Helado Negro's Roberto Lange: The Cream Interview

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The last time Roberto Lange played in Nashville, he closed out a long run of shows at William Tyler’s house with the best local house show of 2009. The bilingual mastermind behind Brooklyn’s Helado Negro is a multi-tasker and a pro collaborator, developing this project alongside his work with Matt Crum in ROM, Julianna Barwick in Ombre, a solo project called Epstein, and a diverse array of audio-visual art installations. This month, he’s back on the road with his latest album, Invisible Life, and Willy T. will be his host again tonight, this time at The Stone Fox with El El and Sinkane. (Coincidentally enough, Tyler's Impossible Truth drops today, and he'll play an in-store this evening at Grimey's.)

The venue isn’t the only thing that’s changed. In 2009, Lange had just released his first record under the Helado Negro moniker, Awe Owe — a mostly acoustic collection of hypnotic tunes drawing from South America’s generous well of pop music. Invisible Life (stream it below or at Helado's Bandcamp page) builds on those roots with a strong dose of electro, which featured prominently in the soundtrack of Lange’s youth in south Florida. The resulting tracks frequently turn the lilting Latin groove dance-floor-friendly, while the songs (most in Spanish, a few in English) remain introspective. That delicate balance of primal and cerebral is an undercurrent that runs throughout Lange’s body of work. Eager to learn more, we caught up with him on his way to Austin for a string of SXSW showcases.

Your parents moved from Ecuador to southern Florida before you were born, so you have two sets of traditions in your cultural identity. Growing up, did you experience them as two separate cultures?

In terms of culture, there was always a duality. We were surrounded by the Latin American community at all our social gatherings, and any kind of celebration usually involved my family and their friends. They all had kids, so there were all these people growing up the same way I was.

Then, there was the rest of pop culture surrounding the Latin culture. Growing up in south Florida in the ‘80s, Miami bass, electro, and freestyle were all on the radio. My cousin, my brother, and I were buying hip-hop tapes, and that’s what I was listening to. That was my initial influence.

Were there any artists that really grabbed your attention?

Music on the radio was pretty 808-driven and electro-sounding. Dynamix and all that electro stuff was always on the radio. There was that kind of vibe, and there was also this group called Jam Pony Express. They would make their own tapes, where they would take popular songs, but complete the words. Like, they’d grab a part of the tape that says “I’m about to go,” and then bring in their own voices with a bunch of echo, and say something like “to her house!” [Laughs] It was hilarious, like improv over rap songs. I used to love those tapes growing up.

I understand that as you started making your own music, you put a lot of effort into tracking down sounds, figuring out how they were made.

When I went to college, I saved up a little money and got an MPC-2000 because I heard it in a rap song: I thought, “That’s what I gotta have to make a beat.” I just bought it blindly; I knew nothing of it, except that I’d heard about it and seen it in photos. It just made sense, like, “Why does someone buy a guitar?”, I guess. I thought there were going to be sounds on there. It came with a disc that had some drum sounds, but you had to put them all in the machine before you could make a beat. That was my initial introduction to making things from nothing.

I followed the crowd with rap and hip-hop, in terms of sampling and finding parts in records, looking for micro-moments that could be looped, and creating songs from them. I didn’t know what a Moog bass was — I just sampled it from a Miles Davis song. It was just a really good bass sound, to me. But later I figured it all out, and started chasing down these different sounds. Since drums are a big part of hip-hop and rap production, that’s a huge thing, to figure out how to record drums and make your own drum break.

In addition to making records, you also design sound for art exhibits. Is writing music for an installation different from writing an album?

There is definitely a correlation. A lot of these art installations that I do chase this idea that I’m trying to find vehicles for music. A lot of recorded music is turned into something physical. There was reel-to-reel tape at one point, and that’s how music was consumed; and then records, cassette tapes, CDs and now MP3s. I think it’s kind of gone back to where it started, where you didn’t buy someone’s music on a medium, you heard it on a radio. I feel like MP3s are almost the same way, where they’re not connected to an object anymore. As much as an iPod is a vehicle for MP3s, it’s not a requirement. That’s what I think about when I think about music: how people can experience it in different ways.

For example, Flux Projects commissioned a public installation in the lobby of this huge building in Atlanta [pauses to pay toll] … with 60-foot ceilings — it was like 100-odd feet of space. I filled these large weather balloons up with helium, and then this composition played back from speakers I attached to them. It was a way to interact with a space where you wouldn’t normally go listen to music. A lobby is a transitional space: people are never really stopping there, they’re kind of just going through it. It’s the most frequented room of any building, but it’s the one you experience the least.

Is there a point during the process of developing an idea when you feel it’s going to be better as an art experience, rather than a song on a record? Or is that division kind of disappearing now?

I don’t really form songs out ahead of time and then execute them; it kind of happens intuitively. But as far as what creative mode I’m going to be in, there is a division right now. When I’m making Helado Negro music, I’m constantly thinking. But sometimes, ideas start to appear when I write, and those things end up informing the thing you would call sound installations. Still, when I’m doing those pieces, they inform Helado Negro music as well.

A lot of people hear the phrase “art music,” and they cringe. They feel like if something is presented as “art,” it’s going to be obscure and adversarial.

For the last seven years, I’ve been working with my friend David Ellis. He’s an amazing visual artist who does these motion paintings. They’re like stop-motion, where he paints something and then he paints over it, and paints over it. … It’s the same thing with the music I make. I find sounds, but I don’t care if it ends up sounding the way it was when it was first recorded. You know, if we spend 20 hours finding the perfect drum sound, and then destroy it, that’s the whole point. We know that the process of creating the drum sound has happened, but we’re not concerned with trying to amplify the process.

David and I do these trash ensembles that are dynamically beautiful, like drumlines. All the sounds come from paint cans and water jugs that we’ve tuned, and are moving around in a trash can. It’s very animated. You draw associations to kick drums, snares, hi-hats and cymbals. … It’s a response to that idea, where everyone thinks that a work of art has to have some deeper, abstract significance, to make it more important than making music. They forget that music actually connects you [to other people] as much as beautiful paintings, sculptures, or anything else. That’s what we’re trying to do with our work.

To make something that’s alive, something to be experienced.

Yeah it’s living, it’s to be experienced, but it also feels good. And it sounds good — it’s not just banging a piece of wire, and it sounds like a piece of wire that’s being hit. That’s cool, and you can dig the concept of it, but for me, [music should be] like a Stevie Wonder song. Shit’s like a cake — you can eat the frosting, and it’s real sweet and it feels good, but then you start digging in, and there’s lots of different layers to it, where they’re talking about a bunch of different things. And then you’re like, “Oh shit, this is crazy! It really took some time to make this.” But you can connect to it immediately, without having to dig so deep, you know? That’s a lot of the work with Helado Negro, too. It’s about being human.

Are you working with anyone as you play live right now?

On this tour, I’m working with my friend Jason Ajemian. He’s playing electric bass right now. He’s contributed a lot to previous Helado Negro records and other recordings of mine. In his own right, he’s a composer and a jazz double-bassist.

You collaborate with other artists quite often. Do you see any patterns in your collaborations? What makes them satisfying?

Collaborations for me are with people that are friends of mine, people that I respect and that I want to work with. I don’t just call them on a whim and be like “I heard you’re a badass. Come over here.” It’s a relationship for me. I have to really understand the person, and see if [collaborating is] something we can even talk about. Music is a community, more than anything.

Before I let you go, are there any records you’ve been digging recently?

There’s three records that I really like, going from old to recent to not-yet-released. The first one’s an older record that was re-released by Luaka Bop, of the Brazilian musician Tim Maia. A fairly recent record I love is by my friend Jason, who’s touring with me right now. [The group is called Joy Mega, and the album is Forever Is Something Inside You.] That features some amazing musicians as well. A new record that hasn’t been released yet is Devendra’s new record [Banhart guests on Invisible Life. Mala was released on March 12, and you can listen here]. I think it’s my favorite one of his.

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