DAVID HIDALGO CAN JUST FLOW. IT DOESN’T MATTER WHETHER he’s playing rhythm or lead, or if the tone is dirty or clean. Hidalgo’s notes and chords—and his vocals—pour straight from his soul. Never forced or flashy, he’s as easy as Sunday morning. In that regard, and because his blues are absolutely authentic, he’s like a Latin Clapton. But 37 years after cofounding Los Lobos, Hidalgo is still pushing the sonic envelope, obliterating genre barriers, and—when the situation calls for it—ripping like his head is on fire.
Los Lobos’ latest release, Tin Can Trust [Shout Factory!] is an addictive disc. The largely acoustic “I’ll Burn It Down” and the laid back “On Main Street” ease the listener in, and the bouncy cumbia of “Yo Canto” and the vibey “Jupiter or the Moon” keep things interesting. A killer rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “West L.A. Fadeaway” is sure to make bones shake, and the final cut, “27 Spanishes,” chronicles the history of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Hidalgo is by no means a lone wolf, however, as the entire Los Lobos pack is still intact. Vocalist and guitarist Caesar Rosas, utility man Louis Pérez, and bassist Conrad Lozano are co-founders, while sax/keyboard player Steve Berlin and drummer Cougar Estrada have been in tow long enough to know what’s best for the impossibly eclectic yet wholly organic sound of one of the most important bands of the past four decades.
Can you describe the role of each guitarplaying member of Los Lobos?
We share the load, but whoever wrote a song usually takes control of that song. Caesar backs me up when I’m singing, and I back him when he is singing, though for some reason I end up doing a lot of the guitar solos. Louis is also playing more guitar parts these days. He handles a lot of the acoustic guitar and other folk instruments, and he’s even playing electric now, so we split it up.
You played several acoustic instruments on the new record as well. Do you dig that as much as playing electric?
It depends. When we do the folkloric shows, we use a lot of traditional instruments, and then I tend to switch gears and get into that mode—but electric guitar was my first love. I especially liked guitar instrumentals. I had Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser” and a bunch of surf singles when I was a little kid. Instead of watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, I would watch a series of country music programs presented by Cal Worthington Dodge. I saw Buck Owens, Ernest Tubb, Bill Anderson, and Ferlin Husky. I paid attention to the guitar players, so I was watching Don Rich with Buck, and Leon Rhodes and Steve Chapman from Ernest Tubb’s band.
Who was your favorite?
Don Rich was amazing. Actually, Buck Owens and Earnest Tubb both used Steve Chapman on guitar. Tubb kept his music simple, but he would let the band go. It was almost like cowboy jazz the way Chapman played in his band. He played an ES-335 with a Bigsby, and he had this clean, beautiful sound. I was drawn to that playing style.
The 23 Club in Brisbane, is supposedly the oldest roadhouse in California, and lots of the players you’re talking about played there. Have you?
I’ve never played there, but I’ve heard stories. I associate it with Jimmie Rivers, who sounded kind of like Charlie Christian. He took a reel-to-reel tape recorder to his gigs, so there are recordings of his band playing live at the 23 Club in the early ’60s. The legend goes that when Rivers first started to play there he used to have to fight a different guy every night in the parking lot to prove he was cool—that he could hang [laughs].
What guitars do you bring to a typical Los Lobos show these days?
I’ve been using a Fender Custom Shop ’51 Nocaster Relic lately. When Los Lobos started out back in 1973, it was an allacoustic group. We were on a quest to learn Mexican folk music—the music of our roots, our culture—and little by little we started to incorporate electric instruments. These days I take my goldtop Les Paul and the Nocaster on the road. I feel that Gibson and Fender got solidbody electric guitars right the first time around, and guitars haven’t gotten any better.
What about effects and amps?
We fly to a lot of gigs, so I play through backline gear. I usually use a Fender Deville or a Deluxe Reverb depending on room size. For gain, I bring a Pigtronix Aria Disnortion, a Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone compressor, and an Ibanez Turbo Tube Screamer. I like the Turbo Tube Screamer because it has four gain settings. The Turbo setting adds a lot of low end and makes whatever you’re playing through sound like a 4x10 cabinet. I usually end up leaving one or the other distortion pedals on, and adjusting the volume on the guitar.
Do you ever use more than one distortion pedal at the same time?
Sure. It depends on how silly I want to get. It’s like dumb, dumber, and dumbest [laughs]. I’ll use both when I want feedback. Or I’ll use one or the other distortion, and use the compressor in conjunction to get an older tweed Deluxe kind of sound, which has that natural compression and saturation built into it.
You mentioned your love of early guitar instrumentals. I dig “Do the Murray,” which is the one instrumental on Tin Can Trust.
I was thinking “Steppin’ Out,” the old standard that Cream used to do, but with a boogaloo beat to give it a Latin soul vibe. I recorded the guitar parts using the Tascam 488 Portastudio cassette multi-track in my home studio, and flew those tracks into the Pro Tools session at Manny’s Estudio in East L.A., where we tracked most everything else. There are three guitar solos, and I tried to make it sound like it was two guys trading off by switching from the bridge pickup to the neck pickup and back on a Les Paul.
How did you get the fiery lead sound on the opening track, “Burn it Down”?
We were working on a tight deadline, so we’d book studio time on the road too. “Burn it Down” was all acoustic, and I was looking for a way in. There was an old Italian Eko 12-string guitar with one neck pickup hanging on the studio wall in San Francisco. I plugged it into an old Ampeg 2x12 combo and cranked it up.
Later on in “Jupiter or the Moon” you play a solo over almost nothing, how did that happen?
It was not a typical song, and I did not want to build it in the typical way. When we record basics as a trio, the same guys will often finish the track because it’s tricky to leave the right amount of space and add the right amount of overdubs without ruining it. While we were in Denver, it struck me that a more traditional, Phil Upchurch-type of solo might work, so I played a ’59 Les Paul through a Fender amp. We miked it from across the room trying to make it sound like the soloist was playing in the same room as the other guys.
What prompted you to cover the Grateful Dead’s “West L.A. Fadeaway”?
I was aware of the Dead since the beginning, but it wasn’t until the Live/Dead album came out that the light really went on for me. That version of “St. Stephen” into “The Eleven” into “Turn on Your Love Light” floored me. Jerry Garcia became one of my favorites. I first met him in 1984, when he showed up at one of our gigs along with Carlos Santana. They took turns playing my spare ES-335. Afterwards, Jerry gave me a ’58 Stratocaster. I couldn’t believe it.
Did you use it for this recording?
No. I was already in the middle of recording with a Les Paul when I realized I should have played Jerry’s Strat. Anyway, that’s how our affiliation with the Grateful Dead started. A few years later we did a weekend opening for them at Laguna Seca. We invited Jerry to play with us. He returned the favor by bringing me up to play “West L.A. Fadeaway,” so that’s the connection.
The final song—“27 Spanishes” is an interesting narrative. How did that one come together, and what’s it all about?
The music reminds me of when the explorers first went to Skull Island and found King Kong. It’s like a fakano—a Hollywood version of jungle music. It seemed to work with these lyrics that tell the story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. In the end, they became pals [laughs]. The last lyrics are, “Later they became friendly, and their blood was often mixed. Now they all hang out together, and play guitars for kicks.” We actually had two endings. The other one was heavier, but then we thought, “No, lets go with the lighter ending that uses the graphic example of them sitting around playing guitars together.”