They came out of L.A., four young men in vintage formalwear, playing songs that blended Brazilian Tropicalía with early ’70s psychedelic soul and the romantic pop of bands like Los Ángeles Negros. It was an immediately addictive sonic brew, and their reputation grew fast. Since forming in 2008, Chicano Batman have released two full-length albums—a self-titled 2009 debut, and 2014’s Cycles Of Existential Rhyme—and two EPs. The band has played Coachella, and toured with Alabama Shakes and Jack White, among others. Now, they’re making their boldest statement yet with Freedom Is Free, their third album and ATO Records debut.
Frontman Bardo Martinez met bassist Eduardo Arenas in 2008, and they quickly found common ground in the work of Caetano Veloso and other Tropicalía performers, as well as the kind of vintage soul and pop heard on “the albums our parents have in their closets.” They recruited drummer Gabriel Villa and made their first album as a trio; guitarist Carlos Arévalo joined the band in 2011 and they released The Joven Navegante EP the following year.
Chicano Batman’s look has done as much to set them apart as their sound or their name. Since the beginning, they’ve performed in matching suits and ruffled shirts; Bardo explains, “We’re making a particular reference that some people understand—Los Ángeles Negros, Los Pasteles Verdes. In the ’70s, it was a big thing where all these cats were playing romantic ballads, but they were funky as hell.”
That sharp funk groove shows up throughout Freedom Is Free, but especially on the title song. Bardo’s uplifting lyrics, delivered in his uniquely dreamy/romantic style, are bolstered by the backing vocals of New York’s all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache.
“It’s a counterpoint to the propaganda catch phrase that was invented by the US government during the first Iraq war, ‘Freedom isn’t free,’” he explains. “It’s a counter-narrative…the song itself relates to the idea that freedom is inherent to every individual on this planet and in the universe. I live in Los Angeles, and people are pretty jaded; everybody’s so caught up in their routine they can’t tap into their own spirits. For me, music is about the spirit.”
The first single, “Friendship (Is a Small Boat In A Storm),” is an organ-driven soul jam with buzzing, psychedelic guitar from Carlos (who wrote the music). “I’m not a lyricist,” he says. “I brought in the chords and the instrumental melodies, and I gave it to Bardo. So he wrote the lyrics and the vocal melodies, and then we brought it to the band and they added the rhythmic elements and the overall feel.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise on Freedom Is Free is “The Taker Story.” Over a slow, ominous groove, Bardo unleashes a stinging indictment of imperialism and conquest, with the Mariachi Flor de Toloache amplifying his simmering fury as the band channels the Funkadelic of “March to the Witch’s Castle” and America Eats Its Young.
“That’s all Bardo; he composed the bass line, he composed the chords, he had the whole idea for it,” says Carlos. “That’s the only song on the album where the vocals were tracked live. What you hear is what we did.”
Freedom Is Free reflects Chicano Batman’s decision to foreground the soul and R&B elements of their sound. To achieve their ambitious sonic goals, the quartet worked with producer Leon Michels (El Michels Affair, The Arcs) in his Diamond Mine Recording studio in Long Island City, NY. Michels, a veteran in the New York soul revival scene, has performed in Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, The Black Keys and The Menahan Street Band. In addition to tracking the album to analog tape, Michels contributed keyboards and his trademark horn arrangements (he’s been sampled by Jay-Z and Ghostface Killah). The partnership between Michels and Chicano Batman truly captures the band’s live energy and brings their aesthetic goals to life.
“They get together, they rehearse every week, they fight about the arrangements, they have a classic band dynamic,” Michels says. “So for me it was really just about shaping up the songs. They were already there, but some of them were eight minutes long, so we had to cut them up and make it so you were engaged from start to finish. They had just come off a tour, and they were tight as hell, so it was just a matter of getting the right take. At the most, we did three takes of a song.”
Recording with Michels allowed Chicano Batman access to his collection of vintage gear, which helped expand their creative palette. “The possibilities were sonically endless,” Carlos says. “If you wanted to do something, it was like, ‘Yeah, I have that over here. You want a Mellotron? I have a Mellotron.’ He had amazing equipment, and his aesthetic is right in line with ours.”
Outside the studio, Chicano Batman have built a stellar reputation through heavy touring across the country. They’ve played major festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo. Opening for Jack White, Alabama Shakes, The Claypool Lennon Delirium and Gogol Bordello on recent tours has given them the chance to win over thousands of rock fans, night after night.