Q&A: Helado Negro's Roberto Carlos Lange on "The Message," Gigantic Floppy Discs, and the Album He's Making with Julianna Barwick
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.