LOS ANGELES — David Hidalgo stood on a concrete loading dock outside the tiny recording studio where he and the other members of Los Lobos were working feverishly on the final track for their new album, “Tin Can Trust.”
On this lovely spring afternoon, the band’s beefy singer, guitarist, accordionist and composer soaked up the sights and sounds surrounding him in the East L.A. neighborhood where the roots-rock group had settled in to make its latest record. As the sun set, cars whizzed past, an ice cream truck trundled down the road playing a jingling version of Brahms’ Lullaby and construction workers wrapped up their day at the demolition yard across the street.
Hidalgo smiled as he mentioned how comforting it was to see a street vendor periodically strolling the sidewalk with his pushcart stocked with fresh corn on the cob.
“The old neighborhood — it’s good,” Hidalgo, 55, said during a break in recording “The Lady and the Rose,” the song that would complete their forthcoming album.
Three dozen years and more than a dozen albums into its career, a band could be forgiven for pursuing the most relaxed, most comfortable way to make a new record. But from the early exuberance of its 1983 EP, “... and a time to dance,” to the musical and sonic sophistication of 2006’s “The Town and the City,” Los Lobos has long strived to push itself, and its music, to new places, and that’s no exception for “Tin Can Trust,” which will be released Aug. 3.
By returning to the part of town that gave birth to the group in 1973 to make the album, the members have reconnected with some of the qualities that first brought them together. At the top of the list: the sheer joy of playing together, and the challenge of bringing the values they cherish into songs that help illuminate their experiences, good and bad, as they move through life.
“On Main Street,” one of a half-dozen new songs Hidalgo wrote with bandmate Louie Perez, celebrates the community they grew up in:
Nothing better than running down the boulevard
Getting a little dirt on my shoes
With my brothers and sisters hanging all around
Chasing away all of my blues
The blues are never too far away, as they note in the title song, which outlines and empathizes with struggles of those who live hand-to-mouth. He concludes the lyric with the reality that “All in all I ain’t got/ Ain’t got much in a tin can trust.”
Barely 48 hours earlier, Hidalgo had walked into the studio with just a chord progression in his head.
He began strumming the haunting riff on a Gretsch 12-string electric guitar.
A new song? “I hope so,” he said, acknowledging the mysteries of the creative process. Saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin explained that as they were putting finishing touches on the 10 tracks they’d previously recorded, the band members decided the album should have one more song.
“After we’d finished,” Berlin said, “we felt we needed one more to really capture the sound of the room. We really liked the sound of it.”
That would be Manny’s Estudio, a scrappy, low-fi operation in Lincoln Heights. Owner Manny Nieto has been using it mostly for punk and alternative bands, and flipped when he got a call from East L.A.‘s most celebrated musical conglomerate about using it.
“I grew up loving their music,” he said. “To have them come in here to my studio was such an honor.”
That allowed Nieto a close-up look at the ego-free process through which Los Lobos has kept its artistic batting average high through the years, something that also prompted Shout! Factory Records to sign the band to a new deal.
“Fortunately, I was in L.A. when they were first playing clubs, and I always loved seeing them live,” label president Garson Foos said. “Listening to that first record and others like crazy, I became a huge fan myself.”
Although the band has averaged a new album only every three or four years, Los Lobos has toured heavily and supplemented the studio albums with a series of live recordings. The various members have also kept themselves busy with various side projects, including the Latin Playboys, the Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven, some duo releases by Hidalgo and Perez, a solo album from guitarist-singer-songwriter Cesar Rosas and numerous one-off contributions to other artists’ works.
“I think they’re such an interesting band in so many ways,” Foos said. “They’re so identified with L.A. and there’s something very cool about that. They’re rooted in the Latino rock and music tradition, but they branch out in so many different directions, touching on the jam band scene, the pure Latin stuff they do, and there’s also a very soulful side to them that’s influenced by the Chicano R&B sound of groups like Thee Midnighters and Tierra. They have such a great range.”
Conrad Lozano, hearing the music for “The Lady and the Rose” for the first time, promptly joined in as Hidalgo strummed the circular chord pattern. He grabbed his Fender bass, sliding the fingers of his left hand deftly up the guitar’s neck with liquid passages that helped propel those chords along.
“I’m just looking for something that fits,” said Lozano, looking more like a veteran high school football coach in his loose-fitting T-shirt and shorts than a member of one of L.A.‘s most esteemed rock bands. “I’ll keep trying until I find something that feels right.”
Adjunct percussionist Cougar Estrada began experimenting with some military march-like rhythms on his drum kit, then settled into a big, crushing backbeat like a formidable Aztec warrior on a rampage.
By the following afternoon, the basics of the musical track were in place. Then it was Perez’s job to come up with lyrics for Hidalgo to sing, which he planned to bring to the studio the day before their deadline for finishing the album.
“I’ll be honest,” he said. “I went home and I made every possible excuse not to get to work. So I sat there last night and thought, ‘What is the song?’ It had an ethnic kind of thing to it. I’m sitting right there in front of the computer I share with my wife, and I notice she had this little book, a novena (nine-day prayer) to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I looked at it and thought, ‘Hmm ... The story of Juan Diego and the virgin of Guadalupe is a pretty good story. And that’s what I wrote.”
After Perez shared the freshly minted lyrics, Hidalgo did a bit of stalling of his own, saying that the hardest, most daunting part of the process for him is singing. “Can I get you anything, Dave?” engineer Shane Smith asked as Hidalgo stood reluctantly at the microphone. “More reverb, less slap?”
“Yeah,” Hidalgo said. “How about a beer?”
That’s emblematic of this out-of-the-box outing for Los Lobos. Typically, the band members have made demo recordings in their individual home studios, then brought them in for the others to use as a template when it was time to record. That’s part of the recipe behind the expanding musical textures Hidalgo and Perez have brought in — songs freely sampling blues, rock, country, folk, jazz, R&B, psychedelia and pan-Latin styles, often in Tom Waits-like sonic collages full of evocative ambient sounds. Meanwhile, Rosas has characteristically kept the band connected to its roots with his border-blind norteno polkas and soulful blues and R&B numbers.
This time, however, there was little in the way of finished songs when they began recording. Instead, they’ve relied on the musical chemistry that’s long existed between them.
The word “trust” comes up in conversation periodically.
“Over the years, we have come to trust our intuition, and we trust each other,” Perez said. “He (Hidalgo) knows I’m not going to write anything I can’t believe would come out of his mouth. So I told him what it was about. He said, ‘That’s cool.’ And he hasn’t seen one word of it.”
Before sitting down to read through the song’s lyrics — Perez’s poetic interpretation of the story of Indian peasant Juan Diego’s vision of the Virgin Mary in the 16th century — Hidalgo expressed a similar sentiment.
“This time we were in a crunch,” said Hidalgo, who ultimately delivered another of his emotive vocals. “There was no time to sit around and talk about it. We just want to finish it. He trusts me to do my part and I trust him to do his.”
They also trust one another enough to handle production of the album themselves.
“We do try to edit (ourselves) hard,” Berlin said. “That’s not easy sometimes. Feelings get hurt; people get upset. That’s when we try to think big-picture. Not often do we think big-picture, but when it comes to the records, we try to.”
Despite the fits and starts, including some mike troubles that added to Hidalgo’s frustrations, they effectively completed the song — an eerie yet gracefully comforting piece of low-key spirituality, thanks to Hidalgo’s yearning vocal — in less than 72 hours.
For Berlin, it was yet another manifestation of the elusive process through which Los Lobos has not just survived, but thrived.
“I actually don’t know how we do it. But it’s served us well so far.”