It's amazing what a difference a year can make in how music is viewed -- particularly when that year involves the presidential run of Donald J. Trump. Only 14 months ago, L.A.'s Chicano Batman were Airbnb-ing it in New York, making daily trips to Diamond Mine Studios in Queens to work with analog devotee Leon Michels (The Arcs, Sharon Jones) on Freedom Is Free, the band's third album, its most politically astute record to date. At that point, Trump had only begun his unlikely ascent to the most powerful job in the world. And when Freedom Is Free's songs -- soulful meditations on our connections to other humans and the world we inhabit -- were written nine months earlier, the man and his giant red tie had barely come down that Trump Tower escalator for the big campaign announcement. So no, Chicano Batman weren't creating songs in response to the man now in charge. But here we are.
Four Latinos who, for the better part of a decade, have steadily built a devoted following in Hispanic-heavy East Los Angeles and beyond have in recent months emerged as a pitch-perfect voice of "the resistance"-- and why not? Among them, Bardo Martinez, Eduardo Arenas, Carlos Arevalo and Gabriel Villa are a snapshot of 21st Century America, waving a number of flags that make Trump and his disciples want to build a wall. Chicano Batman would rather build bridges and open doors for those who, like them, long felt shut out of mainstream music and art, and open the eyes of an increasingly nationalistic world to the reality that we are all in the same boat -- perhaps the boat at the center of their shimmering single, "Friendship (Is A Small Boat In a Storm)." With its trademark organ, wah-wah guitar, Martinez working a sweet falsetto and the women of Mariachi Flor de Toloache providing resplendent call-and-response backing vocals, it proved to be a breakout moment.
On that track and much of the album, released last month, 1974 is alive and well. Chicano Batman, in their three-piece suits, bow ties and ruffled shirts, have long had many genre tags affixed to them -- "Tropical Surf Cumbia" was a favorite of the band's, but more recently "psychedelic soul" seems to be the one that's stuck. On Freedom Is Free, the second part of that hybrid is in full effect, channeling Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, Marvin Gaye, Black Panthers singer Elaine Brown and the great Gil Scott-Heron on "The Taker Story," a spoken-word lament of human hubris partly inspired by Daniel Quinn's seminal Ishmael. There's a breezy title track that celebrates those things in the world that are inalienably ours; a calling out of police shootings in "La Jura"; and the recalling of a Pueblo Indian children's tale in the bouncing "La Flecha Al Sol." It's special stuff, and more timely than Chicano Batman could have ever anticipated a year ago: Latinos speaking truth to a very white White House.
Chicano Batman's relevance was further cemented when the band was asked by Johnnie Walker to record a bilingual cover of that leftist American classic "This Land Is Your Land" as part of the whisky maker's Keep Walking America campaign. Despite some initial reservations -- let's face it, in the decades since its creation, "This Land" has been neutered of much of Woody Guthrie's original socialist bite -- the band agreed, and it's a triumph. "Esta tierra es para ti y para mi!" Indeed it is, and last Friday (April 1) night at New York's Bowery Ballroom, Chicano Batman debuted the cover in their live show. Billboard spoke to them a few hours before.
You guys have been doing this nearly a decade now, but it feels like Chicano Batman are undeniably having a "moment."
Bardo Martinez: We obviously feel it. There's a new feeling, I mean, talking to you, and doing like a million interviews every day, so many to where we have to pass them around, "Hey, you do one, you do one…!"
You just played South By Southwest for the second time. How different was it this year?
Carlos Arevalo: This time people were coming to see us. We played the Waterloo day party and the owner was out there saying, "This is one of the biggest crowds we've ever had." The same thing at our own ATO showcase. It was filled to capacity, there were people watching on the sidewalk, and as soon as we were done, everyone left. The same thing happened at the Waterloo, when we were done, people left. So for me that's when it started dawning on me like, "Oh they were here to see us!"
Can you put your finger on why this "moment" might be happening? Is it the sound of the new album, the politics on it, the way "Friendship" connected as a single, or maybe outside events in the world that make you guys very timely?
Eduardo Arenas: I think it's all those things. I mean when we play "Friendship" we know it's a hit, you know? But also the messages on the album are more relevant now than they have ever been. You know those messages have always been relevant, but it's just that certain years, and especially now with Trump in power, they just come more into the light, you know?
Making this record was a different experience for you, and you've gone in a more soulful direction than ever.
Arevalo: Definitely. It was our first time working with a producer. We worked with Leon Michels. And you know he's all in that soul world. It was kind of like perfect timing. We were already in that vein, moving in that direction, pushing soul music. We toured with the Alabama Shakes, which was an amazing experience. In my opinion that's like a new soul band in a sense, they have elements of country or whatever, but the soul element in that group is extremely strong. And seeing how they took that old sound and are relevant with it, and are essentially becoming proponents of soul itself, I feel like we're kind of doing the same thing.
As you said before, the themes on the record were existed before Trump and they'll be relevant after him, but something like "La Jura" or "Freedom Is Free" is definitely seen now through the prism of the Trump era.
Arevalo: We started writing for it in the spring and summer of 2015, and then recorded it in 2016. So when we started writing the songs, you hope you're just documenting a time in history, and that things will improve from there. Little did we know that these songs would still be as relevant as ever. Sadly! I do remember when he got elected thinking, "Wow, our record means something really different now." Or even thinking there was gonna be backlash to us doing this record from closed-minded people. Or, people that are very nationalistic and might get upset just hearing the title. Thinking, "What did we get ourselves into?"
With "La Jura" -- did you know anyone personally who was the victim of a police shooting? Or was that song just a reflection of Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago and so on?
Arenas: It was both. One of our neighbors was shot in the back eight times by the police, in front of his mom's house. You know, his mom comes screaming out, and they were like, "You can't touch the body…" I was maybe 20, 19 at the time, and you think, "Well a cop just shot somebody in the back eight times, so there's got to be some kind of justice here." But that's just not what happens. In front of the family, they take him out. And you know the cops get suspended or transferred to another department. But no cop is charged with a crime, like they didn't kill anybody. So it's that frustration, you know, and an accumulation of all the cases you were talking about.
On the way over here I happened to hear Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin On" in a Starbucks, and it reminded me that, like your record, soul music can be socio-political. I think usually when we think protest music we think folk, punk, hardcore or hip-hop, and not so much R&B or soul.
Martinez: I would say it makes me think of Elaine Brown -- the singer for the Black Panthers, she made some tracks for them on their first record. You would think it was gonna be some crazy funk or like Gil Scott-Heron shit or something -- but it wasn't! It was almost like opera-style singing. And yeah, same thing with Marvin Gaye, and Timmy Thomas and his single "Why Can't We Live Together."
Arevalo: Or Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions -- he was always saying something socially conscious.
Arenas: You don't have to be Rage Against the Machine to speak some truth in your music, you know? You don't have to be a "political band" to speak to the people.
Funny you should mention Rage, because I wrote Zack de la Rocha's name down here. Maybe the most prominent Chicano musician of the past 20 years, and a proud Angeleno who began every show with "We are Rage Against The Machine from Los Angeles, California!" Were you fans?
Martinez: Yeah of course! As a kid I used to jump around the house going, "Killing in the name of…"
Arevalo: He was everything. In high school it was like, Zack de la Rocha and Cedric [Bixler-Zavala] and Omar [Rodriguez-López] [of The Mars Volta]. That was the first time that I saw people that looked like me in a band, a band that was being accepted on MTV or KROQ, at the time. And that tripped me out and it was so inspiring to me, because I really had this idea that, "Oh, this isn't for you. This space isn't for you." You know, that you had to be a white guy to be in a band and play music and make a living off of it.
So you don't believe that music has to sound hard or aggressive in order to express indignation or protest injustice?
Arevalo: No not at all. We listen to all kinds of music, from West Africa to East Asian music. We listen to everything, and it's just-- people can say sincere things, or deliver protest lyrics and it doesn't matter. If it's good, it's good.
I've got to ask you about "This Land Is Your Land" and how it came about, because the idea of you guys doing it is so inspired. Was it someone at Johnnie Walker?
Martinez: Yeah, I think it was Anomaly. That's the name of the ad agency that came up with the concept, and pitched it to Johnnie Walker.
So someone at Anomaly knew of you?
Martinez: Yeah I think they were Puerto Ricans guys…which is also kind of trippy. Because you think you're gonna meet a certain type of person who is behind the whole concept and idea behind this big business venture. And then they're these guys from New York, real hip, real young, pretty much our age, Puerto Rican. Which is something else that was kind of comforting.
Arevalo: We were on a plane from New York I think and that's when we got the call, and our manager was like, "They want you to do that song!" And at first we were like, "That song? Us? I don't know." Because that was a song we sang in grade school, and used to think was cheesy.
Martinez: Yeah we used to think it was something cheesy, because it seems happy, makes you feel happy and stuff.
Arenas: Because that song has been misappropriated into this all-American, almost pro-war type of chant. So for us it felt like that kind of thing, it was like, the Pledge of Allegiance or something.
Well I don't think a lot of people even understand that it is at its core a protest song.
Martinez: Yeah, then we really started analyzing the lyrics, and re-contextualizing it.
Arenas: It's an interesting thing because at first we were just like, "Okay let's just do the song and see what happens." And then they wanted to do a music video and all the reaction, or at least 98 per cent of it has been extremely positive, you know? I ran into someone after a show who said he was working on a midterm, one of his college papers, about the song and what it means for Latinos to be singing that song today, in America.
It's true. I only wish that now we could get an Arabic version of it too! That's my hope.
Martinez: That would be amazing.
Did you have any reservations about the product placement of Johnnie Walker in the video? Or were you just like, "Well, someone is paying for this."
Arevalo: That's the thing, there are trade-offs. I mean the fact that they are a forward-minded brand makes it easy to work with them. Because what other big brand is going to give four Latinos an opportunity to be right up in your face, in the media? We're not represented in media. You don't see people that look like us that doing that. So it was a reservation, yes, because we're selling a product. But we thought about it and were like, "Man, if we don't take this opportunity, we're not going to open doors for other people to do this kind of thing, who are people of color. And it won't be as accepted." You know? But it's funny, you know they do the ad and it has a positive message, celebrating diversity, the Keep Walking America campaign. But some people like in our community were like, "How could you do that ad?" Some people were frustrated. And it's funny, you know you see like, Mila Kunis or Solange, they do an alcohol ad and there's no kind of message behind what they're doing -- it's just about being cool, you know? But for us, for some reason, being Latino we have to answer for it.
"La Flecha Al Sol" is one of two Spanish-language tracks on the record. Bardo, it seems to be about you finding your identity.
Martinez: Well actually that song is me synthesizing a book we all grew up with. It's a children's book called Arrow To The Sun, a Pueblo Indian tale, and a coming-of-age story about a boy who is trying to find his father. I kind of put myself in the shoes of this kid in the book. I'm telling the tale as like the book tells it, but obviously I'm relating my own experience through it via poetry.
Arevalo: The song was written a few years back and it's celebrating native peoples and it's crazy now, just the political context of last year and the DAPL [Dakota Access Pipeline] just walking all over native peoples and not respecting their sovereignty.
The takeaway from Chicano Batman is one of positivity and hope. How do you maintain positivity in times that have created a lot of despair for many?
Martinez: We got kids, man! We've got to feed our families.
Gabriel Villa: Yeah. Resist, man!
Arevalo: We got to these shows, and people come up to us, other Latinos, and say, "You don't understand, you are opening doors for us and other people to make headway" into a place in more mainstream society, I guess. Before we've been just kind of like a sub-group, not good enough to contend at the level that everyone else can. And I feel like we're playing these shows in Asheville and Chapel Hill, and people of all backgrounds are coming out to celebrate our music.
Arenas: I was just in the hotel room, and I was bored and I put on the TV, and put on Fox. I saw pictures of Trump with his big old red tie, and just looking like this and like that [makes faces], and I thought, "Damn, that's not my president." So if we could be aligned with doing something that's making others feel that same way, uniting with a message that's against that, well, that's a pretty cool thing to be right now.
Chicano Batman's current tour continues through April and includes appearances at Coachella. Freedom Is Free is out now.