Photo: Angel Ceballos

Some Spiritual Shit Happened When I Lost My Voice: An Interview with Helado Negro

By - 20 July, 2012

Roberto Carlos Lange is one busy man. A constant flow of releases as Helado Negro as well as collaborations with the likes of Jan St. Werner, ROM and Prefuse73 have ensured this American/Ecuadorian is an artist worth keeping an eye on. In particular, his work as Helado Negro has become as mature as it is experimental at times with last album Canta Lechuza an essential release from last year. Since then he has begun his Island Universe multimedia project, which has born many strange and beautiful fruits. He is also about to tour Ecuador, which will see him get in touch with his roots. We met him in New York earlier this year to talk about all of these things. Here’s how it went…

Can you tell us a little about your background?
I was born in South Florida and I grew up down there. Both my parents are from Ecuador. My mum moved to New York when she was 13. My dad moved to New York when he was 16. And they stayed here until they heard of paradise in Miami. So they moved down there and that’s where I was born.

When did you start playing music?
I started playing with my uncle’s classical guitar that he gave me. But my dad had this karaoke machine that I could do overdubs with, so I thought I invented overdubbing, and I did that. And I think the magic of recording captured me the most, that I didn’t have to write a song and play it out every time. I could record parts and then hear them.

Then my brother went to college and came back with a computer and I started making music on his computer. Like in 9th grade, early high school, I got into drum machines, just sort of messing around, making hip-hop beats with my friends.

Did your family listen to much Latin music?
Every weekend we would have a party at our house or we’d go to somebody else’s party and I would have to wear a tie, and tuck in my shirts and pants. I always had a really tight haircut. One of my dad’s friends would make some mixtapes for the party and he’d bring them over and they’d play them. And then someone else would bring some records, and my dad would DJ too.

It was not like now where everything starts off slow and then they build it up. There it starts off hard and fast, and then tapers off. So it’d start off with contemporary salsa and then onto older salsa, songs that people know, and then it’d go into South American pop/rock from the 60s, tunes that people could sing along to. And then it’d head off into slower jams. And a lot of times my dad would have people who played instruments over so there’d be a guitarist, a singer, a flutist and a drummer, so late at night, like 2-3am, they’d all play and sing along.

You put out some mixtapes a while ago on Now Again Records [Parts One and Two]. Was that an attempt to get in touch with these roots?
The only time I stopped listening to that stuff [Latin music] was at high school. When I was a little kid I grew up with it and then I hit the age where I needed to rebel, I felt too cool for it. And then later in college it started to grow on me in a different kind of way. I was like “holy shit, this is where my roots are.” I didn’t realise I even had this in me. That was the jumping off point for research. I’d already been collecting Latin records, but then I thought I should just make these mixes. And I love those mixes, I really enjoyed making those.

Did you research much Ecuadorian music? What did you discover?
I wouldn’t say I’m the best person to tell you everything. There’s a guy who’s really like the Elvis of Ecuador, not in terms of gyrating hips but in terms of being a presence. Julio Jaramillo. He’s a balladeer. He had this remarkable voice, and these are the songs that everybody would sing late at night. Not generic, but just simple songs about love. They’re really pretty in terms of the delivery of them, they’re beautiful. Dark at times, but teetering on the edge. That’s definitely something that’s a huge influence, that style of music.

I feel there’s a lot of pop and rock groups that would mimic The Beatles, so there’s a huge influence of that. Growing up I heard lots of that. There were some weirder groups doing psychedelic shit. There’s one that’s pretty silly but they’re called Los Hippies. Then that band turned into something called Super Boddega. Before that the influence was kind of a Frank Sinatra vibe. A lot of the artists that were influencing in Ecuador were from other countries, Peruvian cats, Argentinian cats, Uruguayo cats. Los Iracundos were a really big band, but they were not from Ecuador, they’re a Uruguayan band.

I love all their earlier shit, it’s super pop, cool arragements. Those guys became really famous in Ecuador. For a whole new generation of kids growing up in the 50s and 60s, my dad’s generation, they loved it. Then in the mid-90s this president Abdalá Bucaram, he was called “El Loco”. He was one of many presidents that they exiled. This guy was a nut job. He made Los Iracundos honorary citizens of Ecuador because he loved the music so much. But the only thing he asked was that they made an album with him singing all their songs, but they had to play the music. So there’s an album that came out with him singing, but it’s terrible, his singing is… maybe it’s beyond me, too avant garde for me!

Let’s get back to Helado Negro. When did you start singing? And why did you decide to sing in Spanish?
I think from making instrumental music for so long I got to the point where I started to think about instrumentation and arrangements, so I started singing them out, and then I started hearing words, and it just evolved into that. Saying the obvious but using my voice as another instrument, that’s what it ended up becoming.

So I started singing but at that point I just thought “oh great, I made these songs, and I’m excited about them.” But then I toured them, and there’s a huge difference between singing in your studio or house or wherever and singing in front of people. There was one night when we drove to Atlanta, Georgia and we played a show there and I was losing my voice that night. I could sing but my voice was really low. I feel that’s when my voice transformed. Not to be spiritual about it, but we played this show in Greensboro and it was a really great live show, there was a really great energy. Then the next night we played Atlanta and my voice was leaving me, but the show was phenomenal. I woke up the next morning and I had no voice, and we had to drive to Jacksonville which was like a six hour drive. I asked my whole band “should I cancel the show? I can’t sing.” And a good friend of mine, a good influence, said “just sing whatever you can. We’ll play the music. If you can sing, sing it. Don’t stop the show. It can’t always be perfect.” And I sang but hardly any words came out, just grunts and noise. People were enthusiastic, they understood that we had been working hard. The perception in their minds had really broken open to embrace this regardless.

That’s how my voice developed, singing in front of a microphone loud. It creates this strength inside of you. I don’t think I’m a traditional singer, but it’s there, I keep evolving. But I do think some spiritual shit happened when I lost my voice. My old voice left me and I got this new voice.

What’s the idea behind your new Island Universe Story releases?
It’s a way for me to release things that come together on their own. It’s a series that I’m gonna keep doing. They’re things that don’t fit the concept of an album. They’re two parallels. With an album I’m working on it in one respect, I’m molding it over time. The EPs I’m molding over time too, but they come together a different way, but in such a way that I feel they work as a whole. I can’t really sit still. And I can’t justify feeling too much a part of a system of releasing records. There’s no rules for this kind of thing. Once you make music you want it to go out, and I have to create ways to do that. And I’m lucky to work with a label [Asthmatic Kitty] that’s supportive and willing to work to help me get it exposed. That’s exciting too because first and foremost I make this stuff for myself and it’s exciting to have people who really dig this, and you get this chance that the music can affect somebody.

You’re going to Ecuador soon to play some shows. What’s the plan?
We’re going to go to Quito, Guayaquil and some small cities. So that should be weird and interesting. Weird because it’s exciting. Weird because I’m curious how people are going to react. I’m not going to generalise but I think living here – and maybe in England there’s the same shit – people go to shows and they’re either cynical or they just know it all. Here people are like “oh, I’ve seen this” and they list off countless genres. The real exciting part is that I can go and play music and people can listen to it and say either “I like it or I don’t” and don’t have a pre-concieved notion of what they’re supposed to be interested in.

Here are the Ecuador tour dates:

Wednesday 25th July – Teatro Sucre, Cuenca
Thursday 26th July – El Aguijón, Quito
Friday 27th July – La Fábrica Pub, Portoviejo
Saturday 28th July – Diva Nicotina, Guayaquil

More info on these shows can be found at planarteria.com/2012/06/concierto-helado-negro-en-su-tour-grancirculo

You can find out more about Helado Negro at asthmatickitty.com/helado-negro and heladonegro.com. You can listen to all of his releases as Helado Negro at heladonegro.bandcamp.com

Here’s his latest video:

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