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Music: Los Lobos


Los Lobos, from left: Louie Perez, David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano and Steve Berlin

Photo: Drew Reynolds

Even though Los Lobos have been around for more than 35 years and cut more than a dozen albums—each a gem in its own way—every trip to the recording studio is still an adventure for this band. That was certainly the case for their newest disc, Tin Can Trust, the group’s first album of original material in four years, and their first on the Shout! Factory label. The band arrived at Manny’s Estudio—in East L.A., the area that spawned the group—with almost no material written, but armed with the faith that great songs would emerge over the course of the sessions, as they have so many times before. Because they had a deadline from the record company, there was a little more pressure on the group than on some of their previous albums, but at this point the way they work together is so ingrained and instinctual they weren’t at all daunted by the process.

Not only was the band working in an unfamiliar room, they were also breaking in a new engineer (for them): Shane Smith, who had done a little work with the group on their cool 2009 album, Los Lobos Goes Disney, but never a full project with them. Smith, who has engineered for such acts as Amos Lee, Health and Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals (among many others), has used Manny’s Estudio as a base of operations since the room opened in 2008, often working with owner Manny Nieto on p

“Manny did a build-out a couple of years ago and turned this huge warehouse space into a working studio,” Smith explains. “I first discovered it as a player—I was with a group and we were literally the first band he was recording in his new studio. From the first downbeat I was floored by the sound of the room—it’s an amazing-sounding live room. It’s a combination of drywall and cement and a kind of textured stucco on the walls. The control room is upstairs and looks down on the room, kind of like Studio B at Abbey Road. The vibe is right and the room sounds gorgeous.”

“I really love the drum sound in that room,” comments guitarist/singer/songwriter David Hidalgo, who had never laid eyes on the place until the night before the sessions began. “It’s got a high ceiling—probably about 18 feet—and it’s very live-sounding, but, of course, we could also baffle it off or put rugs down if we wanted a tighter sound.”

There are actually two recording rooms at the studio, and Smith says for this project Los Lobos rented both of them: “One became a sort of rehearsal hangout and then we’d be tracking in the other room.” The control room has a Neotek 3c console, which Smith describes as “the last of the Neoteks before they went to the Elites. It has great EQs, beautiful mic pre’s. It’s a board that not a lot of people are that hip to, but it really does sound good.”

As usual, the songwriting team of Hidalgo and guitarist/lyricist Louie Perez came up with the lion’s share of the material for Tin Can Trust: seven new tunes covering myriad styles to guitarist/singer Cesar Rosas’ three, which, true to form, include two fine Spanish-language numbers, plus a collaboration with former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The 11th song is a cover of the Dead’s snakey “West L.A. Fadeaway,” written by Hunter and Jerry Garcia in the early ’80s and sung here by Hidalgo, who was one of Garcia’s favorite musicians.

Hidalgo says he did have some rough musical ideas he’d recorded on his home 8-track Tascam Portastudio cassette recorder (!), “and in some cases they had a certain vibe or feel to them,” Hidalgo says, “so we ended up using them, actually adding to them. That’s a thing we’ve learned to do—to make the cassette [music] bigger—mixing new hi-fi tracks with it.”

Engineer Shane Smith: “The tape saturation on those older machines is ridiculous. It sounds so good to me.”

Well, Shane Smith, how did you like suddenly having to blend cassette recordings with Pro Tools HD tracks? “I had just spent 17 grand upgrading my Pro Tools rig about three months before the boys came in! When I was pulling the first tune off the 8-track, I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe I spent all this money on a Pro Tools rig when all I really wanted was a $400 Tascam!’ [Laughs.] The tape saturation on those older machines is ridiculous. It sounds so good to me. And I realized immediately, ‘This is how they made Colossal Head [one of Los Lobos most sonically adventurous albums]. This is that sound.’ Not to take anything away from Tchad Blake or Mitchell Froom [engineer and producer of that album].”

Speaking of Froom and Blake, it was under their tutelage that Los Lobos first became an experimental band—and not just a great roots-rock group—beginning with the pair’s groundbreaking work on the 1992 album Kiko, still one of Los Lobos’ acknowledged masterworks. When I ask Hidalgo about their influence on the group’s aesthetic, he notes, “Kiko is where we learned freedom. Up till then, we were kind of intimidated by the studio. We’d rehearse a lot before and try to get things so we could just go in and record—get all the basic tracks and then go back and start doing overdubs. But Kiko was the first time we went in with ideas that weren’t completely fleshed-out. We would finish each track as we went, trying out different things, experimenting, and that’s how we’ve learned to work since then.

“The way we did a lot of [Kiko] is, if it was just a song with a basic acoustic guitar, I’d play it for them and then we’d make up a crazy drum set or grab some other instrument and try it out, and that’s how it went down. It was a revelation for us that you could work that way. I remember joking once that backward guitar might sound good on this track, and so Tchad goes in, flips the tape, and says, ‘Great!’ I didn’t know we could do that! So now we’re not afraid to take chances with parts or the sound. We’ll try things out and some of them work and some of them don’t.”

On the songs that Hidalgo wrote from scratch in the studio, Smith says, “Dave might be down there fooling around on the guitar or piano, and he’d yell up [to the control room], ‘Hey, I think I’ve got something.’ Conrad [Lozano, bassist] and Cougar [Estrada, drummer] would go down and start working on the rhythm section and then the three of them would get something that felt good. They’d play it live, we’d print it and move along.

“Once we had that basic bed, I would bounce down a rough mix for Louie, who would take it home and he’d come back to the studio, typically within 48 hours, and present a vocal idea to Dave. Dave was always, ‘Yeah, that’s cool!’ And we’d go out there and we’d usually get it within five takes, if not one, or two or three.” As always, Perez’s lyrics are moody and evocative, filled with interesting characters and images, like the impoverished fellow in the title track; or his impressionist re-telling of the story of Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe in “The Lady and the Rose”; the vision of early Mexico on the intriguing “27 Spanishes”; or the unearthly “Jupiter or the Moon.”

“We’ve been writing together a long time,” Hidalgo says, “so I think there’s a trust we’ve built over the years. We talk things over. I’ll play my [musical] ideas for him first and see if he thinks it’s something we can go on or develop. I might have a line or an idea of the chorus, or he’ll get it to a certain point and he’ll tell me what he’s working on, and we go back and forth a little bit. And sometimes these things just arrive and they’re right! The way our lives are these days, there’s isn’t a lot of time for us to sit around and ponder.”

There was considerable experimentation with both guitars and amps when it came to doing overdubs, although “Dave most often had a good idea of what he wanted,” Smith says. “He would show up in the morning, often with a new guitar we hadn’t seen in the room yet that was designed for the song he had in his head that day.” Typically, Smith would close-mike the amps and also go for a room sound—both are apparent throughout the album—“and there were some solos where we’d mike the actual electric like an acoustic, almost like pretending that the Tele is a Martin 6-string acoustic, so I’d reach for my Gefell mic or perhaps a [Neumann] U87 with the ‘inner tube’ mod and put that around the 15th fret, maybe eight inches off, like I might with an acoustic, and then blend that signal with the amp signal that’s run in a different room, probably with a 409 on it. You get this immediate clean closeness, this pristine attack, and then the amp carries the weight of the note essentially.

“There were so many possibilities for the guitars. And with the drums, as well,” Smith continues. “Cesar tended to prefer a drier sound for his songs, so for those I would move the baffles in, drop the overheads a bit, close off the room a little. I still had room mics set up and they were recording, but in the end they never got used for Cesar’s songs. Hidalgo definitely preferred the more roomy sounds.”

Smith says that keyboardist/saxophonist Steve Berlin, who’s always heavily involved in the recording and production of Los Lobos’ records, served as “my liaison with the band through the whole process, down to the day-to-day ‘What should I start with tomorrow? What should I work on tonight?’” Adds Hidalgo, “Steve’s also into the Pro Tools stuff so he’ll comp vocals, and he always has a lot of ideas.”

As a working band that has to tour much of the year just to make ends meet, Los Lobos had to leave the confines of Manny’s at some point and do finishing work on Tin Can Trust at a variety of other studios, including Eagle Audio in Fort Worth, Texas, Mission Bells in San Francisco, John Macy Sound in Denver and Hinge Sounds in Chicago—the last studio is where singer Susan Tedeschi cut her harmony vocals on the churning rocker that kicks off the album, “Burn It Down.” Hidalgo says, “[Cesar and I] were on the Hendrix tribute tour [Experience Hendrix] and we had one day off and she was kind enough to come down and sing on that. It turned out really well.” That song also features a standup bass, electric bass and a bajo sexto “miked up and run through some old guitar stomp box pedals,” Smith says. “I was asked to make it sound ‘wrong’ in the right way.”

Dave McNair, who has done engineering work on most of Hidalgo and Rosas’ projects since the first Los Super 7 album in 1998, mixed nine of the 11 songs at Albert Hall II in Montclair, N.J.; Rosas and Smith mixed two of Cesar’s songs at the guitarist’s home studio in Walnut, Calif., east of L.A. McNair then mastered the disc at Sterling Sound (New York City).

“Now we have to go back and learn all the songs,” Hidalgo says good-naturedly. “They usually change once we get them on the road. That’s a different process, but it’s fun to see how they evolve.”