The four musicians of Chicano Batman readily accept that such a name might lead some potential listeners to decide what they sound like without actually hearing their music. But the Los Angeles band’s music — as showcased on its third and latest album, Freedom Is Free, released March 3 — weds infectious soul grooves to thought-provoking lyrics, and draws from styles well outside the Latino music scene. Chicano Batman plays The Mothlight Wednesday, March 22.
In January, Chicano Batman released a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” The choice of that particular song is an unmistakable response to a new U.S. government administration that appears to be openly hostile toward large swaths of the Latino community. Yet, bassist Eduardo Arenas says, “We’ve never thought of ourselves as a political group.”
Lest the collection of songs on Freedom Is Free be seen as a reaction to November’s election, Arenas points out that the album was recorded a year ago. “All these themes and patterns are already set in stone for us,” he says. “It just goes to show that a lot of these topics are timeless.”
He notes that people gathered in protest in the 1960s. “That tradition hasn’t ended, and I don’t think it ever will. It can’t end because that’s how we promote change, new ideas and new ways of thinking.”
Arenas believes that Chicano Batman has become relevant in changing times. “We’re very passionate about the music we play, and a lot of the messages are about love,” he says. “And when you’re in a really chaotic political atmosphere, sometimes love is the biggest tool that you can have.”
Arenas sees music as a means to talk about real and important issues. “Music kind of opens the ears to a lot of those conversations,” he says.
Chicano Batman can be seen as part of a musical tradition that includes legendary Southern California groups from the 1960s and ’70s like Thee Midniters and El Chicano, and more modern acts like Los Lobos. But Arenas doesn’t want the group to be pigeonholed, despite the fact that “we dress up in ruffled tuxedo suits, and we put our music on vinyl.” He continues, “We borrow elements from the past — timeless elements — to kind of get our message across. It’s an honor to be part of that legacy.”
But the group has its sights set much higher than success within a particular ethnic group. “What we do with our band from here forward will dictate what part of the legacy we are,” Arenas says. “We could be like some popular Anglo band with the kind of reach we [will eventually] have.”
But he knows it’s an uphill struggle. “That’s a battle that a lot of Latino bands have. The Latin Grammys are the Latin Grammys for a reason: because there’s some kind of separation from the mainstream media.” He points out that award-winning groups like Los Tigres del Norte and Los Tucanes de Tijuana sell millions of records but are largely unknown outside the Latino music scene.
That’s not the plan for Chicano Batman. The group’s irresistibly melodic music invites listeners to revel in its deep grooves. And those who care to dig deeper can explore the lyrics, crooned by lead vocalist Bardo Martinez. Arenas says that the title track on Freedom is Free “challenges the notion that we make a lot of decisions out of fear. If we can start unraveling that fear, then maybe we can start making more conscious decisions based on rationality.”
Noting that Thee Midniters founder Larry Rendon is a fan and friend of the band, Arenas smiles and says, “Some of the old bands listen to our music and think that it’s one of the bands that they played with back in the ’70s! But I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s what influenced us to put our band together and to launch ourselves into the world. Our compositions speak to the now. I think we’re forward-looking.”
He adds, “Now is our time. I mean, it’s everybody’s time now. If you were once radical and completely left wing, now you’re right in the center with what everybody’s thinking. So it’s time for everybody to keep the discussion going.”
WHO: Chicano Batman with 79.5 and SadGirl
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Wednesday, March 22, 9 p.m. $12 advance/$14 day of show