This Is How You Get To Know Helado Negro

Helado Negro
Anna Groth-Shive

Helado Negro

The Ecuadorian-American musician gets personal about his kaleidoscopic new album -- and most celebrated release yet

Roberto Carlos Lange feels like he's been introducing himself for years.

This Is How You Smile marks his sixth proper album in 11 years as the electronic folk (and many things in between) project Helado Negro. "I'll make a record and almost have to start from the beginning and reintroduce [myself]," he tells Billboard, days before the new LP's March 8 release. “Hey, this is Helado Negro, I do this… It’s hard. But I can’t relate to any other trajectory. I’ve only had this."

Before launching Helado Negro, Lange, 39, made beats for himself and others under several names: Epstein, La Muerte Blanca, Boom & Birds. The new project caught the ear of the indie imprint Asthmatic Kitty (best known for being co-led by Sufjan Stevens) which signed Helado Negro and released its sun-kissed debut, Awe Owe, in 2009. Three albums and half a decade later, internal issues forced Asthmatic Kitty into hiatus and left Helado Negro label-less. On tour with no album to sell, the Ecuadorian-American Lange improvised, throwing the title of his latest single on a black T-shirt in caps-locked, Olde English lettering: "YOUNG, LATIN & PROUD." It's since sold out several times over, widely signifying both Helado Negro and Lange himself like nothing before. "People will come up to me and talk about the meaningfulness the song and the shirt have had for them," Lange says. "To use as shield, even. A form of comfort." 

When it appeared on his 2016 LP Private Energy (released on a resurgent Asthmatic Kitty), Lange's introductions got a little easier. Soon, he'll hardly need them.    

This Is How You Smile has already been widely hailed as Lange's best work yet, and deservedly so. It's a tender, masterful mosaic, balmy synths and cozy acoustic guitars alongside Lange's own voice and contributions from a host of others. "November 7" features a daydreamy piano passage from Stevens. Closing track "My Name Is For My Friends" includes voice recordings from an anti-ICE protest not far from Lange's Brooklyn home. But neither of those details reveal themselves outside of a close scan of the liner notes; This Is How You Smile is a vast, inviting world, open to interpretation. 

You've been introduced, but there's so much more to uncover; find Billboard's recent conversation below.

This Is How You Smile takes its name from "Girl," a short story by the Antiguan-American writer Jamaica Kincaid. How did you come across it?

I was DJ’ing a [2018] event at the MoMA for my friend, [writer] Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. She put together this night of readings and performances themed around mothers and motherly love. Jamaica Kincaid couldn’t make it due to health reasons so someone else read “Girl.” I didn't know anything about her work; I was sitting there writing notes like, this line is great. She really has an amazing way of making complex things feel uncomplicated. I was working on the record at the time and was excited to feel that way, like I'd attached myself to a theme. 

In the story, a mother gives a sequence of life lessons to her daughter; when she's instructing her how to smile at different types of people -- those she doesn't like, those she likes a bit, those she likes completely -- why did that one resonate enough to become the album title?

I think that’s a universally relatable thing, where you’re taught to conform to certain situations but can still smile [differently] for all these occasions. Everyone has so many wild intentions for the smallest of gestures. Not only is this record about [smiling] as a moment of happiness, but how you can slight someone with just a smile as well. 

There's a real sense of open-endedness there.

There’s a lot of ambiguity on purpose. For me, that’s poetry. That’s why I like to read it, that’s why I like to see it. I think there are a lot of people who do ambiguity and obtuseness just to be confusing. But I do it because it’s a format I enjoy. I know the meanings, but to articulate them all is like showing you the magic trick. I'm giving a little to the listener, but keeping a lot to myself. I think it’s more fun for everybody to dive in and create their own world within the world.  

What made you want to make that childhood picture of your brother and you the artwork?

Maybe I was messing with him a little, maybe he’s annoyed with me [Laughs]. I try not to dive into nostalgia that much. I think it was mostly that like I like the way the colors look. And it was my birthday; we’d been swimming in the pool all day. The environmental happenings from that time formed everything in some sort of synesthetic way. It’s like I know all the colors and feelings I felt from looking at [the photo]. That resembles the palette of the sound. 

There are pool vibes in the lyrics, too -- "Seen My Aura" reflects a day like that. 

That’s a song about my neighborhood community pool. There was a moment -- a long time ago -- when I was like, "I’m gonna make this record about Florida." But then I wrote that song and I was like, "That’s good enough." I don’t need to try to create this whole conceptual piece... 

Sufjan can probably relate...

Of course. We’ve worked together a lot. We’ve actually worked together a lot in Florida. I made one song and I was like, "This is perfect." It embodied all the things I wanted to talk about. 

What was it like growing up in Ft. Lauderdale? 

South Florida is weird. And fun. It’s not as weird as anywhere north of Florida, which is where you get the whole "Florida Man" life. South Florida is mostly Latin American folk. You get those two-second shower storms; then it’s hot and the sun is out and you’re in a car; you’re either in 70-degree, AC-blasted homes or you’re outside in 95-degree weather. It’s all these weird artificial and organic environments. I think there’s a lot of that in the music, too. 

Were your parents born there?

My parents were born in Ecuador. My mom moved to Manhattan when she was 13. My dad moved to Long Island when he was 16. They moved [to New York] in the '60s and went to South Beach in the '70s. Then I grew up down there.

What made them want to come over?

I mean, the American Dream. My mom's dad was working as a janitor at a building in Midtown Manhattan -- the Berlitz school, a language school. We used to have all these Berlitz books. I'd read the French one, the Japanese one, trying to learn all these languages. Then my dad moved over with my grandmother; she was janitor in Jones Beach, [Long Island], cleaning apartments and houses in the late '50s. I think it’s just the American Dream -- making money, trying to have a different life. 

In your new song "Pais Nublado" -- or "cloudy country," if it translates directly -- what are you getting at in describing a country that way? 

In a direct way, sure, we can reference the state of our country now. It’s also this idea of longevity through resilience and understanding, how much shit we can go through. "We," as in a lot of people of color and people who feel oppressed. How it can feel like this constant looming nothingness or just terribleness happening. 

It’s also talking about my own experiences through art and music. All the people I've interacted with, the gatekeepers that were here. You can go back and read all the reviews, how they've written about my work. I’m not calling these folks out. People can do their own homework, read this and that, and be like, "That's kind of crazy what they wrote." Some of the way things are described, from the first record, about being a Latinx person in music... So that’s what the song is about, too, almost telling people, "Yo look around, look at these folks who are here with you. Maybe they’re doing this stuff within this community that isn’t represented in your commercially-applicable world, but there’s a lot happening now. Ten years later look what’s here."

How have you seen improvement in how your music is received?

People are hiring people who are brown. People are hiring more people who are black. People who can identify with the music a lot more, as opposed to having people who are like, "I think this song is in Spanish but I’m not really sure..." I think that's changed, which is good.

Back when you first started Helado Negro, how did you first get the attention of Sufjan and Asthmatic Kitty? 

I had been doing a lot of other stuff for a long time. I had a different project that I was touring in Japan -- it was mostly hip-hop instrumental beats. And the [Asthmatic Kitty] manager Michael Kaufmann heard this music and wanted me to do a remix of one of their artists.

I looked at their label, and I was like, this is a very white indie rock label. I was coming from a label called Beta Bodega that was specifically geared towards only signing brown and black kids making electronic music in Miami, starting in the late '90s. All the themes were oriented towards political events, like U.S. political intervention in South America. I had also been producing a bunch of Prefuse 73 music and working on the last album from [Prefuse 73 side project] Savath and Savalas alongside making a Helado Negro record. So they had heard that stuff and were like, "Cool, we like Helado Negro." 

I didn’t even really know Sufjan’s stuff. The reason I signed was they signed this dude Hermas [Zopoula], from Burkina Faso. I saw some of their releases and was like, yo, this is really beautiful and it’s crazy they’re committed to signing a person who most likely will never tour in the United States. The first conversation they had with me was, “We’re not interested in your first record; we’re interested in your tenth record.” Creating this idea of patronage and cultivating the work itself. I felt comfortable and I felt at ease to be able to see what Helado Negro could become. 

How did you see that vision progress over your four albums with them? 

It was all good even up to the end. It wasn’t anything bad; they had to go on hiatus for a lot of internal reasons. I had just put out [2014's] Double Youth. And I came home from tour after that whole year of touring and wrote [eventual 2016 album] Private Energy. I said, okay I’m gonna tour this and try to shop it around. Sufjan actually took me out and I opened up for him for about 10 shows. I was just workshopping the songs live, like forget it, I’m not gonna play anything old, I’m just gonna play these songs. They definitely nurtured me up 'til Private Energy.

That was around the time you wrote the song "Young, Latin & Proud" and put its title on T-shirts, which are now closely associated with Helado Negro. What made you want to take that title and put it on a T-shirt then? 

I didn’t have a label at the time. I released the single through Other Music in 2015 and then I was going on tour. It was just a practical thing. I didn't have a record, so might as well just sell something, you know? I try to only make things I would wear and I was like, okay, I’ll probably rock this more than I’d rock a shirt that says "Helado Negro." When I made it, people were into it... People will come up to me and talk about the meaningfulness the song and the shirt have had for them -- to use as shield, even. A form of comfort. 

The label RVNG Intl. released This Is How You Smile, after putting out an expanded version of Private Energy. What's it like being with them?

It’s wonderful, completely different. Different styles, different methods, different type of family. It felt important for me to have a New York-based label, to have more access and face time with the people I was working with. And their catalog is just as diverse as my mind. 

Over 10 years, it sounds like you’ve seen quite a change in how your music is received.

Absolutely. I mean, after each record it was interesting. I would make a record and then almost have to start from the beginning again and reintroduce: Hey, this Helado Negro, I do this… And it’s hard. But I can’t relate to any other trajectory. I’ve only had this. So it’s cool to see who is writing about it now, who cares about it. And not just writing, but listening. People who are taking the time to write to me as listeners. I couldn’t ask for anything better at this point. I mean, I turn 40 next year. I feel good about it. I’m happy all that happened, actually. It gave me more perspective on the work I was doing. It made me identify with it more. 

Below, find Helado Negro's upcoming tour dates.

May 5 – Columbia City Theater – Seattle, Wash.
May 6 – Doug Fir Lounge – Portland, Ore.
May 8 – The Chapel – San Francisco, Cali.
May 10 – Walt Disney Concert Hall – Los Angeles, Cali.
May 11 – Club Congress – Tucson, Ari.
May 13 – Lowbrow Palace – El Paso, Tex.
May 14 – Paper Tiger – San Antonio, Tex.
May 16 – Cine El Rey – McAllen, Tex.
May 17 – Satellite Bar – Houston, Tex.
May 18 – Empire Control Room & Garage – Austin, Tex.
May 19 – Curtain Club – Dallas, Tex.
May 23 – Venue TBA – Mexico City, Mexico
May 24 – Venue TBA – Guadalajara, Mexico
June 14 – Exit/In – Nashville, Tenn.
June 15 – Grog Shop – Cleveland Heights, Ohio
June 16 – El Club – Detroit, Mich.
June 18 – Elsewhere – Brooklyn, N.Y.
June 19 – ArtsRiot – Burlington, Ver.
June 20 – SPACE Gallery – Portland, Maine
June 21 – Brighton Music Hall – Boston, Mass.
June 28 – U Street Music Hall – Washington, D.C.
June 29 – Kings Barcade – Raleigh, N.C.


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