Helado Negro

Interview with Avant Bolero Helado Negro

Here at Remezcla, we’ve long been enamored with Helado Negro’s steady output of singles leading up to the release of EP Double Youth— whether his recent break into the falsetto zone with “Ojos que no ven,” or the fluttery, textural single “I Krill You.”

The son of Ecuadorian immigrants from Guayaquil who later relocated to New York, Helado Negro was born in South Florida, what he calls “the capital of Latin America.” This cross-cultural experience is translated in his English-Spanish lyricism, which emerged more strongly after he first found his footing with music releasing experimental hip hop-driven beats under the moniker Epstein.

Remezcla chatted with Helado Negro about his unrelenting creative process, the value of earning the byline “avant bolero” thanks to nu tropical music collective Maracuyeah out of DC, and about his intention of looking out for up-and-coming Latin American artists by helping them connect with whole new audiences stateside.

Helado Negro’s Double Youth EP, full of the gorgeously layered soundscapes we’ve come to expect, is now out on Asthamtic Kitty Records. You can purchase it on their website or iTunes.

It seems like you’re constantly releasing new material– do you have a regimen for your creative process that helps to make that happen?

I think it’s mostly that I want to work; I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like pressure to finish something, it’s more like I want to complete an idea that I have, and it’s always been about that more than anything. In terms of releasing stuff, it’s exciting because it gives me the opportunity to move forward. I feel like anything that I’ve sat on for too long, it’s not worth releasing anymore. It just needs to happen for me; it’s not informed by anything, it’s not informed by the Internet or anything like that; kind of drawing an example, it’s like in the ‘70s, when music was being released it was a pretty healthy economy, groups were putting a new album out every year, so it’s not unheard of.

I’m pretty economical when it comes to making my music. I use what I have. I’m ambitious, but I’m ambitious with my mind, not my checkbook, which I think is important for people to realize now, especially with the realities of our home economy. With music it should be genuine, and I think if it really needs to be expensive–because sometimes things are expensive–but most of the time people making the greatest music with what they have.

When you’re writing music, is it a conscious decision to be writing in Spanish or English?

I write in both. When I’m writing music, and I’m adding parts to a song, for me it’s whatever services the song the best. So there’s no real pride or integrity in terms of how much work I put in to this amazing bassline or tone; if it sucks, it sucks, so I don’t use it, even if it took a month. It’s whatever services the song– so, singing in English or in Spanish, they’re both languages that I speak natively. I learned Spanish first and then learned English in school, so it just happens. More than anything I’m not really a narrative-based writer; when it comes to lyrics, all of what I write lyrically becomes abstract, impressionistic interpretations of my own histories with misplaced chronological order. It’s like a memory that starts when I was seven, that finishes when I was 14, and it gets lined up with something that happened five minutes ago. So it’s these weird instances that I draw from, that come together.

What are the tools that you use in the studio?

I use my computer and my voice. It just gives me so much…I mean I’ve always made music with my computer. Originally I was using an MPC, I got one in like 1999 and made my first couple of records with an MPC, I was 20, 19 when I started doing that, and then I was figuring out how to use it in tandem with a computer, and this was when Reactor first came out and there was like Ableton 1.0, something like that. It always fascinated me to have this automated process, and it had nothing to do with perfection, it had to do with the idea of having the ability to have diversity in the sounds. I was never a virtuoso with any instrument, I don’t know how to write music in a traditional sense– I know how to do it my way, like most people do now I think.

There’s so much information out there…

Yeah, and that’s the most exciting thing. The flooding, or the saturation, of so much music requires listeners to maybe be more discerning; I think that maybe people are just getting a better taste of what they like. You get fed so much shit for so long, then you’re like this shit sucks; I think that happens a lot, you know?

Then as an artist then with that same access to publish your own work constantly, how do you know when something you make is finished, or ready for release?

I think that’s a true talent. Knowing when something is ready to share, or present, or when you finalize something there’s that moment; and that’s a brave moment, because you’re intimate with something for so long and now it becomes this like, whittled down thing for other people to listen to. So someone hears it and they’re like, oh it sounds like this! Sometimes it’s hard for me, sometimes it’s not really…a lot of times when I work I have a close circle of people that I play things for, and I gain really good, critical listening. I think that’s maybe what lacks in some communities– people who are really honest that you work with. Some people can drop their ego and be like, oh yeah I should change this. I think that’s a crucial step for a lot of people while making music, to surround themselves with people that are willing to listen and take that in, and to know whether you have the confidence to get behind it and be done, or to be like maybe this does suck.

That’s definitely an ego thing.

And you have to discern that at some point; like, do I really believe in this shit? Or do I need to keep working?

Now that you’ve been at this for ten plus years, how would you describe the sound you’ve established for yourself?

You know, a lot of people talk about this. I was talking to someone about the way visual art is talked about in the museum or gallery sense. There’s modern, or there’s contemporary, but contemporary art is not even contemporary anymore– it’s more a spec style we’ve established. So I feel like the things that are happening now are always emerging– and that’s kind of funny to say, but it’s true. Most of the things that are happening now usually don’t have a name, and i feel like I’m not the only one doing what I’m doing within the Spanish-English speaking community.

There’s a lot of people doing what i do…I don’t think its as easy to corral it as like, this is cumbia, that’s electro, but cumbia’s been around since the ‘50s, so it has a long traditions. There’s nothing new about cumbia, it’s an old style that has been reinterpreted by newer musicians. Whenever something’s unknown it’s hard to talk about…so whenever people ask, I’m like ‘I make music with my computer and I sing in Spanish.’

Do you know DJ Rat and Mafe? They put something awesome on a flyer–I played a show for one of their Maracuyeah parties in DC–they put “avant bolero,” and i like that…I thought it made sense in some weird way. It almost doesn’t make any sense, but it kind of does. So I like that.

That’s an interesting booking for Maracuyeah, since they’re usually known for more dancefloor-oriented acts.

Yeah, it’s really cool. I think it speaks a lot to what I’m saying, that there’s a lot of people out there that don’t necessarily do what i do, but are in the same family. I think there’s a lot of young Latin American artists making music and art that are coming from the same place; there’s a community that’s somewhat getting tied together, in my mind.

How do you see this extending into future collaborations for you?

I’m curating a series through my label [Asthmatic Kitty] thats going to be focusing on Latin American artists that haven’t released in the US, so they get stateside exposure. I always get e-mails from people asking how to release stuff here, so the label was like, why don’t we just start putting out a bunch of stuff and you can curate it. It’s exposure– we have nothing to gain, it’s not like these records are gonna sell. I mean, we hope they sell, but no one is selling records these days, especially records that aren’t sung in English, which are that much more difficult.

It’s really for the artists. Because I think with anything it’s imperative that people keep making stuff. I think that’s a big part of releasing– that faith from someone. It creates accountability, and that accountability creates the urge to finish something, to push yourself to whichever creative idea you want to go to. I think there’s more amazing music in Latin America now than I’ve ever seen, or I’ve that I’ve ever been exposed to. So I think it’s just encouragement that people are listening, that people are willing to take that chance to let other people hear it.

Enter to win an autographed autographed vinyl copy of Helado Negro’s Double Youth below!

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