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Still rocking: Los Lobos' Louie Pérez talks music, America and 45 years on the road

"If you want to do art or music, do it because you love it so much it keeps you up at night," Pérez says.
Los Lobos
Multiple Grammy Award-winning band Los Lobos including Louie Perez, David Hidalgo, Steve Berlin, Conrad Lozano, Cesar Rosas.Peter Dervin

There's the Rolling Stones and U2, and then there's Los Lobos. Few rock bands still with original members span decades, let alone 45 years touring — as Los Lobos is celebrating this year.

"The way I tell it is that if you stand out on your porch, you'll eventually see us go by," said Louie Pérez, Lobos' principal songwriter, percussionist and guitarist. "We just work that much."

The Grammy-award winning band shot to stardom in 1987 with their single “La Bamba," a remake of the 1958 hit by Ritchie Valens based on a Mexican folk song. Los Lobos' version made history: It was the first Spanish-language song to make Billboard’s No. 1 spot.

Pérez and his high school "homies" — fellow band members David Hidalgo, Conrad Lozano and Cesar Rosas — started out in their native East L.A. playing a blend of rock, blues and Mexican-inspired music. Today, the group is crisscrossing American and European cities until the fall, playing from their vast acoustic and electric catalog.

They're also using their music to put a spotlight on issues relevant to them and their background, including a spirited defense of the immigrant community.

"Unfortunately the present administration wants to wipe out history," said Pérez before a fundraising concert last week in Washington for the Immigrant Defense Project that was put on by Justice Aid. "Immigrants help build the American dream, and make it what this country is today."

Louie Perez with his sister Carmen, courtesy of Louie Perez. This photo inspired several paintings in Perez's book Good Morning AztlanCourtesy Louie Perez

Pérez's father, a decorated World War II veteran, crossed the U.S. border from Mexico. So did his mother with her family when she was a teen, Perez said, adding that she worked in cattle fields and sweat shops, like countless immigrants have done for generations.

Perez said that touring the country he found "there are more similarities than differences between people, and I think a band like ours and the art that I make can further define my culture in a way that people will understand it and find the similarities to it."

"That‘s probably the number one purpose that I have," he said.

A musical journey

When a young Pérez grew tall enough to reach the radio dial in his kitchen, he began a love affair with pop music. He described it as captivating and different from the ranchera soundtrack he heard in his Mexican-American home.

As he got older, he picked up the guitar, inspired by the sounds of Motown, soul and rock — especially Jimi Hendrix, whom he saw in concert.

Pérez, who's also an album art director, recently published a book focusing on those deep connections to his cultural roots.

In "Good Morning Aztlán: The Words, Pictures & Songs of Louie Pérez," the musician gives the East L.A. barrio where he grew up the name Aztlán, the mythical place from where the Aztecs originated. In the 1970s and ’80s, East L.A. was a hive for the culturally affirming Chicano arts movement that inspired Pérez as a budding visual artist, though it was his music that took that culture out of the barrio and into the mainstream.

Louie Perez is principal songwriter, percussionist and guitarist of multiple Grammy Award-winning band Los Lobos; a visual artist; and author of Good Morning Aztlan, The Words, Pictures and Songs of Louie Perez.Ed Spinelli

"If you want to do art or music, do it because you love it so much it keeps you up at night," he said.

Through pictures and words, Pérez presents stories of failure and resilience, including what it was like to be a boy of 8 when his father died and his retreat toward introspection.

The abstract artwork in "Good Morning Aztlán" is an unexpected treat from Pérez, rich with symbolism. Blackbirds are presented not as sinister omens but as observers and bearers of wisdom. Even in the recurring symbolism of beans — once used to insult Mexicans — Pérez reinforces the spirit of Chicanismo, finding a connection between the world he grew up in and the larger American culture.

Pérez says he would like to see more Chicanos emerge both as artists and in management. He wrote the book, he said, in part to inspire young people. He believes that the internet and live touring are opening up more opportunities for young Latino artists.

Their own rules

In the early days, Los Lobos generated buzz for their mashup of dance-inspiring rhythm & blues and norteños, in albums like "A Time To Dance," "By the Light of the Moon" and "How Will the Wolf Survive?"

In 1987, they were approached to record “La Bamba” for a Valens biopic of the same name. It would give them a worldwide audience hungry for more.

Then the band turned around and broke with the studio niche-marketing standards by recording a Mexican folk album, "La Pistola y El Corazón" (The Pistol and the Heart).

“As far as we were concerned,” Pérez said, “we were able to take this huge focus that was on the band, because of 'La Bamba,' and refocus it on something that really meant something to us, Mexican music, and expose that to the world.”

While some critics called it career suicide, the album landed them a Grammy. It also cleared the path for more innovative exploration that would add to their substantial catalog for decades to come with more critically acclaimed albums such as "Kiko," "Colossal Head," "Gates of Gold" and "Tin Can Trust." A side gig called the Latin Playboys features Pérez and Hidalgo.

Over the years, Los Lobos' audience has grown in numbers but also across cultural and generational lines — and Pérez has witnessed it firsthand.

“Touring around for so long, I’ve been watching the face of America change. And that face is more brown,” he said. “And now is not the time to be quiet.”