The Durham band Bombadil is a little different. The guys—Daniel Michalak, Bryan Rahija, James Phillips, Stuart Robinson, multi-instrumentalists all—like reading, politics, art walks and early rock shows.
They're fascinated by concepts such as the culture of a band, and they discuss the personalities of instruments, the colors of songs, the way a drum fill can represent an ogre walking into a room. Many of it s songs are written based on assignments that the band members give each other. These tasks have to be completed in 30 minutes. More out of genuine interest than a sly attempt to turn the tables, they ask questions of interviewers: "Which Bombadil song do you think is the saddest?"
Such elements—call them quirks, if you must—cohere on Bombadil's second full-length album, Tarpits and Canyonlands. The songwriting and the arrangements are inventive, bursting forth with ideas. It's as inquisitive as it is exploratory, too, a record that seems to ask, "What can we do that hasn't been done before?" You could call the results art rock, which would make as much sense as any of the other dozen labels you might want to throw at it—action folk, multicolored pop, circus Americana—to see what sticks.
And it's a record that's going to serve as the face of Bombadil for a while, maybe longer: Touring behind the record is on hold, as is the band's future.
I can't help but glance at Daniel Michalak's hands. For one thing, they are in constant motion when he talks, participating in descriptions and punctuating thoughts. They're the reason things are on hold in the Bombadil world, too, and, as such, they're the main reason I'm sitting with Michalak in front of a Starbucks that anchors one end of a tobacco field-turned-strip mall in Wilson, N.C. On the drive east, one thought kept surfacing: When we meet, do I initiate a handshake?
The pain in Michalak's hands has been lurking for years, but it intensified considerably during the last year and a half. It became unbearable. The pain was a factor during the recording of Tarpits and Canyonlands, which the band finished in January, but the problem truly took over during a spring tour. After a while, Michalak could only sing on stage, forced to abandon the bass and piano and saxophone and whatever else he'd grabbed over the years to expand Bombadil's ever-growing palette, but even that became too much.
"I really didn't notice because I've been caught up in the music," Michalak says. "Until it got to the point, we were playing a show in April, and I just couldn't feed myself this bowl of soup I was eating in Florida, and I said, 'That's enough.' I just couldn't do it anymore."
Michalak has seen doctors numbering in the double digits, but they're still looking for answers. He might be suffering from a repetitive-stress condition or from extreme tendinitis. The doctors just don't know. For now, recovery consists of anti-inflammatory and nerve pain medicine and, above all else, rest. That can be the most painful thing, though.
"I was fine giving stuff up. I was fine giving up driving. I gave up using the computer. I kept giving up stuff: holding a cell phone, reading a book. I'll give up driving if I can keep making music," offers Michalak. "I realized that if I want to keep [making music] the rest of my life, I need to stop and take a break for a year or so and get better."
Michalak says such things matter-of-factly and without a hint of self-pity, his optimism admittedly tempered with a bit of frustration and weariness. When he talks Tarpits and Canyonlands, though, the exuberance isn't adulterated: "Take an instrument to someplace it hasn't been before. Take something small and ordinary and make it special and grand," he says, explaining the band's de facto mission statement. He dissects "25 Daniels," one of those assignment songs. Rahija was to write a song based on Michalak's phone number, and, yes, all 10 digits are present and accounted for. The only instruments on "25 Daniels" are drums and saxophone, with 25 or so sax tracks layered to create a bagpipe effect, an example of what Michalak and his bandmates call "supermixing."
"It's taken us a very long time to figure out how to do the sound that we're hearing in our heads. I think we're getting closer with this third disc," Michalak says. "It takes so long to get good at all this stuff. That's why I'm so sad that I have to stop for a while."
"Our first priority is getting Daniel healthy," says Bryan Rahija. "When he's at the point where he can't brush his teeth without hurting himself, we're just all worried about him." Rahija calls from Washington, D.C., where he's vacationing a few days before Independence Day.
He and Michalak have known each other since their freshmen year at Duke. Rahija posted a flyer recruiting a bass player for his cover band. "Daniel walked in with a bass and the smallest bass amp I've ever seen," recalls Rahija. A Creedence Clearwater Revival song and a U2 song later, Michalak had passed the audition.
The cover band faded away after a handful of on-campus shows, but the pair met up again junior year in Bolivia, where, unbeknownst to each other, both were studying abroad. During a five-hour bus ride out of La Paz on what's been called The World's Most Dangerous Road, Rahija and Michalak talked about musicians they admired and the importance of space in music. While in Bolivia, they began meeting first thing in the morning at a children's music school where they'd both taken pan pipe lessons, fueled by chocolate milk, fried eggs and the idea of making an album. They'd send the rough recordings to Michalak's classical-music-centric buddy, Stuart Robinson, who'd offer funny and constructive commentary in reply.
When Rahija and Michalak returned to the states, they fleshed out their Bolivian output for 10 days, re-recording it with Michalak's older brother John on drums. Though Rahija calls it "this burned disc of very crappily recorded tunes," it was enough to get the newly christened Bombadil, with Robinson now on keyboards, its first gig at a cafeteria on campus. They quickly moved up to the Great Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill, opening for an aggressively on-the-rise Avett Brothers and exposing some 800 people to the fledgling band's mercurial sounds.
Having heard the song "Jellybean Wine" on the Internet, Dolph Ramseur, whose Ramseur Records was the label behind the Avett Brothers, already had a budding fondness for Bombadil. They talked after the Great Hall show, and the band was soon recording a self-titled EP for release on Ramseur in 2006. The full-length A Buzz, A Buzz followed in April of 2008. Momentum at their backs, they headed into the studio for Tarpits and Canyonlands.
Thus goes the just-the-facts biography of the band, which, obviously does no justice to the hours spent and miles covered by the members of Bombadil in an attempt to nail that elusive sound heard among collective ears.
"We're really conscious of the roles that we want instruments to play," Rahija explains. "Instruments can play the roles of characters in songs. They can take on a life beyond just notes or just playing along." The voices seem to have lives of their own as well, with lead vocals alternating from song to song and with harmonies seeking seemingly boundless combinations. That's Phillips coming in behind Robinson as Rahija ducks out of the way, and there's Michalak harmonizing with himself.
Above all else, there's the undeniable love affair with the way things sound, be it stacks of saxophones or the wobbly, whale-call noise Michalak makes with a slide on his bass during "Sad Birthday."
Bombadil's approach to making music has broadened so much that reviewers can no longer get by with the word "whimsical." But still, almost all the songs sound sunny (with occasional dark lyrics playing the role of clouds). They all but buzz with the joy of creativity. That, of course, makes the silence so much more acute once the plug is pulled.
"Daniel's health has been an issue for a while, and it's been something we've talked about a lot over time," says James Phillips. "By last summer, when we were touring really hard, Daniel wasn't doing anything with his hands except playing music on stage." He pauses. "It's hard to see a friend experience that."
Phillips—who, like Michalak and Rahija, is 25—sits on the front porch of what's called Bombi Headquarters on Bolton Street in Durham, between Ninth Street and Duke Medical Center. Situated near railroad tracks, it's one of a surviving string of houses on the street built for mill workers. The band crafted the demos for Tarpits and Canyonlands in a room in the middle of the house. Now, only Phillips' drum kit remains.
Phillips started touring with Bombadil in October 2007 and joined full-time in January 2008, replacing John Michalak who went off to medical school. (Stuart Robinson opted out of the band this past January after the new record was finished to return to school.) Like the others, he's thrilled with Tarpits and Canyonlands. "We pushed ourselves to see what we could do, and worked hard to get what we wanted," he says. "It was hard work but really fun hard work."
Now, that hard work means waiting, wondering and hoping.
"We're trying to figure out what we can do to keep some of the momentum alive without just getting out there and playing shows like we have been doing, because that's not an option anymore," Phillips says. "We're going to have to fall back on old-style fan support and hope that people buy the record without our having to go out and give it to them."
Another pause: "We're not throwing in the towel. We're just doing other things for a while."
In a word, the future of Bombadil is uncertain. The headquarters will soon be Bombi-free: Michalak has moved back to Wilson with his family; Rahija's trip to D.C. centered on a job interview, and he plans to land there or in Norfolk, Va., with his girlfriend; and Phillips is off to Portland, Ore., at the end of July to live with his girlfriend. The band discussed the possibility of touring without Michalak in support of the new record, but Bombadil isn't a hired-gun kind of outfit.
"One of the biggest challenges is 'What is the plan?'" says Rahija. "For Daniel, some doctors are saying, 'You're not going to be better for two years,' while other doctors are saying, 'Just take six months off and you'll be fine.' It's really hard to plan around that." But they're determined to keep things going to whatever degree possible, even if the members are scattered. The goal is to get together every month to write songs. Robinson might still be involved in that respect, too. "The main thing is to keep writing songs," Rahija says. "That might seem obvious, but it's really the lifeblood of a band."
"It's not a step back, but a step that hasn't landed yet," Michalak says decisively.
And when I drop him off a few miles down the road from Starbucks, his handshake is firm and not tentative at all.
Bombadil hosts a listening party for Tarpits and Canyonlands Saturday, July 11, at Golden Belt in Durham. The event starts at 7 p.m., and it's free. Bombadil won't be playing, but The Tender Fruit, Luego and The Scene of the Crime Rovers will be. There will also be free food and an art exhibit from Idiots' Books (www.idiotsbooks.com), who designed the art for the album.