Steve Berlin laughed when he was reminded that his band Los Lobos is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
“Speaking of long in the tooth,” he said while taking a break from running errands in Portland, Ore., where he lives when he’s not touring with his band or working with myriad acts he produces, including Crystal Bowersox.
Berlin joined Los Lobos a few years after founders Cesar Rosas, Louie Perez, David Hidalgo, and Conrad Lozano formed the Los Angeles band, but he’s a full-fledged member as keyboard player and saxophonist and overall architect of sound.
The group is a uniquely American phenomenon, digging deep into the Latin roots of its core members to explore Chicano music, the blues, rock, folk, and anything else the creatively restless members feel like tackling. Over 16 albums the band has achieved critical adulation, especially for the seminal “Kiko” album in 1992, and audience adoration while never upsetting the unique chemistry that binds the members.
“You can’t spend... 40 years together and not be a family. It is most definitely like a family in every respect it could be,” Berlin said in a phone interview to discuss the band’s tour that will bring it to Monroe for a sold-out concert Saturday.
“You’ve got your good days and bad days and there are certain subjects you don’t bring up unless you want to fight about them. But I’ve always thought over the years that one of the things that has kept us together is that the guys were kind of grownups when the band started.”
Rosas, Hidalgo, Perez, and Lozano went to high school together in East Los Angeles and grew up playing in cover bands in their neighborhood before moving on to original music with roots in Mexico and the United States.
“They weren’t like callow 20-years-olds living life for the first time,” Berlin said. “We had to pay our dues for a long time before anyone knew what the hell we were up to.”
The band is probably best known for its hit 1987 version of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” from the film of the same name, which in retrospect is mostly a footnote on an eclectic career that extends far beyond a one-off cover song.
Los Lobos has scored a few minor radio hits such as “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee),” and “One Time One Night,” but the band has never defined success by mass appeal. Like artists such as John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle, and many others under the Americana or roots music label, the band has generally operated strictly on its own terms.
Berlin said the only thing he would change is the process by which the group makes albums. Its most recent studio album, 2010’s “Tin Can Trust,” is excellent, but the way it was created is emblematic of the band’s painful work pattern.
When the time comes to record, they get together in a studio and then... wait. And wait some more. Berlin described it as “abject terror.”
“We’re just sort of like in this room with all this time booked and no time on the road and nothing to work on. And then it’s always sort of like one of those Sergio Leone movies where everyone stares each other down,” he said. “And then someone is like, ‘Well, I’ve got this thing and it probably sucks and you’ll all hate it, but here’s how it goes.’ It’s really a weird way to work and not healthy.”
In music circles, Berlin is best known as a producer and sideman for a wide array of artists, including John Lee Hooker, Sheryl Crow, the Beat Farmers, the Replacements, and the Blasters.
His most recent project has been producing the second album from Bowersox, an Elliston, Ohio, native and the 2010 American Idol runner-up who also lives in Portland. He said he was on a break from working with another band when her label Shanachie Entertainment called and asked him if he would be interested in working with Bowersox.
“From the very first conversation we were right in sync about almost everything and it’s been an amazing process. I’m really, really happy about how it turned out,” he said. “She’s kind of unbelievable, a really amazing singer and songwriter.”
He said the disc features a number of Portland musicians along with some horn players from Austin. The disc is due for a March or April release.
“It’s a really cool record,” he said. “I’m excited to see what happens and where she goes from here because I think she’s a unique talent.”
Working with artists such as Bowersox is what makes his career so rewarding, he said.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I get to do pretty much exactly what I want to do. I get make the records I want to make with the people I want to make them with and play in the band I want to play with,” Berlin said. “Everything I do is more or less on my own terms.”
On Saturday expect an acoustic show that will feature songs from every phase of Los Lobos’ career.
“This is our 40th anniversary and in lieu of a better idea the way we decided to celebrate it is going to be sort of a retrospective, if you will. I hate to say unplugged, but that’s sort of what it is and we go back and reinterpret some of the older material. We’ve been doing acoustic shows for a long time, but those were really focused on the Latin, folkloric side,” he said.
This one will rock, he promised.
“It’s still pretty noisy I must say,” he said, chuckling. “It’s not like it’s that quiet. I still bring the earplugs, but it’s different, very different.”
Los Lobos will be at the Monroe Community College La-Z-Boy Center, Meyer Theater, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday on the college’s campus. The show is sold out.
Contact Rod Lockwood at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.