chicano batman
William Andrade

Chicano Batman’s infinite dream

Chicano Batman appear in our Spring 2024 Issue with cover stars Liam Gallagher/John Squire, Kevin Abstract, the Marías, and Palaye Royale. Head to the AP Shop to grab a copy. 

Bardo Martinez — the soulful, free-flowing vocalist of Chicano Batman — has spent much of his life searching for an outlet. That usually came through art, at first drawing and then music. He convinced a jazz teacher to let him join his ensemble when he was in the 11th grade even though he couldn’t read music. At varying points, he’s played accordion, lead guitar, and was even in a reggae outfit before finding the colors that’d eventually shape Chicano Batman. “Eek-A-Mouse was one of the first CDs that I bought,” he shares over Zoom months before the release of the group’s glitzy fifth studio album, Notebook Fantasy.

Martinez’s bandmates, guitarist Carlos Arévalo and bassist Eduardo Arenas, share similar backstories with different threads. Arévalo played in punk bands throughout high school in Rialto, California, looking up to Radiohead, Björk, and At the Drive-In. “There wasn’t much to do out here except try to be creative,” he says. Meanwhile, Arenas fell in love with Metallica, Pantera, and Creed. He didn’t get into Björk until seeing her headline FYF Fest in 2017. “That’s how different we are, Carlos,” he laughs.

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For years, Chicano Batman have grinded faithfully. When the band first started, they created searing, relentlessly funky meditations that sounded culled from the late ’60s and ’70s. Their cosmic vortex embodied the DNA of Curtis Mayfield, Motown, and Brazilian giant Caetano Veloso as they donned ruffled three-piece suits in an ode to their Latin forebears. Their third album, 2017’s Freedom Is Free, was spectacularly retro, recorded totally analog with producer Leon Michels and filled with songs of resistance. Then, as they ventured further out, they became increasingly adventurous and bold. Their 2020 LP, Invisible People, tapped into different, groovier forms of psychedelia, like krautrock and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, marking new territory for the band as they made, as Martinez says, “modern-ass music.” No songs were sung in Spanish — which was its own form of protest — and they hung up the suits. “I guess there’s always a tendency of radically changing what you did before,” he posits. 

chicano batman

William Andrade

Now, nearly half a decade later, Chicano Batman are shifting again by thinking huge and continuing to push their boundaries. Across Notebook Fantasy, the songs are bigger and bolder — all stunningly hi-fi, enveloped in a swanky ’80s smog. “It’s less risk, more having to do with naturally [heading to] the next place of maturity,” Arenas says. They are more fitting for stadiums than lounges but still made with the same tireless drive, busting open their sound in a whole new way. “I always thought it was the cheesiest thing. Why am I in love with ’80s music now?” Martinez laughs, mentioning cuts like Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” and “We Are the World.” But the equipment opened a portal to another world — the clarity of the vocals, the gated reverb, the polished sound — and made them realize how many incredible records belong to the decade. “You can get Phil Collins real quick still,” Arenas adds.

Sometimes the band jet into space, like on the back-half track “Hojas Secas,” where Arévalo ascends into a guitar solo that sounds indebted to the lysergic cool of Funkadelic. “Lei Lá,” meanwhile, employs “Afro Colombian vibes,” as Martinez describes, and “The Way You Say It,” featuring Brooklyn trio Say She She, is a swaggering dance-floor epic. The band are feeling themselves on every level, unafraid to experiment and let loose — regardless of what they’ve made before. “If you’re not genuinely loving it because you love it, then nobody else is going to love it, either,” Martinez says. 

Spontaneity was also abundant. By working with producer John Congleton (Mannequin Pussy, Earl Sweatshirt), who oversaw the process but didn’t control it, the band were able to tinker and work the songs out for themselves. Recording the guitar solo on “Parallels,” for one, was unorthodox. Arévalo, who usually composes his own melodies, was dealing with family matters and ran out of time, so coming into the studio presented a blank slant. Congleton told him they needed an end guitar part, and three takes later, he improvised what you hear on the track. Another time, Martinez impulsively played the song that turned into “Fairytale Love,” the record’s mystical closer.

“Having space for that kind of process in the studio was a dream come true,” Arenas explains. “I’ve been telling Bardo lately, ‘It’s in the air.’ If the songs are in the air, he’s got to go get ’em. Sometimes they just come easier than the one that you have composed for five or six months, so it’s about creating equal space for each composition as they come.”

It’s about what they’ll eventually leave behind, too. Chicano Batman have long been called underrated, even bagging the title of “LA’s house band.” Ultimately, the ability to build a legacy weighs heavy on their minds. Arévalo aspires to make “timeless music” — the type that can reach into someone’s life, regardless of age, and make them feel brand new — as well as continue to try different things.

chicano batman

Josue Rivas

“I think the legacy I want to leave behind is for people to think big and just imagine a lot bigger than what logistics tell you is possible,” Arenas reflects. It wasn’t until college, however, that he saw Latinos play live music and recognized his idols never looked like him. “It took me a lot of years to realize it’s just been white rock bands that have been my heroes, but when this is all said and done, if a 13- or 14-year-old could see Chicano Batman as a moving, loving force in their path, I would be honored.” 

Representation will always matter to Chicano Batman — the band even incorporate Spanish back into their songs this time, like on the lulling ballad “Era Primavera” — but they’d rather you feel the music than default to a typecast. “If we say we’re not from East LA, people will say we’re from East LA,” Arenas points out, an area that comprises the largest Hispanic community in the U.S. The music, and the band, are deeper than that. “We’re just being us — this is who we are,” Arévalo says. “This is what it was like growing up. I like Spanish music; I like Portuguese music; I like African. It’s in my blood, and it filters through me, and when we make music together, it comes out with all these colors because it’s not just one type of genre informing us.” They will always seek to reach more people, exist in multiple spaces, and operate on their own terms, like the greats before them.

“When do you write your best song? You don’t know, so you just got to keep on going,” Martinez says. So many years later, he’s still trying to sound like John Lennon and Veloso, who’s 81 and continues “making beautiful songs” that occupy an expansive, indelible catalog.

“I grew up watching martial arts movies — kung fu movies, your quintessential action flicks. A master’s a master because they don’t stop,” he continues. “You have the bearded sensei on top of the mountain still chopping wood, so I don’t know how long I’ll do it for, but I see myself doing that, being that.”