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Los Lobos looks back at the transformative 'Kiko'

Back in 1992, the East L.A. band didn't realize the influence its album would have on the pop music scene, but 20 years later its sound still rings true.

September 15, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Lobos performs at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles in August.
Los Lobos performs at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles in August. (Katie Falkenberg / For The…)

Stately, cool-eyed David Hidalgo took his place at the front of the stage, cradling an electric guitar.

"There's a few little problem children in this album," he told the audience at the Grammy Museum's Clive Davis Theater in downtown L.A. A trickle of laughter ran through the crowd.

Then Hidalgo and his Los Lobos bandmates — guitarists Louie Pérez and Cesar Rosas, bassist Conrad Lozano, saxophone-keyboard player Steve Berlin and drummer Enrique "Bugs" Gonzalez — hoisted their instruments and stroked the first notes of "Dream In Blue," a jaunty, sharply syncopated blues-rock tune that jitterbugs across a spooky, oddly exhilarating nightscape:

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"I flew around with shiny things/ And when I spoke, I seemed to sing/ High above — floating far away."

As the aficionados at last month's Grammy gig knew, "Dream In Blue" is the opening track on "Kiko," the 1992 Los Lobos album that's regarded not only as the East L.A. band's breakout disc but as one of the most innovative and influential pop-music declarations of the Bush-Clinton era, along with Nirvana's "Nevermind" and Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet."

But while Nirvana sneered and Public Enemy fumed, Los Lobos dreamed up a cinematic vision of pop music's future. "Kiko" was the introspective outsider, the café con leche-hued bilingual cousin that crashed the '90s hip-hop house party and gracefully side-stepped the grunge-rock mosh pit.

The critics went wild. The Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times and New York Times proclaimed the disc a masterpiece. The Wall Street Journal compared it to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Two decades later, the little problem children of "Kiko" are all grown up and being honored with a newly remastered 20th-anniversary edition, including bonus material and demo versions of album tracks, released last month by Shout! Factory. The occasion is also being marked with the debut on CD, DVD and Blu-ray of "Kiko Live," which captures the band's never-before-issued February 2006 performance of the album at the House of Blues in San Diego. A Hollywood Bowl concert on a bill with Neil Young and Crazy Horse looms next month.

One late-summer afternoon, as the record's multiple Grammy Award-winning fathers gathered in a Shout! Factory conference room in West L.A., they expressed lingering wonder at their quirky progeny.

"It was almost this thing that just kind of had its own life," said Pérez, the band's principal co-songwriter with Hidalgo. "I think all of us can agree that there was something at work there that we didn't have a whole lot to do with."

If that sounds mystical, even hallucinatory, it suits the record's parallel-universe atmospherics. An aural collage of Boyle Heights magical realism, gritty urban rock, shuffling roadhouse blues, surreal jazz textures and haunting poetic imagery, "Kiko" was epic in its genre-bending ambitions. And it may have saved a band that, by the early 1990s, had begun to lose sight of its soul.

Founded in 1973, when Garfield High School friends Pérez and Hidalgo teamed with Rosas and Lozano, Los Lobos were Chicano hometown heroes. During their first dozen years of existence, they'd transitioned from Top 40 covers to harder-edged blues-based rock. They earned respect but sold few albums.

All that changed in 1987 when the band scored a No. 1 hit with its remake of "La Bamba," the title tune of the Ritchie Valens bio-pic starring Lou Diamond Phillips. But the success of "La Bamba" locked the group's popular image into that of a feel-good, retro-rock party band.

"'La Bamba,' it was so over-the-top, the reaction," Hidalgo said. "It was fun, it was a cool ride for a while, but kind of artificial. It came and it went."

In a sort of ritualistic purging, Los Lobos tried to regain its artistic bearings with an album of traditional Mexican music, "La Pistola y el Corazón" (1988), and a rocker follow-up "The Neighborhood" (1990). But increasingly the band was feeling trapped by what Hidalgo calls its "self-imposed limitations" of keeping musical genres in separate boxes, as if fearing that mixing might contaminate them.

Los Lobos was also being chewed up by the record industry's star-maker machinery. For the first time in its career, the band had been losing money on tours, partly because it was hitting the road with two buses and Hollywood-level production values.

"We felt like we had been sold a bill of goods and we'd made mistakes and we just had this attitude, kind of angry — angry at ourselves," Berlin said. "The attitude was, 'We've got nothing to lose, let's just do whatever we want to do.'"

Thus was "Kiko" born, and for the first time the band drew on all its myriad influences: blues and zydeco, mariachi and Clapton-esque classic rock, Motown soul and country, Tex-Mex and 1940s big-band jazz. Pérez's lyrics enfolded Aztec mythology, Japanese renga and Borgesian philosophical musings.

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