For San Francisco Weekly: This August, after opening for Alabama Shakes in Boise, Idaho, Chicano Batman was approached by a white codger who told the band it reminded him of music he’d heard in the ’60s and ’70s. “I get what you’re doing,” the man said to bassist Eduardo Arenas. “You guys know what a pop song is, but you guys don’t give a shit about it.”
In a sense, he nailed it, Arenas says. The band, whose members hail from various corners of Los Angeles County, play music that mixes elements of ’60s and ’70s psychedelic Latin rock, lounge music, South American funk, samba, cumbia, Bossa Nova, the Isley Brothers, and Jimi Hendrix. Although the band’s songs boast occasional pop hooks and vocal harmonies, they’re also a patchwork of different time signatures.
The band’s name conjures a playful heroism as reflected by its logo that combines the United Farm Workers’ outstretched eagle symbol with Batman’s iconic emblem. Band members are of Colombian, Mexican, and Salvadoran heritage, and a laid-back Los Angeles vibe courses through much of their music. After playing together for seven years, they know each other’s pulses, smells, how to anticipate each other’s moves, and how to connect musically, Arenas says.
He adds, “We know the state of pop music in the world sucks. It’s so synthetic, so not soul. We borrow some pop elements, but change things up to create the emotional wave we want. We’re kind of turning pop on its back.”
A good example of that is the song “Cycles of Existential Rhyme” from the band’s 2013 EP Magma. A funky walking bassline rolls on top of a simple 4/4 drum beat, as the guitarist plucks out ’60s-era surf guitar reverb and the organ solos loosely over everything else. After a few quick time signature changes, space opens for singer Bardo Martinez to sing a loose and casual verse. Another time signature change leads into a short pre-chorus and drum fills, followed by more time signature changes and another longer chorus. More drum fills lead to a soulful guitar solo, the tempo slows, and then we’re back to a verse similar to the opening. The song cycles in and out of small puzzle pieces that make the song memorable not for a Katy Perry-esque hook, but for its sentimental mood and un-forced vibe. The video, in which two young people meet at a bar the band is playing at, feels more like a short art film than a music video.
Teenagers often bring their parents to see Chicano Batman, and the parents often experience a wave of deja-vu.
“One dad said to us after a show, ‘I have that album, I had it back in the ’70s,'” Arenas said. “It tripped me out. I was like, ‘No you didn’t. That’s our original song.’ And he wouldn’t believe it. That nostalgia people feel is real. They really identify with that emotion.”
Last month, Chicano Batman premiered a new song, “Black Lipstick,” on Entertainment Weekly’s website. They performed at Coachella in April and played the opening slot on several dates of Jack White’s Lazaretto tour earlier this year, performing for more than 10,000 people, Arenas says. They wrote music for a new PBS documentary, On Two Fronts: Latinos & Vietnam, about the experience of Latino soldiers and families during the war in Vietnam, which premiered Sept. 22. They begin recording a new album in January, to be released next spring.
“Our sound is L.A.,” Arenas says. “It feeds off the city. This is a city really deep in immigration and migration and multigenerational survival. The music that inspires us, like old Mexican ballads, is reinterpreted in our music. It’s inside of us from when we were kids, but we do it through our lens.”
Image by Josue Rivas, courtesy of Chicano Batman