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Chicano Batman’s score for documentary ‘On Two Fronts’ has appeal for two generations

Chicano Batman members Carlos Arevalo, left, Gabriel Villa, Bardo Martinez and Eduardo Arenas in Los Angeles on Aug. 18, 2015.
Chicano Batman members Carlos Arevalo, left, Gabriel Villa, Bardo Martinez and Eduardo Arenas in Los Angeles on Aug. 18, 2015.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

There are few groups better suited to score music for the documentary “On Two Fronts: Latinos & Vietnam” than the Los Angeles quartet Chicano Batman. The film, which airs Tuesday on PBS, explores the often overlooked role that Latino Americans played during the Vietnam War.

“When you talk about patriotism and who the veterans are, there’s a lot of people from the ‘hood that went to go fight,” bassist Eduardo Arenas said. “There’s a lot of Medals of Honor in East L.A., Purple Hearts and that kind of thing from Boyle Heights in East L.A.”

Chicano Batman mixes rock, soul, classic samba and cumbia and lyrics in Spanish and English to create a strikingly Angeleno sound. Formed in the late ‘00s and long a mainstay of the L.A. underground rock scene, the band began earning respect outside Southern California with two albums and consistent touring.

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The foursome opened the year on the road with Jack White, went on to play the Coachella Music & Arts Festival and just finished a run with the explosive Southern rock ‘n’ soul band Alabama Shakes. Last month Chicano Batman sold out its homecoming show at the El Rey Theater, not long after it released the new track called “Black Lipstick.”

Now with the film “On Two Fronts,” directed by Mylène Moreno, the band’s musical score accompanies the experiences of veterans before, during and after the Vietnam War. Many young soldiers left with the idea that they’d be changing the world but returned broken and rejected by those who saw the war as a failure.

“With the music, we followed that type of trajectory,” Arenas said. “We got to compose for some really deep characters and some really shallow characters. My father is a Vietnam vet, and I got a lot closer to my dad without saying anything — just hearing these experiences of other people and contrasting that with all the stories I’ve heard growing up.”

The score for “On Two Fronts” illustrates the compositional depth of a band whose years on the road are finally generating dividends. Like many local Spanish-language bands, Chicano Batman (Arenas, singer-guitarist-organist Bardo Martinez, drummer-vocalist Gabriel Villa and guitarist Carlos Arévalo) is often described as being from East Los Angeles, even if that’s not really the case. A few members are from the Inland Empire, and one is from Colombia.

Martinez, who grew up in La Mirada, started the ball rolling when he sought kindred music spirits online, eventually falling in with a community of Eastside musician-activists.

“I was searching for my identity so I naturally melted into this scene of Chicanos and indigenous — there’s a lot of people in L.A. who can relate to the indigenous struggle,” he said. “That was really strong in the early 2000s, especially with the war in Iraq.”

The band formed as a three-piece and added a fourth member, guitarist Arévalo, about five years ago. Arenas and Martinez met while studying at, respectively, USC and UCLA.

The band has since issued two studio albums and a couple of singles. Its most recent full-length, “Cycles of Existential Rhyme,” came out in early 2014, and it has been going pretty much nonstop since. That practiced tightness permeates “Black Lipstick,” a beefy soul jam rich with organ and groove. That song, originally slated to be part of sessions with friend and peer Isaiah “Ikey” Owens before his untimely death in 2014, offered a new angle on the Batman sound. It was written with Owens in mind.

“His idea with the project was to have it bump,” Martinez said. “‘You guys need to put something out that’s going to bump in people’s stereo.’” After Owens’ death, the idea “stuck in our heads, and in composing music and putting it down, I just wanted it to be simple, catchy and up in people’s faces.”

“Fat” is how Arenas described the goal. “We all did everything necessary to lay back and get fat with it.”

Touring with Alabama Shakes and Jack White, said Arenas, was instructive both in absorbing “fatness” and on a cultural level.

The shows pushed music into new ears, connecting them with Latino American fans straddling cultures and others who couldn’t speak a lick of Spanish. “People come up and tell me, No. 1, that they love seeing brown faces on a big stage,” Arenas said. “That’s a reality for a lot of people. You cannot deny that. You’re playing with Jack White — a lot of artists are white. And here we’re a different kind of artist, a Latino artist, performing on that same level.”

Just as striking, added Arenas, has been the generational range of their fan base. “A lot of older people, our aunts and uncles, connect to the music that we’re doing because it reminds them of the stuff in the ‘70s. A lot of younger people like it because it reminds them both of their parents’ generation — and it reminds them of themselves and where they’re going.

“There’s a gap being bridged, and people are embracing that idea. They bring their parents to the show because their parents will get it too. That’s pretty powerful.”

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‘On Two Fronts: Latinos & Vietnam’

Where: KOCE and KPBS

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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