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

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 Aztlan
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.