The Last Great Album?

Los Lobos' ‘Kiko‘ turns 20

The wolf pack: Los Lobos
The wolf pack: Los Lobos
photo by Drew Reynolds

“I can’t think of any records recently that had to be listened to as a piece. Things just get more atomized with each passing day. Who’s got an hour to listen to an album anymore? I know I don’t.” That’s Los Lobos' Steve Berlin. The album as an art form may be mostly dead, but 20 years ago, the East L.A. band reached a creative peak with a record called Kiko.

To mark its 20th anniversary, Kiko's being reissued this week in a variety of formats. The original album is now available remastered with bonus tracks. There’s also the previously unavailable Kiko Live, which you can get as a CD, DVD, or two-disc Blu-ray/CD set.

The new CD came out well, but for longtime fans like myself who’ve blown through multiple copies of the disc in the past couple of decades, the DVD is a must. For starters, you can watch the band perform the album in its entirety, San Diego 2006, or you can watch it as a movie with cut-in interviews from members of the band, producer Mitchell Froom, and engineer Tchad Blake. For the enchanted, the ‘Behind the Music’ version is enthralling.

Berlin reveals that the label videotaped the band during the album cycle, but never issued it because they dropped the band before anyone got to it. Celebrating 20 years works just as well. In 2006, it was new for Los Lobos to play the entire album all the way through. I wondered if some of the studio manipulation involved in creating the aural masterpiece was a hindrance to performing it live.

“There’s studio tricks on every record we’ve made, so it wasn’t really that big a deal,” says the multi-instrumentalist. “I don’t think our fans come to a show expecting things exactly the way they are on the record. They way we interpret things is what make us who we are. We just try to make it cool – throw things out there and see where they go.”

I could go on about what made/makes Kiko the album Los Lobos will always be known for and why it continues to hit the sweet spot for anyone who’s heard it. Yet once Berlin got rolling, I didn’t want him to stop.

Kikowas special because of the thresholds and the barriers that we broke through. I don’t know if there are any of those barriers left. We broke through that shell and we’ve lived on the other side of that every record since.

“I just think the culture, the way things are now, make it impossible to make a record like Kiko now. Now with lo-fi, there’s a whole genre of records that sound like Kiko. But in 1991, there wasn’t much in terms of mixing hi-fi and lo-fi stuff. I’m not saying we were the first ever. But it’s certainly the first time we explored the idea of combining something damaged beyond words with something as beautiful as we could make it.

“That was one of the subtexts of the record. What made the record unique was as much a part of its place and time as anything. That’s one of the reasons we haven’t been able to make another one.

“When we start another record, we start brand new. We’re responsive and respectful of the songs that appear when we go to work. We’ve learned the hard way that we have to respond to what the music tells us to do.”

2013 will mark 40 years that the same quartet – David Hidalgo, Louie Perez, Cesar Rosas, and Conrad Lozano – calls itself Los Lobos. Berlin, no short timer, joined in 1982. A more detailed history can be found in a Chronicle feature on the band’s box set in 2000, El Cancionero.

So, how will Los Lobos celebrate 40 years? Some new music perhaps?

“It would probably be foolish to let that opportunity go by,” Berlin agrees. “It’s one of those anniversaries that makes you go, ‘Jesus Christ, these guys are fucking old!’

“We can’t necessarily hide it, so let’s see if we can make it work for us. With grandkids and touring schedules and everything else involved, it’s getting harder and harder to wrap our heads around making new stuff.”

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