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Los Lobos' songwriting team a 40-year conversation

Greg Kot

7:11 PM CST, November 15, 2011

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Louie Perez and David Hidalgo have been writing songs together for 40 years, providing the backbone for Los Lobos albums and a couple of Latin Playboy projects. Their tunes have been covered by artists ranging from Robert Plant and Pop Staples to Phish and Waylon Jennings.

It’s a long, distinguished history that has merged vivid stories drawn from barrio life in East Los Angles with rock, Mexican folk music, soul, R&B, psychedelia and experimental pop. Now the two collaborators are taking a brief break from Los Lobos to tour together and take fans through their songbook, including an appearance Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

“It’s not Songwriting 101,” Perez says. “It’s more like the audience is eavesdropping on an afternoon of David and I sitting around with a couple of guitars -- a bit more of a living-room setting rather than a lecture hall.”

The informal setting mirrors how the duo began collaborating as they were growing up in East Los Angeles. They met in high school in 1971 and found they had a mutual affinity for the non-mainstream songcraft of Fairport Convention, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder.

“We’re looking at each other, ‘You like this stuff? I thought I was the only weird one,’” Perez says with a laugh. “So I went over to his house one day for about a year, which we spent listening to records, playing guitars, and starting to write songs.”

Every day seemed to bring a new discovery: “We borrowed a couple of reel-to-reel recorders from a friend and linked them together so we could do crude, multi-track recordings, which gave us a feel for what being in the studio would be like. What do kids write about? The little girl in pigtails who doesn’t pay attention to you. We’d do parody songs or write a song about somebody in school. We took a plastic organ and a bunch of junk, and did this 10-minute free-jazz thing we called ‘Space.’ We’d use the grate from a box fan as a percussion instrument. Then David wrote a song that was absolutely stunning at the age of 18, distilled from all we were listening to. It was a beautiful ballad, the chords all fit together.”

Soon after, Perez and Hidalgo joined forces with neighborhood friends Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano (later joined by Steve Berlin), and they spent nearly a decade exploring their Mexican folk-music heritage. Then they were signed to a record deal and the focus shifted back to writing original songs. Hidalgo and Perez answered the challenge on the band’s extraordinary debut album, “How Will the Wolf Survive?”(1984), and haven’t looked back since.

Even their discards are exceptional, some of which have been compiled on “The Long Goodbye” (Gonzolandia Records), focusing on the more intimate side of the duo’s songwriting. The prolific output is based on a combination of trust and taste – no song will be recorded, much less released, until it meets their standards. Even after decades of working together, the process can be nerve-racking for both of them.

“When we go into the studio to record a Los Lobos record we’ll have two, three things to jump start it, but then we write as we record,” Perez explains. “So inevitably we’ll go out to his car and he’ll be in the driver’s seat, I’m shotgun, and he’ll pop something into his player and he’ll be looking down at his shoes waiting for me to react. And I listen and if it’s cool, we’ll both get a sense of relief, because songwriting is a real personal thing. Nashville has reduced the songwriting team to a business. But we have not overcome that tentative feeling of having him hear one of my songs or vice versa and reacting honestly to it. Sometimes I’ll drive to his house and drop (a CD of) some songs on his doorstep and run away (laughs). We’re tough on ourselves too. I work late at night, and sometimes something that sounds brilliant at 2 a.m., at 10 the next day I’ll think, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ Having to share your songs, even with someone you’ve written with for this long, is like standing in front of an audience and confessing your sins.”

Their collaboration is often described as a combination of Hidalgo’s evocative music and voice and Perez’s painterly lyrics. But that division of labor really doesn’t do justice to how classic songs such as “Will the Wolf Survive?,” “Saint Behind the Glass,” “Angel Dance” and “Matter of Time” were conceived.

“To call David the music component and to call me the lyricist would hugely discount both of us,” Perez says. “It’s more like a conversation that we started 40 years ago and it’s still going.”

greg@gregkot.com

David Hidalgo and Louie Perez: 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Av., $34, $36 and $38; oldtownschool.org.