A Gretsch Abroad — An Interview With Los Lobos Drummer Enrique ”Bugs” Gonzalez
Whenever Los Lobos drummer Bugs Gonzalez visits his local juice shop in East LA, the shopowner always brags loudly to the other customers, pointing to Bugs and saying, “Do you know who this guy is? He’s the guy from La Bamba!” The other customers usually look at Bugs in confused amazement, as if they are looking at a re-incarnated Ritchie Valens. Bugs just laughs it off and explains that he is the drummer for Los Lobos, which maybe isn’t as cool as being a re-incarnated Ritchie Valens, but it’s still pretty darn cool.
The non-musically literate general public may only know Los Lobos from their 1987 smash hit La Bamba, which is actually a shame since this Latin-influenced pop song only represents a tiny sliver of the band’s depth and talent. To get a real taste of Los Lobos’ artistic range check out their 1992 release Kiko, a genre-bending mammoth of an album that powerfully demonstrates the unique textured sound and singular artistic vision that is Los Lobos.
Bugs is exactly what you would hope to expect from the Los Lobos drummer. He’s fun to be around, but behind that big laugh and warm smile lies a consummate professional who is extremely committed to his work. His smile and his chops may have landed him the gig, but it is his tireless commitment to his craft and his ability to enhance the Los Lobos sound that keeps him there. We recently caught up with Bugs in California and talked about his work with Los Lobos, his exceptional family, and why he plays Gretsch drums.
Lucas: In 2011 you began with Los Lobos and your career really took off as a drummer. How did you get started with them? Was there an audition?
Bugs: When I first moved to LA I didn’t know anybody. So, I went on Craig’s List. I went to the Musicians ads and found one from a singer/songwriter from Portland named Scott Fisher, a very talented keyboard player and singer who was auditioning drummers for his summer tour. So, I drove down to Manhattan Beach, played three songs with him, and got the gig. We ended up touring for about a year and a half. By the end of that run we had recorded a full-length album. We were doing a CD release party in Portland, Oregon and Steve Berlin, who plays keyboards and saxophone with Los Lobos, was there. He heard us play and after the show we talked and exchanged numbers. Then five years later in 2011 he calls me and says ”are you sitting down?” and I say ”should I be sitting down?” and he says ”yes.” Then he asks ”are you available to play drums with Los Lobos?” I said “yes” immediately. He said he would send me a bunch of material and then we’d meet in a few days.
Lucas: So, there was no audition?
Bugs: He said they still didn’t know if their drummer was going to make the next show which was on New Year’s Eve, but he wanted the rest of the guys to meet me. So, the day before the New Year’s Eve gig, I get a call from the Los Lobos tour manager who sends me to bassist Conrad Lozano’s house. When I was driving there I was listening to some of the material and I remember this tune that was in 6/8 and I thought it sounded fantastic so I listened to it several times.
Lucas: What’s the name of the tune?
Bugs : The track is called ”Teresa.” So, I got to Conrad’s house and gave him a big hug. David Hidalgo was there. It was just Conrad and Dave.
Lucas: Cesar wasn’t there?
Bugs: Cesar wasn’t there! We went up to an attic, and just as Conrad and Dave were plugging in, I launched into the song ”Teresa” which starts with the drums in 6/8. They looked at each other and we started playing the song. It has a drum solo at the end. At the end of the song, Dave grabs a can of beer and pops it open, and says ”We’ll see you at New Year’s!”
Bugs: I often think about that moment because I think if I would have let them pick the song, it might not have clicked or gelled in the right way. That moment was there so I took it. I am forever grateful for them to have given me that opportunity.
Lucas: It’s a story where you played your cards EXACTLY right. It could have gone wrong in so many ways.
Bugs: It was crazy. I met the rest of the guys for the first time on stage in New York City just before the gig on New Year’s. We shook hands across the drums 20 minutes before playing live. It went so fast. I had made up a list of 50 songs that I was able to transcribe note for note. Cougar Estrada, the Los Lobos drummer before me, was a very accomplished Latin jazz drummer. There were a lot of rhythms that he was playing which I wasn’t familiar with at that point. I just transcribed everything and thought, I need to find a way mechanically to play these rhythms.
Lucas: So, you can read and write sheet music.
Bugs: Yes, my mom and dad sent me to the music conservatory when I was seven years old, so I was taught music theory at a very young age. Later as I gravitated towards the drums, that became a skill that allowed me to read everything that was presented to me.
Lucas: Los Lobos is known for a playing style that covers so many different genres. Some of your songs are straight up Country, others are Blues Americana, others are Latin based. Los Lobos is constantly switching it up. Can you talk about some of the challenges you face as a drummer who has to be so versatile?
Bugs: Because Los Lobos covers so many musical styles, I was faced with 25 albums and 45 years of catalogue which I really needed to study intensely and figure out what it was that made that music feel good. It actually took me a couple of years to properly go through the catalogue and transcribe most of the music that had already been recorded either in the studio or live. I was searching for what it was going to take to play that music with that same level of transparency and consistency that these guys do from gig to gig. It was just one of those things where you take everything and fine tune it to the smallest detail and playing it over and over until the song feels good when I played it. I had to analyze what the song is suggesting through the rhythms, the soloing, all these different things. I wanted our gigs to be a testament of how every song should be played. I would say that the last three or four years have been extremely satisfying for me because finally it feels like the music is starting to gel. We have found that chemistry that Los Lobos has had their whole career.
Lucas: Your mother Vianey Valdez was a very famous pop star in Mexico. Can you talk a little about your relationship with her? She was incredibly successful in her music career. When you were growing up was she around the house much?
Bugs: Yes, she was. My mom had a career as a very young 17-year-old, and she got married at the age of 26. So by the time my brother and I were born, my mother had already enjoyed a 10- or 15-year-long career. She recorded 15 albums. So, we got to see the stay-at-home version of mom. By that time she decided to do more of a local kind of thing and take care of her family. That was the experience we had growing up. A mom that was very present who we knew had had a certain level of success earlier in her life.
Lucas: So, once she had kids she decided to stop all the touring and all the hard work?
Bugs: My mom and dad decided to open a recording studio. My mom decided to put together a band and they would do more local events. Whenever we had to travel with her, we would drive for like 2, 3, 4 hours, so she made sure that she was close to home.
Lucas: Is she alive today?
Bugs: Yes, she lives in Monterrey Mexico. After her music career she became a chef and she now bakes pastries for a living, and she has a little workshop at home where she does it.
Lucas: So do people come up to her on the street and say ”Hey, Vianey Valdez!”
Bugs: All the time! My mom and dad were celebrities at home, because my dad was a DJ and my mom was such a well-known singer from this TV show which was very similar to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
Lucas: What was it called?
Bugs: Muévanse Todos, which means “everybody move” and that was the name of the title track which made her famous. It’s the Spanish version of “Twist and Shout.” So, it had that 60s pop sound.
Lucas: Yeah kind of like that Austin Powers vibe.
Bugs: Completely. This was all happening from say 1962 through the early 70s. Back then all the songs like “Twist & Shout” that were proven hits in the US would be translated into Spanish. So Spanish speaking artists would become known for the Spanish version of these songs that were hits in other countries first.
Lucas: Can you talk a little bit about the musical relationship between Latin American countries? If a band hits, say in Mexico, does it then have easy access to the markets in Central or South America? Which countries are more connected than others? And is Brazil its own scene because of the language barrier?
Bugs: Every Latin American country has a domestic market. So, any band that is starting out gets launched first in their domestic market. Jumbo (the alternative rock band Bugs was in with his brother from 1997 to 2005) wasn’t even launched in all of Mexico at first, but just in northern Mexico because we were from Monterrey. As you start proving yourself as an artist, and the audiences grow bigger and bigger, then it might catch the attention of other label presidents in other countries, so they decide to publish your record in that other country. When Jumbo became successful in Mexico, we were afforded the opportunity to go tour in Central America and a little in South America. To my knowledge, other bigger bands Mana or Cafe Tacuba were bands that established themselves through the Latin MTV system where their videos created enough of a buzz for other countries to be publishing them. So, the crossover only happens if you are big enough and you are selling tons of records. Brazil is a different entity altogether. Music from Brazil generally does not reach the Spanish speaking countries and vice versa because of the language barrier. If you are somebody who is really interested in music, you are, of course, finding out who is known in Brazil. But to be honest, there is no Brazilian music being played on the airwaves in Mexico, unless it’s specifically a Brazilian music show.
Lucas: Do you ever get stage fright?
Bugs: No, never. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family where my mom was a singer leading a band and my dad was a DJ working in radio. So, I grew up watching them doing their thing and being happy doing it. I always feel very comfortable on stage. I definitely feel an energy of anticipation before a show, where I feel excited that I get to connect with the audience, that I get to play for people. It’s always amazing to see familiar faces, friends and family, people who have followed them for 45 years. It’s a blast! It’s more a burst of happiness and energy than of nervousness.
Lucas: If you were to lose all of your musical talent and your entire network and you had to start over, what line of work would you get into?
Bugs: I think something that connects with people, shares a positive message, and makes them happy. Playing does that for me, and it’s what I have done for the last 30 years so I can’t imagine doing anything else. But if I had to think of something else, it could be anything along the lines of having that connection and that contact with people that spreads positivity and a message of love and compassion.
Lucas: So, you would be a televangelist?
Bugs: OK, that sounds really scary, ha ha!
Lucas: Why do you play Gretsch drums?
Bugs: I play Gretsch drums because they sound amazing. Gretsch is a family owned operation that has historically proven to be the best sounding drums no matter what you compare them to. I love the sound of Gretsch drums. My childhood heroes Tony Williams and Vinnie Colaiuta were always playing Gretsch. When I discovered Gretsch in the studio when I was recording with Jumbo, I was blown away by the clarity, the transparency, and the punch. Once you discover that sound you can’t ever go back to anything less than that.
Lucas: What are your plans for 2019?
Bugs: Just keeping the music alive! We have a really busy tour schedule for 2019. Connecting with audiences everywhere. We are now playing this half folk / half electric set right now. This summer we will be doing the festivals and touring with Tedeschi Trucks Band.
Lucas: Well thanks for being such a great Gretsch artist every night and thanks for your time.
Bugs: Thank you!
— Lucas von Gretsch
(Gretsch Generation 5)
Interview originally published on April 16, 2019.