[Editor's note: Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. Be sure to also check out the archives.]
With the July 20 release of The Dark Knight Rises, the iconic Batman franchise returns for its seventh summer with the usual panoply of “pows,” “bangs” and Christian Bale barking like a pipe-puffing, 18th-century whaler. The budget is roughly $250 million, excluding marketing. It probably will be awesome and definitely will include a licensing deal for a Batman-themed Mr. Potato Head.
Earlier this month, Chicano Batman raised $4,500 on Kickstarter to fund the vinyl pressing of their second album, the currently available EP Joven Navegante. That the group met their goal is a testament to the small but dedicated fan base of Latin youth, DJs and diggers who have gravitated toward them since their formation in 2008.
Without lapsing into soliloquies about economic priorities, the market for Latin psych-rock and Anne Hathaway's gums, let's say that you should know about both Batmen — the Gotham savior and the Eastside L.A. fusionists whose sabor simmers with cumbia, Mexican ballads, Brazilian tropicalia, Jimi Hendrix, Santana and Cream.
Chicano Batman's Bruce Wayne is played by 27-year-old Bardo Martinez, the La Mirada-raised guitarist-organist with a master's in Latin American studies from Cal State L.A. Chicano Batman was his way of adding special powers via costume and cape or, in Martinez's case, the frilled blue satin tuxedo tops they rock in homage to the onda grupera and romantica groups of the mid-1970s.
“Chicano Batman was an alias to empower myself, a way to be, like, 'I'm a superhero,' ” says Martinez, whose mom was born in Cartagena, Colombia, and whose dad hails from Jalisco, Mexico. “But it was also a way to empower anybody from the global south, the people of color who lack privilege.” We're in the backyard of his manager's home in Highland Park; with his blue Adidas sweatpants and wavy hair tied back, the wiry but muscular musician looks more college track star than Caped Crusader. But his skull-laden Aztec battle T-shirt betokens his veneration of his Mesomerican ancestry. “La Mirada is very conservative and largely white. Kids played Christian rock, Metallica, the Beatles. I always felt weird in high school because of where my parents came from. I even felt alienated in guitar class.”
Since its genesis in the scene surrounding the MEChA movement at UCLA — where Martinez attended undergrad — Chicano Batman have forged a sound beholden to no country, era or aesthetic. You could believe that they were the acid-rock kings of Whittier Boulevard circa 1973 or that they're the finest unsung contemporary Mexican underground rockers.
In conversation, Martinez radiates a scholarly intensity common to change-your-life professors and kids who read The Anarchist's Cookbook instead of doing algebra. He just spent the last eight months working at a middle school in Oakland and rarely lets thoughts escape without serious consideration of their historical and cultural import. Topics covered include his parents' immigration to the United States, Kurosawa films, the whitening of Latin American popular music and how the Batman cartoon fell off after it moved from Fox to The WB.
“In Tibetan Buddhism, 'bardo' means intermediate state, or a state of transition. That's how I am as a person, always trying to incorporate different sounds and inspirations to avoid being stagnant,” Martinez says. As though to prove the point, a praying mantis lands on his chest. But rather than brush off or kill it, he lets it sit until it's ready to leave, 10 minutes later. Batman is surprisingly Zen.