Chicano Batman Redefine the Future of Funk on Invisible People

Building on their Latin Rock foundation, Bardo Martinez and his bandmates are making themselves both seen and heard.

Photo: George Mays

Chicano Batman’s Bardo Martinez calls us via Zoom video from a patch of grass outside his Los Angeles’ home. Backed by that crystalline blue L.A. sky, the frontman and proud father of a newborn son radiates when questioned about the state of his very domestic existence. 

“It’s kind of a beautiful space, man, to be honest. It’s bringing a lot of life to the house,” he says. The band’s bassist, Eduardo Arenas, has also recently welcomed a newborn into the world and, despite the unique timing amid the pandemic, Martinez sees the positives. “We would’ve been on the road tomorrow, literally. It would’ve been mayhem, so we feel very blessed to have our kids at this time.”

It’s the day before the official release of their new album, Invisible People, but Chicano Batman have already carved out a niche for themselves as a Latin-American psychedelic rock band known for elaborate arrangements and their 1960s nostalgia-laden Brazilian Tropicália soul-funk jams. The band gained momentum in 2015 while playing support on Jack White’s Lazaretto tour and have continued that upward arc with annual big festival appearances and guest spots on Conan.

Invisible People leads the band in a new direction, trading in that distinct Latin sound for something more modern and pop-infused.“Before, for me, songwriting has always been super insular and a lot of it has to do with poetic expression and things like that,” Martinez says. “Where for this record, for me, it was really about having dope tracks—where the music is super undeniable.”

The compositions are more conventional than in past releases, and musically, tracks like “Manuel’s Story” and “Polymetronomic Harmony” are better suited blasting from a car stereo than buried in a lounge-rock Spotify playlist. Rhythmically, the drum patterns are simplistic but hard-hitting like in songs such as the title track, “Invisible People,” where the piece unfolds out of a simple four-four pattern that hypnotically carries all the way through.

“Carlos [Arévalo; guitar, keyboard, synthesizer] was pushing to have different sound landscapes. He was like, let’s not use the organ at all,” says Martinez. “I was also changing what instruments I was using. But Carlos was already thinking of Michael Jackson, he was thinking of William Onyeabor, he was thinking of futuristic-sounding funk music.”

When asked about the band’s decision to not delay the album’s release date amid the pandemic, Martinez was blunt.

“I think it doesn’t really matter when you put out music, man,” he says. “If you’re actually vibing with what you made the same way you’re vibing with fresh music that other cats have made, then that’s all that matters. Cats are gonna feel that vibe, cats are gonna know it’s fire, you know?”

Chicano Batman have always layered deeply political themes such as race and representation, amid their laid back grooves and Invisible People is no exception. Martinez describes himself as having always been that kid quick to raise his hand in class, and he’s blunt when considering the self-described “sinking ship” of civilization.

“At the end of the day, music is just like a comfort,” says Martinez as he picks at the grass near his feet. “Humanity is just constantly avoiding what’s in front of it. Where does music fit into that? I don’t know.”

Maybe it’s the stress that comes from fathering a newborn, or perhaps he’s just feeling “burnt out,” as he puts it, from the slog of releasing a new album—pandemic or no pandemic. But despite our attempts at finding the silver lining, the conversation inevitably seeks a darker path. 

Continuing to fixate on the grass beneath him, Martinez says, “Everything that’s kinda perpetuated has to fall under the status quo for it to be able to be perpetuated in the first place. And then all of us as consumers of that spit it back, and it’s not real. It’s fucking not real,” he says with conviction. Holding a handful of grass up close to the camera, he illustrates his point. “Like, this grass that I’m holding in my hand is real.”

The midway point of the new album is a track called “Moment of Joy.” Complementing its dreamy, psycho rock vibe, Martinez croons, “I know that I’m happy. I know that I’m happiest. When I feel the sunshine.”

As he sits in that same afternoon sun, Martinez appears caught between the bright light and the darkness that threatens the edges. But maybe it’s exactly this intersection in which Chicano Batman thrives, smack dab in the middle of feel-good and smarten up, that has listeners vibing and bobbing their heads to the beat with a purpose. 

Letting the grass fall to his feet, he says, “So, going back to the lyrics… I guess, my purpose, I think, is to just point that shit out.”

Invisible People is available now via ATO Records.