Genre-bending Los Angeles-based quartet Chicano Batman played Voodoo Music + Arts Experience in 2012. But ask frontman Bardo Martinez, and it sounds like a different act entirely.
"I remember we played and took so long," Martinez says. "That was right in the middle of our development, and we were taking like three minutes to set up for the next song. We were that band — taking forever. I'm looking forward to showing folks what we've got now."
Chicano Batman's music has resonated with many kinds of fans — on college radio and Latin rock stations, in small clubs and on the massive stages of the Coachella and Sasquatch! music festivals. The group, often dressed in matching formalwear, transports audiences to whatever carefree location they can imagine through a smooth blend of surf and psychedelic rock, tropicalia and cumbia. And on the band's latest album, 2017's Freedom Is Free, it turned up the volume on some of its previously subtler influences: soul and R&B.
"We were always influenced by that, but we threw everything in the pot and let it simmer this time," Martinez says, noting that lately he can't get enough of Barbara Lewis' "Baby I'm Yours." For Freedom, the band worked with producer Leon Michels, who's worked with The Black Keys, Raekwon and the late Sharon Jones. Michels helped the band tease out and emphasize its funk influences. Freedom Is Free has bass lines that'll remind listeners of vintage James Brown ("Angel Child") and unfussy percussion lines that leave plenty of room for sample-ready passages ("Jealousy").
"When you put too many elements in, you take away from the dynamics of a song," Martinez says. "Instead, you (should) hold back so you can emphasize certain sections. We definitely took that approach for this album."
Since its release in March, Freedom Is Free has earned accolades for its message as much as its music. Though written before the 2016 presidential election, Freedom Is Free touches on many themes that now resonate strongly. A Spanish-language ballad called "La Jura" details the police shooting of a 19-year-old in the neighborhood of bassist Eduardo Arenas 15 years ago. A tidy bass- and drum-line introduces the title track, which ponders maintaining hope in the face of dangerous or oppressive forces. The band's new video for the song portrays all four members being interrogated via water torture, increasing the juxtaposition of sound and message. "The Taker Story" is the band's take on classic soul, as Martinez does his best to convey a Gil Scott-Heron-type of spoken-word activism.
It all points to a much different Chicano Batman performance at Voodoo this year. But if the band's shows in the meantime are any indication, audiences have embraced the evolution.
"People are singing our songs throughout the country," Martinez says. "It feels great. But there are other songs now, for example 'The Taker Story,' (where) I feel like I'm delivering the sermon. I'll sit down for the first few phrases and then pace slowly across the stage, really trying to connect with everybody. It's a completely different dynamic. We're always working on our visual presentation. ... With our shows, people can really feel what we're about, more than with our album really. We bring it with everything we got."