Steve Berlin of Los Lobos on R.E.M. and sharing the planet with Paul Westerberg
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In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: Steve Berlin is a multi-instrumentalist and producer best known for his 30 years of working with Los Lobos, a group of Los Angeles roots-rockers who began on the Mexican-American music circuit, became fellow travelers with the West Coast punk and New Wave scenes, and had a surprise hit in the late ’80s with a cover of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.” Los Lobos established itself as one America’s most accomplished and adventurous bands, and its groundbreaking 1992 album Kiko was recently re-released in a 20th-anniversary edition by Shout! Factory, along with a live CD and DVD of Kiko performed in its entirety in concert in 2006. Berlin has also played with and recorded some of the most significant rock, pop, and soul artists of his era, including R.E.M., The Replacements, and—in one infamous session—Paul Simon.
Los Lobos, “Angels With Dirty Faces” (from 1992’s Kiko)
Steve Berlin: I’m going to give you probably more backstory than you need, but just so you get the whole picture: When we started Kiko, we’d been through the whole “La Bamba” experience, and then we had made a record called The Neighborhood which was… how should I put this? “Not fun.” [Laughs.] It took a really long time to make, much longer to make than it should’ve, for no real reason. And then we went on a tour in which we sort of bought a lot of rock mythology that when you have a big record, you’re supposed to take out a giant production. We ended up basically losing our ass. We spent a lot of money, and really had very little to show for it. When we came home from that tour, we felt like we had been sold a bill of goods, that we had stopped listening to our internal voice and listened to people who didn’t know or really understand us. I’m not really blaming anybody specifically. It was us, and we went for it, so there’s no one to blame but ourselves. We were very unhappy, very unsatisfied, and we felt like we had screwed up on a lot of levels. I guess we just lost the thread a little bit.
So when it came time to start making Kiko, we were in a pretty bad mood, I’d have to say. We wanted to produce ourselves, so we started doing demos, working at a studio that was in downtown L.A., in a place called “The Nickel,” which is basically the worst neighborhood you could imagine. Just really, really horrible. Homeless families living on the street. Tom Waits wrote about it; there are several books about it… it’s a pretty heartbreaking place to be. And here we are, these poor little rock stars whining about doing two years of touring and not making any money. [Laughs.] We realized what douchebags we were for complaining, but at the same time, it sort of gave us this, “All right, we’re here to work. Stop whining. Buckle down. Let’s see if we can make something we can be proud of, and we’re not going to listen to anybody’s input or take any crap from anybody. We’re just going to do what we want to do.”
So all of that is the long way of saying that “Angels With Dirty Faces” in particular was written about the people that we met in that neighborhood for those three weeks making that record. We were there every day, and we got to run into the same people every day. There was a guy who watched our cars, a homeless dude. There were some musicians down there as well, which was really heartbreaking. Guys that had been in bands, people who had played with James Brown, among others. So the genesis of that song was just talking about—I mean, you can read the lyrics—it was all about these truly heartbreaking stories that we encountered working down there on The Nickel.
The A.V. Club: The sound of Kiko is different than anything you’d done before—more loose and experimental. What were you going for?
SB: It was all in reaction to The Neighborhood. I mean, I’m proud of that record, but we hadn’t really used our full arsenal. We kept a lot of our sensibilities parochial. Like, when we did a country song, we’d use steel guitar. We didn’t really understand or trust ourselves enough to say, “Well, let’s see what happens if we mix this 200-year-old folkloric rhythm with a country song.” Or, “Let’s use this ancient four-string guitar that we found on a pop song.” Kiko was the first time we really felt like… part of it was that we felt like we had nothing to lose. We felt like we had done it the “correct” way and screwed it up, so now we were going to do it our own way.
So a lot of the sound in that record came from that, and I’d say that it also came from working with Tchad Blake, who was Mitchell Froom’s engineering partner. He was a really unique engineer and mixer. Nobody does it like him. Now he’s doing, like, The Black Keys and Sheryl Crow, and there’s a lot of people who’ve become aware of him. But back then, Kiko was one of his first or second records and he, much like us, was of a mind like, “Let’s pull out all the stops. Let’s do anything and everything we can to make this something unique and special for ourselves.” That’s where a good bit of it came from. It was just our feeling like we were going to go out with our boots on. [Laughs.] We were going to have as much fun as we can and use everything that we have and make something that sounds the way we want our records to sound. I think we’ve pretty much sounded that way ever since.
Los Lobos, “Will The Wolf Survive?” (from 1984’s How Will the Wolf Survive?)
SB: I remember very clearly the day that one came into rehearsal, and I remember thinking, “That’s going to change everything.” That’s how strongly I felt about it in the moment. We hadn’t really written anything that special up to that point, so I remember very, very vividly exactly where I was and what it felt like the first time I heard that song. It was our second record. We’d done an EP prior to that, so we’d gotten our feet wet, and I’d made a couple of records prior to that, so I kind of knew what I was doing. But yeah, I think we were still trying to figure out who we were, and we hadn’t quite realized what we were supposed to sound like. We were still experimenting, trying out different identities. I know the guys were huge Blasters fans, so we were always comparing ourselves to The Blasters. I think with that song, for the first time, we could say without contradiction, “Yeah, our band’s right up there.”
AVC: For bands coming out of the Los Angeles scene back then, it seemed there was an uncertainty about whether you were supposed to sound more punk, or more like album-rock radio.
SB: I remember thinking those same things. [Laughs.] But it was a really fun time, with everybody trying on different identities both sonic and personal. It wasn’t like anybody was around to say, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” I mean, we were just kids having fun.
The Blasters, “Hollywood Bed” (from 1981’s The Blasters)
SB: The Blasters sessions were always contentious. It was obvious to everybody that the band didn’t really get along very well. I remember them fighting about everything in the world that they could possibly fight about. So just getting anything done was always mildly miraculous, and then to have it done and actually sound good was fairly amazing as well. At that point, I’d come to L.A. and had played with a couple different bands, and I wasn’t with the Lobos yet, so I was still trying to find my way. I was working in a music store. I’d met Dave Alvin because I was playing with a band called Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs, which he would often come down and see. So they called me up and said, “Do you happen to play baritone? We have a couple of songs that need a baritone sax,” and I said “Yes, absolutely.” Of course, I didn’t own a baritone sax, but I was in a music store, and as I was talking to them I looked up at the shelf and, sure enough, there’s a baritone sitting up there. [Laughs.] I said, “Yeah, I’ve got one right here,” and they said, “Alright, come down to the studio tonight and bring your horn.” I don’t think they were thinking I was going to join the band right then and there, but the vibe was really good. We had a good time, and the song went great, and getting to play with one of my idols, Lee Allen, was pretty amazing as well.
Pretty much by the end of that session, I guess I was in the band. I toured with them for two or three years. But as time went on, the contentiousness never ended, and the role that the horns played, as Dave [Alvin’s] writing developed, became less and less. It wasn’t hard to see that, for me anyway, this wasn’t going to be a long-term job. And it certainly wasn’t that satisfying, because I wanted to produce records. I had a slightly different agenda for myself. So when I met the Lobos at one of the shows, I wasn’t in any way torn as far as making the decision of which band I wanted to go out with. I think even though I was making a lot more money with The Blasters, and they had slightly nicer touring accommodations—Los Lobos were in a van and The Blasters were in buses or flying everywhere—for me, I won’t say it was a complete no-brainer, but I was much more satisfied on an artistic level hanging out and playing with Lobos because they didn’t have to fight about everything to make their voices heard. And just musically, I heard a lot more possibilities; it just seemed like there was a lot more going on there. We didn’t have to fight to change a sound or change an approach or something like that. It just seemed like there was always the spirit of willing experimentation built into Lobos in a way that was always a war with The Blasters.
And it sounds like I’m disparaging The Blasters, but I think they’re one of the best bands I’ve ever seen, much less played with. But it was just that tension, that nonstop war within the band, just became an unbearable situation. Then Dave Alvin left not long after, because I think he got tired of having to fight to have his songs sound the way he wanted his songs to sound, which is kind of tragic and sad, but that was just the nature of the world that was The Blasters. I’m still very close to all of them and I still love them, and I don’t think anything I’m saying anybody would disagree with. They’re amazing musicians and amazing people, and I’m honored and proud to know them, but being in a band with them, especially with Dave and Bill [Bateman] and, at the time, Gene Taylor, you had three guys who really, really had a clear idea on what they wanted stuff to sound like, and it was almost never the same idea. They never agreed on anything.
The Go-Go’s, unknown song (from 1982’s Vacation)
SB: I played on one of those songs in that record—I don’t think it was “Vacation.” I think it was something else, but I don’t remember the name of it. Again, it was that time when it was early-’80s Los Angeles. Belinda [Carlisle] was going out with Bill from The Blasters, so we were all just one big happy family, and they asked me come down and play on that album, and it was a blast. I played live with them a couple times too, which was fun. I mean, we all knew each other long before fame had arrived. There was a moment there where we were all in the same boat, more or less, coming up. It was still very innocent, even though, at that point, I think the Go-Go’s had pretty much set the bar in terms of commercial acceptance, so obviously they were going someplace a little different than, say, the Lobos and Blasters and X were going, at least commercially.
But it was still really wonderful. I mean, all my memories of that time are somewhat positive. I had to battle to make Blasters records, but there was no backbiting. The scene was very supportive; everybody not only wanted to promote everybody else, but everybody was a fan of everyone else’s band. Whenever anybody would get a gig, they’d get all the other bands gigs. So whenever The Blasters got a gig, there was always Lobos; Lobos got a gig, there was always Jimmy. We always tried to share the love. It sounds kind of hippie-dippy now, but it worked that way for the better part of two or three years there. That’s just what it was like. It was a really exciting time. We were making some money, but not enough to screw with anybody’s heads, just enough to survive and have fun and enjoy what we were doing. I was able to quit my job at the music store, so my life was great.
R.E.M., “Fireplace” (from 1987’s Document)
SB: That came from my relationship with Scott Litt, who I had become friendly with when I played on a bunch of records he was producing. That one was obviously a big one, because R.E.M. were pretty huge. I was a little nervous going into that field, but it was a lot of fun. Even though they’d been successful, they were still experimenting. They were having a lot of fun making that record. The vibe in that room was they were really having a great time. They were happy with the way they were sounding and how the record was going and the way the world was receiving them. It was just a real honor to be a part of it.
I’m still really close with pretty much all of them. I’m in a fantasy-baseball league with Mike Mills and Scott McCaughey, who was their sort of Swiss Army-knife guy for a while. Peter Buck lives in my neighborhood, so I run into him all the time and we see each other quite often, both in the neighborhood and socially. We’ve remained good friends.
AVC: You mentioned Scott McCaughey as a “Swiss Army-knife guy”—is there a special bond among those of you who are the multi-instrumentalist heroes of rock ’n’ roll?
SB: [Laughs.] We Swiss Army-knife types, yes. We have a secret society and a secret handshake and the whole thing. Scott’s a really good friend. He’s one of my best pals.
The Replacements, “One Wink At A Time” (from 1990’s All Shook Down)
SB: I was just there, playing percussion and stuff, and keyboard—kind of making noises to move the ball along. I am a huge Paul Westerberg fan, and a huge Replacements fan, so that was a huge honor for me. I was really quite jacked up to be there. It was a time when Paul wanted to quit being in The Replacements. He wanted to make a solo record, and their label was like, “No, you can’t. The world isn’t ready for a Paul Westerberg solo record,” so they kind of forced him to call it a Replacements record, but there were no other Replacements involved, as far as I know. I think Tommy [Stinson] played on a couple things, but it was all session guys, basically. It was myself, Stan Lynch, Benmont Tench, and I can’t even remember who else was around back then. But it really was a Paul solo record, and I think Paul was in a slightly tragic place at the time. He didn’t seem to be very happy, and he was incredibly withdrawn.
I remember there was a restaurant near the studio—a sushi bar—and one day after a session I walked over there and sat down. I think I was on a date with a girl I was seeing at the time. I looked over and Paul was sitting in the back, far corner of the restaurant with his back to everybody, really just kind of hiding. I thought, “Wow, that dude is about the saddest guy I’ve ever seen in my life.” But he was still working and operating and writing and singing at an incredibly high level.
That’s one of my favorite records of all time; I think it’s an amazing record. I think you could hear the pain with which he wrote and made that record—it’s built into the material. I felt bad for him. As a fan and a friend, I wished I could’ve helped him work through whatever he was going through, but I think it was just a lot of personal pain. My guess is that he was sad about the demise of his band, and uncertain about where he was supposed to go, and probably a little sad about the fact he couldn’t just cut the cord, since the label was making him call it a Replacements record even though clearly he had no intention of making it a Replacements record.
So there was a lot of shit going on at that time. That record is still on my iPod; it’s never left it, and I still listen to it all the time. I think it’s a great record on every level. Very underrated. The later Replacements records and some of the Paul solo records are up and down, like any artist. Like Neil Young. But I’m happy to share the planet with a guy like that.
Faith No More, “We Care A Lot” (from 1985’s We Care a Lot)
SB: I had done a couple records for Slash at that time, and I remember hanging out at the office, just because they were my friends and I liked to be there and I didn’t live far from there. There were a number of times where I would just hang out there because it was an exciting place to be. Being at Slash Records in the early ’80s was kind of like being at Stiff Records in 1979. There were cool people making cool shit all the time. So I remember when that Faith No More demo came in. That demo, and the demo for Violent Femmes, came in at roughly the same time. I heard it and said, “Oh my God, that’s un-fucking-believable, you have to let me produce that record.” And I guess they were just dumb enough to let me do it. [Laughs.]
I went up to San Francisco to meet with the band. I remember they were managed by a husband-and-wife team whose names escape me. But I remember I was in their office downtown, and I looked out the window and saw this guy walking across the street. He just seemed to be lighter than air, just bouncing across the street, and had this really non-early-’80s San Francisco vibe about him. I’m just kind of watching him cross the street, and sure enough he comes up the stairs and that was Matt Wallace, who was the band’s engineer. He had done the demos that got them the record deal, and I thought they sounded amazing. So we talked for a while and then we set a date to start the record. I came up to the studio in Sausalito, and Matt had—on his own, more or less—rehearsed the band and basically prepped them to the point where, frankly, there was not a lot for me to do. The songs were just locked-in, and tight as can be, and the band was just ready to rock. It was just amazing. Not that I didn’t think it would be, but Matt had done an extraordinary amount of my pre-production work for me, so not long after we started making the record, I just turned to him and said, “All right, well, you’re my co-producer. There’s no way you’d just get an engineering credit for this. You’ve done all this work; it’s ridiculous.” So that was the start of Matt’s career, and to this day, we laugh about it. Somebody was going to give him that shot anyway, but it was so obvious that he was unbelievably talented and clearly had an amazing producer’s ear and vision for the stuff.
The band itself was in a weird place. This was the singer before Mike Patton, a guy named Chuck Mosley, and Chuck was a really difficult guy, so you never knew, on any given day, which Chuck was going to show up. Some days he was really easy to work with and he’d do his thing and be amazing, and some days he was the most awful human being in the world. [Laughs.] So we had to work around Chuck’s mood, which was troubling, because you couldn’t really count on any day going any which way. Even though the band was smokin’ and were never a problem—they were always ready to go—just getting Chuck engaged was a battle. It became kind of untenable. Obviously they fired him not long after, but my memory of that experience was a lot of waiting for Chuck to come back because he’d stomped out of the studio, or trying to find Chuck, or trying to do work while somebody went out to try to find Chuck, a lot of stuff like that. I wouldn’t put up with it these days, but back then it was like, “Okay, if you want to work with Faith No More, that’s what you have to put up with.”
Even with that said, they remain one of the most amazing bands I’ve ever worked with. They were so dedicated to making everything great. They wanted the songs to be amazing. They were relentless about precision. I think they’d hung around with or grown up with some of the Metallica guys, and I guess they were influenced to a certain extent—maybe not entirely to their benefit—by the way that Metallica made records, which was one instrument at a time, grind shit out, take months to get a kick-drum sound, and do a lot of work that, frankly, I don’t think Faith No More had a lot of business doing. Their basic built-in sound, just playing live, was unbelievable. I think Matt and I had to work really hard to make them aware that the Metallica way of making records is not the only way of making records, and that if you’re as good a live band as they were, you don’t have to record one instrument at a time and spend months on a bass drum sound and do all the other shit that Metallica does to make great records. I won’t say it was a problem, but it was just kind of a process we had to go through; we had to convince them how great they actually were, and it wasn’t that hard. We got there eventually.
AVC: Have you ever made a record like that: working and re-working one instrumental track until you get it right, and then moving on to the next one?
SB: No, never. Well, I won’t say “never.” [Los Lobos’ 1990 album] The Neighborhood was a little bit like that. It wasn’t quite one instrument at a time the way those guys do it, like the “Mutt” Lange approach of months and months and months of just grinding out stuff. For one thing, I’ve never had that much time to make a record. I have a couple other jobs, so I’ve never had really more than a month cleared on my schedule, so I can’t do it that way. And frankly, that’s going to work for me anyway, because I like records that sound like they were played, not built or crafted. It’s a different way of doing stuff, and it works for some people, but it certainly never worked for me. I’d rather hear the sound of things crashing into each other, myself.
Paul Simon, “All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints” (from 1986’s Graceland)
SB: Well, I’ve already gotten into all the trouble I’m going to get into talking about it. I mean, the story’s out there. At least allow me the opportunity to say this: I really don’t think I’m a person who has an ax to grind, and I certainly don’t want it to seem like I think about Paul Simon all day, because I really don’t think about Paul Simon ever, unless somebody asks me about it. It’s just one of those experiences where if you have a career that’s whatever years long, you’re going to have good experiences and bad experiences, and people are going to rip you off. It just comes with the territory, and I’m certainly not unaware of that. My experience and, I would say, Lobos’ experience working with him is just part of our rich pageant of a long career in music. I’d love to just put that out there in the world. The stuff that I read about it makes it seem like I’m obsessed with the guy, but I really, really never fucking think about him unless somebody asks me about it.
Unfortunately, somebody asked me about it because they had released the 20th anniversary of Graceland, and there were all these fluff pieces about what a wonderful humanitarian he was and all the stuff he had done to break apartheid, and it was like, “Yeah, okay. Maybe that’s true. But he also quite literally stole one of our songs.” And all we asked for was the proper credit. If we’d even shared the music side of the writing, he would’ve never heard a peep out of us. But for him to claim that he wrote the music when we spent the better part of two days in the studio with him, and he offered not even a single chord of an idea of his own, just kind of burns our butt a little bit, and that’s why I speak with great anger when people ask me about it, because the guy had literally had not a single contribution on any musical level on anything, not a note of music did he offer Los Lobos in the making of that song. He literally watched us like somebody would watch monkeys at a zoo, having us work on a song and saying, “Nah, I don’t like that one. Let’s do something else.” Then finally we played a song we’d started working on for our record, and he said, “Hey, let’s do that.” Well, I guess, whatever. For us, it was more a matter of getting out of the fucking studio he had us trapped in than anything else. Frankly, we could’ve said, “No, we’re saving that one for ourselves,” but at that point we were so tortured by just being around him that we wanted to leave.
AVC: In the documentary that just came out about Graceland, there’s zero mention of that song, and only a line or two in the booklet that comes with the CD box set.
SB: Yeah, he’s had a lot of chances to make it right. I’m not the only person to say he’s a thief. I mean, certainly I believe he had to give the African musicians retroactive credit for songs he allegedly wrote that it turned out he didn’t write as well. And I should also correct the record: I said that we never got a cent for it, and actually somebody pointed out that we did get paid whatever the normal going union wages were for the session. So I’d like to correct that: I will no longer say that he didn’t give us a cent. He paid us, I think, $233 for the making of that song.
It really does sound like I’m out of my mind, like some Melville, Captain Ahab bullshit, but that really is not the case. Yeah, that’s a bad memory. But as you can see from what we’ve been talking about, it’s nice to bring back so many of the good memories. I’ve had an amazing career. I wouldn’t have changed a minute of it. With the possible exception of Paul Simon. [Laughs.] Every other minute has been great. I value the friendships I’ve made, and I’m very proud of the records.