HT: Getting to record with Steve Berlin on the new album is a pretty huge milestone. How did that collaboration come to fruition?
CJ: We wanted to try working with a producer for the first time. Steve was literally the first name on the wish list. I’ve been a fan not only Los Lobos, but Steve’s production work for a long time. We simply sought him out and told him we wanted to work with him. Coincidentally, we were passing through his hometown of Portland, OR on a tour a few weeks later and invited him to the show. After the set we met and he said he was “intrigued” and it began. It seemed too good to be true honestly. We hold his work in such high regard it was flattering that he wanted to work with us.
HT: Was Steve pretty hands on in terms of shaping the sound of the record and getting involved in the decision-making process?
CJ: Absolutely. More than we anticipated, and it was refreshing to see his enthusiasm and commitment to the project. He chose the songs and the order on the record, and saw them through from their infant stages up until the final tracking and mixing. When we met that night in Portland, he asked me and Kenny to send him demos of everything we were working on – full songs, partial songs, melodies, chord progressions, guitar riffs – and he encouraged us to not filter ourselves or have any preconceptions, just to send him everything. From there, we began an extended correspondence over phone and email where he created his list of favorites.
Some were full songs, some were literally just a melody that he said “I love this, please develop.” And so it went back and forth for a month or two until we settled on 12 or 13 ideas that he thought best fit together for this album. And the whole time Steve was very vocal about song structures and arrangements, literally all the way until the recording began. He gave Kenny and I some outside the box suggestions for our songs and challenged us to develop them differently than we would have on our own. I’ll admit that not every idea sat perfectly with me right off the bat, it had never had anyone tweak or edit my songs like that. But I trusted Steve’s vision, and in the end, every idea he came up with was brilliant.
But not only was he hands on with the actual song arranging, but when it came time to record he was sculpting all the tones too: choosing guitars and amps for me, tricking out drum sounds, trying to push the envelope with what we were working with and encouraging weirdness and experimentation. He really pulled some special moments out of us, and they’re all over the record. He seemed to really tune into the vision of our music and help us dig deeper. He really saw through the trees, so to speak, and felt where we were going with our ideas and pushed us to get there.
HT: How was the naming process for National Bohemian? Did you guys deliberate for a long time before coming to an agreement? What were some of the other alternatives in the running?
CJ: We wanted something tied to Baltimore, we have lots of hometown pride. It seemed like a while actually until we came up with that, which I believe Dave came up with while we were on set break at a wedding we were playing in Cape Cod. As soon as I heard it I liked it, it represented Baltimore and also fit who we are. We are national bohemians, sort of a traveling hobo circus if you will. Hey wait a minute, that could of been in the running! I believe “Charm City” was a possibility too.
HT: Having some good Baltimore friends myself – or Bawlmer as they often call it – I know that the city has some serious Bridge pride. Does it feel like the hometown scene is changing with your shows having moved from the 8×10 into bigger rooms like the Ram’s Head?
CJ: I’d say it’s changing in that more and more people are starting to come to our shows as the word gets around. In the beginning it was a very close-knit family and friends atmosphere where it felt like we knew everyone at the show. Now I look out in the crowd and hardly know anyone. It’s amazing to me still. What started out as our little secret has turned into something much bigger, but at the heart of it, our families and close friends are still there every night and that vibe permeates the atmosphere every time we play Baltimore.
It still feels like our little intimate gathering no matter how many people show up. It is nice though to see new faces all the time and feel that the music is spreading. I have talked to some who are upset that they’ve been shut out of shows here and there, where it used to be automatic that you’d get in day of the show. So, I’ve learned to turn my phone off an hour before the show for those last minute “Dude, you think I could get on the list +4?” text messages.
HT: Speaking of Baltimore, I feel like it’s impossible not to ask about the Wire. Did you watch the show? What was your favorite season?
CJ: You mean the best television show ever created? Yes, I watched it, we all did. Favorite season… hmmm… they are all so good its tough to say. Season 3 was great with the whole Stringer/Avon drama, but I also really liked Season 4 a lot. The stories of the kids growing up in Baltimore were amazing. That was probably my all-around favorite season. But Season 5 definitely had some powerful episodes. Tell me you didn’t shed a tear when Bubbles got up to speak in his meeting or when Michael had to ditch his little brother and Dookie because he was too caught up in the game? As you can tell, yes I watched it and I’ll talk all day about it.
HT: You guys lined up a really ideal combination of both support slots for Tea Leaf Green and Galactic and headlining shows on the current tour. Do you have any funny stories yet from being on the road with either of those bands? I imagine that although those shows were great exposure, you must be excited to get to play more material and longer performances at the headlining shows?
CJ: It’s great to be able to open for a band that you respect and to get to play in front of new potential fans. Also, I’d be lying if i said that playing for an hour and being done by 10 and getting to listen to the band and party wasn’t a breeze. But yes, we are very much looking forward to having our own night. We have an album’s worth of new songs that we haven’t fully stretched out yet, and frankly it can be a tease to sit in a van all day long and then play for an hour. When we have more time is when we can really get creative and try new things.
HT: So, given that the band is on the larger side with six members, what’s your cruising vessel for tours?
CJ: It’s a 15 passenger van and trailer with a strict rotation on driving and two people constantly sharing a row. And DO NOT mess up the rotation. If I wanna lay down and I shared yesterday, get out of my row!
HT: Finally, is the video for Rosie your first “official” video project? How did that come together?
CJ: Yes, it’s our first video. It came together quite easily actually. We knew an excellent videographer, Justin Gustavison, who was interested in doing it. So we had a day off on the road in January and we went to Louisville, KY for the day to film it. We showed up and they had costumes ready for us and just goofed off for a few hours playing the tune while they shot. It was much more fun than we anticipated, I’ll admit we were a little skeptical. But it literally took maybe four hours of our time to shoot and Justin really killed it in putting it all together. I think he did an amazing job. We’re ready for the next one…