First there’s the owl; then there’s the enormous afro. The sight of the two in close proximity means you’ve likely entered Roberto Carlos Lange’s domain, whether it be through the front door of his Brooklyn home or by hearing one of the dozens of sound sculptures and animated films he’s completed in little more than a half-decade. I rang him one recent overcast morning to talk about Canta Lechuza, the album of pop songs he’s recorded as Helado Negro (or “Black Ice Cream” in Spanish), which is out today on Asthmatic Kitty. Helado Negro’s music is built upon a foundation of blips and bleeps over which Lange croons in Spanish. Each of the album’s tracks presents a compelling concentration of the rich, off-register world he’s constructed to date.
I first heard about you a couple of years ago, when I saw a kinetic sculpture of yours called “The Message.”
That was 2007 and it was something I did with David Ellis. At the time, he had been working on a variation on this idea of kinetic musical found sculptures. They were pretty different from what he and I started doing. “The Message” was something he thought of in terms of making a typewriter automatically type the lyrics to a song–in this case the famous Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five song–within the beat and cadence of the original recording.
What’s Helado Negro’s place within the wide variety of work you do?
Well, it comes from this idea of me growing up in the States but within a Latin American community — that’s the root of it. This last record (Awe Owe, 2009) was the first thing birthed from those thoughts. It wasn’t super-conceptual from the beginning. But, as time has gone by, I’ve been able to step back through this project and understand more things about what I’m doing and what I want to do with this idea and how I can build from the album-based work.
So you’re thinking tours and perhaps installations?
Exactly. Though right now, it’s all very intuitive. The music I make for Helado Negro is based on everything I’ve been exposed to up to this point. Then I’m singing in Spanish because it feels natural.
Your family is from Ecuador, but your parents met in New York in the 1960s.
My parents actually grew up on the same block in Ecuador. And then my mom came to New York with her family when she was 13. Then my dad came to Long Island when he was 16. Those two places are pretty far apart in terms of the city. But they reunited through friends-of-friends, mostly because the Ecuadorian community in the city at the time was pretty small. But their families came to New York to make money — you know, same reason many immigrants come. And I’d say both families came for the opportunity to go to school here, too.
Do you know why they then moved to Miami, where you were born?
I remember my dad always used to tell me that when he lived on Long Island he’d dream of moving to Miami. He would imagine what it would be like, you know, more in line with . And so my parents got married and moved to Miami after their honeymoon and when they got their my dad was like, “it’s just the same shit as on Long Island.” [laughs]
As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, am I missing out on much of your intended effect of Helado Negro?
Not much, I would say. A lot of the lyrics are pretty abstract.
I remember reading somewhere that you took up singing in part because it makes you uncomfortable. Do you consciously use your work to challenge yourself that way?
A lot of things I get into come from me getting excited about something someone’s doing and my wanting to help them out. But with Helado Negro — well, I always sung. But on that first tour, I learned a lot. I didn’t know it could be so expansive, you know? I have an appreciation for people who sing and for people who have original voices. But being on the road, I really started to learn what I could do with my voice.
It seems like many singers’ biggest revelation is that they gain the most control over their voice when they relax and don’t try to overpower the listener.
Yeah, exactly. In fact, I thought I’d finished the new album as early as April 2010, but decided to re-record it in Connecticut in November, in part, because I think I had a better handle of the vocals.
What happened to the earlier version of the album?
Some of the tracks I’m going to put out on some compilations. A few of them that didn’t make the album I’m re-working completely. And those are going to go on an album I working on with Julianna Barwick.
Oh, really? Between your album and Julianna Barwick’s, those are probably my two favorite releases this year. So that’s incredible to hear.
Yeah, she’s a really good friend and we got together last year to do a tour–it was when she signed to Asthmatic Kitty, as well. So we’ve been building an album since then.
You know, when I talk with artists of a certain age–say under 40–I find there’s often some piece of technology, often a toy or gadget, that had a big impact on their creativity as a child. I wonder if that’s true with you.
There were a bunch of things, I feel. My dad is a machinist. So growing up I was always in his shop around crazy computer automated machines that would punch out giant pieces of metal. So this machine had a giant computer the size of a refrigerator, right? And it only did one thing — it sent data to this other machine. This computer had these giant floppy discs, almost the size of a twelve-inch record. We’d put it in there and there was a green back-lit screen. My dad would show us how to program the machine to punch out these holes in the sheet metal. So from an early age, computers were a big thing in my life.
Then, when I was a little older, he got this Karaoke machine. And I discovered you could do overdubs with dual decks and that blew my mind. Because this Karaoke machine was built to have one tape playing back — the instrumental stuff, right? And the other deck was recording to the other tape. Then you could record again, you could overdub a third time.
Okay, last question: How are you spending your summer?
Touring, I hope. We’re still putting the tour together. I have an exhibit in Atlanta in June and I’m doing a piece in Indianapolis in August. So that helps with the touring because it gives me an excuse to be somewhere and use it a a launching point.
Helado Negro plays the Glasslands Gallery in Brooklyn tonight with Julianna Barwick.