Inspiration, Childhood & the Meaning of Black Ice Cream—Interview w/ Helado Negro

Helado Negro performing at Glasslands in March. Photo by Victoria Stillwell

Helado Negro performing at Glasslands in March.
Photo by Victoria Stillwell

By Victoria Stillwell

On a recent cold, spring evening, I met with Roberto Lange, the mastermind of Helado Negro, outside of Glasslands Gallery in Williamsburg. He just released his latest album Invisible Life in March, mixing songs with electronic beats and Spanish lyrics, but also switching it up for this record by adding tunes in English, and collaborating with other artists and friends, including Juliana Barwick and Devendra Banhart. I sat down with the relaxed and smiley artist, before a concert he played at Glasslands, to discuss his latest record, and to talk about what drives his music and inspires him.

How has your multi-national upbringing influenced your music?

I was born in Florida but my family is from Ecuador, and we have a big family, so in my childhood there were a lot of parties, a lot of fun. Miami is like the capital of Latin America, there’s everything down there in terms of Latin people. So I was surrounded by that, but also surrounded by the culture of the United States, so it was kind of divided as far as what was happening in my house versus what was happening outside my house.

How did you first realize you had talent and start to create music?

I haven’t realized that. I don’t think I have musical talent (laughs). But I like making things that I like to hear. I started moving in the direction of creative things in college when I had more time to myself. I purchased this piece of equipment called an MPC and it gave me the ability to make electronic-music sounds. I was focusing on making hip-hop music at first, mostly hip-hop beats and stuff like that. I sampled music, collected records, and started kind of deciphering and tearing it apart.

Your latest album, Invisible Life, stands out from your other records because you sing in English. What inspired you to write lyrics in English?

I never had a premeditated plan. There are a lot of different stories and one of the stories is working on that first song, “Dance Ghost.” The words just started coming out. I think that’s with everything, there’s just a process within it, and I ended up singing in English.

Would you describe your creative process for Invisible Life?

I took the whole month of August last year, and worked nine, ten hours a day, just on those songs. I had 40 songs that I was working on, and a lot of them were either loop ideas of melodic patterns or samples of rhythmic patterns. It all started really bare bones, and I just built and built on it. When I sing I break up words a lot with the syllables, which I think I do to kind of mimic instruments. And it’s the other way around, too. I mean instruments have always essentially been mimicking voice. I was just trying to find different sounds, and then I was like ‘oh shit, I am singing about this, I guess.’ It’s a natural progression that happens for each song.

You have released many albums since 2009, so you’ve been busy. What would you say is your biggest inspiration for continuing to create so much music?

I guess, honestly, I think, I feel good when I do it, and it’s just like doodling. When you are drawing on a piece of paper or when you are talking on the phone, it’s like the same thing for me, where it is just like, I am just doing it.

How would you describe the style or genre of your music?

Oh man, that’s the toughest. I never know what to say about that. I think it’s just, I don’t know, music for the generation that I am, you know, the son of Latin American immigrants, and I am making the music that we are surrounded by and kind of like what we are influenced by. It’s a nerdy way to answer it. I have no idea. Electronic maybe?

Do you have any great musical inspirations?

Many musicians inspire me. My friends, you know, honestly, the people that I work with, are a huge musical inspiration to me. Like my friend who has been touring with me, on bass guitar, Jason Ajemian, he is a huge inspiration for me. I have worked with him for so long. My friend Jason Trammell, he plays drums in the band Sinkane. He has been a huge inspiration to me. Who else? The people that were on my record, this girl Adron, she is a huge inspiration, my friend Eddie Alonso, he’s got a band called Feathers. My friend Matt Crum who plays drums with me a lot. Devendra Banhart’s new record is great, he is a friend. He played on the record, too. I’ll keep going if you want…

Do you have any new projects coming up, in addition to promoting Invisible Life?

I work with a friend of mine, Nin Humphrey, a visual artist, and we have been collaborating for years. I do sound for her. She has a performance coming up in May at Dixon Place, in the city. And we also have a twenty-person choir piece, which I created for her, that we’re going to perform in California. That should be really awesome.

How did you come up with the name Helado Negro?

I think, people expect it to be this really crazy story, but it reflects the way I make music, which is the way I write lyrics. They are memories all tied together. I take fragments of different things and piece them together. These are two things that are really intimate to me. Helado means ice cream in Spanish, which is my wife’s favorite food. And Negro was a nickname my family gave me when I was growing up.