The sad, strange and sweet voyage of Bombadil | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The sad, strange and sweet voyage of Bombadil 

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It's sunny and the breeze rustles the leaves of the tall oak trees scattered through this wide, estate-style lot. Daniel Michalak carries a heavy gray cat, Jada, in his arms and smiles. He takes four more steps, shifts the cat's weight to his left hand, opens the front door and turns around to wave hello.

For the last two years, Michalak has lived in a first-floor apartment in a bulky brick home that was once intended to be a Barton College dormitory. The long, thin apartment is modestly appointed and very comfortable, with framed snapshots and mementos hung thoughtfully on pale yellow walls. In these photos, Michalak isn't alone. During a break from touring more than three years ago, he went home to visit his family and to rest. His mother mentioned Angéline Blachon, a young French woman who had been in Wilson only for a week to intern with an international economic development program. Someone needed to show her around. The appeal was immediate.

"I think I'm attracted to any foreign girl that's speaking a different language," Michalak says with a mischievous grin. "That was probably the initial attraction."

They began dating—at first, when Michalak lived more than an hour away, he was an American boy who'd exotically traveled the country as a young musician. A few months later, he returned as a depressed, confused and somewhat vanquished 25-year-old moving back in with his parents because no one could figure out how to make his hands work. In high school, Michalak had been a 10-time MVP in tennis, cross-country running and track and field. After college, he'd ridden a bicycle across the country. When he moved home, he could barely walk around the block. Blachon stuck with him, driving him to doctor's appointments back in Durham and Raleigh, feeding him, helping him learn to relax. He moved into her apartment after only a few months of dating.

"The French live a slower pace of life, so it was really easy for me to be part of her life," says Michalak. When he talks, he's in constant motion, whether stretching against the nearby wall or racing through the room to chase the bounding Jada. "Wilson's a very slow place, too—have dinner, take a walk. That helped me."

Rather than depend on medicine, Michalak learned to do things that didn't hurt his hands, a fundamental shift that he says helped his condition as much as any doctor ever did. He would stretch for long periods of time, and he continued to explore alternative therapies, but mostly he tried to give his body a break. At first, he exercised by walking backward around the block. He bought a headset for phone calls and downloaded voice-recognition software. He found a device other than his hands to hold his books, and he learned to use the keyboard mouse with his foot. He started working part-time in a nearby hospital. Just nine months after he returned to Wilson, Michalak was able to play the piano again. He'd sit at the keyboard for three minutes a day, ironing out the melodies he'd hummed into his cellphone. Then he'd rest.

In Salisbury, Stuart Robinson had returned to the piano. He found that, even outside of the context of Bombadil, he liked the process of writing songs, something he'd never done before he joined the band. He started talking to his old friends, even spending a weekend with Michalak and Blachon in Wilson. They wasted the weekend at the town's farmers market and in the kitchen, reconnecting more as friends than musicians. "We'd play each other the songs we'd written, but," he admits, "just for fun."

Bombadil has always been a sort of a snowballing force, though, and their gradual but steady reunion was no different. Michalak and Rahija visited each other to write, and they'd sometimes join Robinson back in the Triangle. Phillips began to fly to North Carolina to play drums. They again started to think as a band. Last November, the four members convened outside of Portland in the same barn-turned-studio that The Decemberists had used to make a recent album. The plan was to record six songs for an EP, a call back to life meant more as a restart than a grand statement. But when they started working, they didn't need to prime their collective mind. The sound started clicking, and after 10 days they left the studio with the bulk of what became All That the Rain Promises, their 11-song, 33-minute third LP.

"At the time of Tarpits, we were really trying to make a bold record that would win us a large audience. There was a lot of talk about how this would be received," confesses Phillips. "With this record, in the interim period, we've focused much more on ourselves and our own creative process. There was less pressure."

Making more music was the first step, though; no one knew what the next might be. Ramseur again served as the catalyst. Less than two years before, he had been one of the first people to tell Bombadil that they simply had to stop playing; late last year, Ramseur was one of the first to tell them they had to try again.

"Do not mention the below info to anyone. It has to be 100% kept under your hat," Ramseur began an email in late November 2010, his caps lock on. "Big Team, I need you guys to perform on Dec. 29th for a surprise fundraising show. The Low Anthem and The Avett Brothers are the other two bands. This will be held at the Cat's Cradle."

With the album finished and their big return to stage imminent, they got to work in December, rebuilding their set at a Quaker meetinghouse they rented for cheap in Durham. They hadn't performed as a quartet in nearly two years, though they'd been talking about doing just that for months. At midnight, the day before the show, The Avett Brothers announced the charity gig. Just 10 hours later, tickets went on sale. In less than one minute, they sold out. Bombadil played a secret rehearsal in the practice space for a few friends. Robinson remembers preparing to be let down.

"I was surprised with the reception for us, that some people were there just for us. They'd gone to a last-minute Avett Brothers show—to see Bombadil," he says, finally allowing a smile toward their fortune. "It was surreal."

That unexpected return to the stage was a fitting public introduction to the band that had just self-recorded and self-mixed Promises. The least grand thing Bombadil has done since the 2006 EP, it's largely void of the vaulting ambition and ostentatious arrangements of A Buzz, A Buzz and Tarpits and Canyonlands. Not only did Bombadil make it in a hurry, but, for the first time, they produced it themselves. There's a certain honest simplicity to Promises that, for the first time, emphasizes the inherently bittersweet nature of Bombadil's music. The sounds here support songs about self-doubt and worry for the future, about trying to confess a crush and trying to keep domestic life romantic. It's not their best album, not by a long shot, but it is the very honest work of a band that's survived too much to spare the truth.

"We've always been trying to find that balance between joyousness and sadness. Life is very comic but also very tragic," says Michalak, looking up from the crumbs on the kitchen table. "We've all tried to be happy, positive people, but we've also seen and experienced tragic, sad things around us. Am I making sense at all?"

The house on Bolton Street in Durham is no longer Bombi Headquarters. There are new tenants, with new cars crowding the front lawn. So when the four members of the band move back to Durham early next year, they're not quite sure what space they'll share. In fact, they're not even sure if they will move back to Durham. For now, that's just their excited speculation.

Rahija is applying for graduate school, and Robinson—who has been taking science classes at N.C. State and reading study guides for the MCAT—is working on medical school applications. At the end of the year, Michalak is following Blachon home to France, where he'll stay until his visa expires in March. Phillips lives with his girlfriend in Portland, works odd jobs and occasionally tours with and records other bands. Nearly all his belongings fit into his car, though, and he's willing to sacrifice yet again for a chance at a life with this band.

"I will make bold decisions to enable us to do more," he says, laughing. "It's a big country, but you can drive across it."

In short, Michalak, Phillips, Rahija and Robinson want to give living and working as a full-time band at least one more shot. Touring like they once did might be out of the question, but there are other ways to be a band. Bombadil has always been interesting because its four parts exerted such strong individual personalities inside of the band; now, they're trying to remain a band by letting those personalities function outside of the band, unfettered and developed. For an act that's always been so invested in the possibilities of a question mark, they'd finally like to end something with a definitive period.

"All I know right now is that I can't imagine myself making music in another context than Bombadil. I haven't found a situation, environment or group of people that I like as much as what we had," says Rahija, walking down the street in Washington after another day at work. "I want to do what I can to have that."

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