Helado Negro Is the Carl Sandburg of Spanish Electronic Pop Music
On a recent morning in Crown Heights, we met Roberto Carlos Lange, the Brooklyn by way of Miami master who makes music under the moniker Helado Negro and whose latest album, Invisible Life, was released on Asthmatic Kitty earlier this month. It's his most collaborative album to date -- with appearances by Devendra Banhart, Bear in Heaven's Jon Philpot, Mouse on Mars' Jan St. Werner, Juliana Barwick, and Liz Janes, among others -- and it is first to feature him singing in English. Wearing a light blue and brown tie-dyed t-shirt and his trademark enormous afro tied back in a bun, Lange is warm and witty, has a stoner-y laugh, and when you talk to him you can tell his head is a little bit in the clouds, but in a good way. We hung out in the studio of his walk-up on Eastern Parkway and talked about Miami, what "Alt-Latino" does (or doesn't) mean, and making music in foreign tongues.
Helado Negro performs at Glasslands Gallery in Williamsburg on Sunday night, with a DJ Set by Devendra Banhart.
Being the son of Ecuadorian immigrants and growing up in Miami, how do Latin America and South Florida work their way into your music? Miami is a tropical wonderland. The culture is, of course, predominately Latin American, with a huge influence from the Caribbean, and that was a big thing growing up. My dad was really interested in us being surrounded by an Ecuadorian culture, and also by the greater Latin American culture. I was surrounded by it musically as well. However, I think there's a generalized perception of what "Latin music" is. The scope of it is just as broad as here, where everybody is mirroring 60s Rock and 70s weird acid crazy shit and punk rock in the 80s. All of that existed there, too. My dad listened to '60s and '70s rock and disco from Latin America and dance music from the region. Then I had younger cousins in Ecuador listening to the current stuff, so there were all of these parallels that I took in.
Then there was what was playing on the radio in Miami: The electro and Miami base and freestyle music. It was all 808s and drum machines and samples and 303s and synthesizers. That's what you heard, and there wasn't anything else on the radio. Electronic music was the '80s in Miami.
Except for a few songs on Invisible Life, as Helado Negro you only sing in Spanish. You tour sometimes in Latin America, so I am curious how audiences respond to your music there compares to ones here. For people listening to me singing in Spanish who don't know Spanish, I feel like they're just listening to it because it's music that moves them in a different way. But for the Spanish-speaking community, it's different, because they understand what the hell I am saying. That's awkward, because there's a part of me that knows people can't understand it here. It's a weird thing. The label fully doesn't understand the lyrics I'm singing! And that's an amazing part and it's an admirable part, and that's why I love working with Asthmatic Kitty: How many labels can you point out now that aren't doing re-releases or re-presses, that are working with people who don't speak their own native tongue?
When did you start working with Asthmatic Kitty? Michael Kaufman was the manager at the time, and he reached out to me in 2008. He asked me to do a re-mix for My Brightest Diamond. At that point, I showed him Helado Negro, and he told me to finish a record. I did and then it happened: they released Awe Owe.
How did you get interested in making music electronically? I played the guitar and everything, but I was more fascinated with recorded music, so I started doing a lot of overdubs and using my dad's karaoke machine and making pause tapes from radio songs. My brother came home from college in '95 or '96, when I was a freshman in high school, and I started using his computer to make music and taught myself how to use his sound editing applications. Then I friend had with a drum machine who was a rapper, so I'd make beats with him and we'd record him over it. In college I got a PC 2000 and that's when I started making music non-stop.
Photo by Ryan Dickie
Why did you call this album Invisible Life? I made it over the course of 32 days here, rolling out of bed and working for 10 hours straight. It seems grueling, but that's the whole point: To spend time making something. The things that I think about the most with Invisible Life -- now in hindsight you think about why you name things what you do -- is that in making music you have this being walking next to you who represents who you are in a very abstract way. This isn't just the case for music. You can even see this on Facebook. You're the only one who knows what you have to do to constantly make this shit grow, the thing that's out there that people see. What does it means to make this stuff that nobody sees? So I was thinking about what happens when you put out a record that is supposed to represent you, and it's the only thing people will reference or know about you. I am not just me, because I have this giant being with me that I am always having to feed. That's the invisible life.
What made you want to branch out all of a sudden and sing in English? There are a bunch of stories why. One of the reasons is because of my friend Jon Philpot, from Bear in Heaven, who is on the record. I had sent him a song being like, "Hey man, check this out" and I didn't ask him to sing on it. I just thought he was going to listen and tell me what he thought, but he sent something back on it with him singing on it. Then I thought, "Fuck this is good." At first I thought it wasn't going to be on the record, because it wasn't Helado Negro; but then I realized it was making me think differently, and that's what I am really trying to do with my music: To challenge myself and not make the same thing over and over again. I have a different voice in English and Spanish. You can tell it's my voice, but I can hear this confidence difference. With Spanish, I have developed my own breathing and my own kind of textural thoughts with how I want to sing. With English, I feel that my singing voice is underdeveloped, I didn't really have an idea of how it would be. I also thought, "Shit. I should just sing in every language!"
Your music is often labeled as "Alt-Latino," does that bother you? There's a necessity to identify everything in our culture: To not have fear of what things are and to make them approachable. That's even how Facebook works, it's all about associations and then linking them to other connections: It's a constant connectivity thing. There's no way to break off from this Alt-Latino thing. Everyone has to put a name to it, and Alt-Latino is just the easiest thing to make it sound like something specific. But I am split down the middle. I was born here, but being kind of separated from the rest of the U.S. We spoke English but lived in a totally different place. The wires were crossed.
Since the wires were crossed and your work easily defies genres, how would you choose to describe Helado Negro? I'd say it's pop music in Spanish and it's electronic. If I were to make it overly thought-out or complex, I would say it has these tropical influences because I grew up in Miami, and it has all of this Miami base and hip-hop and tempos and patterns and rhythms and there's all this African polyrhythmic shit. But if I said that, people would be like, "What?!" It is popular music to me, and it's folk music to me. That's how I see it, because a lot of the words I write are experience-based, but in a poem type of setting. That's what I like about Carl Sandburg: He can be very abstract, but also rooted in what is immediately surrounding him. When I say that I am making pop music, I think a lot of people would disagree. So, more than anything, the best way I can describe what I end up making is the music of the children of immigrants.
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