It’s the first scheduled day of Chicano Batman’s tour to promote their fourth album, Invisible People, but guitarist Carlos Arevalo and his bandmates — vocalist/keyboardist Bardo Martinez, bassist Eduardo Arenas, and drummer Gabriel Villa — are quarantined in their homes in and around Los Angeles. Instead of performing in Santa Fe and preparing for Coachella in a couple of weeks, the musicians are brainstorming how to connect with their fans at home through Instagram Live, performing DJ sets and setting up instrumental tutorials. On this day, Arevalo plays records from the Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, and Debarge before holding an interview with Teri Gender Bender of Le Butcherettes, the Mexican punk band who are supposed to be touring with Chicano Batman. “Even though there's this physical distancing, I feel connected more than ever,” Arevalo says. “This is a battle that it doesn't matter what you look like, where you come from, where you live. It doesn't care about any of that. It's just like humans against it.”
Without knowing what the world had in store, Chicano Batman put out Invisible People in acknowledgement of despair that many people are coincidentally experiencing right now. They wanted to demonstrate solidarity with people who are feeling unseen and unheard, to shine light in the darkest corners. Like many other musicians with spring record releases — from indie bands like Hinds or major pop acts like Lady Gaga — Chicano Batman did consider pushing Invisible People’s release date. But after waiting two years to put their record out, they decided to maintain their May 1st release.
“I think it's just time for it to go out there and hopefully give people some kind of beacon of hope during this madness,” says Arevalo. When the band announced Invisible People, the follow-up to 2017’s resistance-tinged Freedom Is Free, they told Rolling Stone, “The goal was to make the best record we’ve never heard.” To accomplish that, Arevalo and his bandmates needed change.
Chicano Batman started out as a trio with Martinez, Arenas, and Villa in 2008, when Arevalo lived outside of Los Angeles in the Inland Empire, too far from where the band was based. “At some point, I went to go see Chicano Batman play and they just blew me away,” he remembers. “I thought what they were doing was so different and also empowering — being Latinos playing cool music that I thought was unique.” Arevalo texted Martinez, asking that the band come to him if they ever needed a new guitarist. Around a year later, Arevalo joined them on their EP, Joven Navegante. Nine years later, the same four-piece remains intact. Arevalo says that Arenas still teases that he’s the “new guy.” “I will add, David Gilmour was the new guy in Pink Floyd,” Arevalo jokes.
For Arevalo, being the new guy meant not wanting to step on any toes within the already established band. Beginning with their debut self-titled record in 2010, Chicano Batman had verified their space in the Los Angeles scene and beyond, performing Tropicalia funk jams while wearing ruffled suits as a nod to ’70s soul groups. To some, their organ chords and laidback percussion screamed labels like “throwback” and “revivalist” of California’s psychedelic surf rock past. “I felt like what we were doing was a little more fresh than that,” says Arevalo.
On their new record, Arevalo spoke up to the band, proclaiming that he no longer wanted to be lumped into the nostalgic music category. No more organ, no more surfy guitar reverbs. “There was definitely pushback,” Arevalo says about the hesitant or defensive reactions of his bandmates. But once the new songs were coming together, Arevalo says, the band agreed that these songs were some of their best. “It still sounded like us, but it was just new territory,” he says. Rather than recreate retro vibes, the band decided to form something totally new. Arevalo told his bandmates, “Instead of making these references to these past records that we like, why don't we try to make music where people want to make us the reference to the music they make? Let's be the reference.”
To become that reference, Chicano Batman transformed their sound to be more up-tempo and funky, creating songs that are more fit for a dance party than a relaxing drive by the ocean. “We knew from the beginning it had to bump,” says Arevalo. The band wanted to draw from the music they actually listened to, like prog rock and hip-hop, with strong hooks that could reach mass appeal without ever sounding overdone or uninspired. To achieve this, they reunited with Freedom Is Free’s producer, Big Crown Records’ Leon Michels (Menahan Street Band, The Carters). And after a serendipitous run-in between Martinez, labelmate Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard and Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes, Kacey Musgraves, The War on Drugs), Chicano Batman enlisted Everett to master their record, too.
With Michels’ hip-hop aesthetic and Everett’s experience as a drummer, percussion became more prominent on Invisible People, especially on beat-driven tracks like the drum machine-infused “I Know It” and the smooth “Pink Elephant,” a track accentuated by one of the most infectious guitar hooks of the band’s career. “Blank Slate” honors the funk that the band has always paid homage to, but with a futuristic, chrome-lined, synth-heavy sheen. Inspired by Can and other krautrock bands, the band adopts the “motorik beat” on “Manuel’s Story.” The result is a fast-paced, driving beat that becomes interconnected with its lyrics, as Martinez narrates the tale of how his uncle escaped a drug cartel in Colombia.
Instead of writing his guitar parts on the guitar, Arevalo started with the keyboard. “It was a little more freeing because I wasn't thinking in terms of theory,” he says. Less familiar with the keyboard, the simplest chords made him rethink the complex parts he would typically write on guitar. “When you don't know what it is and it just works within the context of the song you're developing, it doesn't kill the inspiration,” he says. “Oftentimes, simpler is better. You say more with less.”
Though Chicano Batman has typically recorded live, they sought to record ideas as they emerged, capturing improvisation and embracing spontaneity. The recording session for “Color My Life” started out as a slower tempo track. While improvising over the track, Villa turned on a Maestro Rhythm King drum machine beat, then played over it. The rest of the band loosened up and followed suit, with Leon Michels on the clavinet. “We went into a trance for 10 minutes,” Arevalo remembers. “Leon was like, ‘I don't know what we just did. I don't know if it even sounds good, but it felt good.’” Citing the spontaneity of Miles Davis’s jazz as inspiration, Arevalo says that these moments are peppered throughout the record.
When it came to the lyrical content for Invisible People, Arevalo shares that the band did not want a repeat of the explicitly political Freedom Is Free’s press cycle, which took place in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. “We felt like that ended up kind of hijacking the talking points about the music and the artistry,” he remembers. “I don't care about Trump. I don't like him, just like you don't like him. Why do we have to talk about it for a whole article?” Still, there was one subtly political topic that troubled Arevalo when Invisible People was in its early stages. “It always bothered me when I would watch TV shows or read music magazines and they always put Latino artists in a subcategory,” Arevalo says, pointing out how artists like Bad Bunny or J. Balvin often fall under “Latin” labels rather than just hip-hop or pop. “I think it sets up barriers for people who maybe are a little more open-minded than they give themselves credit for. I'd be turned off just by the fact that it's in a different category.” Arevalo asked Martinez if he could write a song about it, and the finished product turned out to be the title track of the record.
The title Invisible People is also meant to be tongue-in-cheek, playing with the public visibility of Chicano Batman. Arevalo often notices that fans call the band undervalued and “slept on” on social media. “We're doing stuff [where] we're shoulder to shoulder with some of these same acts that are getting that mainstream love. We're playing the same venues as them and selling out the same places as them and even hanging out with them backstage at places. And yet, we're not getting that same recognition,” Arevalo says. “On the surface, it looks like they're way bigger than us.”
No matter what lyrics they perform, Chicano Batman has always been inherently political. Ten years ago, four Latino men performing indie rock music was far from the norm. Arevalo recalls how big of a deal it felt to be brought on tour by larger acts like Jack White and Alabama Shakes, even though those groups’ audiences were not always accustomed to Chicano Batman’s performances. At one show in a Southern city, Arevalo remembers that a live review labeled Chicano Batman’s music as “mariachi,” most likely because of their long hair and ruffled suits. “At the end of the day, people will realize that being exposed to all this culture and all these different aspects of humanity is way better for your soul than being close-minded and hating on differences,” says Arevalo.
On their next tour, whenever it may finally be, Chicano Batman are ditching their suits and wearing their regular clothes. They are also maintaining a goal of bringing bands with people of color and women out on tour with them. “I feel like you have to put your money where your mouth is, and you have to walk the walk if you're going to talk the talk,” Arevalo says. “I want our female fans to feel the type of empowerment that I felt when I saw Mars Volta or At the Drive-In when I was 21 years old,” says Arevalo, who chose this tour’s opening bands of Le Butcherettes and Crumb. On every tour, he says, “I want to open up the conversation to other voices that need to be shared with the people.” In quarantine or on tour, within their melodies or through the clothes they wear on stage, Chicano Batman is bringing visibility to the sounds, people, and experiences that deserve it most, which is really what Invisible People is all about.
Natalia Barr is a music and culture writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications like Rolling Stone, Interview Magazine, Consequence of Sound, and Crack Magazine. Find her on social media @nataliabarr_.