Photo: George Mays
Chicano Batman Talk Creating Visibility For 'Invisible People,' Representation Of Latinos In Media & Repping Los Angeles
The beloved L.A. psych/soul rock band dive deep into their powerful, danceable fourth studio album, 'Invisible People,' identity, racism and what the West Coast city means to them
There is real power in music that gets you dancing, feeling joy and thinking about critical human issues. That is exactly what Chicano Batman's music does—drawing you in with their groovy bass lines, warm and soulful vocals and all-around funky, sun-soaked instrumentation and aesthetic. With their fourth studio album, Invisible People, released May 1 on ATO Reords, they double-down on the funkiness and deliver their most powerful, rhythmic project yet.
Founded in 2008 in Los Angeles, the four-piece embodies the true beauty, creativity and diversity of the city they call home. Since the release of their self-titled debut album in 2010, the band has brought their infectious energy and vibrancy to countless shows and festivals through Southern California, the U.S. and abroad, with a (typically) active tour schedule.
With their 2020 tour with Le Butcherettes put on hold until 2021, the group has stayed busy with virtual appearances on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," NPR's Tiny Desk, KEXP and more. They've also stayed engaged with their community despite quarantine, offering youth music workshop livestreams with the Young Musicians Foundation and a delicious fundraising taco at L.A.'s HomeState.
In conversation with GRAMMY.com, Bardo Martinez (lead vocals, keyboard and guitar), Carlos Arévalo (guitar), Gabriel Villa (drums) and Eduardo Arenas (bass) dive deep into the creative process and meaning behind their latest album. They get real about identity, racism and representation, and the marinization they have experienced as Latinos in the indie-rock space.
You guys dropped the fourth Chicano Batman album, Invisible People, just back in May. What was the creative process like on this album? How long were you guys working on it?
Villa: A few years?
Arévalo: [Laughs.] A few years. Yes. That's it.
Villa: A few years. Next question. [Everyone laughs.]
Arévalo: Maybe 14 months.
Villa: We had to go on tour, so, we had to stop a little bit. We had writing sessions, but we basically started in 2018.
Arenas: In 2018, we talked about different ideas we wanted to introduce to the new record, and we did a lot of demos. At the end we chose 12 songs. Everybody kicked in on this one and helped develop it, where in the past the Bardo wrote the majority of the songs. This time Carlos was kicking in stuff, Bardo was kicking in stuff. I would join up forces with them and throw in stuff. There were all these different combinations of things that happened that we had not explored in the past.
Martinez: Recording was a big part of it, us using our home studios to record stuff and vibe that way.
Villa: Carlos, talk a little bit about that moment where you came into rehearsal and you were like, "Guys, I know we have to do this album, but wait listen!" [Everyone laughs.]
Arévalo: I had my own little idea of what I thought the record should be in terms of a theme or a direction. That's something I would keep to myself on the past records and then just have my own personal goals for my instrumentation. But this time I shared it aloud to the group. That's choppy waters you can get into because you're asking a drummer to play drums a certain way or a singer to sing a certain way. Well, it's more recommending or showing examples of like, "Hey, could we try it this way this time and see how that goes?" That was a vulnerable place to be. But I've known these guys for so many years, it was time for me to be real with them and hope for the best.
They were receptive, everybody needed a little bit of time at first to just take it in. Once we started trying out these ideas, everybody else started bringing in other stuff they'd been wanting to try before, but maybe never thought this was the project to do that. So, I got the juices flowing creatively for everyone. It was cool.
Martinez: Yeah, this record was a lot of push and pull, as it's always been with our music. It's four dudes in a band, so everybody's pushing for whatever ideas they had in their head. I mean, Carlos was pretty straight forward. He was like, "Well, we should make something we could dance to, danceable music." It was a great idea. It brought us into the late '70s and '80s in terms of aesthetics, in terms of sound—it was new territory for me. It was a lot of fun. It's a dope realm that we eventually got to.
Villa: It was definitely fun to create. The whole process was just fun, fun, fun, and a lot of communication. We learned a lot. We're always inspired and happy to be working with the team so it really, really paid off. You can hear it in the music. If you compare the Chicano Batman discography, you really hear that this album is so different from the rest. It definitely has that element of dancing—for the first time we're doing a lot of 16-notes. [Mimics fast drum beat.]
Carlos, that idea you came in with, was it "dancing" music or something else?
Arévalo: I had started a little DJ night as an excuse to play records that I was collecting on the road with being on tour—you hit up shops in Michigan and you find amazing 45s that are just so overpriced in L.A. or that you can't even find them. I was playing once a month at bars and exploring what music has that universal appeal to people, that makes them want to get up and move or sing along. It's a cool way to experience music when you have the sound system at your behest. I was controlling the PA and it's bumping, I could control the bass. I could see what was going on from the mixer. That inspired me.
There's so many 45s that I love. I would play stuff like Talking Heads' "Naive Melody," Tom Tom Club. I'd play Prince's "Erotic City," that '80s music that had amazing songwriting appeal, but simultaneously were hit records. I feel that doesn't go hand-in-hand all the time anymore. Now, you have writers that get together to make a song sound exactly like this other song so it can be a hit and make money. It's about capitalism and it's about getting that publishing. Back then, it was more so you can make an art piece that was also danceable. It was really appealing and inspirational to me.
When did you finish the album? Since you were working on it on and off, was there a period of time where you huddled up and finished all of it?
Arévalo: Yeah, so we started writing the record, like they said, in January 2018. And then we demoed it when we could and we started amassing demos amongst all of us. We had little sessions in between touring and we finally started recording the album in February 2019 at Barefoot Recording, which used to be called Crystal Industries. It's where Stevie Wonder recorded one of his epic '70s trilogy albums, Songs in the Key of Life, those amazing records where he found his synthesizer voice. So many hit records were made there. Sly Stone worked out of there and George Clinton. So, we made Invisible People there for two weeks and then Bardo flew to New York for another two weeks to do vocals and some overdubs. Then we had to wait a year to put it out.
Martinez: Well, it got mixed and we put all the music together. Leon Michels produced it. He definitely put his hand in the sound of it. He's an amazing producer [he's also worked with Lee Fields, Aloe Blacc, The Carters and others] and has an amazing hip-hop sensibility. He knows how to make everything knock. He definitely added some amazing vibes, and then he passed it over to [five-time GRAMMY winner] Shawn Everett who mixed it. So, that was the whole next process of, "okay, well he got the music" and we were in the dark for a week or month or so.
Once we received it, I'm telling you, for me, the summer of 2019 was lit, 'cause it was just blazing, fing listening, bumping that in my car. I had just moved into this house that I live in now. It was amazing. Imagine, you move into a new house and you're playing a new record. I had my friends over and it was amazing. It was perfect.
The title track, "Invisible People" is really powerful and very pertinent to this moment we're in right now—calling out racism. Can you speak to the message behind this song and how you feel that it informs the rest of the album?
Marinez: We came up with a thesis statement, which was the title itself. Carlos was like, "How about we write a song about how the marginalization of Latinos?" "Invisible People"—for example, not being noticed in the indie music world or being on tour and feeling marginalized just entering spaces like the liquor store in Tennessee. That was one piece of it.
I started tackling different pieces in different verses, and I only have three verses. I wanted to make sure that whatever I was saying was going to be very strong and very poignant, straight to the point. I didn't have time to cut corners, so I was going to be direct with it. I wanted it to be as strong as possible because the music was set up that like that. We went into the studio and that song was [originally] a little bit faster and Leon suggested we slow it down. The instrumentation is super sparse. The beat is heavy, the bass drops on the kick in the perfect place. The music is there for the vocal to just shoot out.
I approached every verse as a different thing. My first line is, "Invisible people, we're tired of living in the dark. Everyone is trying to tear us apart." So, it's obviously pointing at some type of marginalization. It's not necessarily specific. The second line—"smoke a spliff so I could feel now"— I don't even smoke spliffs by the way, I like joints, but it was a homage to maybe Bob Marley or something I knew a lot of people were going to relate to. Something edgy, something cool. The next verse is about race, "The truth is we're all the same. The concept of race was implanted in your brain." I definitely wanted to call that out, race as a construct pretty much.
Also, just to challenge all of that because as a band, as, we're Chicano Batman. We decided to use this name, which has its own meanings as a Chicano, as an identity. I don't know if that's problematic, but it's going to challenge norms within our own community, and also in the superstructure status quo. That's the more obvious knot.
Also, anybody could be invisible in society. It wasn't "Just Latinos are invisible or just people of color." The privilege that White people have in this country is not good for them. When they walk onto the street, into the supermarket, there's a lot of psychological weight to all that history, to alter that reality which is based upon history, decades and centuries of oppression, that White people really have to deal with as well. Everybody, regardless of who you are, if you're living in a city, if you're living in society, you're a part of it. You're complicit in it. You're subjugated by it. People don't necessarily talk about it like that on Instagram. People on Instagram are just pointing fingers at each other. So, that's really not the goal of it. The goal is to be like, "Yo, the truth is we're all in this together." It's not some "We Are The World" shit. It's also, "This record is fire, we're spinning the world around you. We got this record, we're ready to tour and do it big." It's all those things wrapped into one.
Arenas: Piggybacking off what Bardo said about Instagram, they're probably not saying that on Instagram because White cops are too busy killing Black people and shooting them in the back. That's a reality that White privilege has led to, it's not only capitalism, but genocide. That's also what we have to live with today. Not only with religion, but with the way communities are divided, with the way we think, with our mental health as a people, with our communities and the disinvestment in them and the lack of education and resources. This is all very implicit and designed to be this way, to lack people of color of the resources while the few good resources go to the top. That's the system that we've been living under here in the United States for a very, very, very long time.
I think for me, "Invisible People" has a very open open-ended meaning, it's a very big concept, and I think it can definitely be understood differently in 10 years, in 30 more years, et cetera. But right now, to me, it speaks so much about the murder of innocent people, invisible people, who are our family members, our voices, our activists. They're actors of change in our society, the heroes. So, to me, we need to put some extra highlight on that at this moment right now.
Arévalo: For me, the idea for the song was explicitly about people of color and the struggle we've endured. I don't know how many bands GRAMMY.com has interviewed where they get pulled over by border patrol in Florida for driving in a tour van, but that's our experience. I don't know how many indie rock bands have gone through that. Dealing with stuff like that was in my mind when bringing up the idea of the song, and the lack of representation we see of Latinos in the media, you don't see us with parts of substance in movies or TV shows. It's always cliched, and it makes me sick, because we're multi-dimensional. We are more than caricatures.
So, that was part of the idea. Also, just tongue-in-cheek like, "Do you see us now? Here we are, this is our record. Will you acknowledge us yet?" Because there has been a hump of, people keep saying, "Chicano Batman is breaking through with this record, this rising band." And every time we put out a record, we're always this new band that's coming out of nowhere. So, it's a critique on that and how the status quo in the media views us.
You've said "Color my life," which opens the album, is about experiencing nature versus being stuck in the city. Was there a specific experience, feeling or place that inspired this song?
Martinez: That's the first time somebody asked me where, what's the location. I appreciate the question. Honestly, it's Oakland. I lived in Oakland for a year and a half. That was the first thought, literally what I was thinking about when I was writing those verses. I had some lyrics that were taken out too. During the chorus, "You've got to color my life..." I had something about birds. Anyways, Oakland was definitely the place.
Do you feel now when you perform "Color my life" now, especially in a virtual setting like on the NPR's Tiny Desk, do you feel it has taken on new meaning?
Martinez: I'll be honest, it's hard for me to connect with the virtual stuff. It's difficult. I'm a little numbed by the whole virtual reality experience. But what's the new meaning? I just went to the forest recently, to Mammoth for four days with my family. I needed to do that. Honestly, it's been a long time since I've actually gone camping or anything that because of doing the music thing and touring. This pandemic has given me the opportunity to do some of that. I want to do it more often because it's the most freeing thing, just to be out in nature, it's fantastic.
"L.A. is what I carry with me all the time... It's what I try to represent in my music, at least respective to the instrument that I play and the swagger I input and the way I want people to move. We want them to feel that this is the way L.A. moves you, when we're in Germany, Brazil or France. It doesn't matter where, it's rooted in L.A. and L.A. is international because our roots are deep." -Eduardo Arenas
As a Los Angeles band, what does the city mean to all of you?
Arévalo: It's a forever home for me. My dad immigrated from El Salvador and lived in an apartment complex in Hollywood and went to Hollywood High, which I can't even imagine—what a dichotomy that must have been. My mom is third generation Mexican-American, so her family's been here since the '20s and they all have roots and stories that come from L.A. It's always been a big part of who I am and where I come from. I still have family that lives out there and also family that lives in L.A. It's an important part of my identity.
Villa: For me, L.A. feels like home. I come from very far away. I was born and raised in Colombia and I've traveled around the world. I had the opportunity and was so lucky to able to go to Europe and live there before coming to the United States. I lived over there for many years. Coming to L.A. straight from Toulouse, France was a big cultural shock for me, learning all these new set of laws and lifestyles. And there's a lot of things I probably will never understand, like the freeway, but L.A. is special, it has so much, it's a place for everyone. I feel it's a big blender and that's something that I like about this city. When I was in France and went to Paris and rode the Metro and saw all these different cultures together, I was like, "This is good. I want to live in a city this."
And I ended up living in L.A., and you have the same feeling just like riding on a Metro in Paris. It's like a dream and every day I'm learning something new. There's a lot going on here in terms of opportunities and work, especially music and media. It's crazy. I'm super glad and lucky to have found my brothers here. The band has embraced me as a Chicano, as a brother, and that's the world for me. Yes, I feel home.
Arenas: I'm born and raised in L.A., I'm from the generation of kids that used to walk to the market and get a gallon of milk and a pack of tortillas. That's how I grew up. I used to sell flowers in the street on Mother's Day and Valentine's Day. We used to sell fruit and vegetables that we'd get, extras from the produce market in downtown L.A. and resell them on the streets. L.A. is me.
I grew up with Hollywood movies and TV shows, all this '80s and '90s action stuff—the vanity that comes with that. And the vision of wanting to be something else that also comes with that. Like Carlos was saying, there's no representation of Latinos on TV, especially when you're growing up in the '80s and '90s, only dumbasses or a donkey motherers. Or some, "arriba, arriba" type shit, which we tossed around as culture when we were kids because we don't know better. But, in a lot of places in the country, they still perceive it like that.
L.A. is what I carry with me all the time, even when I lived in Brazil and Panama. It's what I try to represent in my music, at least respective to the instrument that I play and the swagger I input and the way I want people to move. We want them to feel that this is the way L.A. moves you, when we're in Germany, Brazil or France. It doesn't matter where, it's rooted in L.A. and L.A. is international because our roots are deep. Our roots go way back, they're not just bounded to the streets and these grids and these traffic lights, they go down really deep to communities in Mexico, at least for me. I think that's what I can offer.
Martinez: I grew up in La Mirada, Calif., it's a suburb [in L.A. County]. My dad came to Santa Ana, Calif. with his grandma in the late '60s. My mom came to Orange County in the early '80s from Cartagena, Colombia. They established the family. I was the first one to come out and there's only two of us. We moved to La Mirada and lived in some apartments over there for a while, and then they bought a house. Parks and beaches were part of my family's recreational activities. I look at L.A. as a massive region as a county, not just a city.
And to be honest, I'm infatuated by its natural beauty, these hills, the mountains, the wildlife, the ocean. I think of things like, "Wow, I can see the sunset over the oceans horizon because I'm facing directly west" in Redondo Beach. And conversely, the sun sets over the mountains when I'm in Long Beach because I'm facing south. After so many years I can visualize the panorama from various points in relation to the map. Although I navigate L.A.s streets and highways, I'd rather be on a bike, traveling at the speed of my own will, heading in whatever direction without so much regard to traffic or signals. I guess I try to feel the region I live in, as opposed to think of it in the confines of the names and boundaries, that actually don't exist.
What key things do you think are necessary for L.A. to become a place where all of its residents are celebrated and able to thrive?
Martinez: I think it's necessary for people to open their minds, drop the judgement. I feel like traveling definitely helped me see and feel things differently.
"For me, I'd say that following your heart can work!... I'm still marching to the beat of my own drum, because that's what I know how to do, and that's what makes whatever I do unique." -Bardo Martinez
It's been a decade since the band's debut—what have you learned about yourself as artists and as humans since then?
Martinez: For me, I'd say that following your heart can work! I've pursued music for aesthetic reasons, never really thinking about the markers of success, not to say those aren't necessary.
And I'm still marching to the beat of my own drum, because that's what I know how to do, and that's what makes whatever I do unique.
Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More
The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'
In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.
"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.
Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.
"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."
Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American.
"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."
Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards
Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category
The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.
Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville
Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.
Championships – Meek Mill
In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
i am > i was – 21 Savage
Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.
IGOR – Tyler, The Creator
The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.
The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae
Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.
Photo: C Brandon/Redferns/Getty Images
Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream
Proceeds from the event will be go toward loans to small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, via Accion Opportunity Fund
This Saturday, June 20, artists including Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz and more will come together for Small Business Live, a livestream fundraiser event for small businesses facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Proceeds from the livestream will go to Accion Opportunity Fund to support small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses.
“Entrepreneurs of color are denied credit more often and charged higher rates for money they borrow to fund their businesses. We need to accelerate support to underserved businesses in order to reach our full potential,” Accion Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia said. “We have to decide what we want our Main Streets to look like when this is over, and we must act decisively to keep small businesses alive and ready to rebuild. This is a fun way to do something really important. Everyone’s support will make a huge difference to small business owners, their families and employees who have been devastated by this pandemic, the recession, and centuries of racism, xenophobia and oppression.”
Tune in for Small Business Live Saturday, June 20 from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EDT on smallbiz.live. The site also provides a full schedule of programs and links to watch the livestream on all major digital platforms. To learn more about Accion Opportunity Fund, visit the organization's website.
Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Rolling Loud Festival Los Angeles Reveals 2019 Lineup
Find out who's bringing the heat to the hip-hop fest returning to L.A. this December
Today, Rolling Loud revealed the massive lineup for their final music festival of 2019, Rolling Loud Los Angeles, which is set to take over the Banc of California Stadium and adjacent Exposition Park on Dec. 14–15.
This iteration of "the Woodstock of Hip-Hop," as the all-knowing Diddy has called it, will feature Chance the Rapper, Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD, Young Thug and Lil Baby as Saturday's heavy-hitting headliners. Sunday's headliners are none other than Future, A$AP Rocky, Meek Mill, YG and Playboi Carti.
L.A.'s own Blueface, Tyga and Doja Cat, are slated to perform, as well as representatives from the diverse rap scenes across the country, including Wale, Juicy J, Lil Yachty, Megan Thee Stallion, Gunna, Tyla Yaweh, Machine Gun Kelly and Yung Gravy.
The lineup announcement follows the successful wrap of Rolling Loud Bay Area in Oakland this past weekend. The event's flagship Miami event took place in May this year, and the New York and Hong Kong debut editions will both take place later this month.
Some of y’all not ready for these moshpits https://t.co/3nlaudjapq— Randy (@randyt0321) October 1, 2019