Chicano Batman: A Sound And Vision That Could Only Come From Los Angeles

Mar 6, 2017
Originally published on March 6, 2017 4:01 pm

A band from the fertile Latin alternative scene in Los Angeles is poised to break out in a big way. Their sound is laid-back lounge grooves, R&B with flavors from Mexico or Brazil and a funky swagger. Their look is matching puffy tuxedo shirts and bow ties, like they're playing a prom in 1976. Even their name is unforgettable: Chicano Batman.

NPR's Kelly McEvers met up with two members of the band, singer Bardo Martinez and guitarist Carlos Arévalo, to discuss their new album Freedom Is Free, their wild stage shows and why their distinctive sound could have only come from their hometown. Hear the full conversation — recorded, at the artists' suggestion, at one of their favorite LA guitar shops — at the audio link.


Interview Highlights

On the genesis of their sound

Carlos Arévalo: I think definitely, one of the inspirations for the sound of the group is what we would call "low-rider oldies" music, and that's a really Southwest thing. There's a DJ out here called Art Laboe — he's in his 90s and he's still pushing that music, and that music wasn't lost on us. We'd tune in every Sunday night on his show; it's syndicated. And you'd hear amazing sounds that you weren't hearing in modern music ... stuff by The Midnighters, The Sunglows, Ralfi Pagan, Barbara Lewis. Just classic music that just doesn't go out of style, ever.

On the band's logo, a combination of the Batman bat and the United Farm Workers eagle

Bardo Martinez: The UFW, the logo, it's just as powerful as Batman, you know? Creating a voice for the voiceless. And that's kind of a part of Chicano Batman's identity. But it's not the principal [thing] — we're many other things as well.

On writing explicitly political songs

Arévalo: There's a song called "La Jura" that Eduardo [Arenas], our bass player, wrote. And that's basically a Spanish-language Black Lives Matter song.

Martinez: [The lyrics go,] La otra noche fue una noche muy terrible, balaciaron un amigo mío: "The other night was a terrible night. They killed a friend of mine." No entiendo porque los que deben proteger hacen lo opuesto: "I don't understand why those who are supposed to protect us do the opposite.'"

Arévalo: There's a lot of fear happening right now. I feel like people are making decisions based on fear — and if you look back in history, you'll see that those decisions usually lead to a lot of human suffering. And I think if people can put those fears to rest and look with inside themselves, then their mind and spirit is truly free.

On why Los Angeles is their home for the foreseeable future

Arévalo: It's so rich culturally, you know? That's something that I personally took for granted and didn't realize I was taking for granted until I traveled the country in this band, and there's some places that just don't have as much diversity. It's not a negative thing, it's just how life is some other places. That's a real blessing to be here and thrive here.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A band from the fertile Latin alternative scene in Los Angeles is poised to break out in a big way.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Their sound - laid-back grooves, R&B with flavors from Mexico or Brazil and a funky swagger.

SIEGEL: Their look - matching puffy tuxedo shirts and bow ties, as if they're playing a prom in 1976.

SHAPIRO: Even their name is unforgettable - Chicano Batman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRIENDSHIP - IS A SMALL BOAT IN A STORM")

CHICANO BATMAN: (Singing) You've got an open heart. So you share what's inside, thinking that all is said in confidence. But then you realize.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Friendship is a small boat in a storm.

CHICANO BATMAN: (Singing) The sun is getting heavy.

SIEGEL: That's a track from Chicago Batman's new album "Freedom Is Free." Our LA-based colleague Kelly McEvers paid them a visit.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: When we asked the Chicano Batman guys to meet us somewhere, they suggested this classic joint called Future Music that sells vintage guitars and amps. The walls are covered with guitars in all kinds of colors - orange, yellow, burnt sienna. This is where a lot of local musicians hang out. And I asked the lead singer of Chicano Batman to sing for me, and he did.

BARDO MARTINEZ: (Singing) This is me when I sit down. A new moon, a new light, a new focal point of sight makes me feel all right.

How's it go?

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: That's great.

MARTINEZ: Something like that. You all got to get the record (laughter).

MCEVERS: That's Bardo Martinez. He and guitarist Carlos Arevalo sat down on a few old amps and talked to me about their new album, their wild stage shows and whether or not their sound could have only come from this city - Los Angeles. Here's Carlos.

CARLOS AREVALO: I think definitely one of the inspirations for the sound of the group is, like, what we would call low rider oldies music, you know. And that's a really Southwest thing. There's a DJ out here called Art Laboe. He's in his 90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And here he is, Southern California's number one disc jockey, Art Laboe.

AREVALO: And he's still pushing that music. And that music wasn't lost on us. I'd - we'd tune in every Sunday night on his show. It's syndicated. And you'd hear amazing sounds like just - you weren't hearing in modern music. And I think...

MCEVERS: Like what? Like what's some good...

AREVALO: You would hear stuff by Thee Midniters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GIVING UP ON LOVE")

THEE MIDNITERS: (Singing) I'm giving up on love.

AREVALO: The Sunglows, Ralfi Pagan, Barbara Lewis, you know, just classic music that just doesn't go out of style ever.

SIEGEL: So in part it's the stuff you grew up with hearing that you wanted to kind of incorporate into your own stuff?

AREVALO: Well, exactly. I grew up next to the Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet, you know what I'm saying? So you find all these compilations made by Art Laboe, you know...

MCEVERS: Yeah. So you go get records, bring them home.

AREVALO: So LA is definitely like because you live here, you hear that music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN")

CHICANO BATMAN: (Singing) This is me when I sit down. A new moon, a new light, a new focal point of sight makes me feel all right.

MCEVERS: You guys have a logo. And it's like a combination of basically the superhero Batman and the United Farm Workers' eagle. What's that all about? Explain the thinking there.

MARTINEZ: You know, it's just to empower. And it's just like the UFW, the logo, it's just as powerful as Batman, you know, creating a voice for the voiceless. You know, and that's kind of like a part of Chicano Batman's identity. But that's not the principle. I mean, we're many other things as well.

MCEVERS: Yeah. So you're many other things. But one of the things it sounds like you are is political...

MARTINEZ: Yes.

MCEVERS: ...And unapologetically so. I mean, I think people have been afraid to be political. We're obviously in a different moment right now.

MARTINEZ: Right.

MCEVERS: Has that always been true? Again, does that just come from who you are as people, or is that something you kind of decided on?

MARTINEZ: I think it's - implicitly it's been political. I mean, the fact that you have four, you know, very brown Latinos going out there and playing music on these stages that usually people like us, that look like us haven't really been represented on. That's a political statement, you know.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

AREVALO: And are our songwriting and messages have always been about, you know, love and acceptance and positivity. With this new record, we're being a little bit more explicit in terms of the political slant.

MCEVERS: What's an example of a song on the new album that you feel like is, you know, getting into the world of the political?

AREVALO: There's a song called "La Jura" that Eduardo, our bass player, wrote. And that's basically a Spanish language Black Lives Matter song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA JURA")

CHICANO BATMAN: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA JURA")

CHICANO BATMAN: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish). You know, the other night was a terrible night. They killed a friend of mine.

And so the next line is like, (speaking Spanish). I don't understand why those who are supposed to protect us, like, do the opposite.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA JURA")

CHICANO BATMAN: (Singing in Spanish).

MCEVERS: There's another one called "Freedom Is Free."

MARTINEZ: Yes.

MCEVERS: And when you first listen to that song, it's gray. It's like kind of trippy. It just like puts you in this really good mood. It feels very SoCal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM IS FREE")

CHICANO BATMAN: (Singing) Nobody likes you. Nobody cares. Nobody wants you. Nobody cares to extend a greeting, a connecting glance. Life is just a jaded game to them. They won't give it a chance.

MCEVERS: It's awesome. But then you start to think about it. And then I read something too where that's political, too. Explain that one.

AREVALO: It's the title track of our album.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

AREVALO: And I'll say that, you know, I'm free inside. And no one can change that. No matter, like, what war you're trying to fight, you're not fighting for my freedom. My freedom's inside me. It's always been that way.

MCEVERS: Well, also I was thinking of this idea of, I mean, we heard it during the Iraq War.

AREVALO: Exactly.

MCEVERS: You say freedom isn't free.

AREVALO: Right. Exactly.

MCEVERS: Is, like, is this your response to that?

AREVALO: It is our response to that.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

AREVALO: My freedom is completely free, you know. My interpretation of the, I mean, for me, it's an empowering song. There's a lot of fear happening right now, you know. And I feel like people are making decisions based on fear. And if you look back in history, you'll see that those decisions usually lead to a lot of human suffering, you know. And I think if people can put those fears to rest and look inside themselves, then their mind and spirit is truly free.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM IS FREE")

CHICANO BATMAN: (Singing) Freedom is free.

MCEVERS: You guys have a big U.S. tour planned. I mean, you're getting this kind of nationwide push. Like, it's getting big. It's happening. Does that mean LA's going to lose you?

AREVALO: No. LA will always be, you know, our home base. LA's rich culturally, you know. And that's something that I personally took for granted and didn't realize I was taking it for granted until I traveled the country in this band, you know. And there's some places that just don't have as much diversity, you know, for whatever reason, you know. It's not a negative thing. It's just how life is in some of those places. That's a real blessing to be able to be here and thrive here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICANO BATMAN SONG, "RIGHT OFF THE BACK")

MCEVERS: Carlos Arevalo and Bardo Martinez, thank you both...

AREVALO: Thank you.

MARTINEZ: Thank you. Thank you so much. Appreciate that.

MCEVERS: ...A lot. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICANO BATMAN SONG, "RIGHT OFF THE BACK")

SHAPIRO: That was our colleague Kelly McEvers speaking with two members of the band Chicano Batman. Their new album is called "Freedom Is Free."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICANO BATMAN SONG, "RIGHT OFF THE BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.