An argument can be made that all electronic music is inherently innovative, given that electronic musicians are using technology to create all of the noise that a full band would typically make. Programming drum beats and sequencing synths is far from the only groundbreaking work Roberto Carlos Lange is doing as Helado Negro, however.
On 2016’s Private Energy, Lange incorporates numerous elements, from the expected guitar, drums, and keyboards to the more unanticipated, like found sounds and field recordings he made himself. But he also created the album as an extended study of his personal identity as a Latino American and the child of Ecuadorian immigrants, and—in the accompanying live performances for the album—he uses stagecraft to further create a space in which individual identity can be explored.
“The United States has played a huge influence on why I make the music that I make,” Lange says. “And South America as well, because I traveled to Ecuador so much growing up.” Seeing the differences in the two countries’s cultures and societies, with their particular ideas about government and different paces of life, continues to inform the fluid worldview that Lange channels into his music.
In this respect, it’s no surprise that Private Energy is a complex work with many layers. For instance, it includes one song, “Runaround,” named after an Isaac Asimov short story and inspired by the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson. Many musicians shy away from including overtly political messages in their music for fear of alienating potential fans. But for Lange, including his response to such a shocking episode in U.S. history is as natural as discussing his own past, because it’s all part of his awareness of who he is and where he’s grown up.
“I think a lot of [Private Energy] has to do with my own personal identity, inwards and outwards,” he says. “There’s songs talking about insecurities, about expectations. And there’s also songs about really literal themes, like ‘It’s My Brown Skin.’ I think the thing I’m talking about most with Private Energy is how to preserve this thing that we all have, the uniqueness of us.”
For Lange, innovation in his craft is as much about refining and building upon what he has created in the past as it is about investigating and staking out new territory. “I think, for me, innovation is a conscious decision to pursue things that feel new to me,” he says. “It is a conscious decision to try to sculpt something new for myself, to try to not be repeating myself as much as possible, but also using as many processes that I’ve created for myself and then realigning them with new ideas.”
Lange approaches each song differently, preferring not to settle on one songwriting method. He arranged and finalized the compositions on Private Energy in Ableton Live, but says that process-wise, his songs are written in a lot of different ways. He first started making music with an Akai MPC sampler he purchased in 1999, and the process he developed using that tool has always been a part of the way he works, he says. “But I also learned enough about playing a guitar to use a guitar as a means to creating ideas and melodies—but not necessarily being a guitarist,” he adds. He treats all instruments that way, as “sound sources that I can create ideas with.”
Lange quite consciously lets the world around him seep into his music via the field recordings he compulsively captures in his day-to-day life. “You’re on the train, you hear someone busking somewhere, or you’re rolling around anywhere in Brooklyn, and there’s always something to be heard and recorded,” he says. “It’s just like an Instagram-type of thing, where I’m just capturing something and I’ll keep it for myself. It’s either before, during, or after that I’m making music that I’ll end up thinking about it.”
For Private Energy, Lange made it very obvious where he used field recordings, which is mostly in the interstitial pieces, titled “Obra Dos” through “Obra Cinco,” that he placed between songs. Though you wouldn’t necessarily recognize any of those sounds, due to the amount of manipulating and effects the recordings are subjected to, Lange says one in particular stands out to him.
After nearly a decade living in Crown Heights, Lange and his wife moved to an apartment in Prospect Lefferts Garden about a year ago. “Around that time I started hearing someone playing the steel drum,” he says. “It was really interesting, so I recorded it and it sounded really good, and I ended up using that and effecting that, manipulating it, and putting it on the record, and it really worked well where I put it.”
But what was even more interesting to Lange was how, throughout the rest of 2016, the steel drum player kept playing —and kept getting better. “It was amazing to hear by the end of the summer, when the West Indian Day Parade came through, this dude or woman, I don’t know who it was, had a full band, and you could hear how good they had gotten. But it was cool to hear progress just through audio, and see time change like that. That was a nice gift, more than anything, and I was happy to just include it somehow without knowing it was going to be this thing for me again.”
Lange is not just interested in trying new things with his recorded output, however. Stagecraft has become another area in which he is pushing the boundaries of self-expression. He created what he calls “Tinsel Mammal” costumes for a 2014 festival set in Mexico City, the theory being that tinsel would work well whether his set was during the day or night. He has been using the costumes as part of his stage show ever since, and says that he’s achieved a “very concise choreography” with how they’re incorporated into his live set. But he adds that there is an evolution to the concept that hasn’t yet been realized.
“When people put the costumes on, the anonymity of it empowers them to do whatever they want. They could be standing in front of four people or 2,000 and it doesn’t matter, no one can see you and you can’t see them. There’s something about the freeness about that, where you can be in the space and be present, be yourself, but also not be recognized, in a sense, and be fine with that. It was this private place. I’m pursuing an evolution of that, that’s a little bit outside of just having it in tandem with the music and performance.”
Since releasing Private Energy, Lange says people have been writing to him and telling him that his music has encouraged them to start thinking and talking about their own identity. Interestingly enough, this was not a phenomenon he had prepared for. Helado Negro was always a personal project for him, Lange says, music that was ultimately written to please no one but himself. Which suggests that, perhaps, building a community of like-minded souls around his music is the next frontier for Lange to explore.
“That’s really special and it’s hard for me to process that stuff too,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t know what to say.” ♦
Photos Nicole Fara Silver