By Rich Henrich
Going back to move music forward, East L.A.’s Chicano Batman blends the psychedelic rock with soothing sounds of slow-jam soul of the 60’s and 70’s with a bit of Brazilian tropicalia to create a sound that is fresh and reminiscent. In 2015, they graced the stages of Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival with their Cycles of Existential Rhyme album soon after being the opening act for Jack White and shaking up the musical scene thanks in large part, to the late great Ikey Owens. Now, with a couple more years of musical maturity and a new album, Freedom Is Free, the four-piece band takes on the crowds of music fans this Saturday at the Festival with a sound message.
I had the chance this past weekend to catch up with lead singer Bardo Martinez (who also plays a pretty vicious organ) and discuss the band’s journey, lessons learned and maturing as an artist.
CVW: How did the opportunity to play Coachella in 2015 come about? For the record, you were one of my top ten bands to watch that year!
Bardo: (Laughs) “Thanks. Our friend Natalia is a social activist/ music enthusiast/ promoter and she reached out to Coachella. She sent an e-mail and pitched the band.”
CVW: That’s crazy to think simple communication put you on stage. What is different about playing this year?
Bardo: “So much. We’ve really matured as a band and as artists and understanding the audience. We will have back up singers this time that will give us a bigger sound. We’ve been touring with 79.5 out of New York. They are great!”
CVW: You are doing a mini tour leading up to Coachella, which is different than how you prepared for 2015’s show.
Bardo: “Yeah, we didn’t really think about doing a lead up tour. It’s part of learning. We just played Chicago and will be playing some smaller shows to get ready for Coachella. The more you perform, the better you are.”
CVW: Your latest album Freedom Is Free captures a lot of angst in the moment. In many ways, you guys are the band of the time, defying myth, shifting stereotypes and creating an aesthetic that pulls it all together in a suit and bow tie.
Bardo: “A lot of people have been echoing that sentiment. When we started off, we did have an aesthetic goal but not an explicit political view. We have a complex ideological worldview. With Freedom Is Free we have been able to define ourselves a little more politically.”
CVW: With the current situation of politics across the globe, did you anticipate the need for such an album?
Bardo: “No. These songs had been around for a while. We wrote the songs before Trump. They were written in 2015, but happened to fall in place at a time people are being attacked, women and the LGBTQ community. Chicano Batman comes from the fringes and now the wings are opening. Coupled with our growth as a maturing band, the songs are giving relevancy to all.”
CVW: The title track, what is it about?
Bardo: “The song itself is a personal manifestation. I wrote how I felt as an individual. I wanted to take the micro to the macro, the self to the world. I’m really inspired by John Lennon and Marvin Gaye, the way a personal perspective in their songs can connect so many people.”
Lyrics from Freedom Is Free: Nobody likes you. Nobody cares. Nobody wants you. Nobody cares to extend a greeting aid, connecting lands. Life is just a jaded game to them. They won’t give it a chance. But you know when I know that the galaxies are all around us and life will flow on as long as the grass grows and the water runs and while I’m here on earth I’ll rejoice in this world Cause Freedom is Free Freedom is Free and you can’t take that away from me.
CVW: It speaks to alienation but it’s not without hope.
Bardo: “I think it’s what we all deal with. It is a pleasure to see how many people are connecting (to the music).”
CVW: Chicano Batman is hard to define, like the America we live in. We experience so much in the world that isn’t an easy box to check. Is it hard for you to define Chicano Batman?
Bardo: “The music industry creates and perpetuates myths to maintain status quo. It affects the way people think and sometimes that gets converted into real action. Of course it effects us, too- for minorities, it impacts us negatively. We’d like to break those myths.”
CVW: With bow ties and sweet suits from the seventies, you seem to embrace a culture and time past. What’s behind this aesthetic?
Bardo: “Louis Armstrong had to suit up. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t get in to the party any other way. Essentially, it’s about working harder to play the part. Suit up and wear it with pride! I can do this, too! (He laughs). It resonates aesthetically and socially, four of us uniformly in suits. People relate and respect that. There is credence a uniform gives you. Police wear uniforms but we are musicians sending positive messages. No disrespect but they function to maintain status quo of inequality and injustice that continue to be accepted.”
CVW: Recently you did a spot for Johnny Walker with a fresh rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” What did this mean for you?
Bardo: “We live in times where people on the fringe are gaining momentum and people are seeing real faces, which are new for the status quo America, but not for those in cities where there is so much diversity it can actually become mundane. But for the average viewer, seeing Chicano Batman on the Grammy’s singing (This Land Is Your Land) was a shock. They are not used to seeing people of color.”
CVW: It was the unexpected that made this cover such a socially and politically relevant commercial. It said so much in just a few seconds.
Bardo: “When you see Chicano Batman doing Woody, it sends a lot of messages. It’s attacking the status quo, dismantling it. Johnny Walker took the cool aesthetic high road.”
CVW: Did you seek out this project?
Bardo: “No, an ad agency pitched it. We signed on to what we saw as an opportunity to send a strong cultural message that resonates. The song itself is a song of protest- nobody thinks of it like that anymore. It’s become a patriotic song but that’s what the status quo tends to do- suck in the agents of change.”
CVW: I saw this great image of Woody Guthrie with a sticker on his guitar-this machine kills fascists.
Bardo: “Yeah, I did a lot of research on this song and Woody. He was against fascism. He was rooting for the people fighting in Franco, Spain and was against what the American government was doing, the land grabs and corporate greed. It was a reaction to Trump’s grandfather, who was a slumlord. The song is about how (the land) belongs to everyone. Not just land barons.”
CVW: It comes across in the video that you definitely connected to the lyrics.
Bardo: “The more I sang the song; the more the lyrics sank in. I became connected to it. We made it pop but it was demanding!”
CVW: The art still serves the people and when we talk about myth making and Chicano Batman back in 2015, it seems there is maturity to the meaning of the band now.
Bardo: “The Johnny Walker commercial was about dispelling myth. What we are doing with song, aesthetics, what a musician is, what an indie rock band looks like, touring and playing all these venues, it’s like a whirlpool moving in the same direction and we are moving in the opposite direction to blend.”
CVW: Blending culture, language, music and expression?
Bardo: “Nature itself is diverse, makes it balanced. We see diversity in everything- plants and animals…when we make all the same, we destroy crops, destroy ecosystems. We are changing that monoculture. We’re diversifying the mother f*@?&er!”
CVW: Speaking of diversifying, you were out on tour with Alabama Shakes. What did that tour do for Chicano Batman?
Bardo: “Opening for big acts definitely ups your value but it’s also important to develop relationships. Our label (ATO Records) and management (Red Light Management) set it up. We became friends with them and they helped us visualize our next record. Seeing them perform and connect with crowd with that sound like sweet soul. Instrumentation seems simple but it’s hard to do.”
CVW: What advice do you have for bands coming up or playing Coachella for the first time?
Bardo: “Discipline is a very important part of the journey. Be as kind and polite as you can be to everyone. Give the sound guy respect.”
CVW: Who are you looking forward to seeing?
Bardo: “I can’t wait to see Little Dragon and Carlos is excited to see Solange.”
Chicano Batman performs at Coachella on Saturdays, April 15 &22.