January 14, 2010

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A 40-year musical conversation
Musicians from Los Lobos bring the discussion to the Tupelo
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

Louie Pérez and David Hidalgo were a grade apart when they met at James Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in 1970. As the creative core of Los Lobos, they’ve been close collaborators ever since.

When the band formed in the early 1970s, songwriting took a back seat for a few years.

“At that point we were totally immersed in traditional, regional Mexican music, which was something that always played in the background,” Pérez said. “But we were rock and roll kids, we never paid much attention to it until we realized how challenging it was.”

Los Lobos first gained national attention with the 1983 release of the EP  … and a Time to Dance, opening shows for Public Image Ltd., X and other punk bands. In 1987, the band had a number-one hit with the title song from the biopic La Bamba. In 2009, they performed for President Obama as part of a White House Latin music night.

On Jan. 12, Pérez and Hidalgo will celebrate their “40-year musical conversation” with the release of The Long Goodbye. A brief unplugged tour stops at Tupelo Music Hall on Sunday, Jan. 17, at 7 p.m. Pérez spoke with The Hippo recently from his Orange County, Calif., home.

What was the first thing musically that you and David did together?
I always tell the story that I went over to his house for one night and stayed a couple of months. We just started listening to music and playing guitars together and the first thing we ever did was probably just come up with a joke song about a girl, something like that. In about 1971, when I graduated from high school, I kind of waited on him and then we said we were going to make a record and of course all this stuff was kind of cheeky. Let’s make a record. We had a friend who had two Sony reel-to-reels and we linked them together … it got incredibly degenerated every time you went from one recording to the next, but that was our sound on sound.

What’s the lineage of the songs on The Long Goodbye?
In 1987, right after La Bamba and all this stuff happened, we decided to do a record of traditional songs, which a lot of people thought was commercial suicide, especially after a huge hit like that. But it seemed like the right thing for us to do. David and I went into the studio to record some demos. We put down a bunch of stuff, it was probably about seven songs — they all appear on this record. Because we were in the studio, we couldn’t help ourselves. We started adding in other instruments and these demos turned out to be pretty well-fleshed-out songs.

… Once we came up with this idea to do the songwriter tour, we thought, what ever happened to those songs? Larry Hirsch [the engineer on the sessions] had the tapes sitting in the top shelf of his closet — for 20 years they’d been sitting there. He took them out and looked that them and said, “These things are in bad shape, I’m going to get one shot at transferring them.” So those are the seven songs that appear on this record, as well as another track that we found when we did a demo for Bonnie Raitt for a song that appeared on the record she did years ago with Mitchell Froom [“Cure For Love” from 1998’s Fundamental].

There’s a certain sadness and melancholy to the record. Was there a reason for that?
Well, it’s always easier to write a sad song than a happy one. There’s a bit of country tinge to it, it was around the time that Waylon Jennings had recorded “Will the Wolf Survive,” we had gone to Nashville to do a songwriter’s showcase out there …. So there is a country vibe to this record, and that’s only because of what was going on during that period.

As far as that kind of melancholy thing that goes on, and the sadness, there’s something that classic country music, if you listen to Hank Williams or any of them, there’s always that thing of broken hearts, there’s a little of that in there. But there’s a lot of that that goes beyond that, like “The Long Goodbye,” which is about saying goodbye to things all of life.

Do you write the words and David the music?
Ideally, it would be David and I with guitars, a paper and a pencil … As time goes on and life gets more complicated, and more time is spent on the road and we just don’t have the luxury of time. So we don’t sit down anymore and willfully decide to do things, but they kind of evolve into where David will initiate the musical idea, and he’ll give me the musical idea and I’ll come up with the lyric. Of course, in years and years of working together I have this intuitive ability to write words that I believe will come out of David’s mouth. Sometimes, there’ll be something will melody already, something he just hums along, or there might not be melody at all, he’ll write the melody, but the important thing I need to say is that we’re songwriters and that it would discount me to say I was just a lyricist, it would discount Dave to say he’s just the musical component. Because once a song is put together, and verses are all done, and we know where the chorus and bridge go, before we even present it to the band we’ll go through it and that’s where we sit down together and do the arrangement, add a verse, work on maybe moving a verse to a chorus. That’s when we’re songwriters in the purest definition. That’s pretty much the process the way it works out. Of course, songwriting has kind of changed. Kiko blew the doors open for us as songwriters — from Kiko evolved Latin Playboys, which was really about abandoning the formula of songwriting, and trying a lot of different things

Why [did you] chose to do an album of Disney covers.
There’s a reason for that. First of all, we’re no longer with Hollywood Records, which was our label. We had this last record commitment to them. I’ll be perfectly honest. We were really disappointed with what they did with Town and the City, because it was such a beautiful record. So we said we’re not going to go into the studio and make another record of original songs, and in our back pocket has always been that we’d like to do another children’s record. We did Music For Papa’s Dream (1995), which we really enjoyed. We went to Disney and said we’d like to do a children’s record and they said … why don’t you do Disney songs?

At first we thought, that’s a goofy idea, and the pun is intended, but why don’t we entertain the idea? So they got an intern to put together… well, I couldn’t believe how many songs they came up with. We eventually picked the songs that meant the most to us that we like. They’re songs from Disney movies, but with our own twist to it. Not intended to do something weird with them, it’s just interpreted by us, you know.

… One thing to keep in mind is that when they were making these movies, they were choosing whoever was happening at the time. Louis Prima did Jungle Book, Roger Miller did these cool songs, and we chose a couple. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do one of the songs Randy Newman did. David’s vocal on “I Will Go Sailing No More” is just stunning. It’s a great selection of songs. That’s the long-form answer to why we chose to do that.

Now you’re out on a singer/songwriter tour, celebrating a 40-year collaboration.
It’s a wonderfully scary show. Scary because David and I are out there with a couple of acoustic guitars, when we’ve been hiding behind a loud rock band all these years. There’s something scary about that, but it’s an evening where we come out and play songs for a while and then talk about them, we take a break, we come out and play more songs, and stretch definitions a little bit. David’s sons join us on stage on bass and the tiniest drum kit you can imagine, and then when the whole thing’s over, we set up a couple of mikes in the aisles and answer questions.

... It’s a really fun night, and I’d like to do more of them. It’s a cool night of music.