Interview: L.A.’s Chicano Batman take global approach to Tropicália

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Chicano Batman | photo courtesy of the artist
Chicano Batman | photo courtesy of the artist

Designed by Cesar Chavez and his brother Richard in 1962, the logo of the United Farm Workers became a potent symbol for the burgeoning Chicano rights movement, taking the eagle symbol from the Mexican flag and patterning its stairstep wings after an inverted Aztec pyramid. A little less than fifty years later, a singer, guitarist, and organist in East L.A. made a few slight alterations to that logo, bringing it to a sharp point at the bottom and replacing the eagle’s head with a familiar pointy-eared bat’s head, bringing together the un-parallel worlds of the UFW and DC Comics.

The new symbol stands for Chicano Batman, and if the Los Angeles four-piece doesn’t exactly fight for farm workers’ rights or battle criminals by night, their throwback blend of R&B, Tropicália and psychedelia does provide its own kind of uplift. “The idea of it is that underrepresented people can be superheroes in their own right,” says guitarist Carlos Arevalo. “There’s people out here in L.A. that are working hard every day to provide for their family, and that’s a superhero to us.”

The name of the band, which will perform at Fleisher Art Memorial on Monday, came from another sketch by frontman Bardo Martinez, this one depicting the superhero himself. “Bardo was at a party one day doodling,” recalls Arevalo, “and he drew a Latino Batman character with a little mustache, where the cape and mask was actually a flannel shirt like you would see a cholo in L.A. wear, and he called it Chicano Batman.”

The name initially became a pseudonym for Martinez’s solo work, but he soon gathered bassist Eduardo Arenas and drummer Gabriel Villa to form an actual band, releasing their self-titled debut in 2009. Arevalo joined two years later to fill out the band’s sound and allow Martinez to devote his attention to the organ.

That instrumentation is key to capturing the retro sound that Martinez envisioned for Chicano Batman. The music on the band’s recently-released second full-length album. Cycles of Existential Rhyme, combine the influences of American soul artists like Brenton Wood and the Delfonics with Latin-American soul groups of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, including Los Angeles Negros and Los Pasteles Verdes; and the Tropicália sound of Brazilian artists like Caetano Veloso and Os Mutantes.

“The basis of our sound is rooted in old soul music,” Arevalo explains, “those groups that have really fat, funky bass lines and that organ sound which we use and have permutated and taken in a different direction. But we’ve sprawled out into different genres from psychedelia to Cumbia music.”

With their name printed in bold, red psychedelic block letters, and the long-haired band members standing in button-downs and slacks in a brown field, Cycles of Existential Rhyme looks like something you might stumble across in a used-record bin, some forgotten artifact of hyperlocal ‘70s garage rock. And Chicano Batman does little to discourage that impression, striving for a sound that evokes the era that so influenced them.

“For us, those records got it right,” Arevalo says of their vintage idols. “They had great production – timeless production, really, with the analog technology. None of our albums have been recorded on tape, they’ve all been digital, but we try to use old amplifiers from the ‘60s and ‘70s that have that classic, warm tube sound that you can only get through one of those amps. I play modern reissues of old school Fender guitars, and Bardo uses a ‘70s Yamaha organ. All our instrumentation and equipment is pretty old, and I guess that lends itself to our sound.”

Not to say that Chicano Batman’s tastes end in 1979, with each member bringing their own proclivities into the mix. Arevalo says, “Eduardo and Gabriel were metalheads when they were teenagers. They loved 80s Metallica records, and Gabriel loved Rush and prog rock. I was really into groups like Television, and I loved Frank Zappa and Miles Davis and John Coltrane in their 60s period. I’m a huge fan of jazz in general from the ‘60s and early ‘70s, electric music like Mahavishnu Orchestra. We like all kinds of music and somehow when we all come together it makes the sound that we have. If you listen carefully, you can probably hear some of those influences here and there.”

Despite the political notions hinted at in the incorporation of the UFW logo, Chicano Batman’s lyrics tend towards love songs and hazy Summer of Love evocations like “Stoned Soul Picnic.” But Arevalo says that the mere fact of paying homage to the music of their forebears does make a definite statement.

“We may not address it through the music, but the idea of social justice is instilled in our consciousness as people. We’re aware of immigration issues and injustices that are happening. I think the best way to put it is that the UFW eagle doesn’t just represent Chicanos or farm workers anymore; it’s being used by many Latino groups to represent social justice. Our music’s not overtly political, but it could be argued that what we’re doing is political in itself – four Latinos playing non-mainstream music in L.A.”

Tickets and information for Chicano Batman at the Fleisher Art Memorial on Monday, July 7th, can be found here.

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