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EXCLUSIVE DOWNLOAD: Roommate Tackles A Guided By Voices Classic

By Jon Graef in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 4, 2011 5:00PM

Guilty Rainbow, the third record from Chicago-based electronic act Roommate that's due in March, closes with what the group’s singer/songwriter Kent Lambert describes as “a last song at the Valentine’s ball, or the Christmas Ball” version of a Guided By Voices classic, “Smothered In Hugs.”

The idea of giving a more spread-out, lush treatment to the quintessential lo-fi act intrigued us, and so we gave Lambert a call to discuss the GBV fandom and the story behind how the band’s version of the Bee Thousand track came to be. To celebrate the band’s appearance at Coach House Sounds’ Post-Alumni Market show, which shows several members of Coach House Sounds selling homemade art, the band and its label have generously allowed Chicagoist to host an exclusive mp3 of Roommate’s version of “Smothered In Hugs”

Chicagoist: Based on listens to Guilty Rainbow and your other work in the past, I would have pegged you as the last person on earth to be a Guided By Voices fan. How did you get into them?

Kent Lambert, Roommate: (Laughs). I got into them around 1995, my first year of college. I remember this distinctly because--I grew up in Colorado, then went to college at Butler in Indianapolis my first year. I remember it was a weekend, and I talked my mom, and she had been listening to NPR and me about this story she heard - my mom’s a substitute teacher - and she heard this story about a fourth grade teacher who recorded on the side and was catching on. I had heard of them, and I had been aware that Bee Thousand was this buzzed about album and I thought, “oh man, I should check this out.” So when my mom told me about this story, that gave me enough motivation … And then I think I picked up Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes and I was hooked from then on by those melodies and lyrics.

C: What about the sound did you like in Guided By Voices, and how did you move away from it to the stuff you’re doing now?

KL: I’m not entirely sure that it was the sound of Guided By Voices that hooked me, so much as the wordplay, the lyrics, the beautiful, sad poetic imagery and the melodies. I was recording a lot of four-track music myself, so I think I related to that. I think there was something really inspiring about the fact that it wasn’t polished.

C: So how did your style for Roommate come to be if you were doing four-track recordings?

KL: I did four-track recording, and then I did kind of primitive computer recording. The first album I put out as Roommate—there was an EP that I did all by myself, and the first Roommate album was mostly me, but I started to get other people involved. I haven’t listened to that stuff in years, but I’m guessing compared to the more recent stuff, it sounds pretty lo-fi even though it was a lot of electronic instrumentation. I used a computer similar to how I used a four-track. And then, as Roommate became more of a band and I started collaborating with musicians. (Roommate is now a four piece, with Lambert, bassist Gillian Lisee, Luther Rochester and Seth Vanek.) We were trying to make music that was a little less lo-fi, a little fuller, more lush than the stuff that I’d done before. So it just kind of naturally evolved and became more of a rock band and we wanted to document the way we sounded live in sort of an honest way

C: How did you choose “Smothered In Hugs” to close the album? How did you come up with the arrangement?

KL: I don’t do solo shows often, but the last two times I’ve done them I’ve included a Guided By Voices medley ... If I remember this right, I had this friend Roy, who I met in the Neitherlands. I did this solo tour of Belgium and the Netherlands in 2006, and played a show in Amsterdam with this band, this singer who had a really great back-up band. And I became friends with all of them. And I went back in 2008 and did a tour, and some of the members of this band were like a backing band for me, so it was like a Dutch version of Roommate.

This guy, Roy, was going to be the drummer for that Dutch version of Roommate, but his Dad got really ill. And I knew he was a huge Guided By Voices fan—he wasn’t able to take part in that tour, and the other guys I was playing with were real good friends with him, so they were sad that he couldn’t be a part of the tour. But he came to one of our shows, so I worked up a couple of covers for that. And then he came to Chicago—this was two years ago, late January, late February of 2009—he came to Chicago and I set up a show at the Empty Bottle and he opened the show. His Dad had actually ended up dying that prior summer, and so, to end that show, I wanted to end with a beautiful, heartbreaking Guided By Voices cover and surprise him with it.

So we played it at that show and it went over really well…It became something we would play periodically, in our shows, so we all agreed that we should record it.

C: It’s a beautiful song with a beautiful sentiment.

Kent: It is, it is. I had kind of forgotten that this show was in close proximity to Valentine’s Day. We planned a set that didn’t include that song…I kind of feel like we kind of need to pull it together by Saturday, especially since you’re doing this interview largely about this one cover. Was that your question, if we’re going to do this song?

C: Yeah, basically.

KL: Well, I’m going to leave you with a little suspense…(laughs.) We might have to scramble. But it’s a song we can quickly whip back into shape.

C: Do you have anything else to add, either about the song or the record

KL: Anything I can try and add is going to sound awkward. I’m not very good at self-promotion. (Laughs). I’m glad you asked about my history with Guided By Voices because the memory of discovering that music, it was within the first few weeks of losing my family and going to college far away, and not having any good friends yet, that music was really important to me. It was nice to be able to talk about that history. I’m certainly no authority on the band—and I have to say, I don’t even listen to them that much any more. But albums like Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, Under The Bushes, Under The Stars—so many of those songs are lodged into my brain. I can’t tell you some straightforward interpretation of “Smothered In Hugs,” but I feel like I know exactly what he’s talking about.

C: That should be the goal of any great songwriter.

KL: It’s something that I aspire to. It’s a hard thing to pull off… We’re excited for people to hear {Guilty Rainbow}. They’re responding pretty well. And that’s the goal. You want to make something that resonates with people, and gives them if not the full 45 minutes of enjoyment, then at least some moments of enjoyment. (laughs).

MP3: Roommate "Smothered In Hugs" (Guided By Voices cover)

Couch House Sounds presents Shapers, Roommate, Brian Costello, and DJ Anthony Cozzi play Saturday, February 5 at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, 9 p.m., $10, 21+