A year and a half has passed since the release of Los Lobos’ 13th studio album, “The Town and the City.” But drummer-guitarist Louie Perez still feels a deep emotional connection to the song cycle delving into themes of immigration and assimilation.
“Of course, your favorite children are the newborns,” says Perez, who along with vocalist-guitarist-accordion player David Hidalgo writes most of Los Lobos’ material. “But if I honestly stand back and take a look at it, I have to say, artistically I hadn’t felt like that since `Kiko.’”
Perez does not lightly invoke the 1992 album widely considered to be Los Lobos’ masterpiece. As with the experimental “Kiko,” which followed 1990’s magical rock `n’ roll roots tour “The Neighborhood,” “we felt like we were going into another chapter. We allowed it to take on its own life.”
“The Town and the City” arrived just as illegal immigration was becoming a front-burner issue nationally. But Perez laughs at the notion it was prescient.
“David and myself, when weren’t we writing about that experience?” says Perez, 55, who has been collaborating with Hidalgo in the East L.A. band since the 1970s. “At that time, everybody’s antennas were up.
“I can’t say I was completely oblivious to immigration issues,” he adds. “I’m getting older and looking back at the things I’ve accomplished, I’ve started thinking about my parents and the sacrifices they made for me and my sister. I wouldn’t be sitting here with Grammys on the mantle without their making the ultimate sacrifice of coming across the border to Los Angeles in the `30s.”
Los Lobos, which also includes guitarist-vocalist Cesar Rosas, bassist Conrad Lozano and saxophonist Steve Berlin, recently returned to the road doing what Perez says is a “survey” of the band’s recordings, which encompass rock, Tex-Mex, country, folk, R&B, blues and traditional Spanish and Mexican music.
Material from “The Town and the City” will be part of the show, but not dominate it. However, Los Lobos may begin with the album’s spacey lead-off track, “The Valley,” a pastoral melancholic meditation about the hard work required to barely survive.
“It’s a way of taking the temperature of the audience,” says Perez. “It’s quite impressive live, because people think, `How the heck could they do it?’”
When Hildalgo first brought “The Valley’s” music to Perez, “I thought of indigenous people coming across the border in trucks.” That pointed Perez toward what would become “The Town and the City’s” unifying concept. The idea solidified after Perez worked on “If You Were Only Here Tonight,” an insomniac’s dead-of-night reverie filled with longing and regret, and “Hold On,” about the soul-killing effect of the daily grind.
“From that point on, I designed a blow-by-blow story of a day in the life that goes on in the Mexican-American community,” says Perez. “The songs were moving away from the narrative songwriting we usually do. They were in the first person, so I asked David if he was comfortable with singing that way, that it’s not going to be pretty. He said, `(Heck) yeah. Let’s go.’ “
Despite the critical acclaim heaped on most every one of the band’s recordings - starting with 1984’s “How Will the Wolf Survive?” and 1987’s “By the Light of the Moon” through 2004’s “The Ride,” where Los Lobos revisited vintage material to mark its 30th anniversary as a band, and 2006’s “The Town and the City” - Los Lobos is still best known for “La Bamba” (a No. 1 hit single) and “Come On, Let’s Go” from the hit soundtrack to La Bamba.”
(At the time, as America’s leading Mexican-American band, Los Lobos felt a responsibility to make sure that the soundtrack for Richie Valens’ biopic was everything it could be.)
And though the band has come to terms with its “La Bamba’ legacy, it wasn’t easy to accept that “La Bamba” turned a respected cult band into a pop novelty, pigeonholing Los Lobos forever as, in Hidalgo’s phrase, “the `La Bamba’ boys.”
At one point, the band’s resentment toward the song was so great, Los Lobos stopped playing it.
“We were recording `By the Light of the Moon’ and the `La Bamba’ soundtrack concurrently,” says Perez. “We had two studios locked out at (Hollywood’s) Sunset Sound. We literally were running from one studio to another. ...
“When `By the Light of the Moon’ came out (on July 7, 1987), we started touring behind that. When `La Bamba’ came out (about three weeks later) it completely eclipsed `By the Light of the Moon.’ We certainly were left scratching our heads.”
As for a follow-up to “The Town and the City,” Perez says that while he has been “nudged in that direction,” he is not quite ready to start writing. “We put a lot of ourselves into (‘The Town and the City’), so I want to kind of let that stew in me for a little while.”
However, Los Lobos has undertaken a new project - a children’s album for Disney (Disney is the parent company of Los Lobos’ label, Hollywood Records). “I don’t know what it will be called, but it’s in the mixing phase right now,” says Perez. “It’s us doing songs from Disney animated features.
“We did a Grateful Dead-style version of `Zippity Doo Dah’; a surf version of `When You Wish Upon a Star; a Randy Newman song from `Toy Story, `I Will Go Sailing No More’; a Spanish version of `Hi Ho,’ and `Bella Notte’ from “Lady and the Tramp,’ with one section in Spanish.”
Other songs recorded for the project include “I Wanna Be Like You” from “The Jungle Book,” Roger Miller’s “Not in Nottingham” from “Robin Hood” and “Cruella De Vil” from “101 Dalmatians.”
Also in the can is a CD/DVD release of “Kiko,” which the band recorded live two years ago. “It was a big deal,” says Perez of the project, which may be released in the fall. “We might tour behind that.”
A Christmas record also may be in the works. “There are a lot of these lush and beautiful Christmas songs from Mexico I would like to do,” says Perez.