By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
The Chicano Batcave is off a La Mirada backstreet, and Chicano Batman are waiting there on the lawn at sunset. They’re out of their usual crime-fighting uniforms—anyone who’s seen the band in public would instantly wonder where their baby-blue tuxedo shirts are—but they’re righteous and ready for anything nonetheless. Singer/guitarist/keyboardist Bardo Martinez (also part of the cumbia band Buyepongo) has a stack of scuffed and speckled vintage vinyl to help him explain where his inspirations come from, and Caetano Veloso is singing softly on the stereo on the other side of the wall: “Soy loco por ti, America.”
Since September 2008, this trio—Martinez, bassist Eduardo Arenas and drummer Gabriel Villa—have been evolving their own ferocious take on tropicalia and backyard-party recuerdas from a bedroom painted the exact same color scheme as their recently released debut album cover. so what color is that? They’ve got one of the most iconic logos since Black Flag—the UFW eagle with Batman ears—and a fearless and exhilarating sound too colossal for just one continent.
Writer Oliver Wang called them “pan-Latin”—a “bizarre love child between Milton Nascimento, Anibal Velasquez, Los Diablos Rojos [and] Rita Lee.”
Martinez is committed to that old-school sound, says Arenas. The Chicano Batman LP even comes pre-installed with 20 years of Photoshopped weathering—it looks and feels old the moment you buy it new.
But there’s more to Chicano Batman than just excavation of oldies gold: “I love the ’70s,” says Arenas. “I love now—I wanna get elements of what happened and put it to what’s cracking now!”
That’s why their self-titled LP (on Club Unicornio) has the strange and powerful charisma it does. Their backyard-party rock dissolves in several directions at once—into traditional Mexican rhythms on “La Manzanita,” about a startling existential moment Arenas experienced outside the Pico Swap Meet, or into Santo-and-Johnny-style crying guitar on “Hundred Dead and Loving Souls,” which Martinez reports has actually made at least one person cry. “Sonhatl” drips with Lee Perry-style kitchen-sink dub production touches—“There’s a triangle with flange on it at the end,” laughs Arenas. “Try and figure that one out, people!”—and album highlight “Itotiani” explodes into something like prime Television live, with the entire band tangling into each other and tearing away again even as they hit every perfect tiny break. At their last show, Martinez stepped away from his keyboard (and ironing board) and flipped over into a straight and confident headstand during “It’s a Balloon.” Not often do you find a band unafraid to turn itself upside-down like that—or one that can keep its balance.
“Gabriel’s a big Queen fan—that’s where he gets his chops,” says Arenas, who shares with Villa a particular expertise in all things metal. (What’s the most metal part of Chicano Batman? “The cowbell,” says Villa.) “And Bardo and I are in a different world. But there’s a common thread. “
One more part of the package—Chicano Batman himself. Not the band, but the character, conceptualized across several years by Martinez. He’s not quite the fourth member of the band, but he is a powerful presence: “Chicano Batman could be anyone who doesn’t fit the stereotype or status quo,” explains Martinez. “Mexican, Salvadoran, Latin, black, Asian, Filipino—people who don’t have money or resources who see life from a grittier perspective. I feel if you don’t have money or resources, it puts you on the outskirts right away. And once you’re on the outside, you start to observe. You look how people relate to each other. How politics affects your life. I think millions of people go through that. People of color go through that on a daily basis. So Chicano Batman is someone from the bottom who fights for justice.”
His point, says Martinez, is to use Chicano Batman to do the opposite of pop culture with the elements of pop culture. He’s talking about Chicano Batman the superhero, but—with Veloso finishing his song, Los Babys LPs resting on the driveway and the sun sliding behind the industrial park at the end of the street—it works for Chicano Batman the band, too.
Chicano Batman perform with Crystal Antlers, Delta Spirit, the Pawn Shop Kings, 60 Watt Kid, So Many Wizards, Fort Wife and more at BuskerFest, First Street and Linden Avenue, Long Beach; www.summerandmusic.com. Sat., 5 p.m. Free. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Holy Old-School Pan-Latin Sound! Chicano Batman are pioneering tropicalia rock from the margins of pop culture."