On the road with Chicano Batman
by Allen Thayer
Back in November, Wax Poetics caught up with the four members of Chicano Batman in Portland, Oregon, as they were wrapping up another headlining tour in support of Freedom Is Free out on ATO Records.
Chicano Batman closed out a fantastic show with Brooklyn’s the Shacks opening, followed by Texas-based Khruangbin, who warmed up the youthful crowd for Los Angeles’ unclassifiable Chicano Batman. All in all, it was a showcase of the deep and diverse expressions of soul in the contemporary music scene.
In our forty-minute interview, we covered everything from their new album Freedom Is Free, bringing their West Coast vibes into the nerve center of East Coast soul, the current oppressive political climate, the continuing influence of Tropicália, and learning to love Woody Guthrie.
Looking back on your career to date, it seems like you have a few distinct chapters, as a trio, as a quartet, and now with Freedom Is Free, it seems like a new chapter with an outside producer and a strong soul influence.
Carlos (lead guitar): We did the “Black Lipstick” 45, which was the first time we had a producer, and that was Antoine Arvizu, who runs the Compound Studio in Long Beach, and that had been set up by Ikey Owens, who passed away a few months before. So he was gonna produce us and then he passed away, and his engineer, Antoine, said, “I can produce you. I worked very closely with Ikey and have an idea of what kind of aesthetic he wanted for the production with you guys.”
And that as the first time we had a producer, and I think we all saw how helpful it was to have that fifth voice to give a perspective on the tracks and how to improve them.
Bardo (lead vocals, keyboards): Working with Antoine and then Leon Michels, walking into his studio just opened our minds.
What was it like traveling to Brooklyn to record your album, throwing up your West Coast identity against Leon Michels’ and that East Coast sound and sensibility?
Eduardo (bass): That’s exactly what happened. When we went there, we were like, “We gotta bring the West Coast shit!” There were certain parts where Leon would be working on a piano part and Bardo and I would look at each other and say, “It really needs to be more g-funk. Less Coldplay and more g-funk—more DJ Quick. Much love to Leon!
Carlos: He does not listen to Coldplay.
How did you end up connecting with Leon Michels?
Bardo: It was kinda serendipitous actually.
[Turns out, Carlos’s girlfriend was friends with Leon’s wife and so the next thing you know, Carlos learns that Leon’s in L.A. and invites him out for a drink.]
Carlos: I had a drink or two in me, so I was feeling brave and I said, “Hey man, we’re working on a new album and we need a producer; would you be interested?” And he told me, “Yeah, I’m interested; just call me up and follow up.”
And a lot of things like that happen in the business, and things fall through, people get busy, schedules happen, so I didn’t put too much weight behind it, but I followed up with an email…and he had two weeks in January open, so we locked it in.
Before traveling east, did you have all the songs for the album ready?
Bardo: We had a bunch of songs written; it was pretty much sketched out, the whole album. We had like twelve or thirteen songs we went into the studio with. We had ten days to record the record, so we would wake up at eight in the morning and step into the Diamond Mine every morning and record as many tracks as—well, at least one song; we would shoot for two. So it was pretty much one song a day. And then the last few days when we had to record two songs a day.
Eduardo: It’s great too, because it puts you in a different mind-set; let’s say, for instance, he [points at Carlos] lays down a solo, and then the next day we’re already on to something else, and then you still got something else, so I think it speaks also about performing on that Tuesday afternoon when you had it in you, and Wednesday, obviously, you’re gonna change your perception, Thursday…you’re always gonna wanna undo something that you did because you’re second guessing, and in this case there’s no second guessing. There wasn’t enough time to go back and fix anything.
What was Leon Michels’s influence on the album? Did Leon play on the album, were there any other guest musicians on the album?
Bardo: He played some stuff, electric piano…
Eduardo: Mellotron. He had a good sensibility about how not to overdo things. If we were in doubt about some things, he’d say, “Let’s just keep it,” and we’d say okay. We would just kinda go with it. We trusted his instincts. He’d have a way of taking a very complicated section and simplifying it. He had this way of making sure there was always a four-bar beat, a four-bar phrase for the samplers, to take and make your album relevant in a whole different world. For instance, with the record Freedom Is Free, there’s the album and then there’s an instrumental version, knowing that that’s another world too.
Bardo: There are obvious hip-hop sensibilities in his style, which is dope, and something we have always tried to venture into as well.
But you guys are known for having lots of changes in your music. How does that jive with a more consistent rhythmic approach you find in most hip-hop?
Carlos: When we recorded the album, Nick Movshon and Homer Steinweiss were in the studio—they all co-own that studio—so it was trippy, like Menahan Street Band. We look up to those guys. I mean, they’re our contemporaries in age, but they’ve been doing this for fifteen years and they were just tripping out on Gabriel’s playing, saying, “This guy is the shit. He plays with such a great touch. He’s like the best drummer we’ve ever got to record.” They were all tripping out. That’s a huge compliment, because we respect those guys big-time.
Gabriel (drums): I have so much admiration for what they have going on there. The studio itself and the people we were hanging around with at that moment influenced the way we played and performed because the studio, at the same time, was kinda like an instrument for us. I was playing a different drum set than mine, a vintage kit from the ’60s with huge [kick drums]. The sound was really big. You can hear the difference from the other recordings we’ve done. We were tracking to one-inch tape and it sounded so good with the equipment, the snares…
Carlos: I wanna add that Mariachi Flor de Toloache were part of the Freedom Is Free album sessions, who are New York City’s first all-female mariachi group, and they do a fusion of traditional mariachi music with modern R&B and soul.
I had met them earlier in the summer and asked them to be a part of the sessions because Bardo had talked about wanting to have female backup singers on the album, and they had done backup singing for the Arcs’ album. They actually just won a Latin Grammy yesterday! I just wanted to give them a shout-out because the sweet harmonies wouldn’t sound as good without them.
Do you consider Chicano Batman a soul band? When I asked you during our last interview, it seemed that you aspired to that. Having recorded this album with the musicians you made it with, do you feel different now?
Eduardo: I think everybody will have a different opinion. I don’t. I think of it as hand in the water, hand out of the water, because we have the versatility to go in and out of different genres. We did get licked by the cow’s tongue of soul throughout the whole album, and that was something we officially wanted to do.
Carlos: This album was definitely mining our soul influences. We always had them, we love that music, and working with Leon, it just went hand-in-hand exploring this aesthetic, but I don’t think we’re a soul band.
Is it an indication of where you’re going?
Eduardo: No, but it leaves the door open. I think if we pigeonhole ourselves as a soul band, then people will expect something next, but if you don’t, they don’t know what’s next and that’s good for us, because we get to grow musically and so do our fans. There’s a lot of young people coming out to our shows on this tour. Man, they’re in for the ride. How much more can we share together and grow?
Bardo: I, personally, have no qualms about aspiring to sound like Al Green, or other artists, because at the end of the day we’re gonna sound different, because we bring different sensibilities. I think as Chicano Batman, we can aspire to sound like something, but we’ll sound completely different. Let’s say Carlos brings together a very simple chord progression, like “Friendship” for example, which is modeled over a pop song, but we’ll flip it and make it different.
You process it through the Chicano Batman machine.
Eduardo: Os Mutantes…let’s say “Baby,” it’s a sweet, nice little ballad soul song and they explode it…
Is Tropicália still a formative influence for the band?
Eduardo: I think less and less, actually.
Gabriel: I think it’s in the spirit and how you perceive music. For this album, this was the closest I’ve ever been to soul music. I’ve been listening, and through all of my band mates, the music we were listening to preparing for this album and performing it, but at the same time whenever I’m playing, it’s metal, you know, the attitude. So you always bring to the band some attitude, an influence that you bring, so Tropicália’s always gonna be in the bag. Bardo’s got that Caetano Veloso influence, down to the way he moves onstage. That influence is always gonna be with [Bardo]. That kind of thing never leaves you, but your mind keeps moving and takes you to different places, maybe electronic music, or some kind of funk.
Eduardo: On the same token, if it weren’t for Metallica, we wouldn’t be doing some of these major breakdowns. It’s just innate. We know how to break something down because…I grew up playing Metallica, like intensely, all of the solos, all of the songs, and then [Gabriel] was the same on the drums on the other side of the country. I think one time we were in New Orleans at Voodoo Fest and we were watching Metallica, and they were the headliners, and Gabo and I were jamming to all the breakdowns, like all the solos, and then Carlos looked over and was like, “What?!?” How to break something in half, half-time feel, double-time feel, how to bring something up to a plateau. It’s the intensity and attitude that we bring to soul music, to cumbia, to whatever; it’s how to push, how to bring the people closer to you.
Bardo: I know how we’re saying that we all have different influences, and that’s what Chicano Batman is. We may have the intention of playing something a certain way, but obviously we all process music in a certain way, but I feel like with Freedom Is Free, that it was our intention, especially working with Leon Michels, about accenting soul music. And I feel like that’s definitely there, and there’s something special about four Latino dudes basically having soul as the spring board for our particular sound. I mean, we were in that studio and we were bringing a whole different world view just being who we are and rocking the way we do, so I think there’s something special about that.
Will you use an outside producer on the next album?
Eduardo: I think so.
Would you want to work with Leon if it came up?
Eduardo: We wouldn’t rule it out.
Carlos: Leon’s just so humble and unassuming. He’s done so many amazing things, and he doesn’t put it out there. We were putting some amps away in storage in the studio, and he’s got the platinum record from the Jay-Z sample hidden in the closet where no one can see it. That’s Leon.
I want to ask you about the “Freedom Is Free” video; how’d it come about?
Bardo: I think “Freedom Is Free” just needed to be. I think artists in general need to make a statement. There’s something that has to define you, you can’t just be all over the place. You have to create something that people can understand. When you make such a strong statement with the song’s title, the video’s gotta match that.
We were lucky in finding César Elster and his partner. They have this crew called Minnesota [Films]. They’re Venezuelans who migrated to Mexico City in the music world. They presented us the video, that was their idea (of dunking our heads in the barrel and making it look like a concentration camp), some Abu Ghraib—that’s what I thought when I first saw the treatment. I thought it was a brilliant idea. I think we all eventually got on board with it, and it manifested into a blood bath.
Was it challenging to film?
Eduardo: It was mean. No partying afterwards in Mexico City; just flew in and flew out. After our tour in the summer, we flew in, they picked us up, we rehearsed it—those two buff dudes are actually really strong, and we had to really wrestle with them.
Bardo: For twelve grueling hours.
Eduardo: We were all cold, all drenched. We were all post-traumatic stress disorder, all scared of water after that.
Anyone nearly drown in the process?
Eduardo: He couldn’t get the hang of it at first.
Bardo: The dude was holding my head down [demonstrates with hand against his neck] in the water. I was freaking out, bro! I was definitely not the MVP. Carlos was amazing. All these guys were super good at it, they were dunking their heads and singing along. You saw [Gabriel] spit out the tooth right on beat, you know what I’m saying?
Carlos: The struggle was real. It was acting, but they really, physically [restrained us]. We were bruised, because these guys were buff, grabbing us with their biceps and physically dunking us in the water. We wanted to make it look as real as possible.
Bardo: The video was taken in two shots, so you’re just seeing two consecutive scenes. We would be in line. They would dunk his head in, then they’d dunk Eduardo’s head in. We’d try not to slip on the floor between our turns.
Eduardo: The most rewarding thing was in the end when we dominated the buff dudes. It was freezing, dude. And they were just there for a half an hour just trembling, and we were like, “Motherfuckers, this is payback!”
I understand the song was written before Trump was elected, so this might feel like an old question, but do you feel differently about your politics as a band since he’s been elected?
Bardo: I’ve been feeling a little more angry these days. I mean, it’s not like I watch TV or stay hip to the news, because obviously there’s a lot of stuff going on. I split away because it’s so depressing, but I went through the school system, so I have an understanding of how the world works. But in terms of the minute details that happen day to day, I’ve taken myself away from that.
The song “Freedom Is Free” is lyrically a personal reflection of things, so nowadays when I talk about me being angry, I just picture being in a supermarket in L.A. I picture a particular man, in my memory right now, an older man, just in line waiting to pay for his groceries in the local store in my neighborhood, and I feel a particular sense of downtrodden-ness, a lack of pride, cowering a little bit, because I imagine the status quo is just on his neck. As Latinos, as Mexican Americans, as Mexicans, the oppression is that much more explicit, and you feel that. I feel it around me and it creates a sense of outrage.
Eduardo: When we play and we’re in Columbus, Ohio, or Salt Lake City, Utah, or North Carolina, and people are singing along to “Freedom Is Free”—there are a lot of people [in those places] who are counter, who are looking for something against the status quo, and they want to believe in a different system, and when I see people singing that stuff, I think, this is us, on the ground, this is groundwork, this is grassroots right here, a song at a time, a stadium at a time. This is the real influence and the politics will come and go, a bunch of old White men will make decisions, corporations will be secured, and wheels will keep turning up there, but for me, it all happens from the bottom, so when I see people singing “Freedom Is Free,” they’re opening their mind to a different idea and to me that’s hope.
Bardo: Showing you where they’re at…
Eduardo: And some cities ain’t like that. We’re all where we’re at. When they’re ready they’re ready.
Tell me about the Johnnie Walker TV advertisement? Is that song on an album? How did that come up? Was this an explicit political statement you wanted to make as a band?
Bardo: It’s on Spotify. All of it was really the idea of the ad agency that pitched it to Johnnie Walker. Honestly, for us, we just wanted to make sure it was a good representation of who we are, and they took care of all the aesthetics, really, in terms of the script.
Eduardo: They wanted to launch an ad campaign for Johnnie Walker, and they chose us as a band that represents the status quo or the current reality in the United States. And another part of it that was cool was singing some of the lyrics in Spanish, which hadn’t been done on a major platform like that.
They had all these ideas for us. Some we turned down: “Nah, that’s not us. We’re not gonna say that.” Something like, “America’s been a free country for blah blah…” We’d be like, “Nah, that’s not something we would say; that’s not us.” But they were cool. “Okay, how would you say it?” And we would rewrite it, and then we’d get all political and they’d be like, “Well, we can’t go that far.” We came to a good compromise by still representing who we are, and they got what they wanted. And it was great. It was not a lot of struggle, and in the process we all kinda got hip to Woody Guthrie’s interpretation and his stake in fighting fascism and all that kind of rhetoric. Where before, we were more pigeonholed in the idea that that song comes after the “Star Spangled Banner” in a patriotic way, but in fact, it’s actually the opposite. I think we all kinda grew into it. It was not what we expected.
What’s next for the band? Tour dates in 2018? Any upcoming releases?
Bardo: That’s what we plan to do next year. Hopefully, we have thirty tracks to choose from instead of the usual “We need one more!” 2019. There might be a single of unreleased stuff.
Chicano Batman Tour Dates
Apr 21 – Santa Barbara, CA – Santa Barbara Bowl #
Apr 26 – Kansas City, MO – Madrid Theatre %
Apr 27 – Oklahoma City, OK – Tower Theatre %
Apr 28- Fort Worth, TX – Fortress Festival %
Apr 30 – St Louis, MO – The Ready Room %
May 01 – Louisville, KY – Zanzabar %
May 03 – Richmond, VA – Capital Ale House Music Hall
May 04 – Pittsboro, NC – Shakori Hills Festival %
May 05 – Atlanta, GA – Shaky Knees Festival %
May 18 – Fresno, CA – Grizzly Fest
Jun 14 – Dover, DE – Firefly Music Festival
Jun 15 – Hunter, NY – Mountain Jam
Jul 29 – New York, NY – Panorama
Sep 14 – New Orleans, LA – The Sugar Mill #
Sep 16 – Charleston, SC – Volvo Car Stadium #
Sep 18 – Charlotte, NC – Charlotte MCU #
# w/ Portugal the Man
% w/ Amasa Hines
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