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Had you walked into a local Tower Records store recently, made your way to the "Rock" section of the CD-listening stations, clamped on a pair of headphones and pressed the proper buttons, you could have heard the Latin Playboys' self-titled debut.
But what would you have heard? A weaving, lo-fi journey through minimal, Afro-Cuban rhythms pulsing under ethereal vocals, mysterious concoctions that play out like soundtracks to a wake on Venus. Fragments of noise from playgrounds, seconds of scratchy 78s, organ parts that rise and fall through the aural miasma with the tone of a warped record.
Rock? Hardly, but then filing it under country, dance, international, rap or pop wouldn't work, either.
"When people ask me about this thing, I find it really hard to explain what it's like without falling into the usual, 'Well, it's like jazz or avant-garde.' It kind of discounts it a little by using those generic categories," says Louie Perez, lyricist, percussionist and founding Playboy, from his home in Laguna Beach, California. The project emerged from the songwriting brain trust of Los Lobos, Perez (also that group's drummer) and songwriter/vocalist/guitarist David Hidalgo, after the Band From East L.A. finished its 1992 album Kiko. It emerged literally, Perez explains: "David was just doing this on his [cassette] four-track for demos, just because he had ideas he wanted to get down. He'd use an acoustic guitar if he couldn't plug in the amps, or if he didn't have a drum, he'd bang on the table. Finally, I liked it so much that I said, 'Well, maybe this could turn into something.'"
Perez has been contributing lyrics to Hidalgo's music since 1973, yet he found that the guitarist's moody, skeletal new compositions demanded a new work method. "When I brought the tapes home and I went to approach the lyrics, I had no melody to go by," he says. "It wasn't your usual fill-in-the-blanks kind of thing; I had to take this impressionistic approach on it. I listened to it and digested what the feeling was, and then I put the tapes away and started writing. There was no obvious melody that would dictate syncopation and syllables that go with that traditional approach to songwriting."
Most lyrics, devoid of music to hide behind, amount to little more than empty rhymes. But the nontraditional angle taken by Perez for his Playboy work landed him somewhere near the realm of poetry. "The songs didn't have that structure that forces lyrics to become lyrics," he says. His words range from spontaneous beatnik verse to lyrical storytelling to images of Dumbo in Spanish. From the oblique "Chinese Surprise": Two skinny dogs yelling at the sky
By a big red tree--Compton neon night
Scrawled on the wall--nearly ten foot tall
In a Chinese surprise in my soup Perez and Hidalgo enlisted a couple of non-Latins, producer Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega) and engineer Tchad Blake, whose work with Tom Waits no doubt added an audible influence. (Perhaps it's telling that there are no instrumental credits listed on the album; it seems to be more a work of sound and feel than of actual individual playing.)
The recording of Latin Playboys was part intuition, part stumbling in the dark. "I hated to have to go into the studio and re-create the tapes," Perez says. "These were just little snapshots, things that kind of happened when they happened. Then we thought, 'Why not use the four-track as a foundation?'" After the four-track came "a lot of old, mongrel guitars, old amps and bullhorns and a lot of unusual mechanical filters that Mitchell's built using exhaust pipes and stuff. Then we went to work on the lyrical side of it."
Which, despite the fact that Perez had showed up for class with his homework done, proved to be another hurdle. "When we got to the studio, I had an idea of what lyrics would go with what songs, but when I sat down with David, he had other ideas of what lyrics went with what songs," Perez says, chuckling. "Some of the melodies weren't even created until we went into the studio. Mitchell often said, 'This could be a nightmare journey for any producer,' because there was this almost anarchy approach to recording the thing."
But there was no point to recording anything at all if it would never see the fluorescent light of a record store; luckily, Warner Bros.--home to Los Lobos--had an open mind. "At first, we approached [Warner president] Lenny Waronker--he's a record producer and an artist himself--and he said, 'If you guys feel good about this, go ahead and do it,'" explains Perez. Then, when the band played him the finished product, "he kind of just looked unsure about what was going on. We were sitting there staring at our shoes, looking at magazines upside down wondering what he was thinking, but he liked it."
Of course, if the members of the Latin Playboys hadn't been who they are, Waronker wouldn't have even returned their phone calls, let alone given the green light for a release. This Perez admits, but insists that the album was no vanity project.