Over the years, veteran bands fall into certain patterns in their collective creative processes. What often starts out as an idiosyncratic approach born out of necessity may shape itself into a familiar and reliable way of working. Los Lobos has been doing the drill so long and so fruitfully that the outfit fondly and euphemistically known as “just another band from East L.A.” has achieved the hard-earned status of Great American Band, right alongside other still-active groups such as The Heartbreakers and the E Streeters.
From L.A. to Britain: Tchad Blake mixed Los Lobos latest effort, The Town and the City.
Unlike their fellow icons, however, Los Lobos has always lived and worked at the margins of the mainstream. For these musicians, it's always been a matter of making a living out of a shared, durable passion. They've excelled with limited resources for so long now that they now prefer to keep it close to the ground, and that means paying particularly close attention to detail. In the April 2006 issue of Mix, Los Lobos horn player and studio artisan Steve Berlin explained to Mix senior editor Blair Jackson, “What I learned from Mitchell [Froom],” Berlin said then, “is that those details matter. It's not just Mitchell, either, of course. It's true on Motown records, Beatles records: The weird little sounds matter.”
At that very moment, Berlin and company were applying that lesson to the final stages of Los Lobos' 13th studio album, The Town and the City (Hollywood). We caught up with Berlin, the group's Louis Perez and mix master Tchad Blake soon after the band-produced project was completed. Contrary to what the album title may suggest, this album was a global effort, with tracking and overdubbing done in guitarist Cesar Rosas' So Cal home studio and most of the mixing done by Blake in the UK. However, each of the players indicated that those details, those “weird little sounds,” remained a big part of this album, which is being hailed as Los Lobos' strongest effort since the Froom-produced Kiko.
The band has tracked and overdubbed at Rosas' Pro Tools — based CRG since 1999. “We've cut enough stuff there that we are certainly comfortable,” Berlin says of the cramped environment, “but it's hard to do all six of us at once unless we move into the dining room, which is a different scenario and setup. And none of it happens unless we have one of our co-conspirators — [engineers] Robert Carranza, Mark Johnson or Dave McNair — around to keep us out of trouble. As far as who does what on the recording side, the baton gets passed around a bit, but Dave [singer/guitarist Hidalgo, the band's primary co-writer with Perez] and I are always the last to leave.”
Although working with familiar gear in a familiar atmosphere, the band was inspired to move out of its comfort zone in the making of The Town and the City. “When we do a search-and-destroy mission,” Berlin explains, “it mostly comes from us wanting something new — what we haven't done or heard before — and usually with the most low-tech and ghetto tools we can find.”
Perhaps the most important of these tools is one that has long been at the genesis of the band's creative process — “an incredibly archaic Tascam 8-track cassette recorder,” in the words of Perez, onto which Hidalgo lays down his nascent song ideas. After putting the idea onto a CD, he hands it off to Perez, who writes the lion's share of the lyrics. “Then,” says Perez, “we'll bring the track to Cesar's studio. If we're gonna re-create it, we track it in the studio with all of us or we'll transfer his 8-track to Pro Tools and dissect it, or add or subtract, however it works. We try to take every song all the way till we're done before we track anything else. Otherwise, you have bits and pieces spread all over the place; it's too distracting. Everything's built from the ground up.”
As each batch of tracks was completed, it was over-nighted to the formerly L.A.-based Blake, who now lives in the UK. While scrutinizing the sounds, Blake says, “The songs actually didn't need much more than balancing, so that's all I did. Maybe I added some SansAmp on the bass and drums and some vocal effects, general low end, but not much.”
Blake worked “mostly at [Peter Gabriel's] Real World in the Big Room, which is a favorite of mine, on a newly installed SSL K Series that's incredible. Two mixes were done at Sunset Sound Studio 2 [in Hollywood by Robert Carraza]. My room, Mongrel Music Unit One, wasn't operational at that time, but I now have that as an option, as well.”
After Blake completed the mixdown of 11 tracks, the album was ready for mastering — or was it? “Usually, records tell you when they're done,” says Perez, “and we thought we were done, but we weren't. We had a little tour of Australia for 10 days, enough time to let it digest, and when we came back, David said, ‘I think we need one or two more songs.’ I wanted to say, ‘Dave, are you crazy?’ But I knew what he meant: It was a cool record, but it needed something to lighten it up a bit. David came up with a couple tracks, and I knew then that we had to do it. We got hold of Steve and went into the studio. We did a track a day, finished around midnight on Friday and Robert mixed them over the weekend while we were gone, so we were cutting it close.”
Now that all is said and done, does Berlin buy the Kiko comparisons? “We did a series of Kiko live shows right in the middle of the recording process, so the aroma was certainly in the air, and one of the things we consciously wanted was to get back to a broader sonic palette. And knowing Tchad was going to mix it didn't hurt that sentiment. But this one, like all of them, definitely had its own character. We didn't set out to make another Kiko — it just happened.”
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