Chicano Batman Rocks, in Addition to Having the Best Name in Rock

Steve Knopper
Photo: Josue Rivas
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Freedom Is Free is meticulous and focused, concentrating on the band’s mutual love of soul music.

Chicano Batman

Freedom Is Free

Label: ATO
US Release Date: 2017-03-03

Three years ago, Carlos Arevalo sat down with his parents to declare he would no longer pursue a career in urban planning. Instead, he would concentrate on his job as lead guitarist for Chicano Batman, a Los Angeles rock and soul band. His parents had followed his earlier music career, when he spent five years not getting anywhere, then moved on to a master’s degree. This time, they didn’t take the news well. “It was hard,” Arevalo recalls by phone while traveling from Houston to Louisiana. “I had a 4.0 in college. They saw my academic potential and saw the band thing as something for fun.”

Arevalo, now 33, explained that he had an opportunity. Chicano Batman was not like his other bands. It had a soulful singer, Bardo Martinez, and a killer four-track EP that was opening the door to larger and larger regional crowds. Soon the band would play Coachella and open for Alabama Shakes and other well-known acts. “We were just growing and growing. I knew deep down in my soul this was something I wanted to do 100 percent,” he says. “They’re fully behind it now. They were always lightly behind it.”

Arevalo first wanted to play guitar when he was six years old and saw the Richie Valens biopic “La Bamba.” He couldn’t afford one until 10 years later, when he saved some money, went to Guitar Center and bought a Squier Stratocaster. He locked himself in a room and learned from books and magazines. (“I didn’t have any help from family members,” he says. “A lot of trial and error.”) He took lessons from a jazz specialist at age 21, then began playing in bands around LA, which is where Martinez noticed him.

Martinez, a student at UCLA, had already made progress toward forming a band. Bassist Eduardo Arenas had heard Martinez singing Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso’s “Nine Out of Ten” and signed on; later, so would drummer Gabriel Villa. Martinez told Arevalo he aspired to play guitar in the same clean, melodic style. “It was like we spoke the same language,” Arevalo says. “We were able to really jell.”

From the beginning, Chicano Batman established a relaxed vibe built around the chemistry between Martinez’s voice and Arevalo’s lead guitar, both of which are alternatively gentle and tough. Sometimes the band is all Hammond organ and crooning, a little like lounge music, and other times it’s out-and-out rock ‘n’ roll. For the band’s latest album, this year’s “Freedom Is Free,” the band graduated from Arenas’ own studio and hired a producer, Leon Michels, a saxophonist for the late Sharon Jones’ Dap-Kings.

Compared with their previous album, 2014’s “Cycles of Existential Rhyme,” “Freedom Is Free” is meticulous and focused, concentrating on the band’s mutual love of soul music.

“Leon is an amazing musician and he’s got a great ear — he’s been playing soul music since he was 16,” Arevalo says. “We’ve listened to soul music for our whole lives, but not until the last eight to 10 years have we really been big fans of it. (Michels) knew right away: ‘This is the sound I’m going for,’ and this is the music we’re playing.”

Another new element for the band: topical lyrics. They began writing songs for the album in 2015, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and general unrest throughout the country. Martinez wrote the lyrics for “La Jura,” a Spanish-language song with a melancholy chorus, loosely translated to: “I do not understand why/ Those who must protect/ Do the opposite/ They kill innocents.” Arevalo added a soft, thoughtful guitar prelude that sounds like Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in an alternate universe. The overall feel of “Freedom Is Free” is a smoldering anger couched in lighthearted melodies and familiar-sounding soul structures — the centerpiece is singalong “Friendship (Is a Small Boat In a Storm),” which sounds just right on the radio.

“It’d be doing a disservice to our community and fan base by not acknowledging things that were happening. It was pretty organic and natural,” Arevalo says. “I remember Questlove (of the Roots) made a critique about how all these things were happening, Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, and musicians weren’t acknowledging it and they were acting like things were hunky-dory. That struck a chord.”

One of the band’s more unusual political statements was a video for their bilingual version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” whose melting-pot message has taken on deeper meaning in the Trump era. Funded by Johnnie Walker, the advertisement displays the band wandering LA in colorful tuxedos and matching bow ties, sampling clothing stores, pool halls, art galleries and food trucks. They shot it last December in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, for 13 hours starting at 6 a.m.

“We originally wanted more locations. We wanted to show all the various parts of Los Angeles’ diversity — Koreatown, Chinatown, Echo Park,” Arevalo says. “But due to time and restrictions, we settled for the neighborhood that gave us our first start as musicians. It was really great — all the establishments in the video were compensated and got to show what they do.”

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