Los Angeles band Chicano Batman knows how to make a statement, from its attention-grabbing name and psychedelic soul music to its members’ signature three-piece suits complete with tuxedo shirt ruffles.
“People might have some preconceived notions of who we are or what we represent just by hearing the name or by seeing how we dress,” guitarist Carlos Arévalo says of what could seem like a kitschy gimmick. “Context is everything.”
The suits actually pay homage to ’60s and ’70s soul groups that include romantic South American bands Los Angeles Negros and Los Pasteles Verdes. “They were inspired by James Brown like everyone else in the world and did their own take on that,” says Arévalo, 33. And the Chicano Batman moniker combines socio-political identity with a pop-culture symbol of power. “People, no matter where they come from, can do important and meaningful things,” he explains.Chicano Batman has clearly become a meaningful force on the musical map, playing the Green River Festival on July 16 and Newport Folk on July 29 before winding back to the Paradise Rock Club on Oct. 7. The 9-year-old group is touring in support of its third album, March release Freedom Is Free, which newly emphasizes English over Spanish lyrics. “I want more people in the U.S. to know what we’re saying,” Arévalo says. And the record increases its political import in the process, from the anti-imperialist “The Taker Story” to the title track, which counters the Iraq War-era propaganda phrase “Freedom isn’t free.”
“Love’s free, freedom’s free. [These are] human traits that are inherent, and people try to co-opt them by trying to sell you something in some way or another,” he says. “That perverts these beautiful ideals.”
Singer/keyboardist Bardo Martinez, bassist Eduardo Arenas and Arévalo wrote many of the album’s songs in 2015 amid Black Lives Matter protests over police misconduct. Yet they also seem to address the “Build the wall” climate of the Trump administration. “People have congratulated us, saying ‘Your album is so well-timed’ … Well, we’d rather have not had a Sith Lord take over the United States,” Arévalo says. “The record’s taken on new meaning now for people who you’d say are now in the resistance. [It’s] meant to be empowering and positive.”
It’s musically eclectic as well, drawing on Martinez and Arenas’ attraction to Brazilian Tropicalia artists such as Caetano Veloso. The song “Angel Child” slides from sunny, spacey soul-funk to winding arrangements that echo band members’ appreciation for Frank Zappa, and Arévalo brings his own love for Curtis Mayfield, electric Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix into the mix. In his youth, he was also inspired by rockers Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine and Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-López of At the Drive In and the Mars Volta.
“Just the fact that they were blatantly brown guys with big curly hair,” Arévalo says. “They looked like people I hung out with at that time. That was a game-changer for me. I grew up as an early teenager thinking that though I had this passionate love for music, that it just wasn’t for me, that people like me wouldn’t be accepted in that arena. But those guys flipped that for me.”
Chicano Batman—rounded out by drummer Gabriel Villa—also found a kindred spirit when they made Freedom Is Free with New York producer Leon Michels. A soul revivalist who’d worked with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Lee Fields & the Expressions and Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach’s projects for Dr. John and Ray LaMontagne, Michels gave Chicano Batman access to vintage gear.
“There’s so much warmth with those analog instruments,” Arévalo says, noting the thrill of hearing a Hammond B-3 organ through a Leslie speaker. “Oftentimes, people think we’re trying to be retro and it’s about going back into the past and that we’re treading ground that’s already been tread. That’s not the case. To us, we view those arrangements, styles and equipment as timeless. They got it right. There’s a sense of humanity.” ♦
Chicano Batman plays the Green River Festival on July 16, the Newport Folk Festival on July 29 and the Paradise Rock Club on Oct. 7.
For more music coverage, check out Paul’s Weekend Music Ideas every Friday at improper.com.