Eduardo Arenas of É Arenas and Chicano Batman on Food, Music and SoCal Gentrification

Eduardo Arenas (right, a.k.a. É Arenas) with his Chicano Batman bandmates. Photo by Josue Rivas

For the third year of its Tropicália Festival, promoter Goldenvoice has curated a lineup consisting of legendary and modern Latino artists who are in high demand. A reflection of how popular those musicians are is the fact that the festival was originally booked at the modestly sized Pico Rivera Sports Arena, but so many tickets were being snatched up so quickly, the venue was changed to the more ample sized Pomona Fairplex for this weekend’s two-day event.

Returning for their third straight headlining slot are hometown favorites Chicano Batman, who in the past decade have initiated a resurgence and newfound appreciation of Latino rock, soul, funk, cumbia and Tropicália. One can argue that the Tropicália Festival wouldn’t be around today without the hard work and hustle of Chicano Batman, which is committed to bridging a wide range of cultures. In addition to the band’s set this year, their bassist, Eduardo Arenas, performs separately with his solo project (and nickname), É Arenas. We convinced Arenas to chat with us about his musical origins, influences, catchy Quebradita songs and his upcoming dual sets at the Tropicália Festival.

OC Weekly: Where are you from, what are your musical influences, and when did you know music was your passion that you wanted to pursue?

Eduardo Arenas: I’m from Los Angeles. I’m from Boyle Heights. When I was a kid, I grew up around a musical family. My uncles played nortenas, corridos, cumbias and ballads like a typical grupera band, which played mainly quinceaneras, baptisms and house parties. I would kick it with them when I was 5 or 6, and they would be listening to Los Bukis, Los Temerarios, Bronco and stuff like that, so when I was a kid I had an affinity for that, for the rhythm of music. And I always maintained that through my childhood, just my love for music, through Vicente Fernandez, Bukis and all that sort of thing. So when it was my turn to seek out the music that I wanted to hear and could buy my own stuff, I went for White Zombie, Metallica, Slayer, Pantera. You know, those are my tools of aggression to kind of find my voice. So I pretty much sought metal from [ages] 12-13 years up until I was in college. So that’s basically the roots. Those are my roots.

I read somewhere that at some point you ended up traveling to Salvador, Brazil, and that’s when you discovered Tropicália music?

Oh yeah, I lived there for a year. That’s definitely when I got into Tropicália music. I went to Brazil without knowing a single thing. I didn’t even know who Stan Getz and João Gilberto were, and they pretty much launched the bossa nova movement [into the U.S.] through their 1964 album Getz/Gilberto, so that’s the first album I heard. From there I heard a David Byrne collection of Brazilian classics, and then I heard some Jorge Ben and Caetano Veloso; not a lot of really deep stuff,  just more generic like MPB [Musica Popular Brasileira]. So I would go to this one record store where I would have some acai and they had a lot of CDs. The CDs were $5 each and this guy would recommend which ones I should get. The first CD I ever bought in Brazil was called Transa by Caetano Veloso.

That’s really cool. What inspired this trip to Brazil?

Well, when I was in college, I was about to graduate, but I said I’m not ready for the world yet. So I dropped my last class so I wouldn’t graduate, then I got financial aid to study abroad in Brazil. So I basically took a semester to study geography and music in Brazil.

Then you returned from Brazil and ended up graduating in the end?

Yeah, I studied urban planning at USC. So after Brazil and after graduating, I landed a job working for the city of Huntington Park and ended up working in the Community Development Department for five years.

Do you think your time as an urban planner influenced your music or any themes you touch on?

Well, interestingly, I travel all over the country visiting different cities, so I’m kind of an urban planner still. Planning the social scene of rhythm and harmony in cities.

How would you describe your sound as É Arenas to a newcomer?

My first album was super rhythmically introverted and melodically creamy. I think it was my own process of self-development. It took six years to do that, and it’s just where I was at the time. But my last couple of 45s have just been straight Quebradita mosh pit. There’s all these mosh pits at my shows, and I don’t know what causes them but I think it just has to do with the intensity that we play with, and we just throw down and I think we’re not doing anything new. We’re re-interpreting themes. We’re changing the narrative on a lot of stories, but it’s music that your tia and tio can jam to, too. It’s music you heard when you were a kid. It’s just playful music, and it’s just so innate, it’s so natural to be doing this music. I think there’s a voice that is missing in that kind of genre, and I’m just taking the reins from where Chico Che and Rigo Tovar, Polfaceticos and Fito Olivares, all these dope bands that I admire, left off. So I’m thinking, “Cool, I’ll take it from here and I’ll try to re define themes for my generation using the stuff they taught me.”

Yeah, we all definitely grew up listening to these artists at parties and it’s nice to see someone like you in our generation continuing that sound and legacy but switching it up to themes from a new generation. And speaking of Fito, I saw you posted that he gave you a shout out for your song “Mar Iguana.” How does that make you feel when one of these legends you just named are giving you props for something you created that drew inspiration from the OGs?

Ah man, it’s amazing. Shit. He said, “Tiene un ritmo bien guapachoso!”and I’m thinking, “DAMN, that is hot.” It just made me feel like I’m doing things right and I have support and I should just keep doing it.

So I know you worked on your first album for six years before releasing it, and the past couple of years you’ve been releasing a couple of 45s here and there, but what’s next? Maybe another full length?

Ah man, yeah, another full length! I think the 45s were just another distraction [laughs], but there’s a lot of work to be done. A lot of self-love, self-reflection, development, growth. Everybody has their own journey, and I think this next group of songs that I have is a lot of twisted Mexican folklore, funk and a lot of experimentation in the studio. I have a studio that I work at where I produce all my own stuff, other artists, and the sky’s the limit, really. I keep learning every day. I listen to a lot of music. I come across a lot of people. I listen to people’s stories. All of that stuff I just regurgitate back into my music. I just met some fans who were Marines and don’t want to be there, and they are just counting down until the day they have to leave. So I’m thinking, “Damn, this is straight up cumbia. Cumbia del Marine. It’s like who the hell would think of doing a song like this?

Stop! It’s Eduardo Arenas! (Photo by David Rodriguez)

Yeah, definitely, so this album is already in the works then?

Yeah, I have like five or six songs that I have about ready to go. So I just have to do like five more and cut the three crappy ones. But I’m excited; I’ve been listening to these songs once a week for the last year. Some of them have been around for two years.

You have songs about food that make your listeners (including myself) very nostalgic. One of your songs, “Buñuelos a Monton,” talks about being involved in the kitchen to learn recipes before that generation passes away and leave with their recipes. What are some recipes you’ve managed to document from your relatives and have possibly mastered yourself?

Man, salsa verde is definitely one that’s pretty clutch. I think salsa verde and chilaquiles. Definitely chilaquiles; I’m pretty good at that. When you said that, I’ve been thinking lately of this lomo my mom makes. We call it la bola de carne; it’s like a barbacoa. She just makes it so dank and sometimes you don’t want to ask; you just want them to make it for you. But there’s that fine line because one day you’re going to have to make that yourself. She’ll be gone and that flavor will be gone, too. Those flavors are history. So I go to Mexico and come back with pinole, crema de coco and all these things that my tias are making, and I’m like I have no idea how to make this stuff. This is ancestral at this point. You have a lot to look forward to learning and staying curious.

Yeah, definitely, I feel like people are getting more into having a dialogue with their parents and documenting things more because if that doesn’t continue, then sadly that culture just goes with them. So I appreciate your song because I agree that this is super important.

And that song was also an homage to my tia who had just passed. It was our first Christmas without her. She was kind of the alpha of the family and she was the bombest cook ever. She made everything. She was the glue so the fact that she wasn’t around … I don’t really want to write a song about someone that’s not around us anymore, it was more of a celebration about the food. It’s about the flavor. You taste something and it reminds you of the past. I think I focus on food because of that. I get nostalgic. I think food is the language of the centuries, and it’s one way to get to someone’s ear. It doesn’t matter if they’re a gangster, a businessperson, an athlete, a musician, there’s a universal thing we can talk about like love and food.

Yeah man, I agree. So about this weekend: What do you think about the existence of a large music festival like Tropicália in Southern California that highlights Chicano and Latino culture along with big American acts as well?

The first thing that I was thinking of today was when I was an urban planning student at USC. I remember learning that Starbucks only constructed their cafes in areas that had a minimum median income. So with that said, they wouldn’t build in East LA, Boyle Heights or any of those places because they were like people are too poor, they won’t buy a cup of coffee. So what ended up happening was a lot of those people in East LA and Boyle Heights would go to Monterey Park, Montebello or somewhere else to go to Starbucks and get a coffee. So the other part of that study was that there’s an underground economy of Latinos not documented in the census that have spending power. So when I thought about Tropicália, I thought, you know, there’s 30,000 people going to this festival and it’s going to be mainly Latinos and there’s such a big demographic of musicians. … I dunno, it’s like our own Latino Coachella or something, with the artists that people are interested in seeing and not artists that people are trying to force feed you. These are artists that people are trying to see. To go from Innerwave to Caifanes to Kali Uchis to La Chamba it’s like a dream, honestly. It’s like a fantasy lineup. It’s a fantasy lineup that somehow Goldenvoice managed to put on a bill and it’s unbelievable. We have a six-piece band and we’re going to set it on fire, man. No apologies. We’re going to do what we always do. We’re going to play like we’re going to die tomorrow. If we believe in the music, then everyone else will believe in it. Who doesn’t like a good Quebradita throwback party?

Exactly! I personally feel that in the past decade, Chicano Batman heavily influenced a Chicano renaissance that made many fans appreciate their culture more and influenced fans to start similar sounding bands or non-musicians to play their parents’ vinyl cumbia records, which have snowballed into a festival like Tropicália. So I feel like Chicano Batman was heavily involved in influencing a festival like Tropicália to form. What do you think?

You know what? I was thinking that today man, and I appreciate you saying that because throughout the years we name dropped Os Mutantes, Los Pasteles Verdes, Los Angeles Negros so much, and I cannot help but think that the promoters are catching wind and are trying to bring them into the scene because youngsters are now digging in their crates for their records and looking for those back beats just the same way DJs were doing that in the ’90s. But undeniably, Los Angeles Negros and Pasteles Verdes and all those types of bands–Terricolas, Los Freddy’s–that’s our candy. When we started off, we were all about paying homage to those bands, and we haven’t stopped talking about them for a long time. Now we’re playing at a festival with them and it can’t be a coincidence. It’s just an appreciation. People are waking up to appreciate all that beautiful music that came before us and made way for us to do what we’re doing. We’re only talking about what’s real and what really influenced us, and I’m glad that the promoters and the concertgoers are listening and putting them on the same bills as us to make sense of all this stuff that’s going on. To bridge the generations.

I know you’ve already named a lot of acts, but who are you really excited to see at Tropicália?

Damn, there’s so many. I’m excited to see Los Retros; they’re tearing it up. La Chamba, I want to see what they do. They come with a full force. Foos Gone Wild: I don’t know who they are, but I’ve been hearing about them so much I’m so damn curious I want to check them out. Los Tigres Del Norte. Bronco played last year and that was like my dream come true. It was an amazing set. Oh yeah, Panteon Rococo: They rock, man, they put on an awesome show. Maldita Vecindad: That’s going to be sick, man, the fans are nuts. That’s the thing, too; I want to see the bands where I know the fans are crazy. And you get mean fans for Caifanes and Maldita. The kind of fans that throw bottles up on stage. They yell “Culero!” when they’re not happy about something. I went to a lot of shows like that. With Chicano Batman we don’t have that kind of ruckus-ass crowd. I always wished that we did so I can see how good we are or how good we can test those waters. You know, open up for Maldita Vecindad and get booed. That was my dream gig but it’s not happening. I’m most excited to see bands that really get the crowd going. When I go to see other bands, I want to see how they rock crowds, what they’re doing to make things so special. That’s power, magic and I want to be part of that magic, too.

Aside from Tropicália acts, are there any up-and-coming Chicano artists or bands that you want our readers to check out that you really enjoy?

Definitely Brainstory; they got a record with Big Crown Records. Los Retros are a really dope, amazing young band out of Oxnard; they’re killing it. There’s a band out of Modesto called Valley Wolf, and they’re awesome. Another band out of Salinas called ¿Qiensave?: love them; they’re an amazing cumbia band. Slipping Into Darkness out of Desert Hot Springs: They’ve been killing; they opened for Chicano Batman in Tijuana.

Lastly, I have a favor to ask: If and when you play “La Fila de Tommy’s” during your set at Tropicália, do you mind giving a shout out to Santa Ana when you start naming all the cities at the end of the song?

OH HELL YEAH! I got you, bro. That’s a big one, man. It needs to happen. “Tommy’s” is a song about celebrating Tommy’s but also how much it fucks up my stomach. And at the same time, talk about urban planning: There’s so much gentrification happening in the city and people have their own perception of what Los Angeles is. And I was born and raised in this motherfucking city so to ME these are the cities in LA: San Jacinto, Riverside, Pacoima, Wilmington, San Pedro, Southgate, Huntington Park, Boyle Heights, La Puente, Baldwin Park, Pico Rivera, South El Monte. Only someone from LA will say, “Fuck, these are the cut cities right here.” And for me it’s all about celebrating what’s already here. There’s a lot of culture here and that’s what I like my music to say. But I got you, bro: Santa Ana!

Any final words?

I’m playing [as É Arenas] at 3:30 p.m. on the Mango Loco Stage [at the Tropicália Festival]. I’ve got an amazing cast of musicians from a lot of amazing bands in LA that are phenomenal musicians that I got to play cumbia with me. I had to dumb them down. I had to get all these jazz cats and train them in the cumbia logic. I’m excited for the opportunity when it comes up to come and play in Orange County, which I haven’t played yet. But the time is going to come and we’re going to smash it so stay tuned for a show in Orange County soon.

È Arenas performs with Los Tigres del Norte, Caifanes, Zoè and many more on Sat. and Chicano Batman joins Kali Uchis, Cuco, Boy Pablo and more still Sun. at Tropicalia Festival, Pomona Fairplex, 1101 W. McKinley Ave., Pomona; tropicaliafestival.com. Sat.-Sun., noon-11 p.m. $150 per day; $250 for both days; $200 for Sun. VIP (Sat. VIP sold out); and $320 for VIP both days. All ages.

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