In the ’80s, Los Lobos was known as “the best band you’ve never heard.” Three Grammys and two decades of music later, you’ve probably heard them whether you know it or not, either through their soundtrack work (La Bamba or Desperado) or their specialty music side projects like Los Super Seven, Houndog and The Latin Playboys (not to mention their albums, starting with their 1984 full-length debut How Will the Wolf Survive? to this year’s Good Morning Aztlán).

Their longevity may come in part from the fact that these stylistic chameleons can change genres in a heartbeat, rewriting the rules of commercial and critical success as they go. Growing up in the ’70s amid the Chicano Power movement in East Los Angeles, Los Lobos even rewrote the rules of high-school rebellion by turning from the rock of their contemporaries to the music of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. By studying old records found in the barrio and learning to play funky instruments they’d picked up in thrift shops, Los Lobos transformed themselves from just another Clapton-and-Hendrix-inspired garage band to skilled conservationists of Mexico’s many styles of guitar-based folk music.

Since then, the band’s critically acclaimed albums have explored rock, country, blues and jazz, all the while delving deeply into their Mexican roots. Los Lobos’ current East Coast tour will bring them to Raleigh’s N.C. Museum of Art for an outdoor concert this week, and The Independent recently talked to Lobo and producer extraordinaire Steve Berlin about the band’s evolution and their new album.

Founding members David Hidalgo, Louie Perez, Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano were playing Tex-Mex in restaurants when they discovered that mariachi music actually blended quite nicely with their loud electric amps. Soon after, however, they were fired, and Los Lobos found themselves accepted into L.A.’s nascent punk/roots music scene.

Saxophonist Steve Berlin came on board in the early ’80s, jumping ship from The Blasters after producing (and getting to know) Los Lobos during the recording of their ’83 Slash debut, And A Time to Dance. The EP bagged the group a Grammy (the first of three) for Best Mexican American Performance for the corrido, “Anselma.”

“Literally, before I met these guys I had exactly zero exposure to the music that I was about to play for the rest of my life,” says Berlin, a Philadelphia native. Nurtured by an active recording studio scene in L.A., he got his professional roots from the older jazz musicians around him. “You had to be ready for anything. There was no ‘hey, I’ll get back to you.’ There was no ‘I don’t do that.’ Their whole thing was that no matter what was put in front of you musically, you had to be able to deal with it, and deal with it well.” This versatility made Berlin a good fit with the band.

“That’s kind of what made them think I was someone that could hang for a while. We were all of us, and still are, about trying to find new ways of doing stuff, and experimenting with other things.”

For this album, Los Lobos switched to former local label Mammoth, which has since been absorbed by Hollywood Records. “We’re sad for our friends at Mammoth, because they really were very good friends of ours,” says Berlin of the move. “I think it’s kind of tragic when any independent gets snuffed out the way that Mammoth did.”

Deciding to go with British producer John Leckie (Radiohead, Stone Roses, et al.) represented a big change after working for over a decade with the production team of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, but the album’s sound remains unmistakably Lobos’.

“We’ve been unbelievably lucky that way,” Berlin says. “Nobody’s ever interfered with what we wanted to do, ever. We spent 11 years making records with Mitchell and Tchad, and I wouldn’t trade a second of it. We decided at the time we were going to try to change some of our stuff up and apply, if you will, a rude shock to our system and see what happened. [Our] records of the ’90s had a lot to do–by design–with atmosphere. We were really into creating exotic textures, exotic sounds.”

It was a conscious decision that Good Morning Aztlán would be more straightforward, and would showcase the band’s songwriting and performance over the atmospherics of their earlier work. Leckie’s role, says Berlin, was that of a “patient engineer” who, “in his own very droll way, would encourage us to keep going past the point where we might say, ‘OK, that’s good enough.’ It was just that very calm, ‘Well, why don’t you give it another go, mate?’”

The album’s title track refers to the mythical home of the Aztecs, an area north of present-day Mexico located somewhere in the border regions of California and the Southwest. But for many Chicanos, Aztlán is also a state of mind. “I think anytime you grow up and your cultural identity is between two poles, if you will, there’s always this idea that there’s someplace other than where you are that might be home,” says Berlin. “I think that might be true of everybody, really. The basic premise of the song is that this is anywhere and everywhere, a somewhat pastoral, everyday, every-morning-in-America kind of vibe.”

Los Lobos’ ability to span genres would seem like a balancing act if any other band tried it, but they never felt as if they had to choose. “We decided we weren’t going to try to do either/or, but everything. We’ve always been between this folkloric Latin music pole, and simultaneously wanting to be Cream. That same sort of vibe has always made us more than a little bit bipolar,” Berlin says with a laugh. “We said, ‘Let’s not be parochial, but let’s use everything we have and try and invent a new language about it all.’”

This new language is part of their creative legacy–helping to cultivate an audience for rock bands whose sound can’t be easily categorized. “The fact that we’ve stuck it out and just made American music and ignored trends at every turn–if there was a legacy that we leave, it would be just that,” Berlin says. “Find your voice, and don’t worry about stuff that, arguably, will disappear.”

A producer with over 80 albums to his credit, Steve supervised Los Lobos’ collaboration with Los Super Seven, a supergroup that included Latin legends Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez and others. The first of these albums features a cameo by the godfather of Texas border rock, Doug Sahm, on “Rio de Tenampa,” a ranchera that first appeared in truncated form on 1992’s Kiko. This time, country singer Rick Treviño sang lead.

“We really wanted to have Doug Sahm involved, but for some reason we could just never seem to get him connected to the project the way we wanted to,” Berlin says of Sahm, who was a frequent visitor to the session. On the last day of recording, Berlin had an epiphany and chased Sahm down, who’d already gotten in his car and started out of the parking lot. Berlin had Sahm add vocals to the song’s lyrical bridge, a powerful segment referring to the Virgin of Guadalupe. “He came in and sang those lines, which to me is one of the highlights of my career–to be able to get him on that session–because he had a lot to do with it, whether he thought so or not,” Berlin recalls. “He didn’t live much longer than that, so it was moving for all of us.”

In the meantime, having fun is Los Lobos’ master plan. Songwriting team Hidalgo and Perez have characterized themselves in interviews as big kids who love playing in the musical sandbox, kept down-to-earth by family responsibilities. Their mixture of passion and technical prowess makes the band shine live.

“We’ve never done the same show twice,” he says. According to Berlin, it’s co-vocalist and songwriter Rosas who adds the emotional punctuation of gritos–shouts of “huy!” and “orale”–to some songs. “Cesar’s the main grito guy. He’s the only one who doesn’t care what anybody thinks.” EndBlock