When Don Diego de la Vega, better known by his masked nom de guerre, Zorro, invented his alter ego in a pueblo in Los Angeles, he did so "to avenge the helpless, to punish cruel politicians" and "to aid the oppressed." It can be said that Chicano Batman, a four-piece psychedelic soul band also from Los Angeles, are forging a similar path with similar intentions.
Drawing as much influence from Tame Impala as tropicália pioneers like Os Mutantes, Chicano Batman mixes its sunny, retro vibes with lyrics in English, español, and sometimes even Portuguese. A song like "La Manzanita" can evoke the "ai ai ai ai" of onda grupera and other traditional Mexican folk styles while just as quickly leading you to melt in a reverb-swamped, acid-y haze on tracks like "Magma" or "Fantasía."
Such fusions allow Chicano Batman to pay tribute to their roots without losing themselves in antiquity. Whatever era or aesthetic it subscribes to, the band owns it. But when the members step out in their matching baby blue tuxedo shirts, some audiences don't always know how to respond.
"[In America,] people want to know why we talk Spanish when we're American and [other] people want to know why we talk English because we look like Latinos," Eduardo Arenas, CB's bassist laughs. The band had just returned from Frontera Festival in Santiago, Chile, a high point during a year filled with peaks.
Arenas recalls a distinct feeling last January that 2015 was gonna be CB's year. Sure enough, the past 11 months saw Chicano Batman play Coachella, tour with Jack White and Alabama Shakes, and sell out the Los Angeles Theater's 2,000 seats. The group even landed a licensing gig with PBS for On Two Fronts: Latinos & Vietnam.
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"We tapped out at all of these opportunities at the highest peak possible this year. And it just seems like now, 2016 is our real year," Arenas says, laughing. "We're not really gimmicky in our social media, so I think what really stands out is the music and the content. So, it's spreading, and I think in 2016 it's going to spread even more. Hopefully, we spread positivity and love and the work ethic of the band."
Already, Chicano Batman has two singles planned for early next year and soon will head to the studio to work on its yet-to-be-titled third LP. Indeed, the band has come a long way from the days when it fashioned a keyboard stand from an ironing board.
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Chicano Batman's biggest fan was Isaiah "Ikey" Owens, a whirlwind keyboardist known for his work with The Mars Volta, Run the Jewels, and Jack White. Owens fell in love when his musical collective, Free Moral Agents, shared a stage with CB in Long Beach. The pianist soon was slapping up stickers of the band's iconic logo — the United Farm Workers eagle crossed with the Batman emblem — on Jack White's tour bus. Later, Owens approached Chicano Batman about producing two of its songs.
But Owens would never get the chance — on October 14, 2014, he was found dead in his Mexico City hotel room from a heart attack. But by chance, Carlos Arévalo, CB's guitarist, met Jack White's tour manager at Owens' memorial. The band soon landed a sold-out six-date mini-tour opening for White, which Arenas describes as "Ikey's soul guiding us through these opportunities."
In tribute, Chicano Batman's latest single, "Black Lipstick," is dedicated to the late musician. The stuttering organ and syrupy get-down groove almost certainly would have bewitched Owens, but it's also a promising new direction for a band that continues to stay true to itself.
"He would always vouch for our band," Arenas says. "He was a real, real genuine fan. He loved the music. He loved what we were doing."