Singer/songwriter Roberto Carlos Lange — known to KEXP listeners as Helado Negro — returns today with the album, Far In, his seventh full-length overall, but his first released via 4AD Records. Born to Ecuadorian immigrants and raised in South Florida, Lange has long let his Latinx identity shine through his experimental, synth-folk sound.
Earlier this month, DJ Chilly hosted the band virtually for a Live on KEXP at Home session, previewing tracks from the new album. Watch their performance below, and read an excerpt of their interview below to learn more about his experience in Marfa, TX, what it means to be outside the outside, and how a new age music pioneer helped him come up with the album title. (Hear the full interview in the YouTube video.)
KEXP: How are you doing? You're joining us from Asheville.
Helado Negro: Yeah, I live in Asheville, North Carolina, and I moved here in June. After living in New York for 15 years, it was just a good time for a change for us, more than anything. Just looking for a new chapter, for sure.
And what brought you there? Was someone you knew there? You just like the city?
Proximity to a lot of things, like nature. More space, family, for sure. There's family not too far from us. Yeah, those are the primary reasons why we moved.
Well, congratulations. I'm happy for you.
Yeah. Thank you so much.
So, you got a new album. And we've heard some songs off it and it sounded great. Did you record that while you're still living in New York?
It was a little bit of a split. The album was spread out, recorded through a lot of time. I kind-of started it in 2018 as I was finishing my last record [2019's This Is How You Smile]. I started recording a lot of songs and those became some seeds for Far In, my new album. And then in 2019, I toured. I think we played like a hundred shows or something crazy. And towards the end of the year, I started to do a lot of studio sessions. I knew that I didn't want to make this album by myself like I did the last one, in terms of just being on this kind-of heavy, really rigid, kind-of restricted, like day-to-day plan of recording and making this record. I just wanted it to be more free and open.
So, I started recording a lot of it in 2019 in Brooklyn with friends. My friends Buscabulla are on it. My friend Benamin is on it. Kacy Hill is on it. So, people would come to the studio or we would share time together. And then 2020, coincidentally, my wife and I had a project at Ballroom Marfa [an art center] that we were working on, in Marfa, Texas. We were making a completely different project, like a visual and audio multidisciplinary project dealing with a lot of different things, something that we're going to show in January there. But when we went there, the lockdown happened. If anyone's been to Marfa before, it's pretty far away from a lot of things. As flights got canceled and everything was getting locked down, it just became more certain that we were going to stay there for longer. So, we ended up staying there for six months. And throughout the process of us making this project for Ballroom Marfa, I had access to a studio. And so there was just like another like wellspring that erupted of ideas while I was in that studio to write new songs. And then when we finally got back to Brooklyn, I just hunkered down and went to the studio that I made This is How You Smile out of, and just spent all of, like, October and November until March of this year or April of this year and finished the album.
It sounds like you gave yourself some more time, maybe separating music life with personal life, too. Taking your time to do both at the same time.
Everybody had a completely different experience last year. Aside from everybody experiencing one thing together, individually, it was different. For me, it was interesting because I was with somebody the whole time. Somebody that I wanted to be with. And, so, it was a good moment for me in that respect. It wasn't all easy. It wasn't the easiest thing in terms of just having that experience, but it was a really good thing...
A good forced opportunity to spend time together, yeah.
For sure, and it really informed it in a really positive way, and it gave me the ability to start protecting my time and energy.
Maybe this is a silly question, but Far In — is that kind of, maybe, the opposite of "far out"?
Yeah, yeah. So, the story with that is, I got the title from a conversation I had with Laraaji and we had just happened to run into each other. I had never met him before, but I saw him sitting down at this airport in Berlin in 2018 and I just wanted to introduce myself and just say hi and tell him how much I really enjoyed his work. And then we got to talking, and he was telling me what he was up to, he was recording some piano and doing some other work out in Europe. And then he asked me what I was up to. It was a unique situation. What we had been doing was like, 120 artists all working at this place called the Funk House, like all collaborating and making music. And so it was pretty exciting. He must have sensed how much excitement I had, energy wise, from that experience. It was just like a really glowing atmosphere and he used the expression — but in his own twist — he was like, "far in," you know? And I just love that. There was just such a sincere and kind humor to it. It really jolted something in me, but also it was just like a resonant thought, you know, for just flipping things on its head.
We've heard a couple of singles released so far "Gemini and Leo" and "Outside the Outside." Maybe we can talk a little bit about those. "Gemini and Leo" is a bit of a love song. Which one are you? The Gemini or the Leo?
I'm a Leo and she's a Gemini. I call it more of a "loving song," because I think it's not necessarily just about a personal story between us, but also, there's an ability to think about it in multiple ways and not necessarily just have it be reflecting on my own personal relationship. When the concept appeared for "Gemini and Leo," I was like, well, maybe I'll just dig in and just see what else I can come up with in terms of constellations and outer space. It all clicked a lot more when I was in Marfa. They have a dark sky preservation, essentially meaning they limit the amount of lights that are around. And I think they share some kind of Deep Space telescope there, that's a sister to another telescope in the Atacama Desert in Chile. And it's one of the few places where you can see super deep into space because it's so low moisture there, in this area of the world, that there's no distortion for the the telescope. And so it felt like appropriate to harness that sentiment of being deep in the outer space and then drawing some metaphors into these astrological ideas, but then also some more like spiritual, deep, deep brain, deep thought, nebular places.
That's gorgeous. And "Outside the Outside" came with a cool video, put together with old VHS recordings of family time back in Florida.
Definitely. Yeah, yeah. So, this is what would happen every weekend at my house. There was a party and then people would record it. Usually the run of the night would be like, folks arrive, folks eat some food, have some drinks, get drunk, dance, maybe have some more drinks.
How old were you at this time? Were you into the party, or was it corny adults...
Yeah, I think all the kids were into it as much as they could be. I think it was like, everybody would bring their kids everywhere. So, it's like, I would always go to every party. And then my parents' friends would bring their kids to the parties. And so we were always surrounded by kids our own age. But we would also dance and have a good time and kind of just get into it as well. So it was throughout my life for sure, and that's a pretty good document. I really like that video. It's probably somebody's birthday party. I can't remember whose birthday party it is.
Was that family time part of the catalyst for the song itself? Like, I think I read somewhere, you said they felt like outsiders, but you kind of felt outside of their outside.
It wasn't like the video was the reason why I wrote the song. When I came across the footage... When I came back to New York, I transferred a bunch of VHS and so I had seen it. Maybe it was in the back of my mind and it was through a conversation I was having with my wife, Kristi, about being an "outsider among outsiders." It was kind-of in this other world that we were discussing stuff.
Maybe you can explain that a bit. What is outside of the outside, or outside of the outsiders?
I thought the best way to explain it was the way I was describing it in the song where it taps into something where I started to think about, you know, my family came here. They came to New York in the '60s, like a lot of immigrant families, trying to have a different life. A change of pace. A change of direction in their own life. I think, for better or for worse. I think it's mostly having to do with trying to make money, you know? I think a lot of people leave the country they're from because of that. Not all people. I think there's harsher situations in terms of even the refugee situation that's happening here in the United States with folks just wanting to cross the border because of a life-threatening situation. That wasn't necessarily the case for my family. But still through that, there's a connection with other people who are immigrants who I think they would find themselves, among other people who had things in common.
I feel like a lot of people in Latin America have a lot of things in common beyond language. I think language is maybe the least interesting part about it. There's food and there's music. There's a cultural depth that really connects a lot of people and people find kinship in finding some of those things in common, so, you know, some of the people that you would see in that video that we made for "Outside the Outside," there's a lot of friends, family of mine that I still see that I grew up with who are from Colombia, Peru, Puerto Rico, Mexico. These are people from all over. It was interesting for my family to see them, find this group, these other people who left and then found themselves among other people who who've left, and you form this bond. My family could have hung out with a whole bunch of white people, but that didn't happen, you know what I mean? So I think it's testament to a lot of what people are finding and how what they're finding is really like their comfort in finding other people who have these Latin American common bonds. At least that's what my family was looking for. And so I grew up with that. And it was fun because it's like you got to share all these different cultures that I got to see the way people did stuff and mannerisms and then ultimately language and and music that came through that and from that.
But then also growing up, being ultimately American, being born here, I grew up with that half of me. And so then, you know, as you get older, you kind of separate from that bond that they had. And you want to make your own bond to the world, and so then you start to become an outsider among the group of outsiders that brought you in that burns you into this whole other community. And so you start to alienate yourself. And it's really interesting for me — at least, I alienated myself on purpose. I was wanting to find something different, something new, something that was uniquely my own. And I think that happens with everyone. I think people go through their teenage years trying to begin to have their own identity crisis, you know? So, I think that's what the song touches on, but also going a layer deeper, I don't want to ever let go of that, too. I like the idea of trying to always find a way to keep growing and not necessarily feeling like anything is so pure, that I'm a part of one thing. I want it to be that there's an openness to be part of. To be a part of more of the world and to be able to grow as I get older.
DJ Chilly is the co-host of El Sonido, airing Monday evenings, 7-10 PM. El Sonido is "a three hour trip around the diverse world of Latin music and culture from South, Central and North America, as well as Spain and the rest of the globe."
Bajamos la persiana del 2020 conversando abiertamente con el compositor y cantante Roberto Carlos Lange, mas conocido como Helado Negro. Su proceso creativo, la política actual, la música que lanzó este año y su deseo de colaborar algun día con Juana Molina y Maria Marquez, son algunas de las cosa…
Helado Negro looks back at 2020, his solo music, and making it through a very tough year
Fresh off the release of his stellar new album 'This Is How You Smile,' NYC-based Ecuadorian-American musician Helado Negro delivers a loose and funky guest DJ mix for Midnight in a Perfect World spotlighting infectious underground gems that boast an effortless groove.