ABOVE: HELADO NEGRO. IMAGE COURTESY OF RYAN DICKIE.
Roberto Carlos Lange hasn't followed a traditional career path. In 1999, at the age of 20, Lange was signed with his friend Matt Crum to a high-profile record label; but the duo never saw release in the States. The next decade was spent producing music for bands ranging from Prefuse 73 to Bear In Heaven (whose own Jon Philpot plays on his new record), and working on myriad other projects. "I guess I kind of did it backwards," Lange says with bemusement.
Now, following a collaboration with ambient artist Julianna Barwick called OMBRE, Lange has completed his latest album under his Helado Negro moniker, Invisible Life. The LP is a beautiful collection of tropical pop that contains traces of all his past work therein. Like his other records under the name Helado Negro, the project's warm electronic textures are buoyed by Lange's preternaturally smooth croon. Along with Philpot, there are appearances from Devendra Banhart, Mouse on Mars' Jan St. Werner, Eduardo Alonso, and his old partner Matt Crum. "I'm feeding this constant exterior... growing up with these multiple identities. My music has always transformed by itself growing with everything I learn," says Lange of the new record. To get a sense of the album, we're offering an exclusive premiere of the song "Junes," which beautifully captures Lange's shifting world.
"I sang in Spanish, and the song says 'Nightmares get confused every time they come to you.' Sometimes I write stuff and I don't even know what the hell I'm talking about. Even my nightmares get confused with my own reality. It's this bizarre pairing with a dance song that sounds really light and enjoyable."
Listen to the track below, and read on for a conversation in which we talk with Lange about his youth in Miami, singing in English for the first time, and the making of Invisible Life. Throughout the conversation, Lange maintains his charmingly relaxed tone. "The human race is interpreted as some kind of competition too much," he says.
NATHAN REESE: So, tell me about the new record. How long have you been working on it now?
ROBERTO CARLOS LANGE: I kind of started working on it in November of 2011 following a trip I had made to Mexico doing a residency with the NRML people in Monterrey. And then I did a show in Mexico City as well. For some reason, I came back and I had all this energy to write a whole bunch of songs. Then, in August of last year, I decided to just sit down until I finished it. It took me 34 days to just rock it out. I was spending 10 or 11 hours a day at my house—I make everything in my living room—and I just went at it.
REESE: How important is collaboration for your music writing process?
LANGE: I have a lot of friends that I work with that I trust. Friends that contributed who are honest about ideas and directions. I would make a lot of things, and I would just play them, and share them, and have a dialogue. It was kind of like working with eight producers. I was using SoundCloud a lot and essentially laid out like 20-something tracks, sent them to friends, and constantly molded it. It was a good way for me to get a better idea of how to assemble an album, instead of getting lost in the stew of making [individual] songs.
REESE: Among those people were some pretty high-profile artists, like Devendra Banhart and Jon Philpot of Bear In Heaven. What was it like integrating their personalities with Helado Negro?
LANGE: Anyone I collaborate with, more than anything, we're friends. I couldn't put my finger on anyone I know that I wasn't friends with before working with. They bring this mutual understanding, I guess. Like Jon from Bear In Heaven, I've known him for such a long time. I mixed their last record and he sang on my first record in 2009 as well. We've played on tons of stuff together. And he was a catalyst for a lot of different ideas. The song that he's on I wrote in November, and I was stuck with it. I sent it to him and he sent it back to me, and I was like, "Holy shit. Damn." It stumped me; it was kind of great. It created this awesome challenge for me where I had to come back to it and see how I could build around it. That was awesome. It was a really great happening.
REESE: And how about working with Devendra?
LANGE: What's great about him—it's interesting. He and I have been in contact for such a long time, and he has always been a super fan and supporter of the Helado Negro stuff. Which is always shocking to me, that anyone is. [laughs] It's weird. Anyway, it was the type of thing where I had these ideas and he came over. And a lot of times I really enjoy it when people have initial ideas or reaction that they are hearing [for the first time]. Getting that un-curated, un-sculpted idea out first, because it tends to be pretty natural.
REESE: We're premiering "Junes," which is one of my favorite tracks on the album. Is there a specific story to that song?
LANGE: Yeah, that's a good one to talk about. "Junes" was written by me and my friend Matt Crum—he's one of my closest, best friends and musical partners and collaborators. We've had this project called ROM for that past 13 years. He's almost on every single record that I've put out. We started making music in '99 together. We got signed to this label when we were 20. We were super young, and it was this cool label in Miami, and we were promised the world... and not much happened. ROM only got released in Japan and Europe. That song was kind of from the workflow that Matt and I had established. We had been working long distance and would get together on the weekends and work nonstop. The easiest way to describe it is that Matt wrote the bassline, and I wrote everything else. But the bassline was the catalyst for making the song happen.
REESE: Last time we talked, you mentioned that you were about head to Ecuador for a short tour. How did that trip end up going?
LANGE: Yeah, that was great! That was amazing. I played four cities: Quito, Cuenca, a smaller city called Portoviejo, and Guayaquil as well. It was phenomenal, man. Kind of grueling. It was something like nine or 10 flights in a matter of six days. It was a great turnout, and some of the best part was just being able to meet these musicians, promoters, and fans. It's just a completely different thing. Regardless of the music—some of it isn't stuff I gravitate towards—but the intention is awesome, and I think that it's important. I hadn't been back since I was 16, and just to go back and be involved like that was great.
REESE: Your last release was the first in your Island Universe Story series. Do you plan on returning to that series?
LANGE: Yeah I am. The thing with the Island Universe Story is that I have quite a few of them done already, but I felt like I needed to just create this body of work. It just felt like a separate brain thing happening.
REESE: The video for "Dance Ghost" was set in Miami where you grew up. Why did you feel like returning to Florida for the setting?
LANGE: The video was directed by my friend David Merten. I told him, "Pick a song. Tell me which one you like." He really liked "Dance Ghost" and felt like there was a lot of imagery to work with. So he initially suggested that we go somewhere that doesn't look like New York, and Miami was the easiest place in the sense that I have tons of friends there. There's a whole other community that I've worked with for years that doesn't get that much attention. People look at South Florida, and they're like "I don't know where that place is." It feels completely alien. When you go to Miami, you feel like you aren't in the United States. A lot of times I call it the capital of Latin America—it has that feeling.
We talked about the lyrics, "There's no one home, just the ghosts that dance alone," and interpreted that as immigrants that come and work, just like my family did. I have family members who are illegal, who live in Florida, and they work, but they can't go out. They try to frequent the paths of least resistance. They don't want to get caught, because they have really good things going on.
REESE: That's a tough life.
LANGE: It's crazy. Someone that's related to me who is super intelligent, did really well in school, and got a full ride out of high school couldn't go [to university] because they needed a Social Security number. And there's probably way more stories than that. That's what we tried to embody with that video—just being transient in that paradise.
REESE: Did the music you heard growing in Miami have a big influence on your own?
LANGE: I've always gravitated toward the sounds of growing up down there. Like bass music, and freestyle, and stuff that was on the radio. I was talking to my wife about this. There was some freestyle song that came on, and I remembered that being on the radio when I was little. I asked if she knew the song—she's from Iowa—and she was like, "This was not playing on the radio." [laughs]
REESE: This is the first Helado Negro album where you sing in English. What changed your approach?
LANGE: When I was in Latin American countries people kept asking me why I sang in Spanish. A common thing in Mexican bands and Latin America is to sing in English, because they want to appeal to a world audience. It was just easy for me to sing in Spanish, because the words didn't have a lot of associations. I grew up in the United States—I mean, I spoke Spanish and English my whole life—but in terms of my education, everything was in English. I always felt like I was writing a ninth-grade high school band song [laughs]. But then when I collaborated with Jon Philpot, and I felt like I should at least try. The first song that came out in English on the record was "Dance Ghost." I don't think there was any conceptual underpinning, but I thought if I was going to use the other song with Jon I wanted to complement it.
REESE: That makes sense.
LANGE: And the thing with performing in Ecuador and Mexico was the first time was that I had a completely Latin audience. I was like "Shit, everyone's going to understand what the hell I'm talking about." That changed my perspective as well.
REESE: Last, I wanted to ask about your ringtone.
LANGE: [laughs] It's Vivaldi!
REESE: Why did you pick it?
LANGE: I didn't pick it [laughs]. I don't know how to change it. It's like calling "Helado Negro Inc." That's the vibe.
INVISIBLE LIFE IS OUT MARCH 5 ON ASTHMATIC KITTY. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, CHECK OUT HIS WEBSITE.