Roommate’s Kent Lambert on his experimental films
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As Roommate, Kent Lambert makes spacey electronic music, key-tar and all. His latest record, Guilty Rainbow, comes out this month on local upstart label Antephonic, and is a semi-depressing tour de force, lush with loneliness and rife with repression.
When he’s not making records, though, Lambert is a filmmaker. His experimental shorts, like “Fantasy Suite” and “Hymn Of Reckoning,” have been shown at film festivals around the world and, though he’s shunned music videos in the past, Lambert made one to accompany Roommate’s latest single. The A.V. Club caught up with Lambert to talk about art, film, and Everything Is Terrible.
The A.V. Club: We know your music background. What’s your background in film?
Kent Lambert: I went to the University Of Iowa and studied film and video there, learned production, whatever. I graduated, and then I co-directed this experimental film and video fest there, which was kind of a big deal. It was 11 years ago, though, so it’s now defunct.
That exposed me to a lot of interesting avant garde work. The stuff that was most exciting and resonated the most with me, although you don’t hear this term much anymore, was the culture jamming. It’s appropriating video from all sorts of sources, commenting on it, and turning it into something else.
While I was at Iowa, before this fest, I made a piece out of a movie that’s been covered on The A.V. Club recently, actually—Death Drug—which went to the New York Underground Film Fest a few years later. That was a big boost to my ego. So, then I just continued making work in that vein.
AVC: And are you still making films?
KL: I still do, though I kind of shifted my energies to music a little more a few years ago. YouTube came along and took a little of the wind out of my sails. The pieces I had been playing at festivals, and the things you’d see at museums, it was all similar to stuff that became ubiquitous on YouTube. So I got more wrapped up in music.
AVC: And you made your new music video.
KL: It’s my first. For years people were asking when I was going to make a video for the band, and I thought of my videos more as an intellectual form of expression, and music as more of an emotional one. It wasn’t until last year that I felt like I had a good idea for a music video for one of my songs, so I spent a lot of time working on that. I used a lot of the same ideas I’d used on videos in the past, pulling from video games and making characters lip sync. It’s pretty crude animation to move along with the dialogue, but I certainly didn’t want to see myself on the screen, singing. It’s fun to have characters singing my words.
AVC: Do those communities or worlds really feel that separate for you?
KL: For a while, they did seem like these separate worlds. I think the social communities are very separate. I know all these experimental filmmakers who I don’t think are very interested in my music, or if they are, they haven’t told me. They’re very caught up in the art world and academia.
Socially, I think the two worlds feel really separate, but I’m finding more and more that, for me at least, it’s not separate. Making the video was a way of bridging those two worlds. I’ve been in the Ann Arbor Film Fest for a few years, and this year, the video’s going to play in their music video program.
I think with the background I’m coming from with avant garde video, music videos are often seen as a commercial form, and there’s a strongly anti-commercial rhetoric in that world. I think I’m trying, in general and in my creative life, to have fewer boundaries like that, though. I just don’t think it’s helpful. I don’t want a music video to have to be a particular thing, but rather it can just be in line with videos that I’ve made in the past and other groups can label it other things. So, it’s like the social separation might still be there, but I’m trying to be less concerned with those things.
AVC: Do you have a common philosophy between your music and film?
KL: If I do, it’s because music making for me used to be such a solitary exercise. Video making still is, and that’s maybe why I don’t make as many or do it quite as much. That “Snow Globe” video was incredibly tedious. I played emulators for months, took notes, and then would go back and do screenshots, then go back, capture again, edit. That got me through the winter, but it was a completely isolated exercise. In the meantime, I was finishing the album.
I’ve been playing with these people for a few years now, though, and it’s a collective effort. I write songs, and even though I manage the band in terms of business and the organization side, I want everyone to feel like they have a stake in it. This record in particular, there were major changes made quite late in the game because a bandmate felt like something wasn’t working on the record in the sequence. That was gratifying to me that other people involved had enough of a stake in the process to take that risk and have a clash, with the common goal of making the album as strong as it could be.
AVC: What’s so appealing to you about culture jamming over, say, more self-involved experimental film?
KL: What drives me to that work, and I think it’s also something that I and we try to do with music, is that it’s making something that’s not just an extension of the ego, like setting up a camera or writing a screenplay. It’s been since film school since I’ve done that.
I just love the idea of it. It’s exhilarating to find Death Drug at a video store that’s going out of business, and it’s total garbage, but it’s beautiful to me. It’s a strange object. I like the idea that I can take that and re-contextualize it and make it into something funny, entertaining, scary, and strange to people. It’s not about me. It’s about our shared bizarre pop culture.
There’s also a lot of potential for cultural resistance in culture jamming. You can try to say something, to ask questions about our culture and our media just by simply refashioning things we already know. It’s a type of recycling—taking something that could be considered garbage and making something surreal or beautiful or thought provoking out of it.
I have a filmmaker friend who’s seen a few of my videos and saw a Roommate show, and they said that, to them, both were unapologetically cathartic. That was helpful for me to draw a connection, though I never thought of my videos as cathartic. In “Hymn,” I was certainly trying to work through some issues, like feelings I had about torture and what was going on in Abu Ghraib, and how that was all framed in popular media. I was addicted to 24 for a little while, but then I started to question the premise. It was just so convincing, these scenarios where you have to torture people to save millions, so I made that piece to try and deal with those feelings. It wasn’t just an agit-prop piece, but rather it was about my relationship as a consumer.
Videos can be funny and you can be entertained by them, but I don’t aim for something that’s just pure entertainment. “Hymn” got a lot of laughter at screenings, but there were also scenes of people getting tortured. I knew that it wouldn’t be pleasant to watch. It’s a balancing act between poking at or revealing unsettling truths or dimensions of life, and then humor and beauty.
I don’t want to tell people how they’re supposed to think about something, but I’m trying to figure out how I feel about some of these issues, and working through that process, that’s how I end up at these pieces.
AVC: So, you’re not a big fan of, let’s say, Everything Is Terrible, who are local?
KL: I love that stuff. I’ve been to one of their shows. It’s just not the same thing, though. I celebrate what they do, and sometimes I wish that I could just do something that makes you laugh but doesn’t necessarily make you uncomfortable.
I feel like what I do is definitely related to social commentary. The last thing I want to be is preachy, though. I don’t want to make overtly political work, even though I’m a highly political person. I grew up in Colorado Springs, which has a heavy military presence and is the evangelical Vatican. That’s informed a lot of what I do. I wouldn’t call myself an out and out activist, but I’ve done things with prison reform. I’m always trying to find ways to deal with all of this paranoia and rage and anxiety I feel about the reality of this world. I want to channel it into something that can provide pleasure for people but not necessarily escapism.