Los Lobos 2021
Photo: Piero F. Giunti / Courtesy of New West Records

Feeling California: Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin Talks ‘Native Sons’

Longtime Los Lobos member Steve Berlin talks about relearning the saxophone during the lockdown and the inspiration behind their latest album, Native Sons.

Native Sons
Los Lobos
New West Records
30 July 2021

Just by years of playing alone, Los Lobos have been active long enough to almost be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. As impossible as it is to bestow the title of “America’s Best Rock and Roll Band” to any band, you could still use two obvious criteria: an ability to put on an incendiary live show and a consistent output of “very good” to classic albums. Under that definition, Los Lobos would deserve to be in contention for that designation.

This year, Los Lobos released Native Sons on the Nashville and Athens, Georgia-based New West Records. The album is the band’s first for the label, whose current roster includes Steve Earle, Pokey LaFarge, and Drive-By Truckers. Native Sons is a love letter to California, specifically Los Angeles-evoking bands like Buffalo Springfield, the Blasters, and Lalo Guerrero, who’s widely recognized as the “Father of Chicano Music”. The city’s soundscape, on full display with Native Sons, reflects an environment that draws in transplants carrying their own influences.

“Most of my friends in Los Angeles came from somewhere else,” longtime Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin said in a phone interview from his home in southwest Washington. “Everybody was trying out a brand new identity.”

Berlin came to Los Angeles from Philadelphia. As a kid, he listened to Little Richard before becoming “a really obnoxious jazz snob”. Berlin started playing soprano saxophone, but when he moved to Los Angeles, musicians told him, “Don’t bother showing up to rehearsal unless you have another instrument.”

One of his first big breaks was with the seminal, multi-genre group the Blasters. He switched to baritone saxophone for the Blasters and joined Los Lobos in 1983, where he’s played baritone sax ever since. Los Lobos pays tribute to the Blasters by covering their song “Flat Top Joint” on their latest album. Native Sons is the second covers album in a row from Los Lobos. In 2019, the band released their first holiday-themed album with Llego Navidad.

Los Lobos have no problem taking their time releasing albums of original material. This past decade, they released only two full-length albums of original material: 2010’s Tin Can Trust and 2015’s acclaimed Gates of Gold. One reason for last decade’s relatively sparse output is because the band still tours relentlessly. Pre-COVID, Berlin estimated the band averaged about 150 shows a year.

In early 2020, Los Lobos were planning on being as busy as years before. But that changed in early March. The band had a week of shows near the Denver area. On 14th March, they were slated to play the Boulder Theater with the Drunken Hearts. That show, along with the rest of their 2020 dates, was shelved because of the pandemic.

Like most of us, Berlin opted to use the downtime to pursue projects he never got around to doing during the lockdown. But while many of us were learning how to cook with Instant Pots or painting neglected rooms, Berlin took saxophone lessons.

Not that Berlin particularly needed to learn the saxophone. After all, he’s been playing the instrument for about 40 years. But most of Berlin’s training has been road-tested “gigging”. He set a goal of refining his craft during the lockdown.

“I wanted a better technical understanding of the saxophone,” Berlin said.

One of the first things Berlin learned during the lessons was that he had been “doing it wrong for a long time.” Though both “real world” experience and more regimented lesson plans are critical in musical mastery, both require vastly different skill sets, like a marathon runner who suddenly becomes a sprinter.

“Relearning was no fun,” Berlin said. “I was ready to give up sometimes.”

He didn’t get as far in his lessons as he wanted because his “side gig” as a producer kept him more and more occupied. Artists kept reaching out to Berlin to produce their albums. Initially, it was a few requests here and there, but by the last half of 2020, it became almost a full-time job, Berlin said.

The rest of 2021 looks to be packed with concerts (several outdoors) for Berlin and Los Lobos. The tour will go well into 2022. After that, Berlin said the band would go into the studio and record an album of original material. If released in 2022, it would be Los Lobos’ first album of original material in seven years.

As for now, the band’s focus is on touring. In terms of coming up with any concept for another album, that is still a ways off. The impact of the pandemic will likely weave itself into a new album, even if they don’t address COVID-19 directly. Berlin philosophized that the last major pandemic in the United States ushered in the jazz age. He said he believed the 2020s could usher in a similar landscape-shifting era of music and art.

“Let’s cross our fingers and hope that happens now,” Berlin said.