Alex Piveysky steadily blogs here. The rest of the time, he answers to the bat symbol.
Without hearing a single note, the album cover hooked me. It called out, like…uh, the bat signal. One of those moments when you know that you’ll love the album strictly off artwork. I was right too. Cue the platitudes about pictures and 1000s of words.
Below is my interview with Bardo Martinez of Chicano Batman, original creator of that image and 1/3 of the Batmen. I know of no other modern band that sounds like them. Sure, I can trace their influences: Tropicalia and other Latin music, classic soul, classic California psychedelia. But these are all old reference points, there are no contemporary analogues. Their music is wholly unique. The point of the interview was to find out why.
Before you read, check the album stream. It won’t make sense otherwise.
Alex: So how did you guys meet and get started?
Bardo: I grew up in La Mirada, born in Santa Ana in California, mom from Cartagena, father from Jalisco Mexico. Gabriel Villa, the drummer, grew up in Cali, Columbia. He traveled to France at 18 to escape the military draft and to study music. Eduardo Arenas, the bassist, grew up east La.
I met Eduardo first, around 2005, through parties along a particular scene. Both of us were university students, he was in UC and I was in UCLA. Around this area, the whole southern California, obviously you have a lot of Latinos… in the university there are a few places that represent or try to a have a network for incoming Latinos or students, and a lot of those are geared toward social justice. We were both parts of the same scene; we were both part of Mecha. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that organization, at one time it was vilified by white supremacist groups. And then I met Gabriel through a party, we went to see Very Be Careful, a band that plays Columbian rhythms, cumbias and vallenatos. We hit it off pretty well as we had a mutual friend.
I had this project in mind, of creating music that represents Latin American soul. In the 60s and 70s a lot of [Latin American] bands tried to emulate popular music from the United States, since it so heavily dominates the media. Mainly a lot of R&B and straight up funk like James Brown. There were also bands trying to cover the Beatles and other American rock acts.
Alex: I think I know what you mean, I’m a fan of Los Dug Dug’s. They were the first Mexican band to cover the Beatles
Bardo: Then you know what I’m talking about. There’s also Revolucion De Emiliano Zapato, but that’s more underground. I actually just got hip to that very recently; from a guy I met on a trip to Guadalajara, Mexico. He had all the original vinyl, I wanted to buy them but he kept them for himself. I actually just bought one of their 45s.
But anyway, we grew up with this stuff, Latinos in the United States and the LA area grew up with popular bands like Los Angeles Negros and Los Freddy’s, etc… Our parents, people who were born in the 50s grew up with that music, in the 70s they were in their 20s. Me and Eduardo shared a familiarity with this, Gabriel as well. Romantic ballads were always popular in Latin America too; it’s a big genre, heavily recognized. There hasn’t been a lot of contemporary music that got hip to demonstrating these influences. I think this is a fairly new phenomenon, groups trying to revisit the 60s. Maybe not the most recent phenomenon actually, but I think people now, in the 2000’s especially have been trying to do it, like Black Dynamite.
Alex: Do you purposefully use vintage equipment to create the old school sound? I’ve heard for example that Eduardo uses a bass passed down from his uncle…
Bardo: Yeah, exactly. Eduardo specifically put some money on it. When we started the band he wasn’t the bassist, he was a guitarist. I think he got the Gibson from his uncle, it’s an SG, it’s a 70s model. It’s an amazing bass, short necked, it plays wonderfully. And he got an Ampeg, I’m not sure what model it is but it’s definitely old, from the 70s. He also got a huge mixer, I think from the 80s. A bigass mixer with like 20 channels, it’s huge. We use that to record.
I already had my stuff. I’ve always been a fan of old gear, I’m always trying to find old keyboards and stuff like that. I got mine at the swap meet, for 40 bucks. I’m not like Adriane Younge or some of these cats that have badass keyboards, I do the best I can. I have a fender amp, a Deville reissue tube amp. I get the sound that I like out of it… And I definitely would like to get more gear but the limitations are obvious. I recently got this 70s Yamaha organ. So we definitely do try to capture the essence of the sound through the equipment. How far you can get into that is endless, you can be super particular with your sound in endless ways – how you record it, with pedals, etc. But money is definitely an issue with that. If I had the resources to get all these instruments I would. We know this guy in Highland Park by the name of Jack, and he has a store called Future Music. He has all these crazy keyboards and amps, so if we wanted it we could get it, it’s just a matter of dough (laughs).
Alex: Do your parents like the music you make, are they fans? I’m asking because a lot of times the parents don’t get into the music their kids make, but in this case it seems like there would be more of a connection
Bardo: Yeah they like it. My dad is very particular, he has his own pace and style to music he likes, and so it’s always a challenge for me to impress him. He’s growing to like it. My mom likes it too. Last time they saw us, my mom in particular was amazed.
Alex: So you guys got started playing for family and friends?
Bardo: Pretty much. I’m going to school now, trying to finish my masters at Calstate LA. I have friends there and somebody would have a party and they hit us up and we just played a gig. There are community centers around LA too, small community centers where people do political activism and art galleries, all very local. There would be like 20 people there, kids running around. We’ve progressed since, moved on to bigger venues.
Alex: How did you create the artwork? It’s very eye catching, that’s actually what drew me to the record before I knew anything else about it.
Bardo: Our friend Jennifer Gutierez Morgan, who was very supportive and didn’t charge us anything, took the pictures of us for the artwork. We also wanted to capture the vintage feeling in the pictures so we used an older camera (it was Eduardo’s too actually). I came up with the design for the cover based on her pictures. The way I came up with it, it was basically the same concept, with the bat and us looking up, but I drew it – I drew the lines and I colored it in with watercolors. I liked it but everybody said the batman was too crooked, so then we got somebody else to sharpen it up. His name was Joel Garcia, he goes by Rage1, and the guy hooked it up. He did an amazing job. I look at it for a while sometimes.
Alex: Are you the one who came up with the bat logo? Also I’ve heard that the Chicano Batman is more than just a band name?
Bardo: I came up with it a while ago, even before I started the band. It was just an idea I came up at a party, me and a friend were just chillin and I just started drawing. I’ve always liked Batman, so I just started drawing him but he was a Chicano – he had a little moustache. The Batman also had a flannel, instead of a cape, like a flannel a gangster wears. He also had a wifebeater. I actually made a comic with it; it was printed in LA Record. [The character is] not necessarily Mexican, he could be Salvadorian or Columbian or whatever, because I’m not just Mexican.
Alex: Just Latino in general…
Bardo: Yeah, but…. Although it’s a general concept, I don’t necessarily like to say that I’m Latino all the time, I just like to tell people where I’m from: this is where my mom is from, this is where my dad is from. Every term is loaded with political significance that doesn’t necessarily give agency to the people that it’s supposed to represent. The logo itself is combination of the batman symbol with the UFW logo, so it’s very politically loaded
Alex: Can you talk a little about what the songs mean? I know you guys put a lot of your personal experiences and philosophies into them.
Bardo: Is there any specific song you’d like to talk about?
Alex: How about ‘It’s a balloon’…
Bardo: ‘It’s a balloon’ is just about me in a park. I was just chilling in the shade, like I am right now actually, and I was looking up and I thought I saw a balloon fly away. It took me a while to figure out what it was; it looked like it was floating away because it was moving. Then I looked closer and I realized it was just a spider crawling down. At that moment I felt my eyes… I don’t know what they call the effect but it’s like when your irises go out and in, you refocus your eyes. You notice that on daily basis you go through that, every instant of your life you feel like you can see… I felt it at that moment very strongly, because I really believed it was a balloon flying away but it was something else. So that’s what the song is about.
I live my life on mundane experiences, my own observations, what I perceive… I believe in the relativity of everybody’s own experience and the ability to create your own reality. I think every person born creates their own philosophy and their own perspective. I don’t really believe in the idea that everything is recycled, that every idea has already been thought. But I also recognize that 1000s of people before me have also thought these things, and I appreciate a lot of these people, these thinkers and writers.
I got really hip to Tropicalia, and I read a book called ‘Tropical Truth’ by Caetano Veloso, it really hit me hard. The guy was on the same trip, he was into JP Sartre and existentialism. He was also into surrealism and I’ve always had an affinity for surrealism, since high school. I like Dali, his paintings because they were weird.
Alex: You like Jodorowsky too right? I think I’ve seen that on your FB page? How does that affect your music, this appreciation for existentialism and surrealism?
Bardo: What those people were doing was representing their own experience in the context of a reality they were living in. It was a very harsh political reality, in places with a harsh and negative history. That reflected in their work. I think Jodorowsky is very negative, very grim. The guy is Russian, but he grew up in Mexico so I see him as Mexican. The guy did this amazing art and amazing films, and to me that’s important.
We live in an age where people get kicked out of this country because they look too dark or if they look like they’re mowing lawns or they get pulled over because of the way they look. We live in a political situation and you can’t escape that. And that amazing art counters that notion of white superiority that we’re fed, that we grow up with in the school system. Obviously it’s a very Eurocentric curriculum that everybody continues to be taught. Even if the binaries change we still live in the age of complacency. People don’t see an alternative. To me that art IS a complete alternative. It represents how people from other lands, from other places in the world can have immensely complex notions of how to live. It’s also an amazing perspective and analysis of what’s going on around them. Caetano Veloso and others involved in Tropicalia had amazingly dense ideas, about their culture in relation to the culture of the world, despite or maybe even because of their lack of economic means.
Alex: So is this how you see you music, as a challenge or subversion to the establishment? An alternative to the Eurocentric system you grew up with?
Bardo: Basically… the music that our parents listened to in the 70s they transmitted to us and that now inspires us, and that transfer was organic. All those records, they were literally in our closets. The perspective of history that we learn is that the United States started in the East Coast, but what do we know about the East Coast? The ideas are really skewed, and you feel no real connection to what you’re being taught in school. And so we’re trying to demonstrate the connections that we have. Whether it’s about love or even the connection with the spider in front of me, whatever I’m experiencing. Look at the cover – the only manifesto it has is that we dress like the bands from the 70s from Latin America and we have this bat over our heads, this UFW batman. But the songs talk about love, there is no song in the album that’s overtly political.
Still, the philosophies of things we mentioned before, like Tropicalia, are there. And we are all brown folks, and these are our backgrounds. We spend time trying to present that part of us, trying to perfect it, and I think that in itself is a powerful thing in the context of the music scene in LA.
I grew up in La Mirada, I would try to play with the kids in my school in my guitar class and they would ignore me because I liked stuff like Santana and they were all into Metallica. I feel like that’s a pretty good example of how the scene is in the LA area, the rock scene, the indy scene. Even though there is a lot of diversity [in the area], what you see represented publicly and in print is very rock-ish and basically white. So for us to be able to play at Silverlake, or Spaceland or Echoplex… that’s kinda uncommon to see a group singing in Spanish in a scene like that.
Alex: As far as contemporary music, what do you listen to, what do you like?
Bardo: this band from Australia, they’re a 3 pieces as well, Tame Impala. A friend turned me on to them. I heard some of it on youtube, something from their older album, and I thought it sounded very good. It reminded me of the Beatles, Abbey Road or maybe Revolver. The guy sounds like John Lennon on “I’m only sleeping” on every song and I love that, the tone of his voice. I love John Lennon; particularly recently I’ve been listening to him a lot. But anyway, I got the latest Tame Impala album and I’ve been playing it. I didn’t like it that much at first; it took me a while to really appreciate it. Now it’s at the point where sometimes I have my own moments with the music. My girlfriend just recently moved to Oakland so on trips there I would play it and it would just trip me out. It just made me feel good, the sun shining through my windshield….
Alex: you feel like you made a personal connection with the music?
Bardo: Well, all the music I have, I feel like I have a personal connection to it. I think that’s a general saying, although maybe not everybody puts it that seriously all the time because not everybody listens to music on the daily basis… but I feel that way. Anyway, I like that band, I’d love to play with them, maybe go on tour with them. I feel like our music is similar, there is a lot of changes in the music, different time signatures, so I feel like I could relate to it on a musical level. And I just like the feeling of it as well. AND they’re a 3 piece
Alex: Both Tame Impala guys and you guys have a certain psychedelic slant to your music, I wanted to ask you about that. Is this something that just developed organically or were you purposefully trying to make trippy shit?
Bardo: Maybe at the time of recording I was trying to do that a little more, I have a delay pedal on my keyboard and I was just messing around with the effects. Me and Eduardo are really into the 60s and 70s stuff, so it just came out natural. I guess that was part of the point of what we were trying to do.
Gabriel is crazy well trained drummer. He went to France to study drums and percussion, so the guy has a wide range of musical ability. He knows how to play samba on the drum set, that’s rare. He can play Columbian music but he can also play jazz, the guy is super versatile. That kind of made the music what it was, that’s what he brought to it. Eduardo is a percussionist as well, super meticulous, more than I am. Those guys would keep it all down, and then I would put my touches on it.
Alex: So what else [as far as listening habits]? Since there’s nothing much else that sounds like you guys I’d love to piece together a tapestry of what you guys draw on and enjoy yourselves?
Bardo: Gabriel is a big fan of Queen. He and Eduardo also like weird metal music, Swedish metal, shit like that. I couldn’t tell you a specific name because I honestly don’t like metal but those fools love it.
Alex: That seems a little weird honestly, seems like such a contrast to the kind of music you guys make. Your music is so relaxed and warm, and that music is pretty much the exact opposite of that. The first time I’ve heard you music it just screamed California to me. That’s just a feeling I get, I’m not sure if that’s even right.
Bardo: I’m gonna ask you a question, did you listen to it after what Oliver Wang wrote about it, or before?
Alex: I listened to a few snippets that he had on the site along with the short write up. I think it was like 2 mins of Itotiani, you guys just got me with that one, just with those opening chords. But not much more beyond that. When I heard the full album I didn’t really have the benefit of all the background info I know about you guys now.
Bardo: I’m asking because of what Oliver Wang said about the album, it was part of his whole summer series, songs that remind him of and capture the feeling of summer. So that’s maybe you’re thinking of it like that.
Alex: Maybe, I’ve read a fair amount of stuff about you guys now. Maybe that is something I’ve read somewhere and it just stuck subconsciously. But it’s not really anything specific, just a feeling – warm, ocean breeze in your face, everything nice and green and blue. Maybe I’m projecting a bit. I’m from NY, originally from the Ukraine, only been to California briefly, and to me California has a kind of mythical beatific quality to it, and I think your music captures that. Is that maybe something that just seeps in naturally, maybe even subconsciously, absorbed from your environment?
Bardo: I guess so. I would love to be in a greener, bluer place. Eduardo is living in a place similar to this; none of us are from a cold environment. And I do agree with you, I feel like where you’re from and where you grew up, the weather you’re in, it does influence your music. I personally love music that’s from very hot, tropical places. I feel what you’re saying, although honestly I’ve never thought of it in a way that you just put it right now. I appreciate that.
Alex: A question for my own selfish purposes, do you guys plan to tour at all? I know you guys play a fair amount locally, and it seems like the album is picking up bit, you seem to be developing something like a cult following. I’d love to see you in NY some time.
Bardo: If we could we would def do it, but everybody is in different places now. Our bassist is in Brazil, we might actually tour there in the end of the year. Our bassist found this Brazilian band, they’re fans of ours and they sound kind of similar. To me they sound like a jam band, they remind me of the Grateful Dead. They want us to play with them down there.
Alex: Have you guys played in South America before?
Bardo: We played in Columbia last summer. It was fun, kinda crazy. Nothing established, we did it ourselves. We made the contacts as we went over there. We wanted to play one weekend in Cali, and we were only there for a week. So when we got there on Monday we just started setting up something to play on that Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We played in front of maybe like 30 people max each time, but it was just for fun. Whether you play for 1 person or 300 it’s still an experience just to play down there, so it was a crazy. We played this one show that was similar to what we play locally here. There was already like 80 people at the spot, and they just stared at us, they didn’t know what to think, it was different for them too I guess. But I think some people like it a lot, it seemed like they were having fun. The drummer’s family loved it. Then again, we play like that here too, people just stand and stare at me like they don’t know what to make of us.
I guess it’s all part of the process. I don’t know myself sometimes, I feel like we played a terrible show but then I listen to what we recorded from it and it sounds great.