Chicano Batman’s Bardo Martinez Talks Heritage, Racial Ideologies, and ‘Invisible People’

Los Angeles’ Chicano Batman are the type of band that stay perpetually locked in grooves, emanating positive vibrations. Tropicalia-tinged sounds are rendered in chillwave textures, and raw funk channeled into languid, loungy soul with psychedelic overtones and a dash of rock ‘n’ roll edge. It’s a style that proudly brandishes its distinctly Southern California cool, and particularly the Latinx heritage within that. In a sense, the music is inextricably linked with the politics of race, class, and culture. The band strike a righteous pose in this context, as a voice of the voiceless, raising today’s crucial questions, while maintaining a measured distance from the sanctimonious quagmires of explicit politics.

In the decade since they released their self-titled debut, Chicano Batman have toured with the likes of Jack White, played Coachella, and cultivated a dedicated fanbase. 2017’s “Freedom Is Free” drew critical accolades and spurred people to let loose, unwind, and, at some point along the way, reflect upon the deceptively simple statement of its title. Their follow-up, “Invisible People,” picks up where that album left off, and takes on new proportions. It’s the band’s most stylistically eclectic and nuanced record yet, with new spins on signature sounds, and some unanticipated excursions. Keys and synths take on a new importance, and the band becomes more intuitive than ever before, to the end of some infectious tunes. Frontman Bardo Martinez spoke with Entertainment Voice about heritage, racial ideologies, the creative process, and their latest record. 

Your album title, “Invisible People,” was partly inspired by Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man,” which tells the story of a black man who feels essentially invisible in a prejudiced society. What does “Invisible People” specifically mean to you, and in what ways do you consider Ellison’s concept still relevant today?

Ralph Ellison’s book is kind of like a masterpiece. It’s written from so many perspectives that you’re reading the thing, and you’re not sure who’s who or who’s the invisible man, and it jumps time periods, from slavery to 1920s. It’s just bouncing around, and the concept is constantly changing. I think it’s a very accurate portrayal of how we all navigate through society, regardless of what race or class you’re in. At the end of the day those are just categorizations that we all have to navigate through.

In terms of why we named it as such, I think “Invisible People” was something that me and Carlos were talking about. It was very easy for me to run with it. It felt the heaviest. It’s also kind of vague, and that’s what I kind of like about it. “Invisible People” could be anything. You look at the album cover, and it just looks like some cool urban artwork. We didn’t want to go super explicitly political with the message, because with “Freedom Is Free,” we did it that way, and our experience was that all we ended up talking about was Trump and how timely everything was, which became a little bit annoying. Unfortunately, if you have an opinion, within a certain industry, punch lines get tagged on, and thats all that people hear about.

You’ve spoken of racism existing “within the hierarchy of race in the indie-rock world too.” Expand on this statement and how Chicano Batman has experienced or witnessed systemic racism while working as a band. 

We named ourselves Chicano Batman. We explicitly put that in front of it, and I’ve always seen it as almost a political experiment. Everything out there is kind of tainted by racial ideologies, whether we acknowledge it, whether we see it or not. By identifying the band as Chicanos, it’s loaded with history, loaded with politics. Let’s take Chicano Batman’s movement from playing [L.A.’s] East Side scene to moving up in the world and playing with Jack White, etc., basically getting into the indie rock festival circuit, which we’ve been doing for the last three or four years. How can I put it? I felt it, just traveling throughout the country. It’s going to be in people’s Twitter comments, etc. We’ve seen it. It’s definitely evident.

If we were four white dudes playing throughout the country as Chicano Batman in the festival circuit, maybe those things related to our ethnicity or what have you wouldn’t be there as much. Whiteness is well, your just “American,” but everybody has a past, and white people are essentially European Americans. I’m just saying those things are glossed over. An indie band that is “white” won’t have those signifiers attached to their career path. 

What do you think is the way forward?

Race is a construct, and I think if more people start seeing it that way, and even applying it to whiteness as a whole, questioning that reality, everybody would be better off because we’d be able to have a dialogue. At the end of the day, we all suffer from the consequences of all the history, of the past. And everybody is interrelated. It doesn’t matter where you’re from on this planet. 

In your lead single, “Color My Life,” you sing about feeling like you’re in a lucid dream, insisting, “You’ve got to color my life / You’ve got to fill in my thoughts.” With this pandemic, life is so strange that suddenly everything feels like a lucid dream. Has the song taken on new meaning for you in this context?

You know, it’s interesting. I guess I’ve always been looking at society as how could I put it? (Laughs). Everybody is in a fog in society. Everybody just has their mind in some other shit, you know? (Laughs). For me, my whole life I felt like that. I was like, “Man, what are you all on? I don’t get it.” The herd is moving in a certain direction, and I’ve always felt the opposite way. I’m like “I don’t know where you cats are moving.” To be honest, I’m just trying to say what wavelength I’ve been on, and “Color My Life” is just music treating me to my own reality. That’s pretty much it, yo just chillin’ out and trying to make a cool song for people to groove to. 

The song “Blank Slate” is about letting go and surrendering to passion, and the freewheeling funk on display remarkably seems to convey just that sentiment. In songs like these, what comes first, music or lyrics?

Actually, with this record, it was a lot of the music that came first. I think with “Color My Life,” I already had some stuff jotted down. It just kind of came all together. I was just trying to make the dopest pop song I could, literally (laughs). I was listening to St. Vincent, to Queen, just like “When does the hook come in? When does the chorus drop? Ok, it takes thirty seconds for that chorus to come in on that song,” so just really focused on that, and the lyrics kind of complement it. “Blank Slate” was similar, to be honest, but it was all about the vibe, and it was all about the music, and trying to make it as poppy and as catchy as possible. That was really my main concern.

Your music has a distinctly West Coast cool, always sounding summery and celebratory. How much are you a product of your environment, and how does L.A. make its way into your music?

Yeah man, I appreciate your saying that. I grew up in La Mirada, which is like a suburb out there, and it’s been sunny my whole life. I’m a SoCal kid, bro, what can I say? My dad is Mexican. He grew up in Santa Ana, so he’s kind of like a real Chicano in that he embodies the culture. He put me on to everything from the Associations to all these ‘60s pop hits, but simultaneously he’d play all these kind of ‘80s disco funk jams. The depth of what I was listening to at a young age was thick. It was real, and I’m really indebted to my dad for laying it down like that. And then, my mom is Colombian. She’s from Cartagena, so she’s like a Caribbean lady, but really mixed. We grew up dancing in the living room, you know. I’m very fortunate to have that. And also, that energy of just celebration, of life, and that really spiritual happiness is something that I’ve experienced from a very young age. 

Growing up, I didn’t really connect with a lot of kids. I’ve always been kind of a loner. I’d go to the park, climb some trees, and just hang out. I would draw a lot as a kid, and in high school, I started writing a lot. And nature, just being in the park, outdoors, it would give me so much inspiration. Throughout my life, literally the act of looking up and observing the sky, observing the things around me, has been central to my musical expression. That’s SoCal, bro. That’s what I’m trying to say, It’s simple, but it’s beautiful, and it’s super real, and that’s something that I’ve always stepped into. 

“Manuel’s Song” is a standout track, with a tale involving a drug cartel and bullets flying, yet delivered with your usual lighthearted amplomb. Where did the story come from, and why did you decide to express it this way?

Well, first off, it was a track that the band put together. I got the track, and I was like, “Yo, this is fire.” I was really inspired, at the time, by Julian Casablancas, particularly his solo stuff, the Voidz. I tried to be as edgy as possible with it, in terms of the guns blazing and all that. 

The story itself is very literal. I was in Panama last year, in February. I was just vacationing, and my uncle lives there as well. I knew my uncle had had to leave Cartagena, Colombia over twenty-five years ago. I knew that it had something to do with some drama, some street shit, but he broke it down, he just broke it down! His older brother was taking some drugs from one place to another, but he never brought the money back to the owner, so the owner, the businessman, went for whatever source. Somebody had to respond for that money, so he came after my uncle Manuel. My uncle was already very paranoid, so he just strapped himself up. That whole scene is how my uncle told me that, “Two motorcyclists came down the street. I knew what I had to do. He came around the corner. I had to pull out my strap and just start laying some shots down.” It was straight anime vibe, “Pulp Fiction” vibe. That’s exactly what happened. It’s a true story, no bullshit. With some of this music, cats better be moshing to this shit. I can’t wait. It was about getting that really gritty rock ‘n’ roll energy, just fuckin’ shit up.

Your single “Pink Elephant” is at once infectious with its irresistible groove and slightly out of reach with its ambiguous lyrics. Who or what is the “pink elephant in the room” that has caused such commotion?

Anybody could be the elephant in the room. Any situation can get awkward. An elephant in the room, who is it? What is it? Nobody knows. A lot of these lyrics are just trying to be creative. I was also trying to be edgy. I love Kung Fu movies, straight up. I’ve seen them since I was a kid. Obviously they’re such a big influence on, you know, Tarantino and his stuff. I was just trying to be colorful, make analogies. There are so many things. In my head, I was also thinking it gets awkward in a band. I was talking about our band, bro. I feel like I’m the fucking elephant in the room a lot of times, you know. I’m going to be me, I’m going to be wild, I’m going to fucking jump out the door when I have to because I’m tired of this shit, you know? I’m kind of like that sometimes, and I wanted to really be as abrasive as possible with it, and latch on to anything that made me feel that way. 

One thing that stands out about the new album, “Invisible People,” is an abundance of woozy, gliding synths. What led you to build your songs largely around keys rather than guitars this time? 

I guess it was partly because a lot of our music has a shit load of guitars. I can’t help but talk about our band dynamic. Carlos, the guitarist, was really pushing for the polyphonic synth sound. He was also pushing for keys on this record, which is amazing. I was like, “Yes! Fuck yeah!” and he was like, “You’re going to play this shit live, bro.” He’s one of those dudes that’s like, “We can’t record it like that unless we’re going to play it on stage like that,” and I’ve always been the guy like, “Dude, it doesn’t fucking matter. The Beatles didn’t give a shit. They just piled on shit, just piled on tracks and tracks and tracks, and if the fucking shit is fire, then we’ll hire somebody, just hire a bunch of cats.” You know, it’s just different ways of looking at music. I feel like Carlos is more like a super musician’s musician. His musical integrity is pure. As for me, I don’t give a fuck about music, to be honest (laughs). 

It’s not about the music per se. It’s about the energy that you’re creating, and music and instruments are just tools. That’s the way that I look at it. You don’t need a lot. You listen to some Snoop Dogg joint like “Gin and Juice,” it’s just like a synthesizer line that’s looped over a beat. It’s about the bobbing motion that the music gives you. That was just my approach. Carlos came with it though. He came with it with some really funky guitar playing that added a shit load to the music. I’d like to say that was part of the process. It just had to be hard as fuck. And his playing was vicious. It was on some Michael Jackson vibes, and he was really on some Niles Cline vibrations, and it fit it perfectly, to be honest.  

Invisible People” is available May 1 on Apple Music.