Bombadil: Strangely Addictive

bombadil1.jpgLast November as the first snow of winter touched down outside, I was huddled upstairs at No Way Joses, a small bar in Baltimore, with Bryan Rahija (guitar), Daniel Michalak (bass), James Phillips (drums), and Stuart Robinson (keys) from Bombadil.  The four road-weary musicians from North Carolina, who had traveled from Pennsylvania during the day and spent the last thirty minutes navigating their way through the construction clogged streets of Federal Hill, were clearly enjoying the wintery blanket that was being lain down on the city streets.  I mentioned to them that this was the first snow of the winter in Baltimore, and guitarist Rahija seemed to light up at the thought.  He would later remark during their show that evening, at the intimately small Baltimore Chop, how our conversation about the snow was so comforting, because if he was back home in North Carolina this might have been the only snow of the year.

Bombadil was first born in a land, far, far away, from North Carolina.  Bolivia to be exact – though not as far away as author J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional landscape Middle Earth, which provides the setting for the band’s namesake: the whimsical Tom Bombadil from the classic novel Lord of the Rings.  Rahija and Michalak, while students at Duke University, were spending a semester abroad studying in the South American country.  The two had played together previously in a Rolling Stones cover band, but it was a project they did not take very seriously, and had a name that Rahija says, “is probably too embarrassing to be said in print.”  It was not until their time abroad that two began to get serious about their music.

bombadil-guitar.jpg“We knew each other, but we really got to know each other more in Bolivia and realized we were more interested in doing our own thing and fleshing out these cool sounds we were hearing down there,” Rahija recalls. “We started lessons down there for some of the indigenous folk instruments and wound up recording a bunch of stuff on my laptop at a children’s music school down there.” 

Once back home they recruited Michalak’s brother John to play drums (who has since left to pursue medical school, and been replaced by Phillips), and college friend Robinson on keys.  Their music – a combination of the piedmont blues found in the surrounding Carolina hills and a smart sense of indie-folk, given a dash of flavor by the international sounds they picked up from their time abroad, all delivered with a sly sense of humor and a focus on songwriting – quickly garnered them attention.

A little more than a year after returning from Bolivia and forming Bombadil, they were asked to open a show for Ramseur Records’ Avett Brothers, who at the time were generating their own considerable buzz.  Ramseur label owner Dolphus Ramseur was at the show, and Rahija remembers his reaction to seeing the young band for the first time. “We had just finished playing ‘Jellybean Wine’ (from their first EP), and he thought it was a cool song, and said ‘I would like to see about recording this with you guys,’ and that just led to bigger things.”

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Rahija, who was slightly overwhelmed says, “I sent Scott Avett a life email after we first met him looking for guidance and advice. He sent back a really awesome note that was encouraging seeing as where he had come from.” 

Following Avett’s advice the band hit the road, and began touring non-stop from coast to coast, finding time to play sets at many of the biggest music festivals including Bonnaroo, Floyd Fest, Shakori Fest and Pick-a-Thon.  They also found time to release their full length debut, the stunning A Buzz, a buzz, in May of last year.

Like many young bands, Bombadil had a back-log of songs they wanted to record, and with the gathering interest in the band they prepared to start work on their follow-up.  Two months after our conversation in Baltimore, the band decamped to producer Scott Solter’s North Carolina studio to begin work on their new album.  They hoped to capture the maniacal energy they have become so well known for in their live sets, as well as indulge their passion for experimentation and thinking outside the box in the studio.

bombadil-drums.jpgIn Solter, best known for his work with Spoon, John Vanderslice, Okkervil River, and the Mountain Goats, they have found a producer who seems to share their same abstract approach to music.  For Rahija he found a kindred spirit.

“He is our producer," states the guitarist. "Whenever he talks to me he is always saying things like, ‘you want drums to sound like they are falling out of a Zeppelin into an atom bomb.’  He has a very rich visual way of thinking.

"He is not a gear guy.  I am just looking forward to see what kind of outside the box ideas he has – singing in the bathroom, putting towels on the drums, shouting outside the house even though the mic was inside – I think he is really good guy at encouraging that kind of stuff.”

This time around the band was hoping to fix what they viewed as a “flawed process” the last time they went into the studio.  Recorded over a nine-month span, the band felt that despite its obvious strengths, something was lost from A Buzz, a buzz by recording it in spurts.  For their new album they looked to rectify that problem. 

“We are going into the studio for twenty consecutive days in a house in the middle of nowhere.  We are going to try and make the album all in one shot.  I don’t know how it will make a difference, but I know it will,” explains Phillips.

Robinson simply wanted the new album to be, “exactly what we want.  I don’t think the last album really completely expressed what we were trying to do.”

bombadil2.jpgThe band’s forced exodus to Solter’s studio was one that was very agreeable for Rahija.

“It took about nineteen days.  Usually we would begin at 11 AM and end around 11 PM.  I sort of lost sense of time while I was there – one day when we woke up there was snow on the ground, another day it would be 60 degrees," he says. "It was an interesting way to work, because each guy’s role was different for every song.  There would be some grueling days where you sweated through a whole day on the mic, moving around from instrument to instrument, take to take. 

"Then it would be someone else’s turn and there would be nothing to do.  We all took up various pastimes – Daniel ventured into bread making, James read an entire comic book series, Stuart watched CNN, and I took to sewing.”

The result from their time in the Carolina countryside is Tarpits and Canyonlands, the most gorgeously beautiful, strangely addictive, unique album of the year.  It is an album that captures all the vast sides of the band; it is full of lyrical twists, adventurous odd instrumentation and immediately unforgettable melodies.  From the sparse powerful piano driven “Matthew”, to the gentle ruminations of “Marriage,” through the rocking “Sad Birthday,” to the detonating chorus of “Honeymoon,” it is a fifteen song musical adventure that was able to, in the words of Rahija, “capture the vibe of our live show.  Somehow he {Solter} was able to bottle up the energy.” 

At the same time Tarpits and Canyonlands has a classic warm sound to it, much of it due in part to Solter’s preference to record to tape.  “Recording to two inch tape was also a luxury – no more ugly computer interfaces.  Somehow recording to analog forced me to process music in a different way, a way that really requires you to focus and listen,” explained Rahija.

bombadil-sax.jpgAs we neared the end our conversation on that snowy day in Baltimore, I asked each of them where they hoped to be a year from now.   Rahija, the most talkative of the group, was the first to speak, describing trips and tours of Europe and beyond, of being an “international touring band.” 

The question was clearly still on his mind later that evening at the Baltimore Chop, as he completed his thought from earlier in the day. “A friend asked us today where we saw ourselves in a year.  I said we wanted to travel to Europe.  I want to add that we would also like to travel to the Malaysian capital.”  The band then launched into the foot-stomping explosion of “Kuala Lumpur,” a new tune from their upcoming album.

Drummer Philips answered next, his goals perhaps a little simpler, a little more personal, “I would really love to say that we made an album that we can all feel is very awesome.” 

Perhaps it was the day’s long drive, or the lunch of PBJ they had endured, but Michalak’s goals seemed less lofty than his band mates, “I want to be able to eat at Cracker Barrel next year.  They have great vegetables.”

Robinson, the quiet keyboardist who all conversation had seem to measure his words the most before speaking was the last to answer, “I want to sell out our hometown venue, the Cat’s Cradle,”  he paused before finishing with a laugh.

“Once I do that, I will be ready to start thinking about Cracker Barrel.”

Photos: Melissa Madison Fuller/bombadil.com  

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