He was barely out of his teens and still studying at the Savannah College of Art & Design when ROM, the group he formed with his friend Matt Crum, signed to the hip-hop label Counterflow Recordings. It would be years until their first official release, the 12” vinyl single “Into The Clouds.” In the meantime Lange would DJ bars and clubs while working on a sample-based solo instrumental project called Epstein. When ROM signed to a Japanese label, they toured Japan extensively; another project, Boom & Birds, brought him to Europe, where he performed at Barcelona’s Sónar festival in 2004. He helped Scott Herren produce some of his Prefuse 73 records; they’d later collaborate on the Savath & Savalas project for Stones Throw Records. By 2009 Lange had caught the attention of Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label, which released a collection of ambient recordings under his own name as well as his first record as Helado Negro, the project that would come to define him.
His earliest recordings were mostly instrumental, but with Helado Negro (“Black Ice Cream” in English), Lange revealed his own voice, a soothing baritone croon that floated over the textured soundscapes he’d created with help from his various musician friends. A distillation of the sound he’d evolved over all those years and all those projects, Helado Negro is equal parts South America (his ancestral home) and South Florida (the setting of his youth), stewed in the melting pot that is New York City, where he lives today.
Lange recently released a remastered version of his latest LP, Private Energy, on vinyl with the independent label RVNG Intl. The collection of sci-fi lullabies (“Young, Latin & Proud”) and electro affirmations (“It’s My Brown Skin”) represents years of writing and workshopping, initially inspired by the helplessness he felt watching a country tear itself apart over the murder of a young man at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri.
Now 37 years old and as successful as he’s ever been, Lange is living proof that it’s possible for an independent musician to stake out a career on their own terms, that a Latin artist in the US can find an audience singing in English and Spanish without adhering to industry conventions of recording separate albums for each market. In a phone conversation at the airport on his way back from Georgia to New York, Lange tells us just how difficult it’s been to maintain his career as an independent musician, and the way he’s evolved along with a constantly shifting industry.
“I’m the cat who wants to try everything out before I pick the one that I want.”
SUITED: You’ve been writing and producing music for the past two decades, under various monikers and aliases, but Helado Negro has been a constant for the last ten. How do these different projects fit into who you are?
Roberto Carlos Lange: Helado Negro is maybe more fleshed out, in terms of looking at it as a project that can be more than just making music in my bedroom. Epstein and ROM, I just didn’t know what was going on, I wasn’t in control of anything, and it was just kind of, going and doing it. I wasn’t really paying attention to what the next step was. There was a moment in Japan…I remember, I’d done that tour several times, and I just woke up from insomnia. The time change is so hard to get used to, and while we’re touring, there’s also a disconnect with people, since I don’t know the language, there’s [not] an intimacy. You’re just kinda isolated. I remember thinking at that moment, Why am I dedicating all this time to this, when it’s just to maintain, as opposed to it evolving into something that can be more interesting for myself?
Helado Negro started from that point. Like, OK, I want this to be a project that’s going to evolve, into whatever it needs to be. Initially it was recordings with my friends, and we would perform as a band, and perform a lot, with a lot of different people. And I did my first full-fledged US tour, and it was great in an experiential sense. But I learned a lot of things the hard way. I learned how to sing on the road. I learned that [touring with a full band] wasn’t possible for me to maintain in a financial sense. We had all this momentum, we had all this good press, all these things seemed to be lining up…but nobody was showing up.
So I made a huge transformation, I thought about how I could hybridize what I did as Epstein—when I was touring with a laptop and just a drum machine in 2002 to 2004—and do that with Helado Negro as well. That’s where that was born, from necessity, the economy of it, and where it could take me if I did that. I would say that was the evolution. The live show is now expanding a little bit more—I had contracted completely and now I’m starting to inch my way out as things grow.
SUITED: How do you reconcile these fiscal choices with your needs as an artist? What do you have to do differently to make an art career sustainable?
RCL: I think it’s whatever you wanna communicate. And for me…well, look, it’s not that I’m compromising anything, I’m still having people hear the things that I want them to hear. It’s not compromising what I want them to hear at a live show. The only compromise is understanding how to become a better performer. I didn’t have that experience, and I think being on the road and budgeting like that allowed me to create a situation and an environment to be practical, and learn, and take a lot of hits…but be able to take the hits because I didn’t have the overhead. And that was really important. I took the long way. I usually take the long way for most things. I can only do it one way, and I just need to be patient. I open up for a lot of younger people right now who are doing really, really well, and I’m like wow, you’re 25, and you’ve got this figured out so quick. I think it’s awesome, it’s really inspiring. I really look up to them. Because I know I may have a lot experience or knowledge in a lot of different ways, just because of my hand-to-hand kind of lifestyle, but I’m continually learning from the people that I end up crossing paths with. It’s really cool to see that.
I’m the cat who wants to try everything out before I pick the one that I want, where some people just know what they want. I don’t think there’s a wrong way to approach evolving. As you get bigger, you start to have to make specific kinds of decisions and compromises and alliances that you might not be happy about. I think when you can understand what that all means, that’s maybe the biggest part of this whole thing. You can make your bed pretty quick doing all this, so you might as well take your time.
“I’ve made it very difficult to summarize my life for someone. I’ve made it hard on purpose, because I don’t feel good about being spoken about as a one-dimensional kind of thing. I don’t think anyone does. So if you’re gonna talk about me, you’re gonna have to talk about everything. And that sucks, ‘cause it’s a mouthful, but it’s just what it is.”
SUITED: With all the different projects and directions you’ve taken with your career, how can you stay focused? How do you encapsulate all the different facets of yourself for someone who’s just becoming familiar with your work?
RCL: I thought all these different things could maintain themselves and then funnel back into this bigger picture. I did that for a while. I was like, “OK, I’m gonna freelance doing this, take commissions doing sound for this…” It became super fragmented and of different minds. I kinda have to change gears a lot. But what I began to do was make it all part of one line, which is me. One thread, I guess, is the best way to say it. And I found that was way more conducive to put it all under one umbrella than to be like, “Oh, it’s my whatchamacallit project, and it’s under a different alias.” I’ve made it very difficult to summarize my life for someone. I’ve made it hard on purpose, because I don’t feel good about being spoken about as a one-dimensional kind of thing. I don’t think anyone does. So if you’re gonna talk about me, you’re gonna have to talk about everything. And that sucks, ‘cause it’s a mouthful, but it’s just what it is.
SUITED: You’ve lived in New York going on 10 years now, and in that time it’s only gotten more expensive, more difficult for independent artists to make a living. How have you managed to persist over all these years?
RCL: I think the hardest part is justifying everything all the time. Like, how do you justify paying this much money to live in this physical space? New York is great, and it’s worth every second and dime, but there are the micro-decisions—the apartment you live in, the neighbors, the landlord… You’re paying all this money, and you can get swallowed into this dark hole: “This is a sham, this doesn’t make sense.” And we’re always asking ourselves that question.
So to make it sustainable, you have to kinda take stock in a lot of ideas and decisions you’re making along the way. It’s harder to do it in the moment, so you have to take time to ask what is working, what isn’t working. That happens with me a lot. I’ll go through four or five months of touring, and then I’m like, “Yeah, I need to stop doing this one thing.” And it’s good, I think it’s healthy. It’s hard to stop yourself and look at it, and be patient with knowing that some of these things are long conversations. I think that’s the only good thing about getting older and doing this for a specific period of time: You understand how long certain things take a lot better.
SUITED: You make your music at home, in the same space you live and share with your partner, who’s also an artist. What kind of challenges does that present?
RCL: Living in New York, it’s not like I go to another part of the house [to work]. It’s like, you wake up and you’re in the place, you’re in every room, essentially. So tricking your mind to work is the hardest mountain to climb. But yeah, everything blends at this point, and it always has. And it’s fine, it’s good, it works. Some days it doesn’t work. And I think that’s part of the challenge to motivate yourself to just do that. Working for yourself is not easy.
I think a lot of it is common sense, in terms of sharing and respecting space. Since we have such a small space, we have to be like, “OK, time to work.” Which sucks, because obviously we just wanna lay up in bed all day. And so making it work is just fundamental. It’s just communication, being conscious of the other person. I think being present is pretty heavy, working on aspects of the relationship that are the most important. Because you are sharing business, and you are sharing roommate vibes. You are sharing all these things, and then the part that really makes it work has to be nurtured: the connection. It’s pretty basic, and I think a lot of people know that.
That’s to say, it’s not perfect. It gets pretty interrupted, constantly. Work isn’t five hours straight. it’s like, work for an hour, then… “Wanna eat some snacks?” It isn’t so regimented, which is really important for us…for me, at least, because I’ve never done well in day jobs. I’ve always liked working for two hours and then like, alright, let’s screw off for another two hours. So I think that’s the way it can work. And we’re very much in need of each other. We both have skills and talents that fuel each other’s creative desires, so it’s kinda cool it pays off like that.
I used to slam my schedule from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep. I don’t do that anymore. I stopped consciously doing that a good bit ago. In 2012, I really slowed down. Working every day is exciting, and coming up with an idea and trying something new every day was really, really exciting. I think it yielded a lot of positive things in my life. But then you start to see the things that slip. And those things that slip over long periods of time are attached to friendships, family, and even relationships. All this other stuff is really cool, and it kinda keeps my day-to-day life rich in this creative sense, and it really fuels all these fun things, and it’s paying. But at the end of the day, when you don’t have that connection with the people you really love, you start to see where you lose contact, not so much with reality, but with the reality of all these other people. I would say that’s the hardest thing.