30 Years Ago: Los Lobos Finally Leave ‘La Bamba’ Behind on ‘Kiko’
Kiko is still Los Lobos' most unusual yet satisfying album, a moment when the power and mystery of their music found their fullest flowering amid producer Mitchell Froom's off-the-wall pop atmospheres.
They'd put out tougher albums that connected more directly with their Mexican-American heritage, even albums like 1990's The Neighborhood that similarly attempted to expand Los Lobos' musical palate. They never put out an album that so deftly weaved all of those impulses together into a crossover format.
"The record came together quickly," David Hidalgo told the Tampa Bay Times in 1994. "We didn't rehearse. Everybody just played. We tried to capture everyone's first impressions. Everything had that freshness to it."
Froom and engineer Tchad Blake (who would later helm Lobos' Latin Playboys offshoot band) threw open the creative floodgates while making sure Kiko didn't become an assimilationist curio. They held tight to what made these songs by Hidalgo and Louis Perez so topically brave (and so foot-stompingly propulsive), even while applying thrilling new impressionistic textures.
"Something happened," Perez told the San Antonio Current in 2012. "With Kiko, we were opening up ourselves to a lot of possibilities. David and I just started writing down some songs and it just went somewhere else. There were no more rules."
Watch Los Lobos' 'Kiko and the Lavender Moon' Video
Released on May 26, 1992, Kiko finally smashed down the secondary barrier that was holding back Los Lobos: The post-"La Bamba" caricature of the band as Mexican-folk rockers.
"We'd gotten to the top of the charts and pretended, to a certain extent, that we were a big deal — when the truth of the matter was, our success with 'La Bamba' was 100% tied to the success of the movie," Steve Berlin admitted in 2013. "So, when the movie died down, which inevitably it does, we were in a funny place."
They'd lost commercial momentum, then lost tons of money by touring too long at the earlier scale. A search for the next hit had also led to overthinking in the studio. When Los Lobos reconnected with "La Bamba" producer Froom, everyone knew it was time for a shift in their approach. To his credit, Warner Bros. president Lenny Waronker was on board with Los Lobos' bold new creative direction.
A mysterious, completely transfixing triumph, Kiko stirred in this tasty penchant for R&B, looped-in vintage sound effects and mystical border-town atmospheres – all while dealing with a series of sharply drawn inner-city topics like the scourge of homelessness ("Angels With Dirty Faces"), the horror of rape ("Reva's House") and demons of alcoholism ("Whiskey Trail").
Listen to Los Lobos' 'Angels With Dirty Faces'
Los Lobos certainly still hit a few gas pedal-mashing grooves, notably on "The Train Don't Stop Here," but at the same time, Kiko goes deeper into concurrent influences. It also went deeper into Los Lobos' cultural milieu: You hear the sweet symphonic pop of the Beatles in "When the Circus Comes" and the festive twilight mysteries of the barrio in "Rio de Tenampa." There is a resolute joy about "Kiko and the Lavender Moon," and a humbling grace in "Saint Behind the Glass."
"Tchad and Mitchell kind of created this environment where we were always just trying things," Perez told the Los Angeles Times in 2012. "We just felt kind of liberated and free."
Together, they created a world of sound, influenced by the band's East Los Angeles roots but not bound to them. Even today, Kiko remains Los Lobos' most intriguing moment.
"When we went into the studio for Kiko," Berlin added, "the mindset was really: 'What do we have to lose? Let's do it the way that we want to do it; let's make ourselves happy – and if this is the end, then at least we went out with our boots on.'"