The phrase “freedom isn’t free” never made much sense to Bardo Martinez. To the lead singer and principal lyricist of Los Angeles band Chicano Batman, freedom is a birthright. “How are you going to tell me that I have to pay for my freedom? How are you going to tell me that you are fighting a war in the name of my personal freedom? I’m completely free inside since the day I was born. And we all have it inside of us, it’s just a matter of peeling the layers of miseducation that we’ve been taught since grade school,” he says with conviction. He and the other members of the quartet are gathered in the Remezcla offices to dish on their third album Freedom is Free. Martinez, who also plays guitar and organ in the band, is unpacking the ideas that thread through it.
He’s specifically commenting on the title track, which opens the album with a message of finding inner freedom, of freeing the mind. Martinez sings, “You’ve got your guns up on display, but you can’t control how I feel, no way.” It’s a timeless message, but Martinez and the other members of the band are well aware of the immediate political context into which they are releasing it. In the past, Chicano Batman’s commitment to social justice has been reflected in the way they celebrate their Chicano identity, from their name, down to the matching suits they wear in homage to East LA bands of days gone by. With lyrics that convey cultural pride, they’ve always been a political band, but this album is different: more specific, more frustrated. “I think now we’re being a little more explicit, because you come to a point where you’re fed up with the way shit is,” says bassist Eduardo Arenas.
The timing is just one of those things. Reflecting on the statement the album makes, Arenas says, “We didn’t wait for Donald Trump to be president to speak our minds. We’ve been working on these songs for a year, but I’ve been listening to the record and thinking about how it’s appropriate to the time that we’re living in.” Now, they just happen to be putting out their most outspoken album, at a politically polarized moment.
“We didn’t wait for Donald Trump to be president to speak our minds.”
Chicano Batman’s music is a chunky, psychedelic mix of soul and funk rock, with lyrics in Spanish and English. It’s a heady combination, but the members easily have the musical chops to pull it off. This new release leans into their soul influences in a way that evokes the political consciousness of 70s soul, when Marvin Gaye penned contemplative protest songs that became hits. Martinez finds inspiration for writing songs like this in artists from John Lennon to Gil-Scott Heron. “These are artists that have provided these gems that are classic and everlasting because they consistently touch on human experience. So, why shy away from that? We have to express it because we live with that every day. You have to let it out,” the singer says.
If that’s a lot for some people, so be it. “We aren’t trying to please everyone,” says Arenas. They wouldn’t mind reaching a wider audience, but that’s coming more and more. With each show they’ve played, and each self-produced, self-released album they’ve put out since forming in 2008, the group has found a few more of their people. Today, they can sell out The Roxy on Sunset Strip within an hour. They’re about to play Coachella for the second time, and just did a spot for Johnnie Walker, a video where the band performs a pointedly pro-immigrant version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Not too bad for a band that, until now, didn’t have a label.
Freedom Is Free is set to drop March 3 on ATO Records, and was recorded with the aid of New York City-based producer Leon Michels, who was a long-time member of the late Sharon Jones’s Dap-Kings band. Working with Michels has culminated in a new peak for Chicano Batman, in terms of their musicianship and the ongoing distillation of their sound, which comes out sounding thoroughly refined and mature on Freedom is Free. Here and there, a note might remind you of Earth, Wind & Fire or The Stylistics, but mostly you will hear their own proprietary blend: intricate conversations between guitar and organ and Martinez’s well-controlled falsetto. It give the ears a lot to explore.
The interconnected lyrical themes on Freedom is Free exhibit the same kind of intricacy. There is the simmering, organ-driven “The Taker Song,” which asks questions about humanity’s place in relation to nature, while songs like “Jealousy” and the single “Friendship (Is a Small Boat in a Storm)” deal with trust and its breakdown on an interpersonal level. “La Jura” is the most topical on the album, dealing with the subject of police violence in black and brown communities. (La jura is a colloquial term for the police.) The ballad tells the story of a friend and neighbor that Arenas grew up with who was shot eight times in the back by the cops. The bass player says the murder was covered up. “Word is they planted a gun on him,” says Arenas.
Chicano Batman makes a statement just by existing.
Lyrics aside, Chicano Batman makes a statement just by existing. Even if they didn’t, they’re the kind of band Latinx fans need to exist. “I think it’s amazing to have a Latino band on this platform. Even if I wasn’t in the band I’d say that. If I was a 16 year-old dude, fuck yeah I want to be a fan of that band. They look like me and they sing about things I can relate too, and they jam out,” Arenas says frankly. Many of their strongest supporters are young Latinxs who can read their statement and clearly agree. “When they’re rooting for us, they’re really rooting for themselves too,” says Arenas. The batmen are happy to play that role. They know that symbols and representation matter, which is exactly why they have their sights set on mainstream stages like Coachella.
Even as their music celebrates Latinx identity, the band has no interest in being corralled into a nice, safe slot in the “Latin alternative” scene. That would run counter to their subversive goals. “If you label yourself as a Latino band, then you’ll be playing a bunch of Latino fests, but you need to be playing on all the platforms to really create some change,” observes Arenas. They want to reach everyone, go everywhere, and do it on their own terms. Their decade-long career has already shown that sometimes the strongest statement (and smartest decision) you can make is to show up and be yourself. It may be that there has never been a better time for Chicano Batman to do just that.
Chicano Batman’s Freedom is Free drops on March 3 via ATO Records. You can stream the album ahead of its release at NPR First Listen.