Five short years ago, Durham, NC-based genre-bending band Bombadil stood on the precipice of indie rock stardom.
Made up of James Phillips (drums), Daniel Michalak (bass), Bryan Rahija (guitar) and Stuart Robinson (keyboards), the group had just released their second album, Tarpits and Canyonlands. They were winning accolades from critics and fans for heartfelt songs like “So Many Ways to Die” and imaginative and humorous lyrics of “Matthew.”
Then just before Tarpits and Canyonlands was set for release, tragedy hit Bombadil. Michalak was diagnosed with neural tension, a debilitating ailment that kept him from being able to hold a book or toothbrush, let alone a guitar. The band was left without a bassist and without the ability to tour in support of the album.
Since 2009, Michalak has gone through a series of treatments that now allows him the use of his hands again and the ability to get back on the road. Bombadil has also soldiered on since the near disaster of 2009, releasing two more critically acclaimed full-length albums, including 2013’s Metrics of Affection.
This June, a re-mastered version of Tarpits and Canyonlands was released in honor of its fifth anniversary. A special limited-edition vinyl version of the album is available for the first time.
Bombadil’s musical achievements are especially impressive since all of them had academic backgrounds and not songwriting in mind when attending college at Duke University. Michalak was a religion major, Stuart studied economics and Rahija (who no longer tours with the band) went on to grad school at the University of Michigan.
Phillips attended the University of North Carolina where he majored in Southern studies and history. He says he started as a music major and hated it, but he still took may music classes, including the history of country music class and even did an honor’s thesis on “Nostalgia in the Music of Bruce Springsteen.”
Besides his work with Bombadil, Phillips has also gone on to work with other indie musicians like Samantha Crain and Haley Bonar and recorded his own electronic music album in 2012 (he’s called electronic music the “folk music of the 21st century”).
In advance of tonight’s show at Tellus360 in Lancaster, we caught up with Phillips via phone at his home in Durham where he talked about his love of vinyl, the delicacies of puppetry and the current state of folk music.
Fly Magazine: Was there a point with the band that made you realize being a professional musician would be a viable and sustaining career?
James Phillips: It’s always been a desire. I know it’s the only thing I’ve wanted to do as an adult, and I’ve been very fortunate to find situations where I’m either mostly able or completely able to just focus on music. Definitely in the last year, it’s felt much more stable than it has ever before for all of us. But it’s such an incremental process, and there are still a lot of increments to go on the path for financial and career stability.
FM: What’s it been like for you and the band to get out on the road for the re-release of Tarpits and Canyonlands and have a proper tour of the material after things went awry the first time in 2009?
JP: It’s been great, but it doesn’t seem that different. We’re working on finishing our fifth record, and since we’ve been back on the road we’ve played a lot of Tarpits material – along with a lot of material from all of our records. On this last tour, we’ve focused on the Tarpits stuff a little more than usual. Even though we were a band who stopped and weren’t able to tour on a record that we made, we never really stopped working together and thinking creatively. The day-to-day grind of it kind of stopped for a while, that’s all. For us more than people on the outside looking in, it just seemed like a natural progression.
FM: How did the re-release of Tarpits and Canyonlands happen?
JP: Dolphus Ramseur [of Ramseur Records] has wanted to put Tarpits out on vinyl for a while. It seemed like the fifth anniversary of it was a good time to release it, and they really wanted to give it some nice packaging. For me as a vinyl junkie, that’s really exciting. And those tunes still seem really relevant to me creatively.
FM: How difficult is it to turn the songs on Tarpits into a live show as a trio when it was originally recorded as a four-piece?
JP: It’s funny. We write songs in the studio through recording and have to learn how to play them live. I still feel like I’m learning how to play Tarpits songs the best they can possibly be played. It’s an exciting thing to discover. Even in just one song, there’s so much to learn and so much to know and so much you can change and develop. Because we’ve changed the lineup of the band, we’ve had to rethink some of the songs. So these older songs still feel dynamic and new to me. A song like “I Am” – which we only learned how to play this year – we literally had never played that as a band. That was a made-in-the-studio song. Then we figured out a way with just the three of us to make this really loopy evolving vocal-heavy song work in a live setting. It’s exciting when it goes right.
FM: How long did it take to make “I Am” work in a live setting?
JP: I think it took about a month. At the beginning of this year, we collaborated with a puppet artist named Torry Bend in Durham at Duke University. The show was called Love Infrastructure, and the puppet artist wrote a story that revolved around our music. We used some existing songs and some new songs that we shared with her and made this almost puppet opera with this huge multi-media show. It was like a movie was being created in front of you out of miniature. It was a fun project, and we were hoping to tour with it. Torry pretty much chose the tunes as she developed the story, and she’d say, “Hey, can you guys do this one? This matches perfectly with what I’m trying to do.” And “I Am” was one she asked us to do. We tried it a couple different ways. Because I make electronic music on my own, we tried doing it with a bed of electronics underneath of it. We realized that was really hard [laughs]. People who do looping are amazing to me. So we ended up stripping it back a little bit. The vocal parts are really hard, and we’re all doing challenging instrumental parts and singing throughout the whole piece. For 90 seconds of music, it took that much effort [laughs].
FM: You released the electronic album 29 Days under the moniker Sumner James. Will electronic sounds be creeping into more Bombadil releases?
JP: They actually are. The new record has more electronics, but it also has a really stripped-back feel. That stuff started to happen with Metrics of Affection, too. There are three or four songs that have drum machines. All of us are fascinated by the variety of sounds that you can make. I really got interested in electronics and the tools around the studio. It just seemed natural, and they found their way into our songs. Daniel had done some exploration of that, too. He had been really digging in to what GarageBand can do. He was really into hip-hop at the time. I’m working on a follow-up to 29 Days that I’ve started as we’ve wrapped up this new record. It’s electronic, but I think when it’s done, I’m going to want to make and EP of songs of just voice and ukulele [laughs] – just go in the completely opposite direction.
FM: Do you still feel like electronic music is the folk music of the 21st century?
JP: Yea, totally – even more so now. It’s such a fascinating community – electronic music. It’s a totally different world than modern folk music, but it has the social elements of what I see in the foundation of folk music. It’s like the movie Inside Llewyn Davis showing the Greenwich folk scene and all these folks learning this same kind of set of songs and set of rules and then breaking those rules suddenly. I see that happening in electronic music. It’s so codified; I think people remixing each other is very similar to someone learning “Long Black Veil.” It’s a similar cultural moment. And the tools are so accessible to so many people.
FM: You’re a self-proclaimed vinyl junkie. Is there a holy grail record you’re looking for or have found?
JP: I have two of my holy grail records. The two that I’ve found in offbeat ways are Buckingham Nicks – which you can find that record in stores, but it’s always up on the wall and it’s 50 bucks. I’ve shopped at the same used bookstore for a long time, and he got a bunch of records in when I just happened to show up one day. It was a bunch of Boomer music, but it was all the good stuff. It wasn’t cheap, but I picked out Buckingham Nicks, Blood On the Tracks, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead – probably 10 really choice records in really nice shape for 80 bucks. The other one I looked for for a long time and found was Brian Eno’s Another Green World, which is just a fascinating record. All my friends were really jealous for a while, and then my friend found the Japanese import version of it in much nicer shape than mine. Now I’m jealous of him [laughs]. These are the revealing things I’m nerdy about.
Bombadil opens for David Mayfield Parade tonight at Tellus360 (24 E. King St., Lancaster), along with Lancaster’s Jake Lewis & The Clergy. 8 p.m. $15. 21+. Click here for more info.