After the Boom: An Interview with Roommate

Drawing by Steve Krakow (aka Plastic Crimewave), silkscreened by Colin Palombi, hand-numbered limited edition of 300. Each Guilty Rainbow LP includes one print with download sticker on the back.

What began as an assignment handed down from a roommate while he was gone has turned into Kent Lambert's main gig, a far cry from being a filmmaker in New York ...


Guilty Rainbow

US Release: 2011-03-22

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."






Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.


Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.


Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".


Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.


Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.