Chicano Batman: Post-Apocalyptic Hues
Eduardo Arenas, who plays bass and guitar with Chicano Batman, remembers the reaction his Los Angeles-based band sometimes received when they were starting out.
“People would just stare at us,” he says. “It was crazy. At first, I would just close my eyes and be like, ‘Fuck them. I don’t want them to fuck with my vibe because I’m going to get a lack of confidence.’”
But as soon as he figured out why audiences were baffled, all was good. “I was like, ‘Ohh, I know what you’re doing. You don’t know what this is!’” he says. “‘You’ve never experienced anything like this before!’ They really hadn’t.”
When Arenas puts it that way, it’s easier to understand why Chicano Batman—whose fourth album, Invisible People, was released in May on ATO Records—might have confused a sizable portion of their early audience. As their name makes clear, the four members—the others are lead vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Bardo Martinez, guitarist/keyboardist Carlos Arévalo and drummer/ percussionist Gabriel Villa—are each of Latino extraction. Sometimes they sing in Spanish; other times their lyrics are in English. Since Chicano Batman’s 2008 formation, their sound has been a glorious but unclassifiable hodgepodge—a kitchen sink of ‘70s soul and funk, ‘60s garage rock, Brazilian Tropicália, Colombian cumbia, hip-hop, psychedelia and whatever else they felt like tossing in. From the start, wah-wah guitars and swirling ‘60s organ riffs have dominated the mix, but the rhythm section has also always produced solid, contemporary beats. And while Chicano Batman have often been described as retro, it’s impossible to imagine what other time period they might have come from.
Visually, they were confounding as well, often decked out in matching, colored tuxedos—complete with ruffled white shirts. What was their deal?
“That’s just who we are,” continues Arenas, further explaining the resistance the group—a trio until Arévalo came aboard— confronted at first. “It’s not like we backward-engineered it. It’s in the blood. So yeah, they stared at us. But you know what’s the craziest thing? They came back. And they came back with somebody, and they told them, ‘Look at this shit. Look what they’re doing.’ The same people that stared came back to try to figure it out the second time.”
Today, when they tour—something they would have been doing right now if COVID-19 hadn’t stopped them in their tracks—Chicano Batman routinely sell out their gigs. They’ve opened shows for Jack White and appeared at both Bonnaroo and Coachella. Their previous three albums—Chicano Batman (2010), Cycles of Existential Rhyme (2014) and Freedom is Free (2017)— have each expanded their fan base exponentially.
And now, just when the quartet’s fans have finally started to understand them, Invisible People is redefining who they are from the ground up—if audiences were stupefied by Chicano Batman 2010, then Chicano Batman 2020 is going to surprise them all over again. It’s like nothing they’ve done before. And that was the whole idea behind it.
“For me, it was ultimately about making the best record possible,” Martinez says about Invisible People. “It really didn’t matter who came up with what idea. It just had to be good.”
The new album’s first few minutes may take some getting used to for anyone who’s even remotely familiar with Chicano Batman: The drums and bass are deeper, steadier and more hip-hop-inspired, and, in place of the familiar organ, is a prominent synthesizer line. The opening number “Color My Life,” like the rest of the album, features finely crafted lyrics by Martinez. He sings: “Are you a lucid dream?/ That’s what it seems/ I’m not really sure if it’s real/ But I just got to say/ I found my way/ The forest got a magical feel, yeah.” Arenas describes “Pink Elephant” as having “a J Dilla vibe” and “Moment of Joy” as “phat.” As the collection unfolds—especially on standouts like “Blank Slate,” “Polymetronomic Harmony” and the title track—the band unveils sounds, melodies and rhythmic concepts that take Chicano Batman’s music further from their trademark sound than ever before. Yet it never sounds like it could be anyone else.
Martinez, for one, couldn’t be happier. He’s been patiently waiting for the band to expand its palette. “We were a little old-school,” he says. “Before, we thought that we could only record what we could actually play live. But I’ve always actually felt that we should be doing opposite. I’ve always been like, ‘No, man, this has gotta sound like Sgt. Pepper. Let’s get a string section on there.’ That’s always been my push in the band.”
There isn’t a string section on Invisible People, but there is a greater array of instruments than on any of their previous records. Producer and longtime Daptone/Black Keys associate Leon Michels, who was crucial to helping Chicano Batman find new directions to head in, contributed several of those instruments. Shawn Everett’s mixes are also exemplary—this music jumps, and there’s always something of interest going on.
But more than anything, it was the collective decision of the four band members to leave their past behind—and simply allow the music to go where it wanted—that made the changes possible. “At times,” says Martinez, “the studio sessions were tense but, at the same time, who’s to say what’s right or wrong? You could say, ‘Oh, let’s make this a more comfortable process,’ but then you get a more comfortable record. With this record, it was like, ‘Yo, let’s just go with synths and keyboards or whatever we’re feeling.’ And everybody was with it this time.”
Not that it was easy to let go. “It was tough,” says Arenas. “We really had to explore how to communicate, and how to not be egotripping more than musicians already are. How do we actually communicate our intentions? That was one of the big, important lessons we learned while making this album. The process was different for this album: Anybody could bring anything in. Bardo has a studio in his home. Carlos has a studio and Gabriel has a studio. I have a studio. So everyone could develop an idea for the sound and then everybody else would add their character. We started buckling down and serving the purpose of the song, as opposed to serving the purpose of our playing. It’s not about us anymore; it’s about the song. As soon as we started doing that, then the songs started coming together quicker and quicker.”
Some of Invisible People’s songs are difficult lyrically, and they’re meant to be. Both Arenas and Martinez use the term “postapocalyptic” to describe the tone and feel of several numbers. Sometimes a track might come to the band nearly fully formed. Others began as snippets and were developed once the other musicians added their individual stamps.
“There were no more rules,” Arenas says. “We were breaking them. Sometimes we argued, like, ‘You need to take off that melody. You gotta let this breathe. Get out of your comfort zone and let me do my thing and then work with that.’ There were certain songs that we put on the back burner, like ‘The Way.’ We weren’t going to record ‘The Way.’ There was so much arguing about that one— who should be playing what and for how long. We said things like, ‘You’re too busy and your solo is too long.’ So we were just like, ‘Fuck that song,’ but Leon liked it a lot so we ended up recording it and it came out amazing.”
The title track, “Invisible People,” was at least partially inspired by Ralph Ellison’s groundbreaking 1952 novel on black identity, Invisible Man. “It opens up the spectrum,” Arenas says about expanding the band’s catalog to include those types of songs. “It opens up the sound and the vision. That song was actually Carlos’ idea. He pitched it to Bardo, and Bardo flew with it, and basically wrote an anthem. ‘Invisible People’ is a hard-ass political anthem, but I don’t feel like it really makes the album political. It just makes it artistic, with some expression of truth and reality. Melody and harmony will always tell the truth, and when you put positive words to that, then you’re on a whole different wavelength.”
“I started reading the book while making this record,” further explains Martinez. “You assume that [Ellison] is talking about the African-American perspective, but when you read it, he does it in such a way where it really could be anybody. Racism is really a sickness. It’s a mythology. It’s a concept and a construct that is very fluid. Sometimes you don’t smell it, and sometimes it reeks. Sometimes it just hits you; it cuts you.”
One question that arose during the creation of invisible People was how, if at all, the songs would travel to the stage. Some of them are so unlike Chicano Batman’s previous releases that they might seem out of place at one of the band’s gigs. Martinez might have aspired to make Chicano Batman’s Sgt. Pepper, but as Beatles fans are well aware, that album was created after the Fabs retired from the stage.
To their credit, Chicano Batman decided simply not to worry about it all that much. “We started thinking, ‘OK, let’s forget about the boundary of whether we can we play this live or not,’” says Arenas. “Let’s forget whether the bass player should be playing drums or guitar or whatever—anybody can play anything they want and don’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. That was the setup to create what we hear as Invisible People today—no limits. Fuck the genres. Fuck the expectations of what people think about what kind of band we are. When you take off the ruffled tuxedos and all that, this is who we really are as people and where we are in our lives and our development musically and artistically. We deserve a chance to express that, and the audiences are in for a treat when we get to do that.”
“I’m very proud of what we’ve come up with,” adds Martinez. “I feel like it will stand the test of time. I think you could compare it to a lot of modern records, and it stands up in terms of the quality of the music, the musicianship, the songwriting, et cetera.”
“It feels like we’re really brewing something,” says Arenas. “We’re really connecting to the sensibilities and to our craft. That’s where we find ourselves. You can’t buy that and you can’t manufacture it. It’s sincere and it’s real and it’s homegrown. People can feel that.”