Helado Negro Is Not Just Young, Latin And Proud. He's Also Constantly Transforming
Latinx indie darling Helado Negro is an underground institution. Pitchfork has described his music as “a world of nuance,” he’s created an enveloping, electronic experience with musicians from David Byrne’s band and Wilco for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and his “Young, Latin and Proud” album imagery has become an iconic marker among Latinx millenials.
But even with more than a decade-long career, which includes seven studio albums, three EPs, constant touring and an appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series, Helado Negro — the artistic moniker for Ecuadorian-American multi-instrumentalist and composer Roberto Carlos Lange — still finds himself having to edge out new spaces across the country for his brand of electronic-driven, folk-adjacent Latinx dream-pop.
He’ll be opening for Beirut on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at House of Blues, performing tracks from his upcoming seventh studio album “This Is How You Smile.” “I appreciate Beirut bringing me out. There may not be 2000 Latinos up in that place but there’s something bigger than that happening,” he tells me over the phone.
That “bigger thing” he’s referring to, is a movement of young, like-minded Latinx musicians — like neo-Chicano soul wunderkind Cuco, Omar Apollo, or Katzù Oso, among others — who Helado Negro helped pave a path for. He knows that every venue, every shared bill, and every town or city offers a new space they can claim as their own.
Helado Negro’s music rests between swashing, understated electronic folk, and more structurally sound, airy pop. His pulsating, often whisper-like baritone floats above quiet melodies, like a nostalgic lullaby for millennial Latinxs. He sings in English, Spanish and often, Spanglish.
Perhaps what has defined Helado Negro the most over his varied career is a perpetual reinvention and artistic evolution. Like many first-generation Americans, Helado Negro grew up immersed in an amalgamation of cultures. Raised by Ecuadorian parents in Miami, he visited his parents’ home country every summer.
His musical evolution is just another facet of the immigrant experience — always looking to contextualize one’s experience within a larger backdrop. “It’s hard as you get older because you have so many histories in your mind,” he tells me about the continuous shifts in his life: American but also Ecuadorian, English but also Spanglish, here but also there.
In his latest artistic chapter, Helado Negro has more overtly declared his Latino identity as the guiding ethos in his music, setting a precedent for the new Latinx indie dream-pop movement.
“There’s a peripheral thing that happens when you use your platform to bring more voices and more people out. I almost always try to bring people that I think could have some kind of resonance with some kind of underrepresented communities,” he says about the varied acts he likes to tour with. When he played Boston in 2017, he brought experimental dream-pop duo Buscabulla and couldn’t believe the turnout. “It was special to see the Puerto Rican contingency in Boston come out and get down for them.” Since then he's played with Cuco in Boston.
His live tours have taken an almost mythological quality in recent years, with a setup consisting of him and a backup dancer/art installation group he’s dubbed the Tinsel Mammals. The Tinsel Mammals — whose roles are often filled by fans in touring cities — glide along to his performances while wearing ponchos covered in about $500 worth of tinsel.
But this time around, he’s pivoting the focus to a live band without the tinsel. “I’m turning the page on the Tinsel Mammals. The new songs lend themselves to the intimacy of the venues.”
Over the years his sound has morphed from lo-fi guitar-driven synth pop to more celestial, keyboard and sampler based. And still, it always sound like Helado Negro.
He realizes that many people at the Boston show may not know or care who he is. “It’s always a gamble with opening up for such a specific group [like Beirut] with such a loyal and specific following.” Though his new full-band approach, coupled with the strength of the new, uplifting ethereal pop on "This Is How You Smile" entices new ears.
With his new album scheduled for release in March, and working with a new label (this will be his first full-length with RVNGIntl, after spending seven years on Asthmatic Kitty) Helado Negro feels a new era has arrived for Latinx music in general. “Creating these spaces and opportunities is just part of a collective work we did. We’ve maybe been able to reposition peoples perspectives and influence the people who have the power to book these shows.”
There's a satiating duality in Helado Negro. His music is perpetually innovating, yet it feels as though it's always been the elder antecedent to the current Latinx wave. His sound is ethereal and soft, yet declarative and forceful in its message of identity. He has a cult following and yet still feels accessible. “I sell my own merch, drive myself, manage my own tour. I do as much as I can myself. So If anyone wants to say hi, I’ll be the dude at the merch table.”