To complete the new record, Invisible People, the Los Angeles-based four-piece rock band, Chicano Batman, had to learn to trust one another again. Together since 2008, like many partnerships, the members needed to address some simmering issues regarding the quartet’s communication and creative processes. In fact, bassist Eduardo Arenas, who had been going to therapy for a few years, helped to apply some of the tools he’s learned there to the band. It worked. The result was a breakthrough in the group’s relationship and a signature LP, which Chicano Batman released on May 1st.
Chicano Batman has been a band for twelve years. The group has enjoyed critical and popular success (including gigs with Jack White), to be sure, but with that comes new worries. If one is to devote a life to music – to writing, recording, collaborating, touring, playing late night gigs – pressures of success and repeated success come hand-in-hand. Ten years in can feel like a lifetime with a mortgage over one’s head. Going into the recording of Invisible People, as a result, there was a push to make the album perfectly polished. This, however, doomed the initial days of recording.
“It wasn’t going anywhere,” says lead vocalist, Bardo Martinez. “But it started flowing once we started easing up the restrictions.”
“There was a pressure that the music had to be composed with the four of us in the room,” Arenas says. “But shit wasn’t happening. Some weren’t willing to be vulnerable.”
So, the group, which also includes lead guitarist, Carlos Arévalo, and drummer, Gabriel Villa, switched methods. At different times, members went off and worked on separate tracks. Where the group had once pledged to write in one room together at the same time, there was now mutual permission to work in more isolated, secluded and personal spaces. There was also mutual permission to take breaks when needed, to work more honestly and less militantly on the writing. The result was momentous, even “harmonious.”
To consider Invisible People is to undertake a study in nuance of both musicality and social dynamics. On the one hand, the record is playful. It’s odd at times, herky-jerky in the best of ways. Like a skeleton draped in Christmas lights shuffling through your kitchen (as on “Color my life”). At other times, the album incorporates Jackson 5-like soul (“Bella”) or Outkast-like beat making (“Pink Elephant”). Outside of its melodies and rhythms, however, there are more cerebral levels, some of which touch on loaded, often tragic subject matter.
“I want to put a big ass fucking question mark on the whole system,” Martinez says, referencing the concept and construction of race. But while race is a central issue to some of the lyrics on Invisible People (the title itself references those forgotten in society) and in the lives of each of the members of Chicano Batman, it is not the only they care about, not by a long stretch. “At the end of the day,” Martinez says, “we’re making music. We’re artists.”
Both Martinez and Arenas began playing music at a young age. Martinez jokes that he can remember hearing “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Riders on the Storm” in the womb. His father was an avid music listener and her remembers many summers with him and other “Mexican hippies” listening to all kinds of music, from funk to soul, disco and pop. He started playing guitar at 15 and met his future band members at 19. Arenas, who started playing guitar at 13, loved Metallica and Van Halen. He pushed himself and his fingers to play the notes quicker and quicker. He prided himself on it.
“I was trying to be the best guitar player at school,” Arenas says. “And the fastest, for sure.”
The band members met in a series of encounters at local house parties in and around L.A. and began to collaborate. As if fated, guitars were always involved. Soon, songwriting followed. Each of the members, they would find out, grew up and spent large chunks of time in different areas of the city. As a result, the band represents much about what’s authentic in L.A.: family gatherings, creativity, sunshine and the spirit of music. But L.A. can also feel coarse, even dangerous. And this too ends up in the music of Chicano Batman.
“When I was a teenager,” says Arenas, “we escaped gun violence. We had to flee to the suburbs and go live with my dad. In the suburbs, there’s a culture where people don’t want the ‘hood aesthetic’ to come in – you know, ‘Not In My Back Yard.’ But at the same time, with Chicano Batman, we blur those lines. Everything counts. There’s no NIMBY-ism in our music.”