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Los Lobos' 'Kiko': The making of a Chicano masterpiece

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

East LA heroes: Louie Pérez, David Hidalgo, César Rosas, Conrad Lozano, and Steve Berlin today.

"It was a life-changing experience as a songwriter," Los Lobos' multi-instrumentalist/co-songwriter Louie Pérez told the Current about the making of Kiko (1992), the band's career-defining album. "Something happened."

What happened, actually, began to take shape five years earlier. In Luis Valdez's acclaimed La Bamba, Los Lobos' version of the title song (a 1958 Ritchie Valens hit based on a traditional Mexican folk song) had catapulted the band to the top of the charts. But the sudden mainstream success wasn't all roses for them.

"We had released a bunch of cool records and then 'La Bamba' happened and we became this big thing," said Pérez. "It almost eclipsed everything else that we had done before. I think the band went through a little bit of an identity crisis because, here we were, 'The La Bamba Band.'"

The band had to regroup fast, and they took immediate, drastic measures. First, they released the all-Spanish, gorgeous (and, to some, disconcerting) La Pistola y el Corazón (1988), a return to the band's folkloric roots, and then followed with the strong The Neighborhood (1990), which served to calm the nerves of those into Los Lobos' more blues-based, rootsy sound. With all bases covered, the band members asked themselves, "Now what?"

"With Kiko we were opening up ourselves to a lot of possibilities," Pérez said. "David [Hidalgo] and I just started writing down some songs and it just went somewhere else. There were no more rules. We went into the studio to just let things happen," said Pérez.

The band began rehearsals at a dilapidated studio on L.A.'s Skid Row. After a few demos, the band showed the demos to the label heads, and a key turning point occurred.

"This is great, but why don't you talk with Mitchell Froom about this?" said Lenny Waronker, then president of Warner Brothers Records. Froom, along with engineer Tchad Blake, had already worked with Los Lobos on "La Bamba" and "C'mon, Let's Go" for the La Bamba movie, and the chemistry (and success) had been great. It was a brilliant idea that would put the cherry on top of Kiko's pie. The sessions moved to Sound Factory studio in Hollywood, and the making of a magical, surreal, psychedelic classic continued.

"Among the experimental things we did was to use drums in a very small room," recalled Blake on the liner notes for the 20th anniversary edition, "using heavy compression and distortion on many instruments, contrasting that with some very clean sounds."

At times ("Angel With Dirty Faces"), Hidalgo recorded a guitar solo and then played it backwards; cheap pawnshop amplifiers were used often; a Shure SM57 microphone would be placed in the bottom of a trash can; electric guitars would be mixed with jaranas, and they wouldn't move to the next song until each song was finished.

"[Blake] was just a genius in the studio," said Pérez. "And although everything was very lush, nothing was overproduced."

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