Spotlight: Chicano Batman
by Dean Budnick on March 29, 2017
“Bardo, our singer, was at a party one day and he was doodling,” explains Chicano Batman guitarist Carlos Arévalo as he details the origins of the band’s name, which also encapsulates the group’s musical mission statement. “He drew a little Batman-looking guy, but it looked like him: It had a little mustache and a little goatee. Instead of the cape, he drew a flannel, which is something that a Chicano would wear in LA. So that was it: Chicano Batman. And, obviously, you’re taking these two ideas—a pop culture symbol and a social-political symbol and combining them. As we progress as a group, it really represents who we are more and more because we’re representing our culture and diversity on platforms that people don’t often have the opportunities to reach. We’re making waves in a positive direction.”
The group is certainly reaching more sizable audiences than it did when it first came together back in 2008, performing a blend of Brazilian Tropicália psychedelic protest music and Latin American soul. Chicano Batman have opened arena gigs for Jack White, shared tour dates with Alabama Shakes and performed at Coachella. Last June, they even kicked off Bonnaroo’s Which Stage on Saturday afternoon. The Bonnaroo gig carried a particular challenge since the sun was bearing down on the quartet as they appeared in their customary dapper attire: tuxedo shirts and matching jackets.
As Arévalo looks back on the Bonnaroo experience, he shares insight into the band’s aesthetic: “We do sometimes have that moment where, due to climate reasons, we’re like, ‘Should we go full regalia this time? It’s pretty warm.’ But, every time, we decide that it’s part of the show, and part of the identity of the band is to pay homage to some of our favorite groups of the past. You look at Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions and The Temptations, or a group like Los Pasteles Verdes, or Los Ángeles Negros from South America, and they were wearing those ruffled shirt with the bowties and the vests and the full suits, and they would show up and give it everything. That’s what we’re trying to tap into, just trying to carry on that tradition.”
Freedom Is Free, Chicano Batman’s third full-length and first release on ATO Records, continues to build on those sounds. The group enlisted Leon Michels, who has performed with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, The Black Keys and the Menahan Street Band, to produce the album. Michels tracked the sessions to analog tape at his Diamond Mine Recording studio in Long Island City, N.Y., successfully capturing the spirited live energy of Arévalo, frontman/ keyboard player Bardo Martinez, bassist Eduardo Arenas and drummer Gabriel Villa. Michels also brightened the vocal palette with the addition of Flor de Toloache, New York City’s first all-female mariachi band.
“Diamond Mine is the studio where they made Lee Fields’ record and Charles Bradley’s latest record,” Arévalo explains. “We knew that we wanted to work with Leon because of his production skills. You hear it on all his records, and those are records that we’ve been listening to for the past 10 years. That was definitely the sound e were going for: something that was referencing the classic, timeless era of music, but that still stands the test of time and can still be modern, in a sense. When you listen to his Lee Fields records, you hear the reference of old-school soul, but it’s still modern, forward-pushing soul. That’s what we wanted to do with our music: reference the music of the past, but still push forward and create something new and relevant.”
Chicano Batman aspired to remain true to the moment, in part, through the album’s lyrical themes. When they began writing the material during the summer of 2015, Chicano Batman found themselves commenting on issues of race and socioeconomic inequality. Even though the record is being released nearly two years after those initial songs were completed, these messages, unfortunately, still ring true.
Arévalo is eager to begin touring in support of Freedom Is Free. 79.5—the Brooklyn-based soul group that records for Michels’ Big Crown Records—will open the shows, and then their vocalists will stand in for Flor de Toloache.
“We’re excited to get on the road and play places that we’ve never been,” Arévalo affirms. “We’re gonna play Virginia for the first time. We’re gonna play Michigan for the first time and Toronto—it’ll be exciting recreating this album live with the singers from 79.5. It’s refreshing to have this challenge, where we have to play some really new stuff in front of an audience. Our goal is to play as many places as we can and bring it every night.”