5 writers, 5 questions, 1 band, hand-picked by the MWA writers. Welcome to FIVE x FIVE. This week: Chicago prog rock quartet, Roommate.
Last week, we had the pleasure of premiering the new music video from Roommate’s latest album MAKE LIKE. Now, in advance of their show tonight at Burlington Bar, we talked with founder Kent Lambert and percussionist Seth Vanek about collaboration, inspiration and the move from NYC to Chicago.
Over the years, Roommate has featured a slew of talented musicians in different capacities. How important is collaboration to your music?
Seth: Kent started Roommate as as solo project and has recruited musicians from various Chicago music communities (free jazz, folk, rock, synth nerds, etc) to be a part of the live performing ensemble. There have been iterations of Roommate with bassoon, theremin, banjo, accordion, very obscure modular synthesizers, and musical saw. When the band started touring more, it became more efficacious to settle into a standard four-piece rock group, which has become the more or less permanent group. Past collaborators continued to be a part of the recording process through our last couple of albums, and our June residency at the Hideout ended up being something of an alumni reunion.
Kent: Collaboration is absolutely essential to our music. There are a few tracks on our albums prior to MAKE LIKE that mostly consist of things I recorded and mixed on my own, but they would not have been completed and released without feedback, encouragement and consensus from collaborators.
How does Chicago and its music scene compare to that of NYC? Do you think Roommate would have grown the way that it has if you had stayed in New York?
Seth: Part of the reason Roommate has been at times such a sprawling ensemble must be because Chicago is such a nice place to be a musician. Bands and musicians have an attitude of collaboration and cooperation over competition, and during the years when the band was constantly expanding and contracting, there were still venues in Chicago that were willing to take a risk on an ever-changing, experimental group. It’s hard to say whether this would have been the case in New York but it seems unlikely.
Kent: One of the factors that motivated my move to Chicago in 2001 was how difficult it seemed to be to function as a musician in New York. I could record to a four-track in my apartment, but I couldn’t fathom how I’d afford to get a band together to rehearse, let alone play a show. Practice spaces charged steep rates by the hour and no one I knew had a car. I remember thinking about what it would take to play a show in, say, the Lower East Side. I added up the costs–rent a van, pay for several hours of parking, take a taxi home from the rental car place, etc etc.., and it just felt like a demoralizing prospect, at least on the budget I was working with as a mid-20s kid with an entry-level film industry job and no trust fund.
When I moved to Chicago it seemed like most of the musicians I knew rented inexpensive practice spaces, or they lived in places with basements or coach houses. I could afford to buy (and park) a used car to get my gear around, and like Seth says, there were venues that would take a risk and book logistically annoying acts like us. I can say that Roommate’s growth is absolutely a product of Chicago’s music culture circa 2004-15 and the infrastructure that made it possible.
Your list of influences is pretty stacked from Talking Heads to Joy Division and The Cure. What is the most unexpected music that you have found inspiration in?
Seth: The range of musical tastes in the band is pretty wide so it’s tricky to cite just one example. Something that came up during recording the last LP were multiple references to Mike Post, the television composer who’s best-known work might be the Law & Order theme song.
Kent: Nice one Seth, I can’t think of a better example than Mike Post and the L&O theme!
With four years between them, was there any difference in the way that you approached the writing of MAKE LIKE compared to 2011’s Guilty Rainbow?
Seth: I can’t speak to the writing so much but I can say that most of the song arrangements were developed with the live band in a more organic way as opposed to earlier efforts where semi-complete songs were more likely to go from demo to studio, bypassing the stage.
Kent: There was no gap between the writing of the songs that ended up on Guilty Rainbow and those on MAKE LIKE. In fact, a couple of MAKE LIKE‘s songs were written while we were still recording and mixing Guilty Rainbow, if I remember correctly, and a few more were written and performed during the process of promoting and touring in support of that album. That said, the first three tracks on MAKE LIKE were written later than the rest, during a period in which I was collecting images and sounds from console video games for my video piece RECKONING 3. The games directly influenced the lyrics (as noted by Sasha Geffen in her Reader interview with me) and ultimately the sonic atmospheres of those songs. To me, MAKE LIKE‘s themes are largely defined by those particular songs and by my attraction to and uneasiness with the video game worlds that partially inspired them.
We recently premiered the music video for the MAKE LIKE track “Wilderness” here on MWA. Looking at the list of past Roommate videos, how important are visuals to your music?
Seth: It’s hard to say. Kent is a well-regarded video artist and as such has had access to a very talented stable of film and video makers when it comes time for music videos. He has only started creating music videos himself fairly recently (Snow Globe from Guilty Rainbow and Secret Claw from MAKE LIKE). I might argue that his songwriting is at times cinematic but we’ve never included visuals in our performances. Album artwork has been ably curated by Kent to resonate with the music.
Pick up a copy of MAKE LIKE on vinyl or cassette through Strange Weather Records or independent record stores throughout the Midwest. If you’re in Chicago, Columbus or Louisville, you can catch Roommate live this weekend on their mini-tour.
11/6 at Burlinton Bar in Chicago, IL
11/7 at The House with No Name in Columbus, OH
11/8 at New Vintage in Louisville, KY