July 27th, 2010 | Interviews


Chicano Batman make tropicalia for the 21st century with guitar and bass and drums and a keyboard that looks like it should have a built-in drinkholder. They record through the same mixer their bassist’s uncle used in his backyard band in the ’70s and they have a comic strip, too, where Chicano Batman swoops in to protect the ice cream cart guy from the cops. They speak now from a lawn in La Mirada as the sun sets.This interview by Chris Ziegler and Kristina Benson.

I found a review that says Chicano Batman sounds like the bands your parents would be in. Were any of your parents actually in bands?
Bardo Martinez (keys/vocals/guitar): My uncle used to play guitar a bit. My dad is from Jalisco and sometimes they’d go around and serenade the women in town. The classic thing—‘Let’s go serenade them!’ Because they were trying to hook up! But nobody ever went past knowing other people’s songs.
Eduardo Arenas (bass): My uncles were in a band that played some of the shit we’re basically playing now. I use the same bass my uncle used in the ’80s. I inherited that and an old Carvin mixer we used for the drums on the album and the record release. The band was three uncles and they’d always get a cousin to sing—at backyard parties or halls.
How do you feel about that kind of total harmony between generations?
EA: It’s dope! Like picking up where they left off. What I mean—we play for our generation now like they played for theirs. Theirs was about keeping it in the backyard and having a good time. Getting the fiesta going. For us, it’s transcending that.
Gabriel Villa (drums): My family has no musicians. I started liking music when I was like 12 or 13. My family is from a farm in Colombia. My grandparents own a farm and my mom moved to the city and my sister was studying drama. I just loved hanging out with her and her friends were listening to so much music. Oldies and from here in California—Janis Joplin!—I just started loving it so much!
What was the first song you learned on drums?
GV: I don’t remember—I was like hitting the ojas, like cans … with los palletos … with chopsticks!
How does Chicano Batman connect the past to what’s going on now?
BM: Our compositions, our lyrics, our experiences—I write songs and I’ve been writing for a minute, and this project is my way of relaying my experience, whether relationships I had or just ideas about life. The song ‘It’s a Balloon’—about perception. It’s very simple. What I wanna infuse in the music we’re playing are very basic things like perceptions. ‘It’s a Balloon’ is me laying on the grass looking up, and I thought I saw a balloon flying away. I was there for five minutes looking up at this thing—but it was just a little spider. That moment filled me with a feeling of—‘Wow, what the hell?’ Me and Eduardo were talking—we practice here and finish about this time and the sun’s going down and we’re all on the grass like you saw us. It’s just essential feelings. Exposing that to everybody. We’re all heavily influenced by tropicalia. That’s also part of our mission, in that we present ourselves like a band. [Begins sorting through relevant LPs and holding them up so we can see the covers] For example—Los Babys!
EA: Organ, deep bass—
BM: —and deep drums. That’s a simple way of describing it. But that’s exactly how we feel it. Right away. That’s why we created this. We wanna hear deep bass, funky guitar where the snare lands, funky organ—
EA: ‘Latin groove.’ I don’t like saying that, but some Colombian coastal, some Mexican poblano, some Brazilian coastal shit.
BM: Like Grupo Mestizo. [Holds up LP] The way they’re dressed. We look the way this album looks. We’re this right now! That’s what we wanna portray visually. But Chicano Batman the symbol—tying it back to the question—it is something that’s new. It’s political representation.
What did you find in tropicalia that was so important to you?
BM: It’s young kids from Bahia. Eduardo’s been there and we’re gonna take Gabriel. What can you say? Bahia’s amazing. It’s green—you got the beach—people clap when the sun goes down.
EA: I went to Bahia in ’04—the last fool with a Discman. I’d buy CDs. I picked up Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze. I remember putting it on headphones. I was ritualistic about it. I would press pause till I stepped out on the cobblestone streets and then press play. Because that’s where the experience starts—in the streets. I’d never play that shit in the hallways. So eventually I’d end up on the beach standing there with people in bikinis and people drinking and hearing this crazy-ass 1968 tropicalia in my ears—it was insane! How is this noise—this music—coming out of this region when you have a sight so beautiful? But it was all part of the revolt. To me that was like, ‘Man, there’s some deep shit going on here. Deep shit in the ’60s that I cannot understand from the present moment. So let’s see—let’s see how they’d tear the bossa nova apart and make fun of it, or exaggerate certain characteristics in politics or art that were pissing off everyone—and doing it on national TV! Like mocking—dressing up like hippies—fucking with everything!
BM: One thing I love is that they were very particular about what they wanted to portray. They wanted to make fun of Brazilians being very machista—masculine—which is something cultures all over the world have but in particular Latino cultures. Caetano would dance as Carmen Miranda on stage, which had a lot of meaning behind it. For Brazilians, Carmen Miranda was something that portrayed their shame as well as their fame. Caetano dressed and acted like a woman on stage to dispel that belief—to create another idea. They did that in a million different ways. Every song was well thought-out with a particular philosophy. We’re listening to it now! ‘Soy Loco Por Ti, America.’ The lyric is, ‘The name of the man is Pueblo.’
EA: That’s pretty profound! They’re bringing out the Latin American experience. When I was in Bahia, Caetano’s music would just illuminate everything.
What do you want to illuminate with your own music?
EA: This is a multifaceted answer. For me, when I think about this band and writing—for me there are a lot of moral dilemmas. A lot of stalemate situations. ‘La Manzanita’ is an experience I had one time at Slauson and Paramount by the Pico Indoor Swap Meet. A homeless man asked me for money and I didn’t have money but I had an apple. But he didn’t have teeth. He showed me. Damn—what is there to do about that situation? Other than just move on and reflect.
BM: It’s basically like love. Have people enjoy the sun when we’re outside—to enjoy the moment. That’s the whole catchphrase of the ’60s—‘Live for today,’ right? And we wanna expose where we’re from. There’s so much richness and thought—so much philosophy and so much beauty that a lot of people don’t necessarily think that a Mexican kid thinks. ‘Mexican kid does drugs, does violence …’ That happens to be the stereotype. Chicano Batman dons a mask to defy that! That’s why Chicano Batman is also a comic character. It’s from the grassroots that somebody can change a situation—when somebody looks at a socio-economic problem.
Do you identify as Chicano?
BM: I do in a sense but also I don’t. Me and Eduardo went to university—we went through the system. I went to UCLA.
EA: USC—I was involved politically and socially.
BM: I was in MEChA since community college.
EA: So was I. The whole time.
BM: We knew each other through those networks. That’s not necessarily what the band is about. The root of it is that we want to expose the beauty that we all have. And asserting our rights, too, as individuals and human beings.
EA: Something about what we’re playing and how it sounds on stage goes far beyond whomever identifies as Chicano or whatever. To me, when I play live, it goes through me—like it hypnotizes me. I could just imagine what it’s like to be in the same room with me if I’m feeling this. Sometimes I look at Gabriel like, ‘This guy’s lost too!’ Something about that energy we feed off each other and the people and the messages about love and change and progress. … I’m playing for myself, but at the same time I know a lot of people get it. The piercing sound of the organ running through your body—it’s like cleaning out the system and putting something new in here. ‘Do away with your preconceptions and notions about where we’re going. And refresh yourself with this.’
BM: I wanna clarify the idea of Chicano Batman the comic character a little bit. It’s very rough but I would like to turn this into something real. The basic story is the guy with the ice cream truck. The cops harass those guys, especially around here, so Chicano Batman is gonna help the guy out. That’s what Chicano Batman does on a local level. That’s that aspect of it.
You should poster that logo everywhere. Like Black Flag.
BM: I was talking about that—we did that! We wheatpasted Echo Park. They’re still there!
What’s the best book you kept from your college days?
BM: I took a movie class. That stayed with me the rest of my life. TV and film and social movements. I saw this movie by Kidlat Tahimik—Perfumed Nightmare. To me, that’s the same vein as tropicalia. I read Tropicalia—Caetano’s book—after college, and I reference that.
EA: For me, The Fountainhead. Later I read a lot of critique about it reeking of capitalism and this and that. But all that aside, when I read it I was like, ‘Nah, man—this is about an architect who was like, “Dude, fuck convention—I got an idea and I’m gonna translate that to what I want it to be!”’ To me, that’s what I wanna do with my ideas about music, too! Then I met my progressive friends—‘That shit sucks! Objectivism is the worst shit ever!’ But you take what you want. I have my political views in place, too. Obviously, what it did to me at the moment I read it—it really solidified a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do with certain things. Disassociated from any political things. And my favorite food is probably molé.
GV: Too much American literature I haven’t read. I like Colombian literature—Gabriel Garcia Marquez—and Latin American literature like Isabel Allende novels. But one book I loved when traveling in France—I read Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince! It means so much to me. It’s short but has so much meaning. Anywhere I go I’m gonna take it! And anyone who wants the book, I will give it to them!
How does a band work for social progress? How can a band be a tool to get something done?
EA: People ask us what Chicano Batman represents. There’s enough that we can say about the present, but I think it’s more about the future. Which has yet to be determined. There’s more space for that. There are certain names that don’t let you project that kind of vision. With this, it’s more than a name. Well, we’ll see what it means—later on, too. The larger question …
BM: I took my guitar to where I work—I’m a substitute teacher. I work with little kids and I sing the little kid songs. They’re 3 years old, 4 years old. Part of it is the little kids seeing maybe a male role model or just a brown face and to just make them be proud of that—be proud of themselves to maybe do music themselves? For ourselves, I could say music has definitely set the path for us. It made us proud of ourselves. It’s in the way we walk—the way we express ourselves. It’s a discipline that keeps a lot of kids off the streets.
EA: I have a guitar in my back seat—I work in an office, and I take the guitar to the park and go play at lunchtime. Sometimes I take the electric in to work because I don’t want it cooked in the car by the sun. One time my boss was like, ‘Hey, Eduardo! You have your guitar!’ ‘Yeah, I got my guitar.’ They think it’s cute and shit. It’s not cute—it’s serious. We’re fucking musicians. This is our art. ‘Gonna play a song for us today?’ ‘I’ll play one if you want.’ ‘OK, that’d be nice!’ I had a composition I was freshly working on and I knew it was a fucking monster. So I’m gonna throw this shit at them! So I did and then they got kind of quiet. That was a special moment for me. I was just left smiling. ‘Anything else? This is me naked here!’ Fuck office politics etiquette bullshit—this is who we are! Why not? We have talents—let’s tap into ’em! Mix it up! There ain’t no straight shot, man. That’s what music tells you. There is no straight shot. I wish this country … we experienced it a lot in Brazil, but here music is disconnected from the everyday rhythm of the city and our lives. Here we go watch music—we pay for it, get a beer, enjoy it and then we go home. I wish we could do music on the way to watch more music. I like doing phonography—capturing natural sounds. To me, the city has a lot of rhythm already. When I go running—I don’t like when people use iPods. There’s a lot of noise and rhythm in the city to tap into and get inspired by. So in the same sense we walk outside and hear birds and trucks and sirens if need be, I wish we could appreciate music in the same sense. Let it come in our lives—cradle it—don’t be afraid of it.
BM: I think our music is very different. There’s a lot of different components. Kids here in high school are used to playing heavy metal.
EA: I love heavy metal!
GV: Me too!
EA: We’re metalheads!
BM: But a lot of people get caught up in that. Guitar is the essence of what people play—but why not pick up a drum? Or a conga? The type of music you listen to affects … or reflects how you act as an individual. How you perceive the world.
EA: I’m a huge metalhead. Death metal, grindcore, everything. Opeth—all the way. In my late teens I was thinking, ‘Goddamn! There’s this band in New York called Chlamydia that I love—I wish I could get a spot to audition!’ It was all distorted-ass crazy grind. But then I was thinking—you’re limited by just doing that. I know a lot of metal bands totally surprised me and have gone to new paths, but for me—I’d be limiting myself. I wanna play more. Then I started picking up the drum, playing little different instruments and I’d see I was becoming more than I anticipated—as a person and a musician. Because there were different expressions I wanted out that you can’t get from when a guitar locks in with a double-bass.
What does it mean to play a ‘truthful song to a people long lied to’?
BM: Like ballads and songwriters who just write songs—who put a lot of thought and energy into what they’re doing. As opposed to Britney Spears. Something commercial.
EA: The capitalistic way of looking at it—music as entertainment.
BM: There are very profound things songwriters say in their songs. Me and Eduardo are saying the same thing. We are putting our experience and philosophy into our music. For example—‘La Samoana’ is about a girl my dad dated before he met my mom. To me, it’s a way of connecting with my dad. Actually, a few songs are about me and my dad because I have a really strong connection with him. But this has to do with the way we connect with just us having relationships. This is one of the only conversations we had about him being with a woman. We never talked about that, and my dad doesn’t talk generally, so I really appreciated that. But it’s really cool that he dated this Samoan chick. It fits our aesthetic really well. It was probably sometime in the ’70s when he dated her. He told me—he met her at her apartment and took her out one day, and he was surprised she said yes. ‘What? Just like that?’ They went to a disco and danced disco in ’76. I grew up on disco, too!
EA: When I went to a Femi Kuti show—I’ve seen him a couple times, but it was most impressive at the Hollywood Bowl—the music was pumping, man! When they have a 13-piece band and three dancers and bootyshaking and Afrobeat just killing on drums … you can’t sit there! You cannot sit there! All of a sudden I was like, ‘I can’t sit down! It feels stupid!’ We started standing on top of the bleachers and dancing and I’m looking around. People are like, ‘Well, Raphael Saadiq played—who’s this band?’ ‘No! Look! Open yourself! Look what’s going on! It’s alright! It’s alright to let go of that edge you’re hiding under! We’re city kids, but you’re giving it the wrong image—shake it off! Have fun!’
Which did you hear first—Los Angeles Negros, Caetano Veloso or Isaac Hayes?
EA: Los Angeles Negros—that stuff’s in my blood! I don’t wanna get too explicit, but when I was born, that shit was in the background. My uncle taught me ‘Murio La Flor’ when I was a kid. Kinda nuts. Playing this music, I’m not even trying—I’m just letting my blood come out. Isaac Hayes—first on K-EARTH 101. I was pulling weeds in the backyard—12 or 13—and it just came on the radio. I later found an Isaac Hayes record at the swap meet and I listened to and heard it—‘Goddamn radio! They normalize everything!’ I finally got to hear it and I’m thinking, ‘Whoa!’ I’d been missing it the whole time.
Did you think about that when you recorded your album?
EA: We did that in my old room in Highland Park. For us it was quite legendary. We ran drums through the twelve-channel mixer. Put the bass amp in the bedroom. My roommate came home and was trying to study because he had midterms. I asked if he could just go to the library!
BM: We used that fool’s room! That shit in the middle!
EA: Our main purpose was to go live tracking—that’s where the energy was and that’s where we’re gonna capture it. Everything was ready at like 1 PM and we ended up finishing at 8 at night—all the songs! We had to because we had a gig in Venice that night!
Where did you get the official shirts?
EA: I used to be in this old band—Dhuum Machale. Like this eight-person group. We had all different styles. The bandleader was thinking, ‘Everyone pick an outfit for yourselves.’
‘You get the diaper.’
EA: ‘You get the pimp coat!’ Yeah, bad as shit! But the idea when we perform is to take ourselves a little seriously. Project the confidence and uniformity of your message and your direction—fucking own it! And the bands we admire to do this project all did the same thing anyway. So at Aardvark’s in Pasadena we just so happened on three baby blue ones. It feels good to dress up, man. It’s like, ‘We’re ready. Fuck it. We came here to do something! Let’s get it done.’ For me, I’m constantly writing and recording. But what I get out of everything I listen to is attitude! There’s attitude in the way everyone is doing things—and finesse! For me, it’s what connects it together. If I’m playing bass or guitar, it’s attitude. In Brazil I took a guitar class and we more than anything just talked the whole time—becoming friends. But he taught me a jeito—like a style, an attitude about the guitar. … ‘Like some bad fool walks all tough and shit—the same way he does that, you wanna do on the guitar! Let ‘em feel that!’ Man! Thank you! I’m gonna carry that for the rest of my life. Attitude—xingando, man! From here on out. There’s so many damn good musicians but I’m always thinking—‘Man, lemme get more of your soul!’