The road to Roommate’s new album, Guilty Rainbow, began ten years ago, when Kent Lambert moved to Brooklyn after graduating from the University of Iowa with a degree in film. At that point, he still considered himself primarily a filmmaker, though he had been playing with ideas for songs and beats since college. Surrounded by artists and bands, galleries and clubs, Lambert was full of ideas, but life in Brooklyn was too busy and too expensive to bear any fruit.
“I was absorbing so much film and music and feeling inspired all the time but didn’t ultimately have enough energy or time left over to work on my own music,” said Lambert. “So the way it happened, and part of the reason I started calling the project Roommate, is that my roommate, my really good friend Noah [Minnick], he would go out of town and say, ‘I’m gonna be gone for the weekend,’ and he’d give me these assignments.”
Especially at first, Minnick’s directions were simple: to finalize as much of a song on record as possible. But that was all the prompting Lambert really needed. He had often spent weeks during college and during his months in Brooklyn “tinkering” with songs until he was sick of thinking about them, he said.
Minnick’s encouragement forced Lambert to focus his energies.
“If he was gone, that meant I had a chance to record without bothering him. I would not look at the newspaper, shut myself in for the entire weekend and just write and record nonstop,” he said.
Lambert moved to Chicago shortly thereafter, largely because he felt it would be a more supportive and less hectic place to work on his music. He got his break when the popular Belgian radio program Duyster chose his song “RP (Forget the Metaphors)” for their best-of-the-year broadcast in 2002.
Since then, Roommate has gradually expanded and solidified into a four-piece band, with a bassist (Gillian Lisée), a drummer (Seth Vanek), and another keyboardist (Luther Rochester) to complement Lambert’s signature keytar. Roommate now has three full-lengths to its name, all recorded in Chicago: 2006’s Songs the Animals Taught Us, 2008’s We Were Enchanted and now Guilty Rainbow, which came out earlier this year.
The project’s sound has changed quite a bit from the dark, slapdash layering of the 2001 EP that started it all back in Brooklyn, Celebs. The songs are longer, with more complex structures and more elaborate arrangements, and Lambert’s lyrical imagery has grown darker and more obscure. There’s no mistaking the general sensibility, however, as Lambert’s own—the passionate, almost theatrical sense of timing, the shifting, restless chords.
The essential difference seems to be one of manpower. With more musicians, more instruments and more ideas, Roommate’s music has evolved naturally into a fuller-bodied sound.
“If I could go back to the bedroom days, if my current self could get in a time machine and play the current album to myself eight, nine years ago, I would be amazed, I wouldn’t believe it. But it’s not like I always wanted to just stay in my bedroom. When I first moved to Chicago I would go to see a lot of improvised music, all kinds of music in general, and I felt this intense itch to be up there doing that, to be playing with a big group of people,” he said.
Now that his wish has come true, Lambert has embraced the creative possibilities of group performance. Though he still writes most of the material himself, down to skeleton parts for the rest of the band, the process of recording Guilty Rainbow involved more input from the other bandmembers than any Roommate album to date. Part of the reason was that the group had a chance to try the songs out live before recording, something they’d never done before. Another factor was that they finally solidified into a consistent lineup after years of Lambert teaming up with virtually anyone who was willing to play.
That was the most important difference, he said, between this release and past ones. “The new album represents us getting to a point where we’re truly a collaborative group,” he said. “With Guilty Rainbow we were working on it as a collective, as a group, pretty much the whole time.”
The difference shows. The arrangements on Guilty Rainbow are more consistent, more intricate and more polished than those on 2008’s We Were Enchanted. Especially notable is Lisée’s soulful, occasionally downright groovy bass, which anchors the ethereal ambience of tracks like “Ghost Pigeon”.
Against the backdrop of this lush, spacey and often expansive musical fabric, Lambert sings of guilt, self-doubt and alienation. Many of his songs have political undertones, and that’s no coincidence: Lambert describes songwriting as an outlet for his feelings about the disasters and injustices that he reads about in the news, everything from the recent earthquake in Japan to the war in Iraq. There is a strong sense of powerlessness and self-accusation in many of his songs, as on “Ghost Pigeon”, when he sings, “I am a privileged man ... when blood is spilled in waves / I may feel bad for days / But its flows and eddies never reach me.”
“I’m a news junkie, and songwriting for me is in great part a way of dealing with this information so I don’t just feel freaked out and angry and paranoid all the time,” he said. “I guess you could say that I write songs sometimes because I need to, and once I get these ideas out, I feel a little bit better.”
It’s also an attempt to reach out, even in a small way, to listeners who share his sense of alarm and frustration at the “really crazy times” we live in, he said.
“There’s definitely this hope that someone may feel less complacent or even just less lonely or isolated because of the music. Then I would feel like I’ve succeeded on some level,” said Lambert.
Those feelings come through loud and clear on “Snow Globe”, the album’s lead single, when Lambert sings “And if you’re someone who cares a lot about the problems of the world / What do you say to the other boys and girls? / Do you try to play it cool / Or do you dare ask if they care along with you?”
The urgency of his words is punctuated by a sweeping climax with cymbal hits, building piano chords and a wash of synthesizers. Even as Lambert sings of desperation and loneliness, the feeling is one of exilharation. It’s a paradoxical effect that recurs throughout Guilty Rainbow, as the mellow musical accompaniment belies the songs’ emotional intensity.
This disconnect between lyrical and musical content is part of what makes Roommate distinctive, and it’s definitely purposeful. Lambert is very wary of the notion of a song with a message, and he emphasized the importance of making music enjoyable for its own sake, regardless of its original inspiration.
He named dub reggae as a model for music that “can be total ear candy but not vapid.”
“If it has even the slightest political effect, wakes something up in somebody so that they do a little bit more than just consume and party and whatever else, then I’ve succeeded. But I certainly don’t want to preach. So there might be imagery that is unsettling, but overall I want the experience to be one of pleasure,” he said.
Lambert was hopeful about the future, and he has every right to be. Roommate has gone nowhere but forward since those fateful days when he dutifully carried out his roommate’s assignments, laying down beats on a Gameboy and accompanying himself on a synthesizer. The band is going on a 15-show spring tour, and their first stop is the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which is screening the music video that Lambert made himself for “Snow Globe”. It’s the first time that his filmmaking has played a part in Roommate, and a sign of the way the project is taking up more and more of his time.
For Lambert, however, Roommate is not and never was about worldly success. It’s about the incomparable immediacy of performing live, about the possibility of identifying with something larger than yourself. Lambert is grateful merely for the opportunity to do what he loves.
“I feel like in music culture there’s this idea that ‘We should be able to make a living.’ And that would be wonderful, that would be a wonderful world, if you could make an honest living as a musician. That’s not the world we live in,” he said. “I think it’s a great privilege to be able to make music at all.”