It's a little after 1 a.m. on a muggy July night in downtown Raleigh, and The Pour House is quiet again. Bombadil's gaggle of groupies--15 energetic, giggling young women in Duke T-shirts and flowing skirts--has left the building. The bartender yells "last call," and a handful of grown men gather around the bar to swallow final bits of beer. But the boys of Bombadil barely notice: They're too busy packing up their equipment--two keyboards, a drum kit, guitars, kazoos, bells and guitar pedals--to care about beer. In fact, one of the band members isn't old enough to drink.
One by one, they form a circle at the edge of the dark stage to assess the first performance of their first summer tour. A youthful exuberance marks their faces and their music, the glow of hopeful energy ever-present in what they do. After all, tonight's tour launch resulted in a faulty guitar, a tiny crowd and 10 bucks in profit. But the show, they say, was a success. Bassist and keyboardist Daniel Michalak says the handful of T-shirts and EPs they sold is a good sign. Everyone else--keyboardist Stuart Robinson, guitarist Bryan Rahja and drummer John Michalak--nods in agreement. "At least we're getting exposure," John Michalak chimes in.
That's true: Bombadil is finally getting some exposure in its Triangle home and across the country. The band is receiving some serious rotation on Raleigh's WKNC and Chapel Hill's WXYC since the release of its debut EP in May. In turn, the release has snagged the attention of bloggers both near and far. A review from local blog The Oak Room comments warmly on the bands eclectic sound: "They mix together a broad range of musical styles into an organic whole with a lighthearted touch that borders on whimsy." Rhode Island-based bloggers I Guess I'm Floating praise the group's ability to create a sound that makes you "immediately want to tap your foot and smile."
Their road to the road to success has been as quirky as their helter-skelter fusion of honky-tonk, folk and pop. Formed in early 2005, the group quickly became one of Duke's best-kept secrets after playing for a few casual Sunday-morning diners at Duke's Great Hall, a university cafeteria, and playing shows in dorm rooms. Word of mouth spread quickly around campus, and soon the band started playing small Durham rooms like Blayloc's and the James Joyce Pub. Now, just more than a year later, they've released their debut on Ramseur Records, a Concord-based label that's quickly become one of the Southeast's best new imprints, thanks to The Avett Brothers.
As with the Avetts, college served as a catalyst for the band. Robinson and Daniel Michalak met at a pre-orientation hiking program at Duke in 2002 and became fast friends, bonding over Robinson's T-shirt with pictures of cuddly animals playing jazz. Yet, it wasn't until that summer that Robinson and Michalak discovered their love for playing the keys, even recording some demos before considering finding a band. Michalak and Rahija met in college, too, playing together in Jif-Creamy and the Giggety-Gigs, a cover band playing the Beatles and the Stones. But their friendship didn't truly develop until a trip to Bolivia through a study-abroad program, where they discovered their mutual love for sketchy street food and composition. They spent much of their spare-time playing music at a local children's school and recording on the side.
After their return, Bombadil's formation was only a matter of time. Rahija and Michalak wanted to add percussion to some of the songs they had been working on in Bolivia. Over Christmas break of 2004, they recruited John Michalak, a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill and two years younger than his brother Daniel. Robinson joined last.
Things, of course, were shaky at first. Dorm rooms were too cramped for practice, and they didn't have enough outlets. They eventually crashed an abandoned sorority house, practicing there until a small fire caused the house to be demolished. "If we were gonna quit, that would have been the point. All of our equipment had been in there at the time, and it was completely covered with soot. Our keyboards still have some residue on them." But they kept playing, sooty keyboards or otherwise.
They had other problems, too: The band went unnamed for a series of shows. But, one night at dinner, the band's former manager tossed out names, including that of his favorite J.R.R. Tolkien character, Tom Bombadil. The group went with it.
"We're not really obsessed with The Lord of the Rings, but we liked the name and the idea of the character, the kind of person who sings in the woods and talks to animals," says Daniel Michalak. "It kind of seemed to fit us."
Indeed, much like the character, a crafty spirit of the woods that Tolkien used to embody purity in the science of nature, the group is enigmatic. Tolkien scholars often pose the question: "Who is Tom Bombadil?" The group evokes the same questions: Their sound--a mélange of instrumentation that revolves around piano-laden folk-rock with nods to classic rock and the British Invasion--is difficult to pinpoint. References run from a poor man's Shins to a less-countrified version of The Gourds.
But one thing is certain: Bombadil's music emanates optimism. The happy-go-lucky rhythms come equipped with traded-vocal pairings and a mixture of ringing bells, hand claps, kazoos and xylophones adding a lighthearted, but not comical, texture. And while the upbeat composition may allude to an inane happiness, a quick look at the lyrics reveals the band's complexity. Songs like "Johnny," a morbid tune about a cutter with a strikingly up-tempo beat, and "Sinister Side," a rowdy roadhouse tune that looks at the inner psychosis of a pickpocket, highlight such dualism.The juxtaposition lends substance to bouncy eccentricities.
But don't take them too seriously: After all, Bombadil insists it's about having fun, evidenced by their trademark outfits. Before each show, the boys suit up as a 1930s Deep South ensemble with rolled khakis, button-up shirts, suspenders, and fedoras imported from Bolivia. Seldom do the hats actually stay on their heads. It's no surprise to see the members barefoot, whether playing, jumping off stage or running through the audience. Danny Michalak may play his bass guitar on his back, stretching his toes toward the sky, and Robinson looks like he's attacking his keyboards. It's not rock 'n' roll showmanship as much as it is a compulsion to have fun, to stay young.
"Making the show entertaining is our goal. I like making the show more visually appealing than anything" says John Michalak. "It's important for someone to really experience a concert instead of just watching it."
Such a performance caught the attention of Dolphus Ramseur, the owner of Ramseur Records, when he saw the group play with the Avett Brothers in December at UNC's Great Hall. After the show, Ramseur showed interest in signing the boys and quickly made arrangements with them to record a single.
The group pushed for an EP, recording four songs with Doug Williams at ElectroMagnetic Radiation Records in Winston-Salem and one song with Zeno Gill at Pox World Empire Studios in Durham. The songs on the EP reflect months of fine-tuning.
"Somebody usually writes the melody and the lyrics. Then there's a period from anywhere to a week or a couple of months where we'll work on the structure and arrangement--which there's usually more debate over," says John Michalak. "The arrangement of the song and how it moves can be very powerful, so we do a lot of debating."
Apparently, all that debating and fine-tuning did some good, resulting in tunes worthy of catching ears. "We're very dedicated to our music right now--our tour and each other," says Michalak. "Basically we just wanna make music and, of course, have some fun on the way."
Bombadil plays The Green Room in Raleigh on Saturday, Aug. 12 at 7 p.m. and at The Wetlands in Chapel Hill on Thursday, Aug. 17 at 9 p.m. For more, see www.bombadilmusic.com.