Louie Perez of Los Lobos

by Dan MacIntosh

What are the chances: two Hispanic Randy Newman fans in East Los Angeles get together and form a musical partnership that lasts over 40 years and is still going strong. Louie Perez and David Hidalgo discovered their likeminded musical tastes back in high school, when they started writing songs together. They formed Los Lobos in 1973, which became one of the greatest Los Angeles rock bands of all time. Best known for their cover of "La Bamba" from the 1987 movie about Ritchie Valens, Los Lobos is best experienced on their original albums, such as the socially conscious The Neighborhood (1990) and the sonically expansive Kiko (1992). As Louie explains, "La Bamba" - a #1 hit - was a blessing for the band, but it could have become a curse had they let it define their musical identity.

Hidalgo is the sensitive singer, with that high and pure singing voice, while Perez plays a variety of instruments and writes most of the lyrics. Guitarist Cesar Rosas also writes songs, which tend to be on the lighter side of the Hidalgo/Perez compositions.

In 2012, Perez and Hidalgo transformed some of Los Lobos' songs into musical theater with Evangeline, the Queen of Make-Believe, presented at Los Angeles' Bootleg Theater.

This band that once asked, "Will the wolf survive?" has not only survived, but thrived in the ever-changing music business.
Louie Perez: Let me ask you a question.

Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Yes.

Louie: Why haven't we done this before? I mean, they sent me all this info on what you do and this is just an amazing fit.

Songfacts: I'm glad you feel that way.

Louie: I mean, story is such a huge part of my songwriting. And this seems like an ideal conversation to have.

Songfacts: Excellent. Well, let's get started.

Louie: Sure.

Songfacts: Is it at all frustrating as a songwriter that your band's first really big hit was a cover of "La Bamba"?

Louie: Yeah. Little bit frustrating. But the reason why we got involved in the first place is because we were asked by the Valens family if we would do this. It came from his mom and his sisters who had to give their blessing to the filmmaker and director to make this movie. They said, "We want Los Lobos to do it." By then we had picked up a little speed. We had a couple of critically acclaimed records, and we had a couple songs that were played on the radio, but no big hit. So for us it was doing it for them and for the legacy of this young Chicano kid who really pioneered. I mean, how bold was it back then in 1959 to take a Mexican song and make it into a rock tune, rock arrangement, and sing it in Spanish? That was pretty damn brave.

Songfacts: You're right. Yeah.

Louie: For it to become a hit back then was unprecedented. So for us, it was to bring attention to him and his legacy, and we did it out of really believing in his story. When it became a hit, it was like, "Wow, what happened there?" We had just finished our own record, and that one came out in like May. And then La Bamba was released about a month and a half later and that thing just went crazy - no one expected that.

So yeah, part of it was frustrating for that [being best known for a cover song], but it was like, Man, how cool is this? But we had been a band since 1973, and here it is 1987 and at that point how we redirected that frustration was to do something that was completely different. Different than would be expected of a band who just had a huge hit. We didn't want to chase that hit, come up with "La Bamba #2." So we put out a record of traditional Mexican music with a couple of original songs on it that we wrote, something we'd always wanted to do. I remember after that record was released, journalists from all over were writing how Los Lobos committed commercial suicide, and I think to some degree it was true; we threw this wrench in this machine and brought it back to what we were all about.

So for a moment, it was a little bit of an identity crisis, but it was very apparent for us that this is what we do. David and I have been writing songs since 1971. We just had 40 years as songwriters together. Which just blows our minds.

Songfacts: That blows my mind, too. Wow.

Louie: Yeah, I don't know where it all went. Seems like just a while ago when I went over to David's house - I always say I went over to his house one day for about a month. We played guitars and wrote songs and listened to records, and I remember him putting on Randy Newman's record and Stevie Wonder's Music of My Mind, and Todd Rundgren's Runt. To me songwriting was something that I'd never thought about, but when the Byrds were interpreting Bob Dylan and that stuff started happening, it was like wow, this is like songs. And then of course Smokey Robinson. It was like, wait a second, there's something more than just moving to the groove. There's actually something that this is all about. That's when I realized that you can take your experience and translate it in another way: songwriting.

Songfacts: The first thing I noticed when I was reading a description of the play Evangeline, is that it talks about a girl going from the east side to the west side.

Louie: Right. Correct.

Songfacts: Even though her life is very different from yours, it seems like it sort of parallels your story.

Louie: Yeah. That's an excellent observation. Her story is a little different, sure. But it was something that I experienced first-hand. Because it's very loosely imagined from my experience with my older sister - this was her. I was two years younger, which is huge when you're a kid. Today, as we get older, two years doesn't mean anything, but then it was huge.

And it was watching all the Shindig and the Hollywood-A-Go-Go and all this stuff on television and the afternoon teen music shows. And just watching her, I remember her dance partner was this pilaster that was in the living room and literally it had the paint worn off from her using it as a dance partner. And I remember clearly the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. She brought two or three friends over and it was like they were there. They were screaming, they were pulling their hair, they were crying. And then she would get on the bus and make the trek all the way from east L.A. to Hollywood to this newsstand that was on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. She'd go there to the newsstand to pick up the Beatles Monthly, which was a UK publication that came out every month and it was a fanzine on the Beatles. Of course, you couldn't go to the corner tortillaria in east L.A. and pick one up, you know. (Laughing) So she'd get on the bus and make the trek all the way over there to spend $1.50, buy the magazine, and get back on the bus and come all the way back home.

So this story was loosely inspired by that. Of course, we're taking it a step further and really embellishing Evangeline's story. But picking up on your cue, yeah, you're right. I kind of lived that same experience with my sister a little later on when I discovered music. There was always music around the house. My mother played Mexican music; she loved Mexican music, loved music in general, and played it on the old BakeLite Magnavox record player at home. And then it was always Mexican radio in the morning - she had one on the counter in the kitchen that was always playing, and I grew up hearing that. And then, of course, when I got old enough - or actually tall enough - to reach the knob, I was able to discover rock and roll. (laughing) Other stations. So early out it was whatever was on the radio.

Back then you could hear the Byrds and Hendrix and "Light My Fire" of course was a huge deal for all of us. I had a Stingray bike that I got for Christmas and I quickly found a transistor radio that I would literally tape to the handlebar - that was my car stereo. (Laughing) And then it finally happened: I discovered Jimi Hendrix. I was way into Jimi Hendrix, and he was playing at the Hollywood Bowl. I begged, begged, my mom. I was 14 years old, and I wanted to go see Jimi Hendrix. My dad passed away when I was 8 years old, so it was just my sister, my mom, and me, and my mom didn't drive. My dad's old Chevy was still sitting in the driveway with the tarp over it. I said, "Mom, I really, really have to go to this." You know, most parents, to some degree they discount what kids do - "Oh, those darn kids. That rock and roll," or whatever. That kind of attitude. But my mom knew that this was something important to me. And she loved music, too, so she realized that passion. When we were young, she used to drag my sister and me down to the Million Dollar Theatre, which was a movie theater in downtown L.A. We lived in East L.A., so it was a bus ride. They'd have Mexican variety shows, so she dragged us along out there. She completely related to that.

And so she got a family friend to be my chaperone and drive me to the Hollywood Bowl. $7.50 for a second-row seat back then.

Songfacts: I'm so jealous right now.

Louie: Hendrix walked out and opened with "Spanish Castle Magic" or something like that. And at that point rearranged this 14-year-old's brain cells.

Songfacts: Well, you're making me really jealous right now. So I'm going to change the topic a little.

Louie: Okay.

Songfacts: How do you and David generally write songs together? Is there a regular method or is it different every time?

Louie: Maybe it's a question for you, because you've spoken to a lot of songwriters. Are there many duo songwriters anymore? I mean, they tend to be just one guy.

Songfacts: It's interesting, I talked to the guitarist for the All-American Rejects, and he and the singer, they write together. So there is that duo thing.

Louie: You know, we were legitimized as a band with our first release in 1983, even though the band was put together '73. Ideally, David and I would sit together with a couple of guitars and a pad of paper and a pencil and come up with a song. That's the traditional kind of thing, even for a songwriter like Dave Alvin, who I know real well. But as time becomes so much of a premium, we've kind of split things up a little bit. I do most of the lyrical stuff, and he comes up with the musical idea. But I've got to say before we even go on with that notion, that David is the musical component and I'm the lyricist would discount both of us, because we've been doing this forever. And right now it's just because it's economical. It's the way it works. Even in this process, once we get past that stage of exchange, we will sit down and work out where it's going and David will usually do some kind of demo on this TASCAM 4-track that we keep - even though cassettes are getting hard to find - and we'll present it to the band.

So in session, I think the chore is split down the middle. But before we even present it to the band, it's a real life song that comes from both of us.

Songfacts: Do you ever write songs for Cesar?

Louie: He's asked me a couple of times to help him out; it's usually a lyrical thing.

Songfacts: Because it sounds to me like he's the wildcard. Because you guys have mainly the more serious things. And not to say that his songs aren't serious, but he just throws in that party vibe, and his songs are always wonderful in their own way, and they stand out on the albums.

Louie: Yeah, I've always felt that he provides a very cool balance. Before anybody ever gets the idea that this thing is getting too serious, then a cumbia that he wrote comes up and everybody's like, wow, okay, cool.

David and I can rock, too. It's not always morose. It's not a balance - put his song on one end of the scale and put ours to the other and find some kind of place where they both even out. It's not that. It's just how it complements it rather than striking a balance. It just works.

Songfacts: Well, I have some of my favorite songs of yours, but of all the songs that you've created with the band, which ones come to mind that you're proud of particularly?

Louie: Well, I would be especially proud of the whole collection of Kiko, because that thing was just so mysterious for us.

Songfacts: That's my favorite album, by the way.

Louie: Oh. Very cool. There's a point when all songwriters fall into this vacuum where it seems so amorphic and almost surreal. It happens to everybody - you find that place where time disappears and somehow you've cleared this conduit and this thing just comes from wherever it comes from. That's what it did on a larger scale on that record, for all of us, everywhere, it touched everything. Mitchell Froom (producer) and Tchad Blake (engineer), all of us were on this crazy trip. It was like a canoe into the fog, all of us were right there paddling away, and knowing we just have to paddle. We don't know where we're going, but we just trusted it. And it was amazing.

Songfacts: When did you know that you had something great? Was there a moment?

Louie: I'll tell you, every day in the studio was like this thing where, wow, where is that coming from? We realized it was great, but we also realized it was almost like something that we were not in control of. I remember when we went to the studio to hear the playback of the whole record - it was all done, it was all sequenced. We all went to this studio in Hollywood and sat back and listened to it, and really when the record ended, I don't think there was a word said by anybody. We all got up and walked out, got in our cars and drove home. It was just like, "Wow." It wasn't that kind of moment where, "Hooray, we made this fucking great record!" beat your chest and go run off. It was just like, "Wow." There was this incredible sense of gratitude that this happened, whatever it was.

But it's hard to take something like that and dissect it to all its components. If you're looking at songs, like "Saint Behind the Glass," "Kiko," and "Angels with Dirty Faces," these are songs where I took this remembrance of the little house that I grew up in and Mom's dresser-top altar, and was able to fold that into a song. We threw out all formula and everything to make that record. And that's something that just happens maybe once.

Songfacts: Did you ever have any doubts and wonder if people were going to get it?

Louie: Yeah. I didn't care. (laughs) After the whole experience and what we ended up with, I had no question that it was going to move somebody. And when it came out it just spun everybody around - people were writing us about this thing saying, "What nation is this?" But I think most people reacted to it in a way that we would hope they would. People loved it. There were some people that felt, Where is Los Lobos going? Where is that party time rock and roll? But that's just, Hey, we'll pull up in front of your house and we'll honk the horn. If you want to jump in, fine. If you don't, we'll just go on to the next house.

Songfacts: I went to a music festival in Chicago, and I can remember being on the plane, and this was the day of the Walkman. I had the cassette tape and was listening on my headphones. And whenever I heard that, it was just magical. Every time I listened to it I heard something different. So today before we talked, I'm listening to the album again, I'm thinking, Wow, it still sounds magical. So whatever it was you did, it's just fantastic stuff.

Louie: Thanks a lot. And we're right up on the 20th anniversary of Kiko.

Songfacts: How are you going to celebrate that?

Louie: We are releasing the 20th Anniversary reissue of the record. Along with it is going to be a DVD of us performing the entire record live. We did that about six years ago, and it was a really elaborate setup of 16 cameras and it was done real well with commentary. There's the making of that's along with it. Mitchell Froom filmed back in the studio where it was created and interviewed with everybody. So that's the way we're going to celebrate it. We might go out on the road in the fall and do a few more of those shows. We only did six of them, and all of them were in California, about six years ago. But upon the release of this thing, which I believe is sometime in the fall, we're going to go out and do a handful of dates where we play the whole record from beginning to end.

Songfacts: Sounds like you keep moving forward.

Louie: Yeah. I've looked for these other things to do, because maybe as I get older I keep thinking about, well, is there life after rock and roll? Maybe it's just a way of making rock and roll - just looking at it a different way. And in this case with "Evangeline" I certainly have been able to use different muscles, so it's really a great piece. We've been working on this for three years. As a songwriter, I'm used to three and a half minutes with a story. To see these characters come to life - the flesh and blood - is a very cool thing for me.

We spoke with Louie Perez on May 3, 2012. Get more at loslobos.org.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Mick from VermontLos Lobos has always been one of my favorite bands but I realize I haven't paid enough attention to them. Song writing is one of those things that when it's really good it looks simple. Louie and Dave are among the best. Kiko and the Lavender Moon is one of those songs that pulls you in with it's imagery. For some reason it's always reminded me of Yellow Moon by the Neville Bros. Thanks for what you do.
  • Joshua from Oceanside Myself, my wife and our seven children, had the pleasure of witnessing these gentlemen at Ca. WorldFest in Grass Valley a few years back. What a Woderfull experience and impression it rang for us. The Music, Sound and Lyrics, Personas from the Soul, was and Is , such a gift.
    Thankyou , Thankyou
  • Paul from Mount Vernon, WaThis is one of the greatest things I've read on this site, and I've been hanging around here for probably 10 years. I have been in love with "Kiko" and all its mystery for a very long time, and I'm seeing Los Lobos in a couple of weeks. What a great find this interview is!
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