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Back to the wolf den: Los Lobos on returning home, writing new album

Randy Lewis
Various curios sit atop a speaker in the recording studio where Los Lobos were working on the band's upcoming release, 'Tin Can Trust.'

David Hidalgo stood on a concrete loading dock outside the tiny recording studio where he and the other members of Los Lobos were working feverishly on the final track for their new album, “Tin Can Trust.”

On this lovely spring afternoon, the band’s beefy singer, guitarist, accordionist and composer soaked up the sights and sounds surrounding him in the East L.A. neighborhood where the roots-rock group had settled in to make its latest record. As the sun set, cars whizzed past, an ice cream truck trundled down the road playing a jingling version of Brahms’ Lullaby and construction workers wrapped up their day at the demolition yard across the street.

Hidalgo smiled as he mentioned how comforting it was to see a street vendor periodically strolling the sidewalk with his pushcart stocked with fresh corn on the cob.

“The old neighborhood — it’s good,” Hidalgo, 55, said during a break in recording “The Lady and the Rose,” the song that would complete their forthcoming album.

Three dozen years and more than a dozen albums into its career, a band could be forgiven for pursuing the most relaxed, most comfortable way to make a new record. But from the early exuberance of its 1983 EP, “… and a time to dance,” to the musical and sonic sophistication of 2006’s “The Town and the City,” Los Lobos has long strived to push itself, and its music, to new places, and that’s no exception for “Tin Can Trust,” which will be released Aug. 3.

By returning to the part of town that gave birth to the group in 1973 to make the new album, the members have reconnected with some of the qualities that first brought them together. At the top of the list: the sheer joy of playing together, and the challenge of bringing the values they cherish into songs that help illuminate their experiences, good and bad, as they move through life.

“On Main Street,” one of a half-dozen new songs Hidalgo wrote with bandmate Louie Perez, celebrates the community they grew up in:

Nothing better than running down the boulevard

Getting a little dirt on my shoes

With my brothers and sisters hanging all around

Chasing away all of my blues

The blues are never too far away, as they note in the title song, which outlines and empathizes with struggles of those who live hand-to-mouth. He concludes the lyric with the reality that “All in all I ain’t got/ Ain’t got much in a tin can trust.”

Barely 48 hours earlier, Hidalgo had walked into the studio with just a chord progression in his head.

He began strumming the haunting riff on a Gretsch 12-string electric guitar.

A new song? “I hope so,” he said, acknowledging the mysteries of the creative process. Saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin explained that as they were putting finishing touches on the 10 tracks they’d previously recorded, the band members decided the album should have one more song.

Although the band has averaged a new album only every three or four years, Los Lobos has toured heavily and supplemented the studio albums with a series of live recordings. The various members have also kept themselves busy with various side projects, including the Latin Playboys, the Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven, some duo releases by Hidalgo and Perez, a solo album from guitarist-singer-songwriter Cesar Rosas and numerous one-off contributions to other artists’ works.

Conrad Lozano, hearing the music for “The Lady and the Rose” for the first time, promptly joined in as Hidalgo strummed the circular chord pattern. He grabbed his Fender bass, sliding the fingers of his left hand deftly up the guitar’s neck with liquid passages that helped propel those chords along.

“I’m just looking for something that fits,” said Lozano, looking more like a veteran high school football coach in his loose-fitting T-shirt and shorts than a member of one of L.A.’s most esteemed rock bands. “I’ll keep trying until I find something that feels right.”

Adjunct percussionist Cougar Estrada began experimenting with some military marchlike rhythms on his drum kit, then settled into a big, crushing backbeat like a formidable Aztec warrior on a rampage.

By the following afternoon, the basics of the musical track were in place. Then it was Perez’s job to come up with lyrics for Hidalgo to sing, which he planned to bring to the studio the day before their deadline for finishing the album.

“I’ll be honest,” he said. “I went home and I made every possible excuse not to get to work. So I sat there last night and thought, ‘What is the song?’ It had an ethnic kind of thing to it. I’m sitting right there in front of the computer I share with my wife, and I notice she had this little book, a novena (nine-day prayer) to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I looked at it and thought, ‘Hmm … The story of Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe is a pretty good story.’ And that’s what I wrote.”

After Perez shared the freshly minted lyrics, Hidalgo did a bit of stalling of his own, saying that the hardest, most daunting part of the process for him is singing. “Can I get you anything, Dave?” engineer Shane Smith asked as Hidalgo stood reluctantly at the microphone. “More reverb, less slap?”

“Yeah,” Hidalgo said. “How about a beer?”

That’s emblematic of this out-of-the-box outing for Los Lobos. Typically, the band members have made demo recordings in their individual home studios, then brought them in for the others to use as a template when it was time to record. That’s part of the recipe behind the expanding musical textures Hidalgo and Perez have brought in — songs freely sampling blues, rock, country, folk, jazz, R&B, psychedelia and pan-Latin styles, often in Tom Waits-like sonic collages full of evocative ambient sounds. Meanwhile, Rosas has characteristically kept the band connected to its roots with his border-blind norteño polkas and soulful blues and R&B numbers.