Space Is the Place for Chicano Batman’s Bardo Martinez

Martinez discusses doing his own thing on his solo debut as Bardo, Everywhere Reminds Me of Space.

Sometimes something is so good, so rich, and so dynamic, you can’t help but think that so much consciousness and complexity has gone into it. Take what Bardo Martinez does, both as the frontman of the Tropicália-accented, psychedelic-soulful Chicano Batman and now, on his debut solo album as Bardo—the high-energy, hard-beat-driven Everywhere Reminds Me of Space.

Talking to him in his home in Los Angeles, and knowing the often-existential lean that the Chicano Batman quartet holds as part of its big vibe (so much so that their second album is titled Cycles of Existential Rhyme) on albums such as 2017’s Freedom Is Free and 2020’s Invisible People—even dramatic moments such as “Patterns of Being” on Bardo’s new solo album—the temptation to read something into his given Christian name is too tempting. For the word “bardo” can either come attached to the form and aesthetics of tiger-style kung fu, or the deeper, more meaningful existence between lives, the transitional or liminal state between death and rebirth. I hear the word and I think of William S. Burroughs and his collage-cutting associate Brion Gysin, and I think of their adventures on this dimension, as well as a more astral plane. 

After telling him both of these observations at the start of our interview, Martinez demurs politely and laughs. “Oh man, it’s mostly just my name,” he chuckles. “The name my parents gave me.” So much for all that esoterica, a lengthy Tibetan-Buddhist backstory better left to the Beat Gen. “I did grow up with kung fu, though, but that was all on my own; at the house, as a young little kid in the neighborhood connecting to action films and cartoons. Plus, every little boy where I grew up was kicking and fighting the other ones. And the other meaning of my name…look, I heard that all the time in my meanderings throughout the Bay Area coming up. It’s not foreign to me. Besides, I’m a poetic guy, a songwriter, maybe even an existentialist if you will. So I can relate to that, too.”

Having written about and loved what Chicano Batman does, it’s fascinating (though unsurprising) to find that the solo Martinez, away from the democracy of Chicano Batman, is blunter and more to-the-point lyrically and melodically on Everywhere Reminds Me of Space. Though the last Chicano Batman album was rap-influenced, Bardo’s solo vision of that rhythm comes with heavy force on his debut album without actually being hip-hop (“It’s only hip-hop if there’s a rapper on it,” he says). Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1990s, his is the sound of backyard parties and break beats, as well as his oldies stations, from both the American AM tradition and those stations dedicated to his Latino heritage. “When my dad wasn’t playing the radio, he was playing his old Latino records,” recalls Martinez. “All of that music combined was on the same wavelength for me. There was never any separation. If it bangs, I use it. Put it all in the same bowl of soup.”

“When my dad wasn’t playing the radio, he was playing his old Latino records. All of that music combined was on the same wavelength for me. There was never any separation. If it bangs, I use it. Put it all in the same bowl of soup.”

There’s hard R&B, sweat-inducing punk, Blaxploitative funk (blame his film school studies for that sound), Latin jazz, and plainspoken word that’s also all part of the Bardo ideal, fed as they were through a tiny Casio keyboard that Martinez got from a friend. Though Chicano Batman have recorded and released music (just months ago, in fact) since 2016 when these Bardo sessions commenced (“loosely, without intention,” he adds), the songs that fill Everywhere Reminds Me of Space were random, yet served a purpose.

“Whether they were recorded with friends just hanging out or on my own, they’re not dictated by anyone else. It was really just me saying, ‘I love this song,’ or ‘I love this energy,’ and deciding to put it out. Just me working ceaselessly. It’s more beat-driven, but that’s just how I mix things when I’m on my own, producing myself. I wasn’t aiming for anything one way or another.”

Moving from the democracy of Chicano Batman to writing and producing guided by his own dictate is also something of a full circle for Martinez, as he says that’s how his beloved Batman quartet commenced. “At the birth of all this, it was just me trying to get my ideas out there, and finding people to do it with,” he says, fortunate to have found fellow Batmen Eduardo Arenas, Carlos Arévalo, and Gabriel Villa with whom to share the sonic load and the songwriting duties. “Time goes on, and we become equal voices. Totally.”

“Whether they were recorded with friends just hanging out or on my own, they’re not dictated by anyone else. It was really just me saying, ‘I love this song,’ or ‘I love this energy,’ and deciding to put it out.”

What Everywhere Reminds Me of Space and its 11 songs are, then, to Martinez are the voices inside his head; all “free-form,” with little Casio moments and drones, few “actual” songs such as “Saturn,” but a thing filled with hard beats, live tracks such as “New Day,” and spoken word elements inspired by Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets. “I think it was me just vibing out during quarantine.”

Martinez, in retrospect, is tickled to be thought of as a producer, as so much of Chicano Batman’s recent triumphs come courtesy the Technicolor, hi-fidelity sound of producer Leon Michels (“Hats off to him, always and forever; he’s our maestro—him and Shawn Everett”). To that end, Martinez wanted to learn from both Batman producers, and hopes that he’s mastered the fine art of sonic wallpapering. Having played listening parties over the course of the last few weeks for his debut Bardo release, including one at Peanut Butter Wolf’s Gold Line Bar in Los Angeles, Martinez is most enthused to be called things like “tenacious” and “talented” when it comes to the new music’s mix. “I’m set on the vision that I have, so whether it’s as part of a collective or on my own, I’m psyched to go down whatever rabbit hole it is I’m going down. Sometimes I’m not sure exactly what rabbit hole that may be, but I’m cool with it.” FL

photo by Cameo Adele

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