wax Poetics

Chicano Batman

Los Angeles band embraces international genres and creates essential soul music

published online
Originally published in Issue 58
By Allen Thayer

Photography by Jessica Augustine
Photography by Jessica Augustine

    Of all the bands and solo artists that have referenced tropicália, the chic Brazilian art/film/music movement of the late ’60s, Chicano Batman (with their name alone) most embody the movement’s key concept: antropofagia, or cultural cannibalism. Just like Gil, Veloso, Zé, and Os Mutantes turbo-charged previously marginalized genres like baião, marcha, trio elétrico, and samba for the Brazilian baby boomers, Chicano Batman craft a clever musical blend of soul, funk, cumbia, bossa nova, ’50s rock and roll, lowrider oldies, surf rock, and more for a new generation of culture cannibals.

    It’s only fitting then that the band formed around Caetano and cumbia. Bardo Martinez (guitar, organ, and lead vocals), Eduardo Arenas (bass, vocals), Gabriel Villa (drums, percussion, vocals), and Carlos Arévalo (guitar, vocals) came together, despite some cruel SoCal commutes, over a few diverse musical interactions. Bardo and Eduardo connected while jamming at an informal gig over Caetano Veloso’s “Nine Out of Ten.” Bardo and Gabriel met at nuevo-cumbia band Very Be Careful’s show, resulting in an after-show parking-lot jam session. Bardo had admired Carlos’s clean and inventive guitar playing for years, as both of their previous groups occasionally gigged together. While the band congealed around Bardo’s musical and artistic vision and natural charisma, Chicano Batman is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

    Representing a major evolution since their 2010 self-titled debut, their new album, Cycles of Existential Rhyme, is the first full-length to showcase the band as a quartet with the addition of Carlos on guitar, which freed Bardo up to vamp on his Farfisa organ to his heart’s content. But the most unique element of this uncategorizable group is Bardo’s singing. “I grew up listening to reggae,” he says, “and that was kinda what I started playing when I was young.” The reference makes sense, as Bardo’s vocals dance along bubbling and unpredictably to the rhythm tracks, sometimes leading the music and other times lagging behind. And finally, there’s Chicano Batman’s secret weapon, revealed in full force during their live performances, the rhythm duo of bassist Eduardo and the rhythmic shaman Gabriel with his “little magic bag of secret rhythms.” “Because the rhythm has so much attitude,” Eduardo says, “I think that’s one way that we can explicitly step up to people, be like, ‘Unnnh!’—we’re being mean about this, or we’re being laid back about it.”

    Tropicália as a musical movement only lasted in earnest for a few years (1967–’70) with most of its founding musicians developing extremely successful solo careers that had little aesthetically to do with the experimental pop music they made during this fleeting pop-culture movement.

    Cycles of Existential Rhyme, like Bardo says, “is the most focused thing we’ve done; every song has a lot of weight. It’s what we’ve always wanted to do.” With this album, Chicano Batman nailed their unique sonic cocktail, delivering their tongue-in-cheek punch line in style. And just like Caetano, Gal, and Gil launched long careers after distinguishing themselves as part of the tropicália movement, Bardo and the band—with their restless creativity and openness—allow their musical dynamism to evolve organically. As Bardo says, “The way I’m venturing musically is simplicity; I want to be as simple as possible.”