While the rolling hills of North Carolina gave birth to the sounds of bluegrass and mountain music, the universities in the eastern part of the state are credited with bringing creative minds together and giving rise to new types of bands that deviate from the traditional and carve out their own distinctive sounds. Thanks to a chance meeting at Duke University nearly a decade ago, the indie-folk sensation Bombadil has become part of this modern movement, making music that’s hard to define but sounds good in its own right.
Band members Daniel Michalak (bass), Stuart Robinson (piano), and Bryan Rahija (guitar) began writing songs and touring throughout the Southeast in 2005. With the addition of James Phillips on drums a year later, the group recorded its first full length album A Buzz. The record garnered rave reviews and earned the band high-profile festival slots, including a gig at Bonnaroo.
But early success was followed by a major setback. In 2009, the band’s bassist developed severe nerve damage in his hand, rendering him unable to play. The band had other musicians fill in for Michalak, but ultimately decided to put its musical efforts on hold until he recovered. The group continued to bide its time, still meeting and writing songs—Robinson even went back to medical school. Once Michalak recovered, Bombadil reunited in Portland, Ore., and recorded another successful album, All That the Rain Promises, before returning to Durham, N.C., last year to make their most recent album, Metrics of Affection.
Metrics of Affection’s peculiar arrangements and lyrical content instantly are heard, but a deeper exploration into the album yields its irresistibly hummable tunes and emotional charge. Bombadil’s music is refreshingly unique and unusual, yet, at the same time, honest and sincere. Elevated beyond the typical indie-folk, the band’s inventiveness derives from its impeccable musicianship, other-worldly harmonies, and transcendence of the ordinary. The music transforms life’s mundane events into uplifting and memorable moments.
Q&A with James Phillips of Bombadil
SML: How did Bombadil get its name?
Phillips: A friend recommended it. He was reading Lord of the Rings, and there’s this character in the first book called Tom Bombadil. The power of the ring has no sway over him, and all he does is dance and sing all day in the woods with his fairy wife. We all liked the sound of the word and what it meant, and it stuck.
The band had already been together for about a year before you joined. Tell me how you came to be part of the group.
I was playing in a few bands around Chapel Hill, after college, and keeping an eye on Craigslist. I saw an ad that didn’t say the name of the band, but it was “Durham folk band seeks drummer who can tour full time.” There just weren’t that many Durham folk bands that were touring at that time, so I figured it was (Bombadil). I learned the (songs) beforehand, and we met for burritos, played the tunes, and have been going ever since.
When Michalak’s medical condition forced the band to go on an indefinite hiatus, did you think the group would go on without him?
No, we never thought about continuing without Daniel. We did try to tour and hire someone to play Daniel’s instrumental parts and let him sing, but it never felt right, and his health was still a problem on the road. It wasn’t helping him get any better, so we all just decided to stop. We all focused on other things. I was still playing a lot of music; we were still writing Bombadil songs. It was never like: “Ok this is over,” it was more like, “Ok this has changed.” During that time I learned how to record music, which has been really helpful for our records; Daniel really changed his approach to writing; Stuart got to go back to school for a while, which affected his thinking about a lot of things; and, also it gave us a lot of time to write songs. There are a ton of songs written that we haven’t put out yet.
Do you find the recording process to be a rewarding task?
It’s definitely rewarding, as it has increased my involvement in the record-making process. It started as a financial thing. We were seeing friends making records on their own, and we thought that’s got to be a lot cheaper than going into the studio. I realized I really enjoy it.
Metrics of Affection was recorded in Durham at your house. Was that a relaxing environment to create in?
We all moved in together during that time. Stuart still lives in the house; Daniel and I moved out (laughing). We were recording it in my bedroom and in the living room, so there wasn’t really a break from it. It was work every day on this record. It was a wonderful opportunity, but it wasn’t quite relaxing.
Between the four of you, how does the songwriting happen? Do you write for a specific album or just when inspiration strikes?
Much more when inspiration strikes, but it really varies song-to-song. Sometimes we collaborate; sometimes, someone comes in with a fully formed song. We all write and all are involved in the production. We’re trying to figure out how to make it more collaborative on our new record.
One could argue Bombadil’s sound is not fully set in the folk genre. Where do you see the band’s sound on the next record?
We’ve started working on the next record, slowly. I feel like we’re moving away from folk music. We’re just trying to make the music that we hear. Brian is less involved now. The guitar is not dominate. It’s a lot of keyboards and piano and a lot of harmonies on this new record.
Did you ever think early on that Bombadil would have made it this far?
Yeah, not to sound conceited, but I always believed in the music. I believe we were doing the best we could. “Play at the Cat’s Cradle, that’s where you need to play,” that’s what we always heard. We were scared the first time we did. We thought, “Are people going to show up?” They did and it was great. You just keep at it and hone your craft and audiences respond to that.