We put "Five Questions" to Chris Morris, who is the author of the recent bio Los Lobos: Dream In Blue, out now on University of Texas Press. Morris also has a bunch of upcoming projects, including Together Through Life, "a (highly) personal consideration of Bob Dylan through his recorded work," which will be published by ROTHCO Press in May, to coincide with Dylan’s 75th birthday. He has also contributed chapters to a pair of upcoming books on L.A. punk: Under the Big Black Sun by John Doe of X and Tom DeSavia (Da Capo, April) and Slash: A Punk Magazine From Los Angeles 1977-80 (Hat & Beard, March). Finally, he's personally recording his chapter for the audiobook version of Doe’s tome for you audio book fans.
You go way back with the band. What’s their secret to an astonishing 40 years of success?
The band has undergone a constant mutation over time. They made their rise as a Latinized roots-rock unit, found fame playing straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly (on the La Bamba soundtrack), returned to their original folk sound when it looked as if fame might imprison them, and, when they couldn’t get a handle on where to go next, they threw caution to the wind and went through a dramatic period of sonic experimentation. Their career since the early ‘90s has drawn on all those early phases. They have a genius for re-invention, and for refreshing everything they do well.
It still blows my mind that a band like Los Lobos could find such nurturing and acceptance amongst the LA punk scene. What do you make of that? Just the right band, at the right place, at the right time?
They definitely showed up at the right time. As I note in the book, there was a very healthy punk-roots scene going on when the Lobos materialized in Hollywood as an electric band. Co-billed with the Blasters and other groups in a similar vein, they finally located their audience. I doubt they still would have played well in front of hardcore crowds, but a lot of OG punks were cocking an ear to rockabilly, blues, and country in 1982.
What do you think the ramifications were for the band to opt for Disney over one of the more artist-friendly independent label like Rykodisc, which was also courting them?
I think the band thought they were going to be able to operate independently within Disney – they were signed to Mammoth, which was a small indie label that Disney had bought. However, Mammoth quickly became just an imprint of the Disney entertainment factory, and they suddenly found themselves without champions, without people who understood what they did. They managed to make a couple of great records – This Time and The Town and the City – during their time there, but I think they were largely frustrated by the hit-oriented nature of the company. But it ultimately empowered the band to an extent, for their experience at Disney led them to produce themselves – something they’ve done ever since.”
The band seems to have found that kind of perfect middle-ground — like the Dead, like Tom Petty — where they can do what they want and still bring their audience with them. Is that a model you see working for the band moving forward?
Like the acts you mention, Los Lobos have become an American institution. They have a solid fan base that will turn out to see them no matter what they may be up to at the moment, and will support their albums, too. After nearly 43 years, I doubt that their audience’s loyalty is likely to wane. No matter what vein you like to hear Los Lobos working in, you’ll be able to find it on stage or on record.”
Do you have a favorite Los Lobos side project?
I love both Latin Playboys albums, and was fortunate enough to see them live, and Cesar Rosas’ lone studio album Soul Disguise is a lovely piece of work. But there’s something about Houndog, the album Dave Hidalgo made with former Canned Heat member Mike Halby, that really gets under my skin. It’s like a blues record from Mars. Supposedly there’s a second Houndog set that never got released. I really need to harass Dave for a copy.
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