At the corner of East First Street and Bailey in Boyle Heights, the gateway to East L.A., two ends of history meet. Mariachis wait for gigs, jackets slung over their shoulders, while a few feet away, skaters sit with their feet dangling off the big, concrete stage. A rooster crows in someone's backyard; the sound of hammering emanates from the half-finished development across the street.
Bardo Martinez, lead vocalist of L.A. band Chicano Batman, crossed the street there one evening last December in a blue suit, complete with ruffled shirt, vest and maroon bow tie — the kind of outfit you might wear if you played in the house band at the 1976 Grammys. As he stepped toward the hip bar Eastside Luv, he locked eyes with an older man standing on the front stoop of a nearby house.
"The man was just like, looking at me — staring at me for a while," Martinez remembers. "Then he gave me one of these" — Martinez gives a little salute — "and I gave him one of these" — he salutes, too, turning it into a full-arm wave. The connection was instant, and the meaning was unspoken, deep. "There was just so much elation, so much respect reverberating back and forth."
Martinez was in the neighborhood with the rest of Chicano Batman. The quartet have, over the course of almost a decade, become something like the city's own house band — a band that straddles the classic and the new, the nostalgic and the identity shifting. The rest of the band was wearing matching suits, as they always do.
They already had been in Boyle Heights for 13 hours that day, filming a commercial for Johnnie Walker that doubled as a video for their funky, bilingual cover of "This Land Is Your Land." The shoot was a moment that felt for the band like a big step forward, a legitimization of years of hard work.
The older man's gesture had said, simply: "I see you."
"There was no distance between me and him, because we had this understanding of each other that goes beyond class," Martinez recalls. "He saw a brother coming up. Like, 'This cat has the golden ticket.'"
It was, perhaps, a sign — reassurance that a band, whose music distills this sprawling city's cultural heritage, could step forward without leaving behind the only place that could have birthed them.
Freedom Is Free, the band's new album, is that step forward. It's their clearest statement, a record that revolves around the soul sound they've refined over the years but that doesn't sacrifice ambitious adventures into Afrobeat, Brazilian pop, baroque psychedelia and the band's first firm venture into political territory. It's a song cycle about maintaining inner strength, radiating love and standing up to the distorting forces of social and political power. It finds the band growing fully into their sound, and harnessing it to make a statement for disorienting times.
Chicano Batman started eight years ago, when it was little more than the name of the Myspace page on which Martinez posted home recordings of songs he'd written in college. The name was meant to juxtapose two kinds of iconography — the revolutionary and the pop, the profound and the pulp.
It was around the same time, while Martinez was studying at UCLA, that bassist Eduardo Arenas heard him singing Brazilian songwriter-guitarist Caetano Veloso's "Nine Out of Ten" at a party. "He was like, 'Damn, you know that?'" Martinez recalls. They decided to start a band.
Later on, drummer Gabriel Villa and guitarist Carlos Arévalo jumped on board. (Other than Villa, who hails from Colombia, the band is from SoCal; Martinez is from La Mirada, Arévalo from Rialto and Arenas from Boyle Heights.) Together, they developed a sound that centered on soul — anchored by Villa and Arenas' air-tight rhythms, lifted by Arévalo's springy, light-footed guitar and Martinez's classic croon — but followed their whims into all kinds of territory. "Left-field, B-side reissues" is how Martinez describes the band's sound.
After two records and years of tireless gigging, the band leveled up in 2015, touring with Alabama Shakes and Jack White and playing their first Coachella (to which they'll return this year). Those opportunities led them, in 2016, to make the record they had always wanted to make.
Recorded in New York with producer Leon Michels, Freedom Is Free is the first Chicano Batman album to be made outside Arenas' home studio, and the first that took them longer than two days to record. "We'd wake up at our Airbnb, go get some breakfast, and go live another song," Arenas says. "For me, it's bass — I wake up and I'm walking on the train, walking wherever, feeling the pulse of my walk to the studio."
For this interview, the four sit in a semicircle near the front door of instrument shop Future Music in Highland Park. The band is a self-contained, democratic institution — all in their early- to mid-30s, they're thoughtful and positive, though they don't always agree. Martinez is a free-flowing, inspired fountain of words; Arenas is soft-spoken, intellectual; Arévalo minds the dates and details. (Villa is the silent type.)
Their records have always been stylistically far-ranging, but Freedom Is Free particularly succeeds at tracing the band's eclectic interests without losing its center of gravity. One track, "Angel Child," with its sudden time changes and maze-like runs, nods to the symphonic psychedelia of the late David Axelrod; another, "Right Off the Back," is a finely detailed, snaking instrumental.
"What's so cool about Chicano Batman is they are a band in the classic sense," says Michels, who, in addition to producing such bands as The Arcs, is also a saxophonist known for his work with the Dap-Kings and his own band, El Michels Affair. "They rehearse every week, and they fight over the arrangements." It was Michels' job to keep the album centered on that sound while helping the band sharpen their tangents.
Freedom Is Free is the band's first record for ATO Records, a "major indie," also home to acts like Alabama Shakes and Hurray for the Riff Raff, bands that push and pull on classic American musical forms.
The influence of the '60s and '70s, and soul music, in particular, is core to the band's sound. The suits pay homage to the spectrum that lies between The Impressions and Los Ángeles Negros, the group popular in Mexico in the '70s for their heartrending ballads. In a way, the suits symbolize the grounding effect of the band's soul influences. Take "Friendship (Is a Small Boat in a Storm)," Freedom Is Free's lead single, an unpretentious soul tune centered on a straightforward metaphor, replete with crisp, swirling guitars, thick organ and a euphoric, whistled bridge.
"That sound" — the sound of classic soul records — "was so great you could spend your life arriving at it and still be productive in your own way," Martinez says. Arenas chimes in with an example: Heatwave's corny-sweet "Always and Forever," which was "the last song at every school dance." The rest of the band nods in agreement. "It's in my bloodstream," Arenas says.
It's a sound any warm-blooded human can connect with, but for Latinos raised in Los Angeles, it's also a nod to generations of culture. It's this connection that resonates with the band's younger fans, in a city that has cherished lowrider oldies for three generations and has spent the last 60 years under the sway of Art Laboe.
"Young people are making those connections because they're digging for substance they won't find in the present status quo," Martinez says. "Especially because the current status quo is ever alienating them. That's what people are digging for. They're trying to find their identity in this place and time."
Freedom Is Free develops its political stance from this vantage point. "For me, the microcosm is the macrocosm; there is no difference," says Martinez, the band's primary lyricist. He cites as influences Vietnam-era firebrands like Gil Scott-Heron and John Lennon, two artists whose political songs felt weightier because they looked inward as earnestly as they looked out. "It was a radical time, and people were very honest with everything," he says. "I really feel as an artist you have to strive toward that."
"The Taker Story" is the band's most political song, a Scott-Heron–style funk monologue about human hypocrisy. ("Man has been killing his brother since the beginning of the agricultural revolution," Martinez spits.) The Arenas-penned "La Jura," one of only a couple songs in Spanish on this record — another departure for the band — is a lurching, hesitating ballad about police brutality.
But the title track, which the band released as the album's second single the day before Donald Trump's Inauguration, takes the positivity that comes naturally to the band and sharpens it into a political mantra. The ecstatic "Freedom Is Free" — a prime showcase of Arenas' and Villa's powerhouse rhythms and Martinez's vocal warmth — is the direct inverse of a specific kind of war propaganda; it represents the idea that minds can't be changed by force or colonized by fear. "You've got your guns up on display/ But you can't change how I feel, no way," Martinez sings.
"Existentially speaking, we all have our own freedom inside of us, in our minds. It's all in your head. That's really the point of that song," Martinez says.
It's also a kind of spiritual cousin to earlier Chicano Batman songs, like "Stoned Soul Picnic" off the band's second album, Cycles of Existential Rhyme, songs that advocated self-care, communal joy and achieving a kind of Zen that makes you untouchable.
With Chicano Batman honed in every way — sound, message, approach — it's time to accept that they won't be L.A.'s house band forever. Which is something not all of their hometown fans, many of whom have watched them come up since the early days playing little gigs at clubs like La Cita Bar, are totally down with.
"Some people take it very personally," Arévalo says. "I've seen comments on our newest singles, and people are saying, 'Man, they sold out. It's so obvious the label made them do this.'" At this, bandmates laugh. "This is just our natural progression. It's not in line with your growth, but this is our growth."
The commercial featuring "This Land Is Your Land," the one the band shot that day in December, officially aired two months later, shown to 26 million TV viewers during the Grammys. Their fans were watching, too — including José Rojas, a young, East L.A.–born-and-bred Chicano Batman fan who has followed them for years.
"Pulling out a song like that, and customizing it that way — I definitely wanted to latch on to that brown pride, and identify myself with [it]," says Rojas, who plays bass in the L.A. band Thee Commons.
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For new fans, there may be no better band than Chicano Batman to represent L.A. — a city built on upending expectations, on myriad struggles for recognition, on music as a social force. For the stalwarts, it's nice just to see them come up.
"You know, we grew up so close to them," Rojas says. "It's great to have that hometown pride."
[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified where Eduardo Arenas and Carlos Arévalo are originally from. Arenas grew up in Boyle Heights, not the Inland Empire, and Arévalo is from Rialto, not East L.A. We regret the error.]