Los Lobos Talk New Christmas Album 'Llegó Navidad'

Dec 21, 2019
Originally published on December 21, 2019 5:05 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, new music from an old favorite, Los Lobos. And we almost don't need to introduce them. The Grammy-winning quintet from east Los Angeles has been making music together for nearly half a century with a mix of rock, blues, folk, Tex-Mex and other classic Latin sounds. But one thing the band has not done is a holiday album - until this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LLEGO NAVIDAD")

LOS LOBOS: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: That is the title track from their new album called "Llego Navidad," which means Christmas is here. And it is a classic Los Lobos operation - a lovingly curated collection of songs from across North, Central and South America with, of course, an original song that makes you want to cry. Joining us here in studio to talk about the new album are band members Louie Perez Jr. and Steve Berlin.

Welcome to you both.

LOUIE PEREZ JR: Hey.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for joining us.

STEVE BERLIN: Thank you.

PEREZ: Good to see you.

MARTIN: I can't believe you never made a Christmas album before. I mean, you made children's albums, which I have to tell you my kids wore out. So, first of all, why not before now? And why now?

PEREZ: Yeah. There's been Christmases for the past 45 years we've been together.

(LAUGHTER)

PEREZ: So I don't really have an answer for that. This one just kind of fell in our lap. You know, we had talked to a few people, and we said, yeah, we'd be a - that would be agreeable. And then, suddenly, it happened. And suddenly, we were recording a Christmas record in July.

MARTIN: OK (laughter).

BERLIN: In Los Angeles.

PEREZ: In Los Angeles.

BERLIN: Very festive.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. Let me play a song, one song from the album. This is called "Donde Esta Santa Claus?" And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DONDE ESTA SANTA CLAUS?")

LOS LOBOS: (Singing) Mamacita, donde esta Santa Claus? Donde esta Santa Claus and the toys that he will leave? Mamacita, oh, where is Santa Claus? I look for him because it's Christmas Eve.

MARTIN: So this song dates back to 1958. And I understand that when the decision came to put this album together that you kind of called upon some friends to help you kind of survey the landscape of things that you might want to do. And there were like more than a hundred things to choose from. How did you finally narrow it down?

BERLIN: The way that that happened was we got - with Rhino Records came to us with the idea. Would you like to do it? And we said, yeah, definitely. And this was May. And they said, well, fantastic. You know, here we go. Let's do it. Oh, by the way, if you can finish by July 15, we'll get it out this year. And that was - you know, for us, that's a pretty short time. So effectively speaking, we had six weeks to do it, beginning to end, finished, delivered and everything else. So first thing we did was we reached out to a couple collector friends, people who we knew would have a resource that we could tap to at least get the ball rolling so...

MARTIN: Well, one of those is a name well known to our audience, Gustavo Arellano, who's a longtime, you know, contributor, writer, you know, a scholar of Latin American food and super-fun guy. And he - I didn't know you were friends, too. I thought he was my friend.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I didn't know he was your friend. I was his best friend. Anyway, so he had - they had a group of things that they kind of - surveyed the landscape.

BERLIN: Yeah. It was him and a fellow named Pablo Iglesias who runs a record label called Peace & Rhythm. And between the two of them, we had a hundred and - close to 150 songs. So the process basically was we just knocked out the ones that we knew we couldn't touch, which would be either too complex or too silly. And, you know, the list got narrower and narrower. And finally, we got to, you know, probably like 15 or 20 that were - and of those we didn't - those were not necessarily the ones we did specifically, though. What - basically, that gave us a framework, more like a door opening to, you know, like, ideas. And then we sort of ran with it.

MARTIN: And there is an original Los Lobos song that you wrote. And let's play a little bit. It's called "Christmas And You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS AND YOU")

LOS LOBOS: (Singing) Darling, I'm thinking of you. So far away. I wonder if you even miss me, oh, on this Christmas Day. Darling...

MARTIN: So on the one hand, it's another one - makes you want to cry. On the other hand, you know, longing is a big part of Christmas music, isn't it? If you think about it, I mean, "White Christmas" is like one of the most famous songs of all - Christmas songs of all time, and really it is about sort of longing.

PEREZ: Yeah. It's always a situation where somebody is away from their loved ones at Christmas. So that was the idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS AND YOU")

LOS LOBOS: (Singing) Oh, on this Christmas Eve.

MARTIN: And you all are away from your families a lot. I mean, the fact is you've been touring for...

BERLIN: A while.

MARTIN: ...Nonstop - for a while.

PEREZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: A while. I do find myself wondering, like, how you do it. Like, how do you keep it up all these years? How do you not, like, kill each other? How do you - and it's also just being away from home. That is your - the road is your home now. How do you manage it?

BERLIN: That's the hardest part, yeah. You know, playing, travelling, I mean, that's kind of fun sometimes. But, you know, missing your family, that's not a fun part.

MARTIN: Louie?

PEREZ: Yeah. We made the decision to become rock stars as adults. And we already had families and - but it is, you know, it's part of what we do. It's starting to hurt a little bit, you know, because we're not kids anymore. And there's not rock 'n' roll for seniors, so we have to do it just as hard as the young kids.

BERLIN: Trying to break new ground in that field.

PEREZ: Right.

MARTIN: Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, yeah - getting there.

PEREZ: He's got us beat by a couple of years.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, can I ask you to reflect on your longevity for a minute? I mean, Louie, you were joking a minute - saying that there's no rock 'n' roll for seniors. But a lot of us grew up with your music, you know. And it's the, you know, it's a cliche, I apologize, but that whole it's a soundtrack to your life kind of thing is true for a lot of people.

PEREZ: It is absolutely true.

MARTIN: I just couldn't think of any better way to say it. Sorry. But what are your thoughts now about - I mean, you're still going strong. But you are in this next chapter of your lives. Do you think about slowing down? Do you think about...

BERLIN: Every morning.

MARTIN: Really?

BERLIN: No, not really.

(LAUGHTER)

PEREZ: It's an adventure trying to get out of the chair.

(LAUGHTER)

PEREZ: I'm proud of what I did. I'm glad we've been able to leave some kind of breadcrumbs that people can lead back to to what was all this about and maybe learn something from it.

MARTIN: Well, that sounds sort of elegiacal. I mean, you're not done. You're not done. I'm just - I'm not - that's not my question. Because you're clearly not done. I mean, this is a beautiful new album. It makes its own statement. I certainly learned a lot about - just from your choices about sort of the what was the musical styles. I mean, it's - but I'm just wondering, like, what is this next chapter for if you think about it? Because, you know, when you're young, you're just trying to make it. And then when you've made it, you're trying to maintain it. And now, what is this next chapter about, do you think?

PEREZ: Yeah. That's a good question because we don't - we never have decided to, well, you know, we already got the gig. We're cool, you know. (Laughter) No. There's still a lot of work involved and still a lot of things to do, still a lot of connections to make. But there's - there is some element or of kind of reflection and about like, you know, what do you do with the time left? You know, there's a lot more Christmases behind us than in front of us, right? So you think about the quality of what you want to do forward. And I think a lot of it has to do with, you know, giving back, which we always have. But I think we could step it up a little bit, especially in today's climate.

MARTIN: Steve, what about you, thoughts?

BERLIN: You know, it's funny. We're so non-self-reflective as a band. Like, this is what we do. And we like it on some level. Some level, it has its issues. But we just motor on. And, I guess, to a certain extent, that answers - or it's an answer to your earlier question like, you know, what's it about? It's like, well, it's about doing good work for a long time and trying to maintain a standard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S CHRISTMAS TIME IN TEXAS")

LOS LOBOS: (Singing) Hey, everybody, it's Christmas time. It's Christmas time in Texas. Sometimes it's sunny. Sometimes it snows. It's Christmas time in Texas.

MARTIN: We've been speaking with Steve Berlin and Louie Perez Jr., two of the five members of Los Lobos. Their latest album, their first Christmas album, "Llego Navidad," is out now. Steve, Louie, thank you so much for talking to us.

PEREZ: Always.

BERLIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Feliz Navidad.

PEREZ: Gracias. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.