Two days before Donald Trump officially took over the executive branch, Chicano Batman offered a far Browner counternarrative to the president’s White, fearmongering American dream.
The SoCal quartet’s Latinx members starred in a Johnnie Walker ad that doubles as the music video for their funky bilingual cover of Woody Guthrie’s "This Land is Your Land." Instead of "redwood forests," the band traverses Los Angeles, hitting up a taco truck and donning tuxedos at a formal wear shop featuring mariachi attire. Singer Bardo Martínez opens up a Spanish-language verse with words that roughly translate to, "Nobody exists who can stop me on the way to liberty./Nobody exists that can make me return. This land is for you and me."
Chicano Batman has called out President Donald Trump more explicitly in an open letter published by Flood magazine that references the Dakota Access Pipeline, Muslim ban and proposed southern border wall. But the sentiment and style of their "This Land is Your Land" rendition holds the key to their latest album, "Freedom is Free," which dropped Friday (March 3). The 12-track collection mixes Motown-style soul, psychedelic rock and Brazilian tropicália music with lyrics that celebrate communal resilience while attacking oppression.
Then group is made up of lead vocalist Martinez, bassist Eduardo Arenas, guitarist Carlos Arévalo and drummer Gabriel Villa. We spoke to Arenas ahead of the band’s recent gig in Sacramento. Here’s an edited and condensed version of that conversation in five questions.
What’s the story behind your name?
It was a pen name that [lead singer] Bardo Martínez gave himself when he was writing songs to himself back in the mid ’00s. It stems from a comic he drew of Batman, where he put a mustache, muscle shirt and cut-off jean shorts on him, which is like a typical Latino gangster that we’re familiar with in L.A. It relates to this idea of how common folks can be superheroes.
So given that familiarity, are you all from Los Angeles?
We’re from the regional experience of Los Angeles. Bardo is from close to Orange County. Carlos is from the Inland Empire, which is nearly two counties away. Gabriel is from Cali, Colombia, and lives in San Dimas, toward the desert. I’m from Boyle Heights, which is near East L.A. The band is Salvadorian, Mexican, Colombian, American—all those things mashed together. The single-biggest misconception about us is that we’re from East L.A. because we’re Latino from L.A. Historically, a lot of bands do come out of East L.A., especially a lot of old ’60s and ’70s soul bands. One of the things our band does is take away some of those ideas about what it means to be Latino in this city and country.
You’re four Latinx men, making music with a throwback appeal in a country where idolizing the past often means ignoring or celebrating Brown people’s exclusion. Given that, as well as how some of your music is very obviously confrontational, do you ever face pushback for what you do?
The first time we had that was when we went on a two-week tour with Jack White through the Midwest, Texas and out to Las Vegas. Our first bad reviews were in Austin and Alabama. They talked about our hair, outfits and "Spanish salsa songs." That’s fine, talk about all that stuff, but we don’t play salsa. That just puts light on the ignorance of some writers. The other thing is, why don’t [they] talk about the music? I bet you you liked it, but you don’t want to admit it. This doesn’t say anything about us, just more about them.
It’s crazy: You’ll have a show, you did excellent and you’ll walk by some people and they’ll look at you, but you can feel in the energy that they don’t want to acknowledge you, that you sold out this place or that you’re doing something big. But that’s nothing new; we grew up like that. We grew up poor in the ‘hood. Now, we can walk around with confidence because we’re tapped into something we love doing. That confidence supersedes a lot of racial prejudices and icky situations.
So when you headline, what does your audience look like?
I’m really proud to say that our audience began strictly Latino, because they’re our friends and family and that’s how any band starts up. We had a big cult following for a couple of years, and now we have so many different people, so many young people, which is the most refreshing thing. We get hated on when we play 21-and-over places, which I completely understand. [Laughs.] We have older people that come to our shows and say we remind them of when they were young. Asian, White, Black people, all different kinds come. And when we go back to L.A., you better believe it’s going to be a Latino crowd. Look, we had a show once in Salt Lake City, and one person said, "I’ve been living here for seven years, and never in those years have I seen so many Latinos in one place." That’s really powerful, man.
So let’s talk about "Freedom is Free." Is this a conscious step towards making more overtly politcal music?
Nowadays, if you have radical political views, you’re kind of like everybody else, because of the rise of Trump and the fruition of ideologies that people didn’t know were possible. Truth is truth. During the Obama administration, [we] couldn’t ignore that [the U.S. is] at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, we’re talking about a political climate where our families are being deported, our cities are being gentrified, our neighbors are dropping out of school for lack of resources, and [politicians are] lobbying to keep people in jail for petty crimes. Sometimes, all you can sing about is love. Spreading love is your strongest political tool.
Fear is at a peak in our culture, and we’re just supposed to be fine with that? There’s a much more harmonious way to live. We just wrote a couple of songs to illustrate that point. It’s not that we’re a political band day and night. It’s just that you have to go deeper into what you really want to say instead of working around it. In 2017, it’s now or never.
Chicano Batman’s "Freedom is Free" is available now on ATO Records. Check out their spring tour dates on their website.