LA-based quartet Chicano Batman brought the house down with their irresistible offerings of Latin soul. Following their high-energy performance, Garth Trinidad asked the band how they came up with their unique and memorable moniker. Lead vocalist Bardo Martinez, who also holds down keys and guitar–sometimes managing all three at the same time, responded quite simply: “Every one of us is a super hero. This is a working-class band for working-class people.” And with that, the crowd cheered and our band of super heroes exited stage left.
The sun peeked in and out from behind cloud cover on a cold Saturday afternoon atVoodoo Fest, dismaying the many fans who had chosen to wear more abbreviated Halloween costumes to City Park. (The woman dressed in the fluffy, head-to-toe pink bunny suit, though, looked very comfortable.)
During Chicano Batman’s set on the Le Carnival stage, though it was almost possible -– if you closed your eyes -– to believe you sat on a warm beach by a balmy sea, and not a chilly patch of grass next to the park’s wind-rippled lagoon.
The Los Angeles-based quintet plays a fusion of funky, highly psychedelic rock drawn from the native sounds of sunny climes: Brazilian tropicalia, Mexican cumbia, California beach-party surf. Dressed in matching ruffle-front powder-blue tuxedo shirts, the band took the Voodoo Fest crowd on a magical mystery tour of wah-wah funk, Latin percussion and squeedly, spacey effects-laden organ that felt like a pleasure cruise to the outer limits.
Toward the close of their set, Chicano Batman introduced “Joven Navegante,” from its new EP of the same name, which starts out as a funked-up rock 'n’ roller and segues into the sort of dreamy, shimmering exotica -– punctuated by simian yelps -- one might expect to hear during cocktail hour on the Love Boat. With eyes half closed and the sun making one of its brief appearances, it was possible to imagine yourself on the Lido deck.
...the Eastside L.A. fusionists whose sabor simmers with cumbia, Mexican ballads, Brazilian tropicalia, Jimi Hendrix, Santana and Cream.
The goal is to draw from pan-Latin rhythms and movement in an atypical way. "I really appreciate the rhythmic stuff that also really challenges the idea of what a Latino is," Bardo says. "In general, the idea is to complicate the notion of where music comes from, the notion of race, the manifestation of music from different races, the fact that there's no race in general. People see Latinos as just Mexican, Spanish, Spaniards or whatever, but there's definitely a lot of Afro roots in that. The whole idea is to put it out there — my work with cumbia is to throw that out there."
Cumbia originated in Colombia's Caribbean coast and spread quickly to other regions of South andCentral America, shifting along the way to capture various nuances of local artistic expression. Playing these complex and catchy rhythms requires dexterity, skill and devoted study.
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.
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.
A few weeks back, Chicano Batman held a “warm-up” show at Soul in the Park, a weekly party at the Cypress Park bar Footsie’s. There’s no formal stage there so the trio of Bardo Martinez, Eduardo Arenas and Gabriel Villa took over a cramped corner with some true DIY-zeal: They rigged up an ironing board as a keyboard stand. Despite it being a Wednesday night, the La Mirada group pulled in a crowd of local fans (and curious rubberneckers) and despite a wonky sound system, managed to transfix the bar with a short set drawn from their recent eponymous debut.
A name like “Chicano Batman” doesn’t lend itself to easy guesses as to what their sound is like. Los Lobos covering Danny Elfman? Thee Midnighters as fronted by Adam West? What you get is no easier to pin down -- a mesh of Brazilian bossa nova and samba with spacey psychedelia with slow jam soul with surf rock cumbia. It’s “pan-Latin” in the broadest sense, like some bizarre love child between Milton Nascimento, Anibal Velasquez, Los Diablos Rojos, Rita Lee and half a dozen other singers and bands from the 1960s/70s.
The one shining constant is that whatever style Chicano Batman plays in, they nail the essence of summer music: warm bass lines with a tidal undertow; languid, drifting guitar chords; and, most of all, a sensation of laid-back cool evident in everything from their easy tempos to the soft ache of their vocals.