The five members of Los Lobos walk out onto a Los Angeles street for an impromptu photo shoot, causing some drivers to stop and gawk and a few fans in the predominantly Latino neighborhood to admire from a distance.
Then the band decides to pose around a fruit cart, but the Mexican immigrant who runs it is skeptical. He’s never heard of them.
This mixture of fame and obscurity is typical for Los Lobos, who despite strong critical acclaim have never fit into the kind of format that attracts radio play and widespread popular appeal.
Their new album “The Ride,” released Tuesday, is another eclectic collection of stripped-down, bare-bones rock; roots flavoring; a huge dollop of Latin; and a heavy dose of down-home soul.
Released in time for a tour starting on Cinco de Mayo in Los Angeles, the album coincides with the band’s 30th anniversary and features appearances from heavyweights such as Elvis Costello and Tom Waits, salsero Ruben Blades, R&B luminary Bobby Womack, Mexican alt-rockers Cafe Tacuba and Chicano music veteran Little Willie G.
The album, says bassist Conrad Lozano, “is a special thing for us… . It’s even better than getting a Grammy award.
“The experience we had with these people … we asked them if they wanted to be on this record and they said ‘yes,’ ” he says with a sigh of disbelief. “It’s pretty heavy for us. It’s a big thing.”
Even after 12 full-length albums and three Grammys, such modesty is characteristic of a band that considers itself more of a family than an enterprise.
Four of the five Lobos — Spanish for “wolves” — have been friends since they were classmates at Garfield High School in East L.A. East Coast transplant Steve Berlin joined in 1984 after hearing them open for his previous group, the rockabilly band The Blasters.
David Hidalgo says the group’s longevity comes from friendship. “We were friends before we became a band… . We’ve had times where it’s hard to continue, but what else are we going to do?”
They’ve also kept a commitment to their mission: making music they like.
“We’ve never been a singles-based band, where we’ve got to come up with a song with a hook, whatever’s going to be radio friendly,” says drummer Louis Perez.
The band’s biggest hit single, 1986’s “La Bamba,” was followed by an album that some observers classified as commercial suicide. But the collection of traditional Mexican folk songs, “La Pistola y el Corazon,” won the band its second Grammy.
The decision to follow radio success with “La Pistola” was deliberate, Perez says.
“We knew that because of the major hit of ‘La Bamba’ that that little record of Mexican music would be available all over the world. And I just imagined some Japanese people in Kyoto trying to say ‘La Pistola y el Corazon,’ and that kind of stuff thrills me, just to be able to pollinate the world with our culture.”
And vice versa. In the early days, after the Lobos cut their teeth playing weddings and neighborhood gigs and developed their Mexican-rock fusion, they ventured to Hollywood’s punk scene to play with bands like the Circle Jerks and the Minutemen.
“You could count the Mexicans in the audience; there were like one or two,” says guitarist Cesar Rosas, known for always wearing sunglasses. “It took two years to start seeing Chicano people ‘cause nobody would have the guts to come across the L.A. River to check out some music.”
Los Lobos is now working on its first live projects: an album to be recorded in July in San Francisco, and a concert DVD. Whether that brings radio success is not important, Perez says.
“I have to admit, I wish we were a lot more successful than we are already,” he says. “But I’m grateful for what we’ve done.
“If it all went away tomorrow, I’d be a really happy person because I know … this little band has kind of changed the way people listen to music. Who would ever think that this little band from East LA would cause this much fuss and make people look at our culture in a different way?”
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