Take a walk through East L.A., and you’ll witness firsthand what gentrification looks like. For decades, these predominantly Latino neighborhoods were considered unsafe, run-down, etc. But increasingly high rents on the city’s more “posh” Westside eventually started driving people out, or rather, eastbound to more affordable housing and commercial real estate. Nowadays, the Eastside is home to much of the city’s creative capital, with chic restaurants, shopping, movie houses, and grocers popping up by the day. Meanwhile, the city’s Latino population is either struggling to hang on or moving elsewhere — to places like South County, Orange County, and the Inland Empire. It’s a story that could be told and retold about some faction of every city in America, Santa Barbara included. It’s also the world in which Chicano Batman came to life.
Comprising friends Bardo Martínez (vocals/keyboard/guitar), Eduardo Arenas (bass), Gabriel Villa (percussion), and Carlos Arévalo (guitar), Chicano Batman is a band that skirts any easy pigeonholing, though not necessarily by design. Formed around Martínez’s onetime solo project of the same name, the group plays music that’s not only deeply rooted in soul and the blues but also mixed, mingled, and shaken up by each of the member’s cultural reference points. There are notes of tropicália and cumbia, as well as bossa nova, pop, and funk. The lyrics are written sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English, and often cross back and forth throughout the band’s live shows.
“I was really excited about playing this certain type of sound,” said Martínez as he recalled the band’s formation from the back of their tour van last week. “I wanted to get this sound that comes from late-’60s Latin American and Mexican soul music, where the bass and the drum sound are really tight. It’s almost like hip-hop in a sense, but it was coming from bands trying to imitate American soul music.”
With the rhythm and bass acting as foundation, Martínez and his mates started slowly piling on sounds, relying heavily on jamming and vibe to steer the process. On the band’s recently released sophomore album, Cycles of Existential Rhyme, Chicano Batman gravitates more toward heady guitar work, but the two-step melodies are ever present. “I’ve always listened to the same stuff,” laughs Martínez, “I have this playlist with a lot of random soul music, psychedelic stuff, but it all has that same type of vibe, from Little Saigon to Colombia.”
In many ways, Chicano Batman’s music is indicative of its locale — it’s fluid and complex, sort of like a sonic melting pot. “L.A. is kind of a microcosm of the world,” Martínez says of the band’s hometown. “From what I have noticed, it tends to be very materialistic. Everyone wears their persona on their shoulders, and a lot of times I feel like everyone is fronting. But I also think we’re maybe part of a new wave of folks who are trying not to be that way.”
In the coming months, Chicano Batman will premiere its first collaborative film score, written for a soon-to-be-released PBS project. But Martínez also has his sights set on some bigger goals, including collaborations.
“We want to build bridges with everybody. I want to do a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar,” he laughs. “And it’s possible. It’s all about being genuine. That’s why I play music — I genuinely want to communicate what I have in my heart. We don’t see ourselves as a Latino band. We’re a band just like any other band. And soul music is kind of the perfect vehicle. It reaches out to everybody.”
Chicano Batman plays in Anisq’Oyo’ Park on Saturday, October 25, at 7 p.m. as part of Hello World! — a free concert in Isla Vista featuring mexico68 Afrobeat Orchestra and Los Macuanos. For more on the event, visit kcsb.org.