After a debilitating hiatus, Durham’s Bombadil regroups and rebuilds

Bombadil makes a triumphant return to touring and seeks to claim its rightful place in pop music popularity. Publicity photo Bombadil makes a triumphant return to touring and seeks to claim its rightful place in pop music popularity. Publicity photo

Five years ago, Bombadil was a band with a bright future. The band was mentored by Dolph Ramseur, whose Ramseur Records is home to The Avett Brothers and The Carolina Chocolate Drops, two of the country’s biggest roots music acts. Its rigorous touring routine built the band a considerable nationwide fanbase. Big festivals like Bonnaroo and FloydFest came calling. Scott Solter, one of indie rock’s most noted producers, recorded Tarpits and Canyonlands, an eclectic and ambitious multi-

colored pop album, in his North Carolina studio. It was only Bombadil’s second record, but it soaked in some very heady accolades; one critic compared it The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But as Bombadil was winning those accolades, the band was starting to unspool. Bassist Daniel Michalak was slowly losing the use of his hands due to crippling nerve damage. As the daily routine of life in a band became excruciating, Michalak gradually ceded his responsibilities. He’d end rehearsals early and practice less. He stopped driving the tour van, and he couldn’t move equipment. After a while, he couldn’t even play an instrument on stage; the band rearranged a few songs so he didn’t have to play so much. Near the end of one tour, Michalak’s pain was so intense he could barely feed himself or brush his teeth.

“It was unpleasant, for sure, to watch him deal with that pain,” said drummer James Phillips. “And he was doing those things because he wanted to be making music so badly. I think he felt a big obligation and duty to us, which I think speaks very highly to who Daniel is as a bandmate and human being.”

With Bombadil unable to continue touring, Tarpits and Canyonlands, despite its acclaim, was essentially stillborn. Bombadil celebrated its release in Durham with a listening party, but the band didn’t perform. Shortly thereafter, Bombadil split up and spread out. Keyboardist Stuart Robinson left to study for medical school. Guitarist Bryan Rahija moved to Washington, D.C., then to Michigan. Phillips sprinted to Portland, Oregon, where he’d met his then-girlfriend.

Michalak retreated to rural Wilson, North Carolina, experimenting with all manner of treatments to ease his neural tension including pain medications, nerve stabilizers, homeopathic drugs, biofeedback, acupuncture, and even Rolfing.

“Personally, I was given a lot of unexpected free time,” Phillips said. “Daniel was given a lot of unexpected pain, you know? I went on this two-year, three-year adventure, learning electronic music and how to record music and how to play the piano. He had to go home and basically convalesce.”

Scattered by fate, Bombadil’s members still stirred creatively. Robinson focused on the piano, and discovered a knack for songwriting. Phillips toured with and recorded bands in Oregon, and made his own electronic music. Michalak continued to make music, too, composing on his computer after learning to operate a mouse with his feet.

“It was inspiring that he continued to make music during that period,” Phillips said. “And that pushed me to keep working on things and led to a whole multitude of decisions that led us to where we are today.”

Today, Bombadil is firmly entrenched in a solid second act. The band re-formed as a trio in 2011 — Rahija still writes and plays on the band’s records, but doesn’t tour — but the members’ experience apart changed the way the band operated.

“Maybe, in a way, it helped us become more of a collective than a band,” Phillips said.

Bombadil is more relaxed these days, according to Phillips. They’re encouraging each other to learn new instruments, to become better singers, to become better songwriters and collaborators.

Last year, Bombadil released the triumphant Metrics of Affection, a smart, winning pop record filled with sharp vignettes about life’s small victories and tiny pangs of heartbreak. The group’s second post-hiatus record, it’s the band’s most adventurous and varied collection, filled with fantastical and florid arrangements—even a rap song written by Michalak.

It’s creating at rapid pace, too. When reached in late June, the band was at Phillips’ house honing the arrangements on one of Robinson’s songs. The band has also been in the studio for months and is close to wrapping up its next record, which Ramseur, who stuck by Bombadil throughout its hiatus, will release it next year.

In the meantime, Tarpits and Canyonlands is getting a second chance. Ramseur Records reissued it in June, and its press package doesn’t mince words—it repeatedly asserts that Tarpits is the record that should have made Bombadil famous.

Phillips laughed at the hyperbole.

“I’m flattered that people who listen to a lot of music think that [Tarpits] is a record that could have done that for a band,” he said. “But I also know that it didn’t do that for our band. And I’m O.K. with that.”

Michalak is almost fully recovered. He’s been pain-free, Phillips said, for nearly a year. With Michalak healthy, Bombadil has spent much of 2014 back on the road, though at a more relaxed pace. And the return to performing and touring is paying off; Bombadil’s once again a band with a healthy buzz and bright future.

“I think we’re further along now than we were then,” Phillips said. “It did take a while to get back up and going, but I think we’re beyond that point now.”

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