Coco and Helado Negro Got Up Early For This

The friends and collaborators catch up about their new records.

Roberto Carlos Lange is an Asheville, NC-based artist who performs as Helado Negro; Oliver Hill is an LA-based artist who’s played in the bands Pavo Pavo and Dustrider, and currently is one-third of Coco, along with Maia Friedman (Dirty Projectors) and Dan Molad (Lucius). Helado Negro’s latest record PHASOR was just released on 4AD, and Coco’s 2 will be out tomorrow (via First City Artists), so to celebrate, the two friends/collaborators got on a Zoom call to catch up about it all.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Roberto Carlos Lange: I’m so sorry, I feel like I just made you get up so early.

Oliver Hill: Don’t be sorry, it’s great to see you! It’s been too long. You’re in Asheville now?

Roberto: Yeah, I’m in Asheville. Currently [on tour] in Phoenix. It’s really great there. I’m sure you know lots of people there. Or maybe you don’t!

Oliver: Yeah, I don’t — I mean, Angel Olsen was there for a bit, and she’s here [in LA] now. But I went through a few times, it seemed very charming.

Roberto: Yeah it is. It’s good. It punches above its weight in terms of music. It’s surprisingly not dull music-wise. The people who come through and play, you’re just like, What? I don’t know if you’ve played a show there or not, but there’s a venue called the Grey Eagle.

Oliver: Yeah, I know the Grey Eagle.

Roberto: Os Mutantes played there, and there was barely anyone there. I was just standing front and center like, This is insane. Stuff like that is pretty common in Asheville in terms of seeing music. And it’s kind of a relief from New York or LA, going to see someone that’s kind of well-known and being crowded and you’re like, I can’t really experience this music because of everybody here. It’s like more of a scene…

Oliver: The full guest list vibe.

Roberto: Yeah.

Oliver: My New Haven life was that way. Everyone would come between the New York and the Boston shows, and it was like the worst gig of their tour, it was always undersold and they were kind of in a bad mood. But it was great for me.

Roberto: [Laughs.] I think I’m playing Hamden, the Space [Ballroom].

Oliver: [Laughs.] Well, expect that to be an off night. So, I listened to your record — so beautiful.

Roberto: Thank you, man. 

Oliver: I felt like a—

Roberto: You felt like it was missing you. [Laughs.]

Oliver: [Laughs.] “There’s something missing…”

Roberto: “It’s almost right…”

Oliver: No, I was going to say that there was surprises in it for me. It felt like there was some new searching — which I think is always true of your records, but this one’s maybe more so in some ways. There’s so much detail in the production, and in the compositions. There’s sort of these scene changes and nothing is quite what it seems. It’s never just, you know, a beat comes in and then a bass — everything is filtered and there’s so much ear candy. There’s also all this stuff that even just from the producer mindset, I’m like, Damn, what even is that? How did those sounds come to be? Obviously, it’s not possible to talk through all of them, but was there any piece of technology, or even just a conceptual thing, that felt new to this album?

Roberto: Yeah. Something I have to discuss with this record was just being able to have a little bit more of a regimented schedule. But it didn’t feel too overwhelming in terms of like, Oh, my god, now I gotta go do this again. I was waking up in kind of a flow. I didn’t really feel the pressure to be like, This record needs to be done. It was more like, Oh, I can’t wait to see what appears today. 

Then in a studio sense, the writing process was really just receiving a lot of whatever was happening through that openness — kind of just trying to truly create with no intention. And through that, there are so many seeds. It’s kind of always been part of my process, but for some reason, this [record] awakened a new type of freedom of being like, Whatever happens, seriously, it’s going to happen. I wasn’t concerned with trying to write a song or write some kind of narrative or have lyrics be so deeply overworked. I was like, There’s a million songs in the world that are like that. There’s a million people writing songs with guitars and instruments, and I’m OK to not participate. I was like, Whatever’s calling me right now is what I want to do. And that was more what I was trying to do, as opposed to feeling like I needed to fit some kind of parameters of singer-songwriter stuff. That’s kind of something I don’t see myself as; it was like a prime opportunity for me to be like, “Yeah, this is what I’m not. I know I’m not that.” As much as people say, “Oh, I don’t read things, I don’t look at things” — I do. I see what people say, and it’s frustrating because you know the things that you are. And it’s not so much that you’re being humble or anything, but sometimes it feels like a misrepresentation of you inside. I’m not making music like that, you know?

Oliver: Yeah. I feel like sometimes people need to be sort of hit over the head with it, like you need to go strong in one direction to change people’s minds. Especially if there’s some representation of you out in the world already that way. I got that on the first listen. Just the way, also, that the song forms are so idiosyncratic.

Roberto: Yeah. Even that — I mean, when I’m writing, I’m not thinking about performance at all. And then when we’re in rehearsals, I’m like, “Oh, man, I really should have thought about performance.”

Oliver: Yeah, how is it translating? What’s the crew?

Roberto: It’s two other people: Jason Nazary on drums and Andy Stack on bass and guitar. But it’s always funny, it’s not just the, “Where’s the one?” conversations that you have during rehearsals — it’s kind of like, “Oh, the 1 is here for this half, and now the one is over here.” I’m like, “Oh, my bad. Everything you learned for that first section now is flipped.” Even though it’s the same patterns, they’re just offset. I know I enjoy doing that. It’s kind of like an inside joke for me, shifting things without people knowing that they’re shifted. And then the nerds are in there listening like, “Oh, shit, OK.”

Oliver: I think even for the non-nerds, it just registers as something more interesting than usual. 

Roberto: Yeah. Things are not looped. But I guess one of the biggest things process-wise, in respect to the last couple records that you played on — with this record, I really was like, I’m just going to do most of everything. The only thing I didn’t do was I invited drummers to play on the record. There’s a couple — Andy plays bass on one, my friend Jason Jimmy plays bass on one. Opal plays piano and sings on a song. It’s pretty minimal. It’s not heavy like the previous ones — like you played bass on a song on Far In and you did strings and a bunch of other stuff on This Is How You Smile.

Oliver: Yeah.

Roberto: [Working with other people] kind of challenges you to feel confident to complete ideas. And it’s so exciting — you know, as musical beasts, we’re trying to meet new people. Collaborators feed the soul of creation and excitement. So it was hard removing that factor. But sometimes you need to have this — not necessarily isolation, but just kind of this constant question you’re asking yourself to see if you can answer it, somehow, in a sonic form.

Oliver: Yeah. I feel like I sometimes pinball [between] each each desire — there’s the desire to sort of crawl in a hole and feel strong and self-sufficient in that way, and then you rebound over and feel like you need the nourishment of being with other people. I mean, music is everything — it is a personal journey and it’s a collective thing, you know? And so I feel like every once in a while, I have to do one really hard and then the other. I don’t know if you relate to that.

Roberto: Yeah, absolutely. And on your end, I could see that, because you’re such a versatile musician, in the sense that you are such a good player and collaborator. You’re really smart in the studio, and that’s why I like working with you. You’re smart in the sense of knowing how to service the song and not service your ego, you know? So I see how for you it could be hard because when you’re getting into your own work, I feel like you’re like, “Oh, I want to find somebody else like me to service the song, to reinforce and amplify the ideas that I’m already putting into this.” I think that’s a really good quality, and I feel like that’s what makes what we do so exciting, finding people with these similar sensibilities. 

I guess the hardest thing is when you’re working with someone that you are not connecting with at all. And I actually love those situations, because I’m like, Cool, we’re so awkward right now and this is not working at all. It’s exciting because it really highlights who you are and the differences of what your expectations are. It calls into question that, and it creates that moment of self-doubt where you’re like, OK, am I wrong?

Oliver: Yeah, Am I the awkward one?

Roberto: Yeah, yeah.

Oliver: I don’t know if you’ve ever done these blind date songwriting things through a publishing company — I get nervous for them for that same reason. I always get the butterflies of, What if there’s nothing? Which, of course, is stupid because like you said, the worst case scenario is that it’s just awkward and you have no chemistry, and you’ll make something and it won’t ever see the light of the day. And that’s fine. 

Roberto: Yeah, it’s a long few hours. So, I listened to the new Coco record and you guys obviously placed a banger as the second song. 

Oliver: You like “Moodrings”? 

Roberto: That’s a home run. I love it. It kind of touches on some themes of certain music that I really enjoyed when I was a teenager in the ‘90s, but it doesn’t feel like a throwback. I think there’s just some melodic sensibilities that really touch on that feeling, that I haven’t heard in a long time. Especially recontextualizing the way you guys arrange, it’s really cool. And then I feel like you have a nice trio: “For George” is really dope, and then you kind of cap it off with “Mythological Man.” That’s a jam. I don’t know how to explain that one. That one’s a repeat listen.

Oliver: Thank you. It’s a bit of a grab bag. They all have very different origin stories and kind of came together in different places. But “Moodrings” was fully a Maia song. In parallel, Maia was making a solo record — that was one of the songs that she had earmarked for that record, and I kind of begged her to make it a Coco thing, because I thought it could be really fun with Danny’s rhythm section sensibility. and just the playfulness that happens with the three of our production. So she obliged, and that was snatched from the solo record. And I’m so glad it was.

Roberto: That’s sick, I love it. And I love this record. I love hearing your voice on so many songs. Like on “For George” — your closeness and your deepness and your seriousness really comes across. I feel like you are a very serious person when it comes to music, but you’re a very joyful person in general. And so to hear your serious voice in music, I’m like, Oh, damn, here comes Oliver. I love it and I think it’s really beautiful. 

At the moment, you work with so many people — do you feel like that overwhelms you? Like, writing and being called upon to work with as many people as you do. Or do you find that that’s actually what gives you all the juice to do Coco?

Oliver: I probably have a different answer on different days depending on what projects are going on. You know, you definitely learn something from every collaborative experience. I sort of can’t help but put on the team jersey of whatever I’m involved in — even if it’s something maybe at first I don’t think I’m that excited about, or I’m not sure about. I feel like I always, on some level, come around to the intention of the artist in the project. I’m also trying to be less judgmental in general, in especially musical life. Just take off my critic hat and be like, Everyone’s just out here doing their thing. And whatever’s that cringe response — it’s like, what is underpinning my repulsion to what’s happening right now? It’s probably just some version of my own hang ups.

Roberto: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s nothing wrong with that. In some respects, you like what you like, and that’s really important to know. That’s why people work with you, because they’re like, “Oh, he likes something that I like too, and I want him to inject that into my work.” And it’s like what you said, you gotta put on different hats. I think that is a really great quality that you do have, and I think that’s why I’ve enjoyed working with you. Because I know you hate all my music…

Oliver: [Laughs.] It’s so hard…

Roberto: [Laughs.] No, I think everything you just said is exactly what one would hope for, and come to expect when working with you.

Oliver: I appreciate it, man.

Roberto: And I feel like that stuff gives you new information. When I’m in those experiences, the takeaways are not so obvious. The takeaways sometimes are just like, Alright, I guess I can pay rent this week. And then there’s the stuff that kind of bubbles up in your writing and you’re like, Oh, man, that’s really weird, but I kind of like that. You know? Like, I wouldn’t have done that, but I’m OK with that. Do you have something that’s happened like that? Do you feel like you worked with somebody else and you were like, “I might just do something like that.”

Oliver: Yeah, I mean, versions of that happen within Coco all the time, actually, which is a really nice thing. Because we have kind of a loose — you know, three people is a nice number in terms of getting decisions made quickly, because there’s always a majority. We really always respect that majority thing, unless for some reason someone feels really strongly, like “I hate that,” or whatever. But pretty much you can just move quickly like, “OK, two people want there to be 16th notes on the hi-hat. Great.” So I find myself being overruled over the course of a session — I mean, everyone finds themselves being overruled regularly — and you just don’t get in your feelings about it. And then so often in retrospect, it’ll be like, Why did I think we needed that synth? Why was I so attached to that thing? That’s kind of a nice, humbling thing.

Roberto: I’m so excited for you guys, man. Everything that I listened to is beautiful, and I think the world will agree.

Oliver: Oh, likewise!

Roberto Carlos Lange plays music as Helado Negro. His most recent album, Private Energy, was released by Asthmatic Kitty last year.