Finding Sounds Unseen: An Interview with Chicano Batman

Chicano Batman have been a staple of the Los Angeles music community for just over a decade. Gaining notoriety from their funky fusion of psych, soul, rock and tropicália, the quartet has stretched their sound into beautiful and strange new places on the upcoming Invisible People, out next month. Working with longtime collaborator Leon Michels (Lee Fields & the Expressions, A$AP Rocky) and engineer Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes, Beck, Kacey Musgraves) at Barefoot Studios in Hollywood, the result is their most distinct and adventurous record yet.

Chatting with vocalist/keyboardist Bardo Martinez, guitarist Carlos Arévalo, bassist Eduardo Arenas, and drummer Gabriel Villa, the joy in their musical collaboration, and uncovering new sounds from their deep collections, is strong and tangible…

 

Now that you are a decade into your careers as a band, how do you develop a fresh sound for a new record?

Bardo Martinez: We’ve been a band for ten years, which is a long time. Going into this process, there were a lot of things that needed to change. For us, it was like group therapy. Basically, we are four dudes with four different perspectives, since we are all concerned with different aspects of music. How do we go about making music together? That was definitely a big factor.

 

 

Expand on those individual perspectives… what do each of you contribute to the sound or how you think about the writing and recording process?

Carlos Arévalo: A big change for me on this record was putting limitations. It sounds like a negative thing, but I had used things on past records that I didn’t want to do again on Invisible People.

The parts I contributed were often rooted in synthesizers and keyboards. I bought a bunch of drum machines and keyboards for the last record and when we started writing this new one, it excited me to approach music from a non-guitar perspective for the first time in fifteen years of making music. That was refreshing for me.

I came from the school of ‘holding my guitar heroes on a pedestal’, and I always wanna do something that would make those guitar heros proud. This time I didn’t care about that. 

 

Who are some of those guitar heroes?

CA: I grew up listening to a lot of jazz records when I was eighteen or nineteen. I got really into Miles Davis’ electric period, Frank Zappa kind-of-stuff and a lot of prog stuff. Those guys are wizards at their instruments. These guys are super knowledgeable, and technically trained. I know theory and understand the technical aspects of music as well, but this time that was kind of put aside for emotion and feeling, more than before. 

There are guitar players like Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine of Television, Ron Asheton from The Stooges, John Frusciante — I really love his solo records — and Eddie Hazel. Once I stopped trying to live up to that, I felt a little more comfortable with my place as the guitarist in this band. 

Before I would play pretty basic stuff — clean guitar, occasional distortion on a record. This time, I tried anything and everything. I didn’t care if I was playing one note, or two notes, or making the notes sound amazing with a bunch of pedals. If it just fit the song, even pure rhythm guitar, I went with it. That was how my approach changed. I found it very freeing and fun! 

 

 

Kind of like a “kill your darlings” kind of thing. Once you’re able to do that you are able to expand your creativity so much more.

Eduardo Arenas: I play bass in the band, but sing and play guitar, but I didn’t really do that on this album. For me, I have to check my ego, and get my role together as a bass player; live there and see how I can contribute to Carlos and Bardo — the harmonic and lyricists.

I’ve had a studio for many years, and I was just playing the studio, so to speak. There are some songs on Invisible People where I was just obsessed with getting a certain sound. A lot of J Dilla, Cypress Hill and other hip hop records… I tried to get that sound without sampling it. Get musicians in there and play it. Focus on getting that sound, then let air and space navigate the flow and the groove of the composition with those textures.

Before I would think “okay… this chord has to go to the fifth, and let’s get this harmonic chord progression going.” For this record, nobody was concerned about that. How do we pluck the hell out of two chords and make them as impactful as we can. We all went in with that attitude of simplicity. How do we get these lyrics to pop to be catchy? To make melodies that are super juicy?

My approach was to use the studio to get what we want in pre-production, but it actually did us bad in the end because we over-produced a lot of our demos. In the recording studio, a lot of us were attached to those demo arrangements, so it was a process of deconstructing the relationships we had to our parts of the music. When you’re in a studio with a new producer and new equipment, new ideas are coming in. It’s time to move on to the next idea because more amazing things will come. 

 

Interesting you mention J Dilla and Cypress Hill. Is there some hip hop influence on the record?

EA:  Please bro. Oh yeah… oh yeah. [laughs]

BM: So, the most recent single is called “Pink Elephant.” Someone may not say ‘oh that’s not hip hop’ because people may have a narrow genre classification. I’m not rapping on the record, but for me personally, hip hop is in the attitude, the grit, and the intention. 

I have a bunch of monophonic synths — some old Yamahas from the late 70s, an old Moogs from 1971, some Rolands. In putting together sketches for tracks at the keyboard, I was using those major to minor sevenths. Just those one or two chords to come up with some g-funk melody on the synthesizer. They were probably using mini Moogs in the studio for Dr. Dre’s stuff. Add portamento and it can sound like that. When one note bleeds into the next… that is what I listened to growing up.

Carlos was really big on the polyphonic synthesizer, which I wasn’t really down with at the time. You know those are all over 80s records and it’s such a hip and fresh sound now. Everybody uses Junos these days. We’ve been using them for years. On older records twe used old organs, combo organs, more classic 70s leaning stuff. Carlos pushed heavily to not use those. At first I was like “Nah, it sounds good. Why?’ So I had a “kill your darlings” moment. In the whole process of making music with other people, you’re going to win some battles and lose some battles. At the end of the day, there’s no good and bad, whatever happens to make the record is what makes the record.

 

 

I like that philosophy of finding a way to make your favorite sounds yourselves, but pushing further to become your own as opposed to emulating them. What were some of the records that guided the sound of Invisible People?

CA: Yeah. Another thing that was inspiring for this new record is the DJ night I started with some friends in Los Angeles. We’d play Footsies, Gold Diggers, whoever would have us. Having that pressure to keep people interested, it was inspiring to see how there are certain universal rhythms, beats and moods that touch people. I really wanted to tap into that with what I brought into this new album.

One record that Eduardo turned me on to was William Onyeabor’s Atomic Bomb. There’s Ata Kak’s Oba Simaa on Awesome Tapes From Africa. He’s an African immigrant from Toronto who made these weird synthesizer/drum machine, lo-fi records in the early 90s. Also, Neu! and Can… There’s a song on Invisible People called “Manuel’s Story” that has what’s called the motoring beat, which is just that pulsing, droning beat that bops along for the duration of the whole track.

EA: Some other albums too — James Brown‘s Sex Machine, and early Betty Davis. A Tribe Called Quest’s last album We Got It From Here… Boom, instant classic. Was definitely inspirational on a cultural level, not just a production level.

BM: For the first single, “Color of My Life,” my inspiration was that we just needed bangers! We talk about it a lot like, ‘I’ve got to buy a house with this new record. I have a kid and a family…” It was an amazing regulator in the studio. If it didn’t cut, then fuck it. Whoever’s got the sword, if that shit’s piercing, then that is what we roll with. When we were working with Leon Michels, he was the first person in the studio that was just like ‘Yo, this is money.’

On that tip, I went into the studio and I was listening to “Cool Cat” by Queen. It’s on one of their later records, Hot Space. It doesn’t sound like a Queen song… it’s a straight funk song, a straight up boogy hit. That was kind of the vibe I was going for. When we took it to the studio, everyone did their thing on it and it came out amazing.

I’m also a big fan of Julian Casablancas. He really inspired me on a lot of the songwriting with the vibe and attitude he has. It’s hip hop in its own way with the angst he carries.

 

 

Speaking on Julian… you guys worked with producer Shawn Everett on this record, who’s worked a lot with Casablancas recently.

BM: Bro! He f****** produced our record! That’s an unreal thing that ended up happening just out of coincidence. 

 

So many records that he touches — Alabama Shakes, Beck, Vampire Weekend, to name a few — are so amazing texturally. What did he bring to the process for Invisible People

EA: He had just won a Grammy with Kacey Musgraves, and we knew his work before. When we turned the album over to him, he asked if there was anything we didn’t want him to do and we said ‘Nope, do whatever you want.’ We just gave him creative freedom. Though I know Bardo told him to just ‘Make those vocals crunchy, bro!’

BM: [laughs] After he mixed the record, it was kind of weird. I don’t know if i was 100% with it at first, it just sounded dope as f*** though. I guess what i’m trying to say is, you are attached to your parts and all those technical things, since you just got out of the studio right? But it quickly didn’t matter. It just sounded f****** sick and bumped. 

EA: I think working with Shawn Everett really took us to that next level. I mean he is experimental, he’s a wild man. I think we were in the position to really elevate the music and take it to a completely different platform that no one has heard before. That’s what makes Invisible People such a great record. This is the record we love hearing every day. 

BM: Everything came out so amazing, it’s the best you can ask for you. It changes you as a musician. You feel that shit, and you’re already a different person. You already start working and approaching music differently. Nothing but growth. 

Gabriel Villa: He gave us a new way about thinking about music. 

 

 

I want to be in the studio with you guys. It sounds like a blast.

EA: We will have some pent-up days, ripping each other apart over songs. And it’s real bro! [laughs] Every relationship has its tug, like a push-and-pull. I think finding the boundaries of respect, hearing everyone out, and giving them the chance to air out their ideas was definitely something we’re trying to reach for. The studio, it’s real life in there. It’s not ‘Okay, everyone on your best behavior!’ It feels like the last chance to get your shit across. 

CA: Have you ever seen The BeatlesLet It Be documentary? Towards the latter end of the group? That was us in the studio. 

 

Eduardo mentioned A Tribe Called Quest earlier as an inspiration… As a band, you speak a lot about political and cultural issues. The last record, Freedom Is Free, was written prior to Trump’s election, or shortly thereafter. How has the songwriting process evolved now that we have much more political turmoil around the world, and see more communities continue to be marginalized? Does the title Invisible People allude to those communities?

BM: For this record, we didn’t want to lean on that at all. We didn’t want to make it a crutch. Obviously ‘Invisible People’ alludes to it, but we feel that it’s still kind of up in the air. You see the album cover, and it’s an art piece. We were definitely not trying to create something straight political.

Invisible People came from something Carlos had mentioned about our experiences on tour. People don’t see you when you’re at a gas station, or they look at you funny and start pointing. We were writing towards that.

EA: But in 2020, you can’t not be political, you can’t not be socially conscious. If you aren’t, you are just ignorant and living under a rock. Honestly. Even in this current pandemic, we are uncovering basic corruption and dysfunction on so many different levels. Not that we set out to make a political record, but social consciousness is always going to be a part of reality. A lot of people don’t put it in their music, and that’s fine. We don’t have a choice. If you want to be true and sincere, that’s just how things are and how they’ve been. Truth is truth, man. You don’t have to be political to be sharing the truth around. 

BM: Lyrically, I just wanted to be edgy with it, man. I wanted to write lyrics that will get straight to the point with poppy hooks, kind of cinematic. ‘Pink Elephant’, for example, is kind of post-apocalyptic. There’s this lyric by Caetano Veloso where he basically asks, ‘when are the cities going to be destroyed?’ I would reflect on that song, and just trip out on how direct that message was. It’s crazy how we’re in an era now kinda in that post-apocalyptic vibe where you’ll walk out on the street and it’s like a scene in a zombie movie, but not that that was the point necessarily.

 

 

Obviously, it’s a really difficult time for artists right now with tours and, in some cases, records postponed. How do you think artists are going to adapt and evolve in this time?

CA: Man, we have so much time to make music but getting together is not necessarily the answer. I’m talking to you guys now like… let’s make music now! Let’s send some files over. Maybe that’s the future. I just heard of the band The Postal Service. They didn’t start out physically as a band. They made a few records without seeing each other. It’s pretty amazing, and this was in the early 2000s.

EA: I just had a session with a guy from Mexico City and a guy from Columbia over Zoom. Our publishing company set up a synch camp, and I signed up and was assigned to work with a crew and these musicians. Whoever had the first idea would start, and then we’d just send it around to each person to work on their part for an hour. 

 

What were some of the first records you bonded over as a band?

BM: I took out a bunch of records before this call actually. Let’s see… Numa Bateman, and the name of this record is La Cañandonga Mora. And we got Lucy Gonzalez’s Y Su Combo Orence. This is straight Columbian music from the Atlantic Coast. I’m Columbian and Mexican. At the beginning for me, Gabriel, and Eduardo as well, that was always a reference. We’d party and have all kinds of DJ friends and that was definitely cracking around that time.

EA: I was just thinking, one of the albums I connected with Gabriel on was …And Justice For All by Metallica. Real shit. Now Bardo, what’s an album you and Carlos can connect on?

BM: Let me think… nothing. [laughs]

CA: We really love W.I.T.C.H. Not the J. Mascis group, but the zamrock band. 

EA: All those Now Again compilations and reissues are just amazing. Forge Your Own Chains… I love that stuff. 

CA: I love the other compilations from Awesome Tapes from Africa. Stuff from Ghana, poly-rhythmo…

For me, the inspiration was to imagine if one of the funky-ass African groups that I love had the instrumentation of Radiohead… what would that sound like? Taking those poly synths, mono synths, drum machines & all that modern stuff, and mixing it. That was my personal goal for this album. 

 

If that’s the pitch, that’s getting me to listen!

BM: [laughs] Yeah, that is the f******* vibe.

 

Invisible People is out May 1st, 2020 via ATO

You can pre-order the record here.


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