Invisible People, Drug Cartels & Deconstructing Sound With Chicano Batman

It’s safe to say that the world is not in a good place right now. There’s a virus looming, America is in the hands of a disastrous administration and we’re still trying to cope with the impacts of climate change. But we still have music, and even in this trying time artists are still releasing new creations at an overwhelming pace. Los Angeles’ Chicano Batman are on the verge of releasing Invisible People, a crisp and almost synthetic take on their raw and soulful tropical psych rock. Jack Parker called up guitarist Carlos Arévalo to discuss the album, the stories which birthed some of its most exciting moments and how there were absolutely no rules this time.

Hey Carlos! How are you doing?
I’m good! It’s raining here in LA.

Congratulations on Invisible People, a fantastic new album. Just outline for me what went down in Chicano Batman’s world since the end of Freedom is Free.
We toured a lot when Freedom is Free came out, I think for about 18 months in total. At the start of 2018 we began the writing sessions and demoing for Invisible People but during that time we also did a lot more touring. We finally hit the studio in 2019 and Leon Michaels producing it. We gave the record to Shawn Everett to mix it, after finishing all the tracking in March. We told Shawn that nothing was off the table and that we trusted his mixing style, so we basically gave him total freedom to do what he thought was going to make the record sound the best it possibly could. He definitely took a lot of freedom with it, and he added some cool production which wasn’t there at first. He made the songs pop.

Do you feel at all apprehensive about releasing it during a time where the world is in crisis?
You know, it’s funny because a friend texted me today about this. She’s a very progressive follower of the music industry and she said we should consider not releasing the album on 1 May. We talked about it as a group and with our label and our management, and although there was apprehension at first we rethought it and decided to stick to 1 May. It might even change by the time this interview goes out, but then again The Strokes also just released a new album, and so did The Weeknd. Maybe there could now be time for an “upcoming band” like us to get some good attention.

Invisible People has a very synthetic, crisp quality to it. It’s also quite a change in direction from a production perspective, largely down to Shawn Everett’s involvement I assume. Was this more than just a conscious decision to leave it in Shawn’s hands?
That’s a part of it, but as a group we made the decision that we wanted to take a new course after years of making music which was intentionally lo-fi and rooted in our love and adoration for 70s soul and psychedelic music. We always did an interpretation of that which I did feel was different and unique, but which has now also become quite popular in the last decade. We wanted to move away from that and take more artistic risks, which was contentious at times. Change is hard to instil in a democratic group of four people, but when we started writing we knew we were on a fresh course which excited us. We wanted to make the music sound more timeless and modern, and this meant that the production value had to move away from that sound. 

And although there is a distinct difference in sound, you worked with Leon Michels again. What did he bring to the table knowing you wanted to change things up?
It sounds like a contradiction that we went with the same producer and then decided to take a different approach, haha. We had a short list of producers which our label gave us; they just told us to look and see who piqued our interest. Some of the producers on the list were just untouchable, too big or too busy  already. It would have been amazing to work with some of them, but that just didn’t work out. It didn’t fall in line with what we wanted to accomplish. We wanted a heavy feel of rhythm and bass on this album, almost like the sensation and bounce of hip hop records; the kind of music that makes your car speakers vibrate very hard. Some of the producers on that list just weren’t right for us in that sense, like someone who could make an atmospheric, Radiohead-sounding album. At the end of the day, me and our bassist Eduardo talked about just getting Leon back and letting him know that we do want to make some changes. I trust Leon’s aesthetic; he comes from an amazing background. He’s worked with The Carters, and he had the lead on a song from their album which was nominated for a GRAMMY. He’s very well respected in hip hop, and so we figured we should take that, take his production and mix it with someone like Shawn Everett who can then put it in a modern context. Leon Michaels is a master songwriter and arranger; he has the ear and musical aesthetic we all trust as a band. There are some producers who you might question, or be worried about when the music sounds too cheesy, but we have none of that working with Leon. Even if you don’t get it at first, he understands it and it’s right in line with what we want. Sometimes there are situations where we’re at an impasse about something musical and he’ll come to solve it. 

I just want to focus on Manuel’s Story. Can you tell me more about how that song came to life? The lyrics tell quite a compelling story.
Instrumentally it was me who had an idea for that song and brought it to Eduardo and Gabriel. Bardo [vocals] was out of town at the time, but we wanted to stay productive. I had this idea which involved a motor-y, krautrock-like beat which you’d hear a lot from bands like Neu, Can and Stereolab; I love those kinds of beats but I was apprehensive if the rest would like it. So I decided I wanted to mess with it and challenge the others to see if it worked. Gabriel played the beats, I filled in some guitar and Eduardo cracked in a bass line. We had the feeling that this was something very different from what we had done before, and although we’d demoed 20 songs this one felt like it still needed a little more. It was then that I used a multivox keyboard to address the melody line. Bardo then took the song and wrote about a story which his uncle had told him a few months earlier. The story is about Bardo’s uncle’s brother borrowing money from drug cartel members in Colombia and not paying them back. Instead, he left town, and then the cartel retaliated by going after the uncle. This brother fled for his life from the cartels and had to relocate to another South American country.

This is the first album where you haven’t got a single Spanish language song. Was this a conscious decision?
I think it just happened, as the songs on this album call for a different approach. I do know that Bardo’s been having conversations where he’s said that you’ll always reach the most people singing in English. Even in Mexico there are more people listening to English language rock than Spanish, and that’s saying something for a country with an enormous Spanish rock community. People listen to English music all over the world, so I think that was also part of the idea. We wanted to reach higher and get into places where we hadn’t before. There was one song during demoing which Eduardo sang, as he usually does one song per album by himself. We recorded it – it was a long, beautiful ballad – but it didn’t make the album as it just didn’t suit the mission statement we had from the outset. We wanted to go for songs which were more concise. 

It’s also been 10 years since your debut album came out. Looking back, is there anything you’d have said to yourself starting out that you wish you’d have known sooner?
Oh man, this is such an obvious question but I’ve never entertained the thought of it, it’s tough. I joined the band a year after the debut album came out, but I’d always been friends with Bardo and I was a fan of the band. I guess I’d tell myself to just get to work. We were all a little relaxed in those days, very leisurely. Ten years fly by really quickly. Speaking for myself, I wish we would have put out more music than we have done, but that’s mainly because we really took our time to smell the roses and let it happen. That doesn’t mean that art can’t continue to happen, but now we’re all realising that we want to put out more and more music and have a much higher output. 

Four albums in, and you still haven’t played any shows outside of North America and Mexico. Is there a reason behind this?
We’ve done shows in Chile and Japan once, but that’s it. There was a European tour planned during the Freedom is Free tour, but we just got far too burnt out. We’re in our 30s and we all have families, so it was a little tough to pull it off and eventually it just never came to fruition. It had been on the cards for this year too, but then COVID-19 happened and it never got announced. We were gonna be in Europe in late summer and early fall, but I haven’t heard anything since. 

It’s all up in the air here in Europe just as much as it is everywhere else. Even October is starting to become a doubt.
Yeah. I mean, it would be amazing if Coachella happened but I don’t know. In the US, the way the Trump administration has been handling this entire mess has been very disorganised. They’ve been awful, leaving everyone on their own like the Wild West. It’s like, “here’s some money, good luck”. I live in Los Angeles, California, and here we’re very progressive. We believe in science and take the advice of our public health officials seriously, and we were one of the first states to have a mandate in place. We also ordered shelter in place before anywhere else. We’ve slowly been flattening the curve, and we’ve had nowhere near as many deaths as New York or anywhere else. The more conservative states haven’t even ordered shelter in place, their governors don’t want it to happen because they don’t want to shut down the economy. Maybe it’ll be better in Los Angeles in two months, but who knows what it will be like elsewhere.

A few years ago you spoke about the difficulties of breaking through into mainstream US rock as a latin band. Do you feel like much has changed in the years since when it comes to latin representation in guitar-music?
Yes, for sure. I think things have definitely changed. I see it in places like Music Man and Fender, you can see that they have the intention of pushing music as a space which consists of more than just the middle aged white man. It also consists of queer people, people of colour, and women. You can see that these kinds of organisations understand that if they want to expand, they need to move out of their traditional demographic. It’s good to expose people to different kinds of music and culture, as everyone has different stories to tell from different places. There’s a festival called Tropicalia here in Los Angeles which would have never happened ten years ago, and you’ve also got great bands like The Maria’s and Interwave who are more regional but are also building up bigger followings. They’re all just latino kids making funky synth music, and it’s amazing. You also see it with someone like Bad Bunny, he’s a megastar. Then there was Jennifer Lopez doing the Super Bowl with Shakira, and even though they did an amazing job of representing their cultures there were still people angry at the fact that latinos were part of the big time doing this thing. There’s still a lot of progress to be made, but things are definitely getting better. The same with TV shows, not just for latinos but also for people from other cultures. This all pushes culture forward and helps people understand that there’s just one human race. Invisible People comes out on 1 May via ATO Records.