Sounds of Summer: Chicano Batman

John Adamian on June 14, 2016

Chicano Batman, a quartet from Los Angeles, embrace a kind of cultural ricochet effect, playing fuzzed-out soul with pan-Latin grooves and rhythms that reflect and demonstrate their Mexican, Central and South American heritage, but with musical roots pointing back to Curtis Mayfield and James Brown. If the music of the African diaspora boomerangs all over the world— picking up bits of regional flavor wherever locals develop a taste for jazz, blues, gospel, reggae and other styles—then certainly, Chicano Batman’s sound is steeped in Tropicália from Brazil, Peruvian psych-rock and Mexican garage jams, as well as American soul. The styles all reflect off each other in one way or another. The band makes excellent use of wah-wahs, overdriven organ and generally retro effects, playing dance-friendly music that is still totally 21st-century American.

This fall, Chicano Batman will release their third full-length record and first with an outside producer. The band is coming off a stretch of high-profile gigs—at Coachella in 2015, dates opening for the Alabama Shakes and Jack White, and showcases at SXSW this past spring. For the album, Chicano Batman collaborated with producer and saxophonist Leon Michels and members of the Menahan Street Band. The crew has recently worked on a Charles Bradley record, and bassist Eduardo Arenas says the connection in style and sensibility felt meaningful and humbling: “It was great to be part of a heritage, a culture.”

The studio was stocked with all kinds of vintage toys and gadgets—Mellotrons, Hammond B-3s, old Juno guitars, Silvertone amps, old Ampeg cabinets, original fuzz pedals and more. “We brought in what we do—our sound, our attitude, our vibe,” says Arenas. Of the way the studio setting affected the band’s sound, he elaborates: “You just let yourself go with it.” Recording to analog tape added an element of focus and intensity to the proceedings, but it wasn’t very different from the way the band approaches live shows—a skill they’ve honed over eight years of playing gigs. “Our domain is the stage, and we own it,” Arenas adds. “We are emotional people who are expressing everything we’ve got in 45 minutes.”

The band has sometimes flexed its muscles a little on their LPs, with odd-time bits and tricky rhythmic sections that showcase their versatility. This time around, Arenas says the tunes might be a little more elemental. Chicano Batman has been fine-tuning its songwriting approach over the years. “We have a better understanding of rhythm, of melody, of simplicity, of soul,” he states. “We concentrate on the compositions so damn much.”

This music is groovy and it works on a dance floor, but it also tells a story about history, culture, cross-pollination and tastes that aren’t restrained by borders. “This is our roots, this is our culture. This is who we are,” Arenas asserts. “It’s really strong and there’s millions of us, and you can’t stop that. It’s the truth.”