paul goldtop. I’ve got real small hands, and the ’60 had the neck that worked for me. I have my early-’60s ES-175, factory black, but it wouldn’t work onstage for what we do. And I have an early-’60s SG Special. I also use a Squier Telecaster that I found for 100 bucks at Guitar Center, and it felt great, so Bill Asher gutted it and made a real one out of it. My amp is a Top Hat, which is kind of like a Twin.
David: I like those, too. Brian Gearhardt makes them, in Anaheim. I used one of his 100-watt amps for years, but we went to smaller amps. We got tired of playing so loud. He makes a single-12 that’s a 20-watt with 6V6s, but he has one now with 6L6s, a 40-watt. It’s a nice marriage of a Marshall and a Fender.
Louie: My jarana was made by Candelas Guitars in L.A. It’ll blow your mind, if you go down there. They make one out of one block of wood, the original way. The whole guitar is carved out of one piece of mahogany. When we did the 15th anniversary tour, with La Pistola, they made a matching requinto jarocho and jarana.
David: I usually use either a Strat or a Telecaster. I found a Custom Shop Telecaster, like the early-’60s, Cropper type – blond with rosewood fingerboard. And I’ve got a Japanese Standard Strat, and a Historic Series ’58 Les Paul. That’s become my main guitar lately. Between those three, I take either a Strat or a Telecaster and a Les Paul. I just got a reissue Firebird, too. The amp that works is a ’64 Deluxe and a South Tech single-12″ cabinet with a JBL. I use that with a Hot Rod Deluxe, single 12″.
Cesar: I used to play Marshall combos quite a bit. We started getting really loud. The main sound was these early-’70s 100-watt Marshall heads – not because I just wanted to be so loud, but because they have the tone. I had them add a gain stage so I could play them at a lower volume and still have that tone. It’s hard to beat that sound, especially with those old Celestian speakers with a Les Paul. After that we tried to go back and play a little softer, so I got into the 4×10 Bassman again, and got a couple of reissues.
Fender recently put out a “mo’ better” copy of the 4×10″; I want to look into that. For the most part, I’ve been playing a Les Paul for years, but recently I started getting my Tele back out. For this tour, I’m more into my SG again. I’m playing an early-’60s reissue that Mike McGuire over at the Custom Shop gave me. There’s so much cool stuff we’ve got. You just kind of miss that sound, or it’s something you’re digging at the moment.
David: There’s a different sound, but it sounds like the same guy playing it.
Cesar: It’s like Billy Gibbons. Anything he plays, he sounds killer.
David: When ZZ Top was first happening, we were doing folk music, so I didn’t pay much attention. It wasn’t until around ’88; we went to Thailand, and for five bucks I bought the whole ZZ Top catalog on bootleg cassettes. I became a big fan. Later, we toured with them, and seeing them every night, they just got better and better.
How much different is it using a reissue or a vintage guitar?
David: I use the reissues on the records, too, but the old guitars make you play a certain way, you know? I have a couple of 330s that we use a lot in the studio – the type with the one P-90 in the middle, and then one with two pickups, like Slim Harpo’s. Those are my favorite to record with; they’re amazing. I’ve got an Epiphone Casino, too, and a Riviera I use a lot.
Conrad: A buddy of mine, Brian Shaw, gave me a Harmony hollowbody bass. I don’t know how old it is – probably early ’60s. And everybody’s got to have a Höfner, so I’ve got a Beatle Bass, and my ’68 Gibson EB3, an Ampeg scroll bass, and my first bass – an old brown Teisco. They were badass basses, man. And St. George amps.
David: With the mics and everybody plugged into one amp.
Conrad: Yeah, mics, two guitars, a piano, bass [laughs].
Tell me about the Jerry Garcia guitar?
David: We played at New George’s in San Rafael in ’85 or ’86. He showed up with Carlos, and they sat in. I had one 335 as a backup guitar, so there was only one extra right-handed guitar, so Carlos and Jerry would trade off. Carlos would play for a while, hand it to Jerry, and Jerry would play for a while.
On the same song?
David: Yeah. It was cool. That’s when we got to meet Jerry for the first time. We were like gushing – big fans. At the end of the night he goes, “I’ve got this ’58 Strat, man.” I said, “That’s out of my league.” He said, “I want you to have it.” A couple months later, we played the Warfield in San Francisco. He showed up, and I said, “Do you want to play?” He said, “No, man, I get to see a show” – and held up his ticket. After the show, someone from his entourage handed me the guitar. He was real good to us, real down to earth.
The fondest memory of Jerry, watching him play, was at Giants Stadium. Each guy had his own cubicle backstage, where they’d hang out during the breaks. He’d go in there and smoke a cigarette or change guitars. In the middle of the show, [Grateful Dead roadie] Steve Parrish invited me back there, so I sat down with Jerry and talked about Buck Owens and stuff. Only about five minutes; I said, “I don’t want to take up all your time.” But it was just a cool little conversation. It wasn’t like fan to idol; it was like friends talking, and it just felt really good.
Cesar, has your studio gotten more elaborate over the years?
Cesar: It’s as small as ever, but I got some cooler old stuff, like an old Nieve board. I’ve got Pro Tools, but we use it kind of as a side thing. This record was done mainly analog 2″, then we’d dump it over to Pro Tools for a few overdubs.
David: Still went through the Nieve, though. That was it, right there – the sound of this album.
Cesar: Then we mixed it on another old Nieve console at Cello, which used to be called Western Recorders in the old days.
What year is the “La Bamba” Strat?
Cesar: I think the one I used on the solo on “La Bamba” is a 1960, all original, slab-board. I got it from Norman’s Rare Guitars in the Valley years ago. During that period they weren’t as expensive, but Norman has been a good friend and would give me exceptional deals. I’ve got a nice little collection, but, being left-handed, it’s so rare to find a nice guitar like that. But it took me years and years. I’ve been collecting since I was a teenager.
I should have bought Paul McCartney’s Les Paul. It was offered to me, and I passed on it [laughs]. So Paul ended up with it – the sunburst he’s been playing for the past seven years or so. Back then, they were asking about $8,000 for it.
Was the solidbody electric bajo quinto custom-made for you?
Cesar: I kind of got the idea myself; it came out of the frustration of having the traditional instruments on the road and having my Macias [bajo sexto] broken a few times. They’re kind of delicate instruments, but they’d get tossed around and broken. And I never really had a real cool pickup sound. I used to have a DeArmond, which was a love-hate situation, because sometimes they’d work and sometimes they wouldn’t. And sometimes we’d have to deal with feedback. We had a month-long tour all over Europe, and the first place we got to, in Spain, my Macias got stuck in the luggage turnstile, and it broke.
At home I had a bunch of guitar bodies lying around, so I took this Tele body over to my friend, Bill Antel, and said, “Here’s my traditional Macias, and here’s a Tele body. I want you to copy the scale and make me a neck. Think Fender – maple neck, rosewood fingerboard – and then we’ll make the headstock symmetrical like a Gibson. And I want this thing to be a bolt-on neck. Can you do that for me?” After he made it and centered it on the body, I had some original Danelectro [lipstick tube] pickups, and they sound great and are also wide enough to cover the width of strings. I had Bill make a pickguard to cover the whole top, because it had been routed for humbuckers, and I had him put one pickup where the middle-pickup cavity was.
I took it for granted that the bridge from a Fender electric 12-string would work, but the spacing was too narrow. Bajo spacing is way wider than that. At that point, I took it over to Candelas, when [Porsirio “Candelas” Delgado] was still alive, and he started cracking up. I asked him to make me a traditional bridge – decorative but not as wide as some of the traditional bridges – and to make the action as low as possible. He did it, and then I took it home and put a volume pot on it. I didn’t want any toggle switches or anything – just one volume. And it all paid off; I’ve been playing it for years.
What exactly is a “Hidalguera”?
David: I gave Candelas an old Alvarez concert-size guitar I had, with the idea of putting mandolin tuners on it. I tried different tunings, but most of the time it’s like the top four strings of a guitar, like Nashville tuning: the G strings are octaves; the D is an octave up; and the top two strings are unisons. It’s like a double tenor guitar. I put one together with nylon strings, too.
Is your eight-string Danelectro an electric Hidalguera?
David: Yes. I picked up one of the new Danelectros they make now, and took it to Candelas, and they put the mandolin heads on it. They put a bass bridge on it, set up for four doubles.
Have you taken up any new instruments lately?
David: I’ve got an oud that David Lindley gave me. Years ago, we were invited to Richard Thompson’s wedding. We knew his wife, Nancy Covey, because she used to book McCabe’s. As a gift, we played a little set. David Lindley was there – and, by the way, he brought us a 12-pack of beer, because it was a dry wedding. He snuck in a 12-pack and said, “Here, put this behind the guitarron” [laughs]. He saw me play the requinto jarocho, with the four strings that I play with the long pick, and he said, “That’s the same wrist action and posture that you use on the oud. I’ve got to get you an oud, man.” He told me that for years, and about 10 years later he called me up and said, “Hey, I’ve got an oud for you.” It’s a really nice Turkish oud, and he had Rick Turner put a pickup in it. He started playing it for me, and I went, “Oh, God. What am I getting into here?” I’m still afraid of it; I haven’t really touched it yet, but I’ll get to it. I really appreciate him doing that.
Are there certain dynamics within the group that have helped you stay together so long?
Louie: It’s one of the most elusive, transparent aspects of the band. I know there’s a component of friendship, because we were friends before we were musicians together. If you just find a bass player through a classified ad, there’s no depth or roots or history. Another part of it is that over the years we’ve kind of assumed certain roles, but that’s really just to keep the machine rolling. Conrad tends to be like our treasurer; Steve handles more of the business things; Cesar, Dave, and I tend to do more of the creative things.
We recognize each other’s space; we know almost intuitively when to stay out of each other’s way. And we’ve been friends for so long, before we had a band, our moms would have our heads if we tried to break up. Because we’ve become a family.
We’ve been kind of beat up by this business, but if you peel away the business and even take away the music altogether, you’ll end up with a bunch of guys who are just buddies. We’ve been through some tough times, obviously, that have really kind of told us, “What is the most important thing here?” It is our friendship. For a while, we put everything on hold, and it was just about us being supportive, as friends and family would.
That sounds like too simple an answer. But there’s also the most powerful element; from the very beginning we knew there was something special here, and we had to hang on to it. There’s something that keeps the enthusiasm alive and the sense of discovery. I mean, how many bands can reinvent themselves every time they go into the studio? We bravely go where no band has gone (laughs)!
A lot of musicians talk about those moments when they seem to be playing beyond their abilities, when everything goes up a notch, as if something else is in control.
Louie: Absolutely. It’s something we don’t even have to summon; it just happens. It happens onstage a lot, and it’s an amazing thing. It’s like out-of-body kind of stuff. It happens in songwriting, too – stuff that just seems to flow. It comes from another place. You hit a certain point where something else takes over, and you just get out of the way. When I’m trying really hard to do something, it’s going to take me a long time. When I hit a point where I have to move away and just let go, then I’m just watching this thing, like an observer. That happens writing, and it happens onstage. You’re part of something; you’re not just up there playing your part in what sums up the song. It becomes something else.
The intuitive thing with us, after 30 years, is that you can actually feel where the next thing is going to go. You kind of know what David’s going to do before it happens, or Cesar, or vice-versa, with all of us. I think when everybody is hitting that spot, we don’t even know what we’re doing at that point, but we all know it’s happening.
Cesar: Obviously, as musicians, you do reach that sometimes. I think, for me, it happens when we play in a certain environment – where the people are really with us. And I think it happens when it’s more experimental and we’re just jamming. All the moments I remember, the audience is there, kind of cheering you on, and then you get off on that. It’s a cliché, but it’s true; you just feed off your audience. It may have happened, but I don’t remember as many times that that just happens when you’re by yourself. When you have the support of your audience, it just makes it that much better.
Louie: When you think about what music is, it’s invisible. You can’t hang it on the wall to look at; it’s not something you can touch and feel. Some quantum physicist can talk about how it’s vibrations moving in space, but when you think about the way Miles [Davis] could hang one note in the air – not a flurry of notes by some virtuoso; just one note – it’s just so right. And you know it, and he must know it, too. And the world is a better damn place because of that.
Today there are the Latin Grammys and a huge growth in awareness and popularity of Latin music, to the point where it actually affects the public’s taste. What has it been like watching that, having been so far in front of that awareness?
Louie: To look at it in a historical perspective, I think this band really changed a lot of things: the ways people perceived music from Latin people – in our case, Mexican-American people. Four guys from East L.A., but I think we had a huge impact on it, and somehow we have influenced a lot of younger bands. But it took a long time. We opened that door, and nobody seemed to come through.
Cesar: Yeah, it was pretty lonely (laughs). I’m really glad that somehow they came around, but we were waiting for them for a long time. It’s like we kicked the door in and looked back; we had to walk back out in the hallway, and there was nobody there. I’m glad that, thanks to evolution or time, it started getting to that point, but for many years we would go out there and have to sort of defend our own culture. We had to not only educate them about what was going on and what happened in East L.A. – I’m talking about the second generation of kids – but also explain that there were a lot of gifted musicians in East L.A. It was always like a history lesson.
Louie: It seemed to take a whole generation. My two-bit theory is that, in the early years of the sort of Mexican-American renaissance in art, music and dance, in the early ’70s, a lot of it carried a lot of baggage from the late ’60s, when it was more of a separatist mentality and an “us against them” sort of attitude. It took a whole generation for young musicians to not have to carry all that weight, and just make art and incredible music, which they’re doing now.
In the early years, when this band was playing exclusively Mexican music, there was a lot of pressure for us to get more political. And we never were. We always thought that somehow what we did was innately political; it was a big statement in itself. We kept it that way – a more universal thing.
Being Mexican-Americans, you’re never quite accepted by Mexican nationals. “What are you then? Are you Mexicans or are you Americans?” And of course we’re not totally accepted in the United States, as Latin people. So what do you do? Do you sit on your hands and ponder your dilemma and not do anything, or do you find freedom in it? That’s what we found. If we don’t belong over there, and we’re not totally accepted over here, then we belong everywhere.
Above Photo: Rick Gould
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sept. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.