Helado Negro on Exploring New Territory with “PHASOR”

Roberto Carlos Lange shares how a move to North Carolina helped him break from his prior discography—while still staying moored to his established musical persona.
In Conversation

Helado Negro on Exploring New Territory with PHASOR

Roberto Carlos Lange shares how a move to North Carolina helped him break from his prior discography—while still staying moored to his established musical persona.

Words: Will Schube

Photos: Sadie Culberson

April 01, 2024

When Helado Negro’s Roberto Carlos Lange began conceptualizing his recent album PHASOR, he began parsing through loops created on Salvatore Matirano’s SAL MAR machine, located at the University of Illinois. Rather than loop particular moments, Lange decided to stretch these sounds past any logical point in order to see where these roads would take him. Often, these experiments would yield nothing. Undeterred, these “failures” were part of the process; Lange didn’t even see them as such. They represented something wonderful that exists independently of vinyl pressings, tour dates, and record label contracts. This whimsy is at the heart of PHASOR, which delights in the push and pull between electronics and acoustic instruments, the digital world and physical nature, and the macro versus micro.

Location also plays a big role in PHASOR—if not in the way the record sounds then the way it was created. Lange and his partner moved to Asheville, North Carolina before working on this record, and coming from New York, regular activities shifted from concerts six nights a week to day hikes populated by waterfalls and stunning mountains. “It’s really remarkable to see this type of nature on the East Coast,” Lange tells me. This fascination appears on the swaggering “Best For You And Me,” where Negro blends a melancholy vocal performance with poppy piano chords and a synth that sounds as cozy as a blanket. “Mom’s asleep / Dad’s not home / It’s what’s wrong / And I’ll go outside / Looking at the moon way too long,” he sings.

With PHASOR, Lange tried to make something wholly unique in his discography, and while it’s some of his best work to date, it does sound unquestionably like Helado Negro. Lange is OK with that—even thrilled by it. The idea that no matter how hard we try we can’t escape where we’ve been, what we know. All he does on PHASOR is make the least expected choice, and each of these surprises will lead to something new—an album that sounds like Helado Negro, but with new updates. 

Your last few records did very well in terms of press and accolades. Does that feed into the pressure of making an album like PHASOR?

That does create a certain amount of subconscious pressure, where you’re trying not to let that inform the music. That’s the most important part of creation: to make sure that you’re not falling into what’s been said about what you do. I try to really be like, “Fuck it, I’m going to keep doing what I do and make it weird.” It can be hard to actively search for spontaneity.

Was there anything with this record that you wanted to capture in a different way than you’ve done before? 

I don’t mean to sound generic, but I definitely felt more free in a lot of respects. I felt like with Far In, I put a lot of specific energy into it where it was kind of piecemeal, but there was a lot of compositional consideration. I was really stewing on a lot of things and making it intentionally, specifically grandiose in some respects. There are a lot of songs, and I was working with a lot of people. I wanted this record to sort of be a reflection of how I spent my time making This Is How You Smile, where I had a very specific amount of time and I was just working every day on this music without any interruptions as opposed to Far In, where it was made here, then made there, then made somewhere else. PHASOR was an opportunity to step back into that process, but it didn’t feel familiar at all because it was in a completely new environment living in Asheville. 

“I was seeing how far I could travel down roads, what they could reveal. And some days the road goes nowhere, and that’s fine.”

I wasn’t doing the things that I was doing in New York when I was making This Is How You Smile. It was about rediscovering or discovering something that I had touched on a little bit. I was exploring these recordings that I’d made in 2019 of the synthesizer called the Salmar in Champaign, Illinois. It’s this giant synthesizer that Salvatore Martirano created, and it’s this generative synthesizer that you essentially give directions to based on how you understand it to operate, and it continually generates sounds. I took a lot of those recordings and used loops and patterns and textures and would use them throughout either building the songs or putting moments in songs. That was part of the process as well, making sure I was taking things that didn’t feel so specifically musical, not some kind of commercial synthesizer that you buy at a store. I wanted something that felt very unique as an instrument and not necessarily inhabiting anything that I was familiar with. 

Was the spontaneity of that a big driver of this record? 

I wanted to find things that didn’t feel like, “Well, there are some sounds here, let me just try to find some loops in this.” I was seeing how far I could travel down roads, what they could reveal. And some days the road goes nowhere, and that’s fine. 

It’s OK to not be successful for the day. It’s allowed. 

Yeah. Well, it was successful. I think that’s the cool part. There are so many moments where you’re just like, “I love this—it’ll never be anything, but this is dope.”

Were there any musical or lyrical themes that were in your mind when you began the process? 

I tend to take notes a lot on my phone. It’s usually just phrases or things that I find throughout my day and I start to create a kind of assemblage through that. But on a song like “LFO,” I’m reacting to the way the song sounds. I was utilizing a voice that I don’t necessarily utilize when I’m singing in a studio, but when I’m singing at a show. The lyrics, I don’t know where they came from, but they just happened and they’re a bit more surrealistic. It was like everything was informing everything. The sonic texture of the guitars and the feeling of how I was singing, it just made me feel like I should sing those words. That, in general, is how a lot of the words themselves reveal themselves to me; at least for this record they did. 

Are you reflective of more general societal trends in your lyrics? Or does this album gravitate more personal for you? 

This album finds me trying to be playful in a lot of respects. Talking about “LFO” again, it’s almost like walking in a dream where I go to your house and I get lost in this garden, and then a cop beats me up and then leaves me for dead. Obviously this is all fictional, but it’s talking about these things of existence in different worlds and visualizing these worlds. It may feel personal, but it’s also just textual in a lot of senses. I’m not telling a story about society, but I’m not telling a personal story either. It’s revolving around and utilizing the world as creative inspiration, finding the stories that we can create from it. 

PHASOR feels like the first time I’m free in the sense that I really wasn’t looking back on previous releases in terms of using them as reference points, because I know they live in me.”

Did your new hometown play any role in the album? Or more generally, does geography play any role in the way your records sound?

Asheville’s got a beautiful music scene here, and I think that’s what I’ve been able to explore most. Being outdoors is where it’s at when you’re here. There’s so much to offer in that respect, and it’s beautiful. I hadn’t really lived around this kind of natural landscape with waterfalls and these hikes that just feature revealing mountainscapes everywhere. 

I don’t know if I’m going to create any kind of good metaphors here in terms of what that provides, but I think there’s a certain subconscious pressure that gets relieved in New York. When I was living there, I wanted to experience everything and be at as many shows as possible and see as many things as possible. That was so fulfilling. It feels so good to have these experiences, but then there’s an overwhelming aspect to that where it’s just option paralysis. Here there’s a lot less, obviously, but it gave me an opportunity to focus deeply on the music and on the work, and have a different kind of regimen. It lowers your heart rate, and your nervous system just really transforms. 

What does this record mean to you? 

PHASOR feels like the first time I’m free in the sense that I really wasn’t looking back on previous releases in terms of using them as reference points, because I know they live in me. They’re already a part of me, and all the music I make is always going to sound like me. I was really trying to make sure that I kept ideas intact with what they felt like initially and made sure they reached the end like that. Sometimes things get overproduced and they can turn into this bright and shiny object, but it has no weight because all the dirt and the grit really got wiped off. 

I love that idea of all your ideas living inside you. Why revisit them when they’re going to make their way into your work anyway?

I’ve decided on what I’m going to do and I’m doing it. No matter how many times it may sound different, if anyone ever listens to all my records, they would come to understand that I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time. There’s an evolution of the way things are recorded or the way things are structured, the way things are mixed. There’s definitely a growth in craft, but I also think your song is always your song, and it’s there. FL