Chicano Batman’s latest record, Freedom Is Free, pairs contemporary political urgency with timeless music—a mélange of soul, Latin music, psychedelia and rock ‘n’ roll. The Weekly caught up with guitarist Carlos Arévalo just after the band finished soundcheck for its show San Antonio, Texas.
What was the biggest difference making Freedom Is Free compared with your previous record? We worked with a producer, Leon Michels, who’s from New York. He’s essentially a soul producer who has worked on records with Lee Fields & The Expressions, Charles Bradley, Menahan Street Band. He’s also in a project with Dan Auerbach called The Arcs, and he has an amazing ear for a soul aesthetic, but I would say not in a throwback way.
It’s more like he’s a fan of the timeless instruments and amplifiers and studio gear that those records are made on. We used that equipment and added our modern songwriting style, and it just came out sounding like the way we wanted to sound, which is basically like a lot of the records we were big fans of. We look back at them as classics, not as throwbacks. That’s a good benchmark to start creating songs from, production-wise.
We also worked with Mariachi Flor de Toloache, which is New York City’s first female mariachi group. They’re like a fusion of traditional mariachi, and they also do modern songs. And we were able to get their talents on our record. Having female backup singers really added to the full vibe of the record.
The record feels a little more fleshed-out. It’s clichéd to say, “It’s a step forward,” but it’s a sonic progression. Exactly. For the last record [2014’s Cycles of Existential Rhyme], it was just like, “All right, we have 14 songs, we’re recording them all, we’re putting them all out.” Which probably isn’t a good way to do a record. You probably should make some cuts [and think] what’s going to make the best statement, cohesively, as a record in terms of songs? [For] this one, we cut 14 songs, but we only put 12 on the album, and that’s because two of the songs—it’s not that they weren’t great; I’m sure they’re going to get put out at some point, maybe as B-sides—but they just didn’t go with the whole flow of the record. And that was something new to us also.
You talk about classic records, and sequencing is so important there. In the age of digital playlists, that mind-set can get lost. We sequence all our records like a vinyl [album]: What’s going to end Side A and make you have to get up and flip it to Side B? How is Side B going to come in after you’ve done that? That’s important to us.
Writing-wise, what were your biggest inspirations lyrically? [Bandmates] Bardo [Martinez] wrote lyrics with Eduardo [Arenas] on a track called “La Jura,” which is essentially a Black Lives Matter, anti-police brutality song. It documents a moment that happened in Eduardo’s neighborhood when he was a teenager in Boyle Heights [LA], in which the police killed an unarmed teenager. They said he was gang-affiliated, but [that was] just an easy target—for police to get away with saying that he was a bad guy.
And it was just a sad story about how he was killed. He was unarmed, and they shot him in the back. They just went on with their day as business as usual. There was no outcry at the time. There were no cell phones, no cameras like there are now to document these moments. [The song is] just kind of lamenting that. [The Black Lives Matter] movement was kind of at its height in 2015 when these songs were being written.
Then you have a song like “The Taker Story,” which was inspired by Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael and Bardo’s writing lyrics [asking] how man can consume and deplete resources, and how bad that can be for the environment and for sustainability, all in the name of economics.
And we have a song “Friendship (Is a Small Boat in a Storm),” that’s a relationship song, just talking about how everyone has, at some point or another, experienced some sort of rocky turmoil in either a friendship or a relationship.
Earlier this year, you did a Johnnie Walker ad where you sang “This Land Is Your Land.” What was the most powerful part of that experience for you and the band? It was a big deal. When they offered us the opportunity, at first we were like, “Do we really want to do this?” We’ve never really teamed up with a company to do an advertisement, and we were kind of reluctant. But once we heard about what the topic was, and what the premise of the ad campaign was—which is about progressing as a country, to keep walking, to not let oppression or nativism tear us apart—we thought it lined up with our beliefs and who we are as people. Actually, it ended up being the thesis statement of our new record.
The best part about it was just having access to resources to be on a major advertisement in the media. Because the media doesn’t represent people that look like us very often. And for an open-minded company to come at us and say, “Hey, we want you guys to be the face of this message,” we thought that was a big step forward and a big progressive move that benefits everyone. Some people weren’t happy with it. And then there were people that were very happy about that. You get both sides of the spectrum. But, in the end, it was in the name of progress and unity.
When bands do ads, it is one of those damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t things. Someone will always be unhappy. Exactly. At the end of the day, it helps us buy more equipment, and it’s going to help us record our next record. I was talking to Alan Del Rio Ortiz, who directed the “Friendship (Is a Small Boat in a Storm)” video. I was like, “Yeah, we’re going to team up with [Johnnie Walker] for this ad campaign. I don’t know how we feel about it. I actually think there might be backlash, calling us sellouts.” He’s good friends with Annie Clark from St. Vincent. He’s like, “She did a Sonos commercial; she’s doing this commercial. All these things helped her purchase a new studio to make her new record.” He’s all, “Man, that’s what it’s about nowadays.”
It’s hard to be constantly touring all the time to make income as a musician, even though that tends to be the most lucrative way to make income as a musician nowadays. People don’t buy records anymore, especially now when you can stream unlimited albums for $10 a month. So you’ve got to find other ways to do that. Advertising, in this case, can [be with] a brand that has an actual message. It’s not just us being, like, “Hey, party time!” [The message] actually had content behind it. We’ve learned to get thicker skin this year for sure.
And there’s thought behind it. What you said about representation—it means so much. You can’t underestimate how important that is. Some kid might see your ad while watching TV and get incredibly excited. Exactly. It touches people way more than what you see on the surface. For me, when I was a youth, I remember seeing At the Drive-In on David Letterman. I was 17 years old, and I remember seeing the singer [Cedric Bixler], and he was Latino, and so was the guitar player [Omar Rodríguez-López]. I was like, “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone that looks like me on a late-night show like this!” It was so inspiring. I remember thinking, “I can do this! I need to form a band now, because of this.” And I did.
Fast forward 15 years later, I’m friends with the singer from At the Drive-In on Instagram. He messages and comments on things, and it’s amazing.
You guys play in Las Vegas quite a bit. What is it about the city that the band has connected with? The fanbase is incredible in Las Vegas. Every time we come out there, the fans are so passionate. They’re so excited to see us. We always make an effort to talk to people at the merch booth, and people just tell us their stories, about what our music means to them. It’s something really special. They talk about how [the city] sometimes they get passed over by other acts, but we’ve always made it a point to go out there.
Chicano Batman with Khruangbin, The Shacks. November 3, 8 p.m., $15-$20. Backstage Bar & Billiards, 702-382-2227.