Inspired by a Primate in a Novel, Chicano Batman Brings a New Feel to 'Freedom Is Free'

August Brown
Photo: Josue Rivas
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

“As people see corporations and the pillars of our society eroding, this band is promoting its own economy,” Bardo Martinez said.

Chicano Batman’s new song, “The Taker Story,” is surely the first 2017 resistance anthem to be inspired by a telepathic gorilla.

The L.A. band’s frontman, Bardo Martinez, recently read and loved Daniel Quinn’s 1992 novel, “Ishmael,” a work of magical realism from the point of view of a primate whose captive life gave him insights into humans’ self-destructiveness. Its philosophy — that we can’t escape nature and humanity needs new myths about itself to survive — hit Martinez hard amid the fear and anger of the recent election season.

So on “Taker Story,” a ruminative single inspired by ‘60s radicalism and ‘70s soul, he wrote a new dispatch from the front lines of ecological collapse and cultural genocide. It’s a centerpiece of the band’s third album, “Freedom Is Free.”

“I spent a lot of time writing that song, probably the most of any song in my life,” Martinez said. “The Bible is a cry of an oppressed people describing their slaughter so future people don’t make the same mistakes. But now we’re going to build a pipeline in the Dakotas on the land of a people who’ve been trampled on. It’s an age-old story.”

“Freedom Is Free” refocuses the sound of Chicano Batman, one of L.A.’s singular indie rock acts. Its members have always loved heartfelt oldies and the humid swing of the global south, but “Freedom” looks to varied black music traditions for healing in malevolent times. It raises the stakes for a band that has toured with Jack White and redefined Latin Americans’ influence on today’s L.A. rock scene.

Ever since its 2010 self-titled debut, Chicano Batman has reconfigured vintage styles for young ears. There’s yearning East L.A. balladry: “If you’re Mexican American in L.A., you grew up with oldies, going to swap meets and listening to Art Laboe,” Martinez said. But Chicano Batman was just as interested in overtones from countercultural Brazil and Peru.

“The Tropicalia movement was kids in the hinterlands of Brazil saying, ‘We don’t want to play cheesy music. We love the Beatles, and we love indigenous music, and we can do anything we want.’ It’s about getting rid of stereotypes. We love black music and hip-hop, and we’re in an indie rock scene,” he added.

“Freedom” expands the sonic map to emphasize black music from pretty much everywhere — Afro-Cuban rumbas to Fela Kuti’s hard-swinging resistance jams, Isaac Hayes’ virtuoso orchestral arrangements to hip-hop’s way of absorbing any culture it touches.

“There’s a thread in all the music of the Americas, and that’s the Afro diaspora and the way those rhythms have been being translated over the years,” Martinez said. “James Brown influenced music everywhere from Saigon to Rio. Black music is everywhere, and all people can appreciate it.”

This subtle shift yielded the best and most important work in the band’s career. “Angel Child” and “Jealousy” feel like the group tried to reverse-engineer hip-hop, taking the core of a well-constructed soul sample and writing full songs out of those woozy moments. The title track digs hard into guitarist Carlos Arevalo’s wah-wah pedal for its funkiest track yet, but the stacks of female backing vocals add a dreamy, hopeful ambience.

“This was the first time we’d ever worked with a producer, and his aesthetic was right in line with ours,” Arevalo said of their time with Leon Michels, a longtime collaborator for Sharon Jones, Lee Fields and the Black Keys. “He had the equipment used on all those old records: an all-analog mixing board, ‘50s amps and a Hammond organ.”

Michels saw some fellow travelers in Chicano Batman, which also features bassist Eduardo Arenas and drummer Gabriel Villa. He liked how they’re a band steeped in old sounds, drawing on its background to reach across neighborhoods and continents.

“They’re writing songs that mean something to them. We weren’t trying to make a vintage record at all,” Michels said. “Bands that have a Latin American spin are usually put in a certain box. But they’re young and modern, so it’s going to have that sensibility. That’s who they are.”

The band’s invigorated sense of purpose comes when huge, global forces are weighing down. As they sing on “Friendship (Is a Small Boat in a Storm)” — “The sun is getting heavy/ The cold is breaking my heart … Better start swimming, brother/ ‘Cause I’m running.”

Even in L.A., a relative bastion of liberalism, debates about gentrification and displacement have roiled working-class, creatively vital Latino neighborhoods, the kinds of places that created a proud but inclusive band like Chicano Batman.

“I read about that gallery that closed in Boyle Heights,” Arevalo said of the recently shuttered PSSST venue, long a target of anti-development activists. “If you come into a neighborhood, include their art. But we’ve got to understand that we all have the same wants in life.”

“I kind of understand how hipsters feel moving into a neighborhood,” Martinez continued. “People moving from the Midwest who just want a cheap place to live and to get into the culture — that’s not your enemy.

“But at the same time, you know, la raza. Hipsters have to get their heads out of the clouds and stop being super-entitled. Just be cool to your neighbors. There’s so many things to connect on.”

Martinez isn’t naive about music’s ability to heal everything. But like the Ishmael that inspired “Taker Story,” simply getting this all on record is an act of hope.

“As people see corporations and the pillars of our society eroding, this band is promoting its own economy,” Martinez said. “We’re just playing shows, but we’re promoting ideas that go against the status quo.”

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