Chicano Batman Tackles U.S. Government's War Propaganda

Chicano Batman plays the Bluebird Theater on Monday, April 10.
Chicano Batman plays the Bluebird Theater on Monday, April 10. Josue Rivas
Los Angeles-based soul and psychedelia band Chicano Batman is touring in support of its 2017 album Freedom Is Free, a jab at the jingoistic slogan "Freedom isn't free."

The band traces its look and sound back to the aesthetic of black soul groups of the ’60s and ’70s, like Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, the Temptations, and Latin groups that inherited that soul image, like Los Pasteles Verdes, Los Angelos Negros and Los Bukis. The look and sound of Chicano Batman is an homage to the influence of black soul on music globally.

We spoke with Carlos Arévalo ahead of Chicano Batman's Denver show about the act's global perspective on art, culture and politics.

Westword: How did you come to tour with Jack White?

Carlos Arévalo: The way we got on the tour is that Ikey Owens was a big fan of Chicano Batman. He would wear our shirt all the time, and he would pop up at our gigs in the Long Beach area. Once I was out in D.C. with my girlfriend visiting her family, and I got an Instagram message from Ikey asking if he could produce us. I told him that we would talk about it, and he told me he was playing Baltimore, Maryland, two days later. He was on tour with Jack White, and he invited me to come to the show. He introduced me to Jack White and the tour manager Lalo Medina, who is a Chicano from East L.A. We then solidified the deal for Ikey to produce our next 45 at his studio of choice.

I was working a month later, and I got a text from our manager, who said that Ikey passed away on tour in Mexico with Jack White. We were devastated, and the whole music community felt the shockwaves of his passing. He was a heroic figure for us all, and we all learned from him. He had no ego whatsoever. He would be in a tour van one week with Crystal Antlers and three people to a bench seat and the next month on a tour bus with Jack White. It didn't matter. The man just loved music, and his enthusiasm for music was really contagious.

Me and Bardo [lead singer Martínez] both attended his memorial in Long Beach, and that's when I saw Lalo again, and he told me he wanted to have lunch with me. I followed up with him, and at the time, we had just been asked to play Coachella. We were really green, so I was looking forward to talking to an experienced industry guy to see about some ways to maximize the potential of the Coachella experience. This was in 2015, and I had lunch with Lalo, and he asked us if we had a pre-Coachella tour planned, and no, because we didn't know that was something we were supposed to have. He asked how would we like opening for Jack White or perhaps another band that his management company was taking out on a Coachella tour. I said of course, and a month later I got an e-mail that said that Jack White wanted us to go on tour with him and the tour starts in three weeks. Our lives haven't been the same since.

I don't believe that Jack White was sitting around listening to Chicano Batman records. I really think it was an homage, even a tribute, to Ikey Owens being on the tour. It became apparent that when the tour started, all the bandmembers, including Jack White, told us that we were Ikey's favorite band and that he wore our shirt every day. Lalo Medina told me that he had to yell at Ikey because he put our stickers on the inside of a rented bus, and it cost hundreds of dollars to get them removed. So it was beautiful and bittersweet to be on that tour, because we wish we could have done it with Ikey so that we could have had a lot of fun together. We all believe that Ikey's spirit was there with us in some form or another out there in the universe. He was a gentle giant.

What is the significance of the album title Freedom Is Free?

It's a reference to the propaganda that the U.S. government was putting out as a way to get people to support the Iraq War in the early 2000s. They perverted the idea of freedom, and they said freedom isn't free, which invokes freedom in the context of bloodshed and war. That's not something we believe in as a band — that someone has to experience bloodshed and war to experience the beauty of freedom. It's supposed to be an empowering message. When you read the record title, it immediately conjures that propaganda that was so effective.

It's a phrase that makes it easy to repeat without questioning its meaning, because it has the veneer of logic.

Exactly. We're finding a lot of people that feel how we feel about that idea. There's also people that get upset when they read that because the state was so effective in getting that message out. Some people take it as fact, not as a subjective slogan. Bardo said in an interview that the idea that we're starting and having this discussion in general is a positive thing, and we're happy to have that conversation.

The music you make is very steeped in various cultures. Do you feel that cultural identity plays a great role in the music as well?

We're really global people, and we don't stay within borders and think in that way. We're open to all the beauty life has to offer, and there's so much great music everywhere, and we take as much as we can and be inspired by it. We listen to East and West African music. Lately I've been listening to Zambian garage rock. When the colonial era ended in the early ’70s, some musicians started making this music called Zam Rock. It's basically Zambian psychedelic garage rock sung in English. It's a reflection of us being from Los Angeles, where it's a beautiful mix of people and diversity that we're surrounded by every day, from food to dress to culture. There are places in America where there isn't that availability of culture and diversity, and we feel [that diversity is] positive and helps people to learn to become better people. I think our music reflects that kind of modern, urban aesthetic.

Chicano Batman, with SadGirl and The Shacks, 7 p.m., Monday, April 10, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, 303-377-1666, $15, 16+.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.