Not that we’d know anything about this, but sometimes the hardest part of getting a piece of work done is just starting it, getting the wheels turning, finding a way in while being stared at by a blank page waiting for a lead sentence, or that first brushstroke, or a recording studio waiting for a bunch of songs. Defying the pitiless indifference of a blank canvas.
So it may come as consolation to some (not to us, mind you), that a band like Los Lobos, which has been making records for more than 30 years, faces the same merciless void from time to time. Great big studio, clock ticking. And did we hear that the band went in last February to cut what was just released last week as Tin Can Trust with pretty much nothing ready to track?
“Yeah,” says Steve Berlin, juggling a phone interview while rolling off a bus and checking into his hotel from a New York tour stop, “that would be more than accurate. We really came in the first couple of days with absolutely nothing. Zero nothing. But y’know, we’ve been to that place before. It’s a little sketchy, but we play our way out of it.
“Somebody comes up with one little thing,” Berlin continues, “in this case Cesar [Rosas] had what became ‘All My Bridges Burning,’ then Dave [Hidalgo] came up with ‘Jupiter or the Moon.’ It’s really just sort of a mindset. Once we can achieve that sort of frame of mind, we’re off to the races.”
Berlin acknowledges that the four years since the band went in to record a proper CD, The Town And The City, probably left the band a little studio-rusty, an ironic affliction for a franchise that has been working in its current form for 26 years, with the founding members (Hidalgo, Rosas, Louie Perez and Conrad Lozano) extending their tenure back nearly four decades, playing weddings and dances in the East L.A. barrios right out of high school.
The CD is being hailed by many critics as one of the band’s best, and that’s saying something. From the opening acoustic guitar chords of the ’hood nostalgia piece “On Main Street” to the Hidalgo centerpiece “I’ll Burn It Down” (which also features some nice backing vocals by Susan Tedeschi) and the atmospheric fantasia ballad “Jupiter or the Moon,” from the blues-jam stomper “Do The Murray,” dedicated to Hidalgo’s recently deceased pet dog, to a somewhat paced cover of the Dead’s “West L.A. Fadeaway” and the murky historical piece “27 Spanishes,” Tin Can Trust breathes and vibrates with the spark of a road band more willing to show off their tread wear than their award ribbons.
But, curiously, the CD is a scrappy and lightly produced offering. No one’s posing here, no gimmicky knob twiddling behind the scenes. Just all song.
“There’s very little process here,” Berlin says, “like the stuff we like to do. Torture sound, destroy it, break it down and put it all back together again. We actually left a lot of that out on this one. We kind of liked the sound of the room, and the sound of us playing together. So, probably more than any record we’ve done, we really didn’t do much in the way of sound torture.”
We were particularly struck by the almost tribal blues meditation “27 Spanishes.” Murky, ruminative, hypnotically woven around a single blues riff and a little bit menacing in its telling of the arrival in Mexico of the conquistadors, it’s maybe Hidalgo’s best moment on this CD.
“That one in particular … Dave does these demos at his house with this very, very archaic recording technology,” Berlin explains. “Basically, an eight-track cassette. Sometimes the stuff is just so great, the demos themselves just sound perfect without anything else on them; pretty much on that track that’s all there is, for all intents and purposes. We sang it, and I think there’s a percussion part, but beyond that there was not a whole hell of a lot.”
And as far as the title track goes, a gentle, hard-luck hymn to the post-modern Depression, Berlin says the thing just fell together. With a little grace.
“That’s another one that started as a demo,” Berlin says, “but it was just a little rowdy. And we started tracking it in the big room, and it was a first take. The weird thing is that no one really knew the song at all. It was literally a miracle that it came together the way it did. I mean, it’s basically a blues, so we didn’t have to learn a whole chord sequence, but it was somewhat miraculous that it turned into a song so quickly.”
So, as the new CD grows its way into their set list, Los Lobos are poised to fulfill a longtime Boulder tradition, returning to play the endearingly drafty auditorium up at Chautauqua. We’ve lost track of how many Lobos shows we’ve caught up there, or how many times we’ve glanced nervously up at the century-old beams during Rosas’ showcase rocker “Don’t Worry Baby,” maybe half-concerned that this time the rafters start showering us with hundred-year-old nails and historic splinters.
“Well,” Berlin laughs, “we haven’t brought the place down yet.”
On the Bill
John Hiatt & The Combo and Los Lobos play the Chautauqua Auditorium on Saturday, Aug. 14. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $44.50. 900 Baseline Rd., Boulder, 303-440-7666.