The Price of Freedom

Say it with me now: Freedom is free.


True words. Necessary words. Maybe you need a melody to go with them? Let Chicano Batman help.

Yes, Chicano Batman, the Los Angeles-based quartet with the ridiculous band name, matching vintage tuxedos and fantastic new album. It doesn’t come out until March 3, but Freedom Is Free, their third full-length, is already is among this year’s best releases—a spirited, strident blend of psychedelic guitar rock, funk-en-Español and sunbaked SoCal lounge. Amid the polyglot groove, vocalist Bardo Martinez sings of liberation: self-knowledge that clarifies personal identity that leads to collective liberation, spanning color and community. Somehow, in the year 2017, this stuff isn’t easy to come by, so Chicano Batman’s upbeat anthems—not always sunny, but unfailingly empowering—are a welcome soundtrack.

The band launches their West Coast tour from Seattle this Thursday with a show at the Crocodile. We spoke with songwriter and guitarist Carlos Arévalo about the origins of the band’s new album, their look and their sound.

You guys took a big leap from the last album to Freedom Is Free. Musically, sure, but even more so thematically—like you guys discovered you have something to say about the state of the world right now.
I think [our previous album] Cycles of Existential Rhyme, those songs were around for awhile, and we cut the album quickly, so that’s why it turned out that way. This record we had more years of real touring, with Jack White, Alabama Shakes, playing big stages and learning from great songwriters. And before we started writing the record me and Bardo got to together to discus themes, and we wanted to focus on a direction rather than just present 14 songs. We wanted a howl statement. There was talk about lyrical content—I encouraged Bardo to write lyrics that were reflective of the time we were living in. This was 2015—Black Lives Matter was in high gear. We noticed that at the time there weren’t artists talking about what was going on. Even Questlove made a comment about that on OkayPlayer: No artists are writing about what’s happening. It took two years between writing those songs and them being heard by the public, and a bunch of records came out in 2015 talking about what was going on: The D’Angelo record was amazing, and Solange’s record last year.

I appreciate the struggle you guys describe on the album. Liberation is not an easy process and you guys really get into the muck of freeing yourself from bad habits, bad friends…
Yeah, that’s exactly it. Bardo’s lyrics are about trying to achieve a sense of freedom within yourself. That’s what the song “Freedom Is Free” is all about. The most overtly political song, “La Jura,” is an anti-police brutality song with Spanish lyrics by Bardo. And “The Taker Story” is about this Western notion of unsustainable growth as the end-all be-all. It doesn’t make sense as an environment for people. Those are the most overt songs. But there are themes we always talk about, love and relationships…

We gotta hear songs like that right now, coming from Black and brown voices, the people who bear the greatest brunt of oppression, currently and historically. More than ever, those Black and brown voices are coming to the fore, and mainstream audiences seeking them out. Personally, I’m not sure a white guy with a guitar has anything to say to me that I need to hear right now.
It’s a beautiful time now because you’re starting to hear a wealth of diverse voices coming into play. I think that helps round out those other aspects of music you speak of, balances it out. To hear different stories and narratives is exciting for people of all nationalities.

You guys have the women of Mariachi Flor de Toloache on your record, which is an awesome pairing. They play here in Seattle two nights after you.
Yeah, those are our friends! They were playing at a bar in downtown LA a few years ago, and I kept hearing about them from a friend and she recommended that I check them out and I went to see them and was blown away. They’re virtuoso musicians. You put them onstage with anybody and they’re the best musicians on the stage that day. I talked with Bardo about having backup vocals on this record to give it a different texture than our past records and when I met them we hit it off. And their soundman is guitarist for Joe Bataan, and so it’s a cool musical group of people there in New York. They’re really sweet people and talented and we’re fortunate to have them round out the record.

For this new tour, we’re bringing the opening band 79.5, and the three lead singers will be singing backup vocals—vocals that the girls from Flor had done. So we’ll closely recreate the record. It’s the first time we’ll be able to reproduce the sound from the record live and we’re really excited about that.

I don’t usually do this but I have to ask about your band name. I’ll tell you—it turned me off when I first heard it, and I ignored the music, then finally heard “Friendship (Is a Small Boat in a Storm)” on KEXP and was like, ‘Who is this?!’
The name is pretty simple. Bardo was at a party one day and it wasn’t happening at the party so he went off doodling like he does and drew a cholo-esque guy, like him basically, with a mustache and goatee and a bat mask and cowl, but he made it out of flannel. And he was like oh, Chicano Batman. That was his pen name for songs he was writing at the time, over 10 years ago. And I don’t think anyone thought anything of it at the time.

It’s a polarizing name. I hear that all the time. People don’t wanna give us a chance because of the name an other people are like, ‘That’s the only reason I checked you guys out!’ It works both ways. We named that band that and had no idea 10 years later we’d be playing Coachella! I think all for the better. It’s a topic starter and there are other aspects to it, too—it embodies the fact that people of color, or all diversities, can accomplish great, heroic things. The woman who goes to work to feed her family, that’s Chicano Batman. She’s a hero. That’s what the name says to us.

I’m also curious about the tuxes. I understand it’s meant as homage to the Chicano wedding-band scene in LA in the 1970s.
That’s part of it. The aesthetic of the clothes we wear is from soul music groups of the late ’60s and early ’70s, the look of Curtis Mayfield the Impressions. They’re wearing tuxedos, ruffled shirts and bowties. Those our our favorite records. And you look at Los Angeles Negros, “the Black Angels,” from Chile, and Los Pasteles Verdes, “the Green Capes,” from Peru—they’re influences of ours and they were taking note of Black music in the US and appropriating that style aesthetically and musically. They’re basically soul ballads in Spanish. It’s an homage that we make.

Chicano Batman and 79.5 play the Crocodile on Thursday, Feb. 23. The show is sold out.