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.