Chicano Batman collects their favorite sounds—including some eclectic retro movements—into soulful musical stew
At first glance, Chicano Batman seems like the latest in a long line of inventive Mexican-American bands from East Los Angeles, with one foot boogying in the mythic past while the other strides into the polyglot future.
But a closer look reveals a far more complicated reality. With its oozing keyboard lines, cumbia grooves, and affection for 1970s soul, Chicano Batman embraces a pan-American aesthetic that bursts out of the confines of the barrio. The band returns to Moe’s Alley on April 4 on a double bill with opening act Salt Pedal, a rising L.A. band with a big, horn-powered sound.
Founded in 2010, Chicano Batman first started coming together when singer/songwriter Bardo Martínez, a Colombian/Mexican multi-instrumentalist, bonded with Mexican-American bassist Eduardo Arenas at a party over their mutual regard for Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso, one of the founders of the radical cultural movement of the mid-1960s known as Tropicalia.
Initially a trio, the band coalesced when Martínez met Colombian-born percussionist Gabriel Villa at a performance by Very Be Careful, the great L.A. band dedicated to accordion-driven vallenato, a rootsy precursor to Colombian cumbia. With the addition of Salvadoran/Mexican-American guitarist Carlos Arévalo in 2011, Chicano Batman added a lean but laid-back rock ‘n’ roll edge to the mix and became a force to be reckoned with.
“We’re big fans of music, with big ears,” says Arévalo, who grew up on the exurban Southern California fringe of the Inland Empire. “Tropicalia is definitely a reference. We’re big fans of Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, and Tom Ze. But we’re also into soul music from the 1960s and ’70s. If you grow up in L.A., on Sundays they play oldies all day on the radio.”
Throw in some vintage Latin American soul music via Chile’s Los Ángeles Negros, volatile blues and jazz fusion from Frank Zappa, electric Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, and Chicano Batman’s sound starts to make sense. “We don’t really pay attention to what genre we’re dabbling in,” Arévalo says. “There are no rules.”
What’s impressive is the way all the disparate elements cohere when Chicano Batman takes the stage. The sensibility isn’t eclectic as much as cosmopolitan, a stance informed by wry amusement that never curdles into cynicism. In much the same way, Chicano Batman’s songs switch between Spanish and English according to the emotional needs of the songwriter.
“It’s subconscious,” Arévalo says. “Bardo will write a song, and it might be in English or Spanish. For one of the songs I brought in, ‘Para Agradecer,’ I had an idea and wanted it to be in the vein of a Spanish pop rock tune from the 1970s. It turned into the last track of the new record. Villa only writes in Spanish. He feels he can express himself best that way, and doesn’t feel comfortable writing in English.”
While the band doesn’t fetishize vintage gear a la the Dapp Kings, they do gravitate to instruments and sound systems that were designed before they were born.
“The sounds you get with those amps is so striking and rich,” Arévalo says. “I can’t afford a vintage Fender, but I’ve got the next best thing, an American reissue. Our amps are old-school Fenders, and the organ is a 1970 Yamaha YC-30, the same kind that Sun Ra played.”
The band’s latest album, 2014’s Cycles of Existential Rhyme, has cemented their avid following. They were getting set to record a new EP last October when the engineer, Isaiah “Ikey” Owens, died in Mexico while touring with Jack White. The project was up in the air until they recently decided to incorporate the four songs intended for the EP on the next album.
Meanwhile, Chicano Batman spent January opening for Jack White on the concluding leg of his “Lazaretto” tour, and recently announced that they’ve been booked for both weekends at Coachella.
“Things are moving slowly but surely,” Arévalo says. “We’ve been working hard for four or five years, and the tour with Jack White was great, to get that vote from the last real rock star. We believe in what we’ve been doing. Maybe now the world is ready for it.”
Info: 9 p.m. Saturday April 4, Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $12/$15. (831) 479-1854, www.moesalley.com.