More than a decade before Dolph Ramseur helped guide The Avett Brothers to a major label and late-night television appearances, he was a small-town tennis coach. Ramseur taught tennis in four states and for 10 years, a span of time and space that afforded him a broad spectrum of students. He remembers promising preteen prodigies and an elderly man who would swing his racket only to lose his shorts. On the courts, Ramseur learned to recognize talent and enthusiasm and, perhaps most important, how to distinguish between the two.
"If I had a kid that was 10 years old that came to me and he didn't have really good strokes but he had great hand-eye coordination and he was a helluva athlete, I could see the potential," says Ramseur. He now runs a successful record label and manages, among others, The Avetts and The Carolina Chocolate Drops, two of the country's biggest roots music acts. He doesn't coach tennis anymore, but he still likes to talk about it. "Give that little kid a year, and he's going to be one helluva tennis player."
About six years ago, Ramseur found one of those kids with potential onstage at the Great Hall, a wide and wood-floored auditorium in the student union of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To be more exact, he found four of them—Bryan Rahija, Stuart Robinson, Daniel Michalak and his younger brother, John. They called themselves Bombadil.
It was the second Thursday of December 2005, a few days before students faced the drudgery of semester-ending exams. The room was full of a few hundred undergraduates looking for one more ecstatic exhortation before all-night study sessions. For all their ramshackle sprees of bluegrass and punk rock, The Avett Brothers—sweaty, sloppy and fun—made apt headliners for those bound to be cloistered.
Theoretically, Bombadil was the perfect opening act: Three Duke students and one from UNC interested in various folk forms and pop melodies, attuned to rock 'n' roll energy and down-home charm, Bombadil's members shouted as much as they sang and pounded their instruments as much as played them. Their music posed a series of urgent questions: What would happen next? What influence would they incorporate? Where would this song end? Would they even get through this song? Coltish and proud, they were ideal Avett understudies with a lot of learning left to do. They were talented and enthusiastic, just not simultaneously, and they were perfect for Ramseur.
"It was very much like The Avett Brothers when I saw them the first time. It was all the members walking this tightrope—falling to pieces, but not falling off," Ramseur reminisces.
Ramseur had fallen in love with Bombadil when he heard two songs on their MySpace page a few days before they opened for The Avetts. When he saw them onstage, he knew that they not only had the tunes but also the charisma and willingness to work for this career choice. They became Ramseur's new squad of unruly tennis players. He offered to release their records through his label, which was already spreading the Avett gospel, and to serve as their de facto coach. For the next four years, he helped guide them through every aspect of being a young band—how to promote shows, when to tour, when to record, where to record and how to release what they'd made.
"I don't work with bands because they're exactly right. I want them to grow and get better," Ramseur remembers. "Bombadil wanted to get better: 'Hey, what can we do? Did you see anything tonight we could've done different?'"
Ramseur's earnest, endearing, one-fan-at-a-time approach had worked for The Avetts. In 2008, it was beginning to deliver for Bombadil. The five sincere, simple songs on their debut EP had blossomed into A Buzz, A Buzz, a rich, ambitious but still unbridled mix of winsome folk songs and loud rock numbers, stacked harmonies and plaintive singing. The band found a booking agent and bigger crowds, selling out rooms at home, in Washington, D.C., and in Portland, Ore. Some of the country's better music festivals inquired about Bombadil, and one of indie rock's most noted producers agreed to record their second album at his studio in western North Carolina.
Rahija co-founded Bombadil in 2004, while he and Daniel Michalak were exchange students in Bolivia. Back in Durham, they'd been in a cover band together, but their foreign rendezvous was serendipity. He'd been there from the beginning, and he could feel the momentum building. "We were finally scratching at the surface of the music that we wanted to make and thought that we could make," he says. "It was getting to a point where you could see some kind of sustainable path."
That path abruptly and unexpectedly forked in late January 2009. For more than two weeks, they'd been recording their best batch of songs yet with Scott Solter, the veteran producer who had made big records with The Mountain Goats, St. Vincent and John Vanderslice.
Solter seemed to capture the members' very essence on tape. They alternately sounded curious, quixotic, anxious, funny and sentimental. "Marriage" was a perfectly rendered observation of matrimony as a marathon, while "Otto the Bear" was a celebration of sound and spirit. The grand "So Many Ways to Die" did sweeping, charging acoustic melodrama better than The Avetts themselves ever had, while "25 Daniels" successfully stretched and stacked a simple pop hook into a sound collage, like Steve Reich rearranging Sufjan Stevens. It was the album that should have made Bombadil famous.
But on the night Bombadil began mixing the record with Solter, Stuart Robinson said he wanted out of the band. A master of hooks and a powerful entertainer, he had joined the band by email while Michalak and Rahija were in Bolivia. He had a girlfriend, though, and an economics degree from Duke, not to mention interests in computer science and medicine. He'd slept on enough floors and played enough empty bars.
What's more, he reasoned, Bombadil didn't need him: Everyone in this band wrote, arranged and sang, so with some reconfiguration, they would surely survive as a trio. They'd have one less mouth to feed and pocket to pad. He might've been right, too, except there was another reason Robinson was leaving: For the better part of the last three years, Robinson had watched Daniel Michalak slowly lose the use of his hands. He'd seen Michalak try everything—splints, ice packs, specialized stretches—to quell the pain that shot through his forearms and into his hands and sometimes his legs. He'd been diagnosed with neural tension, meaning all of his activities were exerting pressure on and shortening some of the nerves that radiated through his body. But nothing fixed it. Michalak gradually started giving up his responsibilities. He'd end rehearsals early and practice less. At shows, he wouldn't move equipment. He stopped driving the tour van. The band even rearranged a few songs so he didn't have to play so much. Robinson didn't want this band to waste his health, too.
Three months after Robinson left, the reconfigured Bombadil trio was eating before a show in Florida. Michalak couldn't feed himself. "I said, 'It's not worth it,'" Michalak remembers. "And that was it."
Bombadil released Tarpits and Canyonlands three months later with a listening party in Durham. The album played over the PA, and the band milled about but didn't perform. They had made one of the year's most eclectic and ambitious albums, a bold statement of runaway talent finally finding its own path. Without a tour, though, they knew Ramseur's one-fan-at-a-time philosophy would never work. There was little promotional budget, and there were no definite plans to record again. Tarpits and Canyonlands was stillborn.
"It was a really bad time for me," says Ramseur. His voice carries a recognizable mixture of empathy and guilt, like the sports coach who's worried he's pushed an athlete too far. "I'd led them down this path of making art, performing art, and they'd spent four or five years doing this. And now we didn't have anything to show for it because they can't perform."
At least that's what they thought.
When James Phillips auditioned to join Bombadil, he hoped that he was signing up for a career. He'd just completed two degrees at UNC, but grad school wasn't on his mind. Rather, he wanted to find a band with long-term, long-distance goals. Phillips had heard Bombadil on college radio, and he liked them. After the band released its first EP on Ramseur Records, his roommate even suggested that he play drums for the quartet. They clearly had a drummer, he'd replied.
But that was John Michalak, who eventually bowed out of Bombadil and followed in his father's footsteps by attending medical school. One day, Phillips prowled Craigslist's posts in hopes of finding his new band. He discovered an ambiguous drummer-wanted advertisement and somehow knew it was Bombadil.
"I bothered my roommate for a month preparing for the audition. I wanted to know all of their songs, to do them right, right away. That sort of happened," says Phillips, laughing.
Phillips' four-song audition occurred in Durham, in the sallow house that had come to be known as Bombi Headquarters. They played a few tunes, talked about time signatures and unsuccessfully tried to improvise in the meter of 7/4. A few weeks later, Phillips joined the band; several months later, he moved into 721 Bolton St., having finally found the people with whom he wanted to spend his postgraduate years.
"Besides liking Bombadil's music," remembers Phillips, "I knew there were three other dudes who wanted to make a career out of it. That was our connection."
Bombadil very much made a life out of being a band. On the day they graduated from Duke, Rahija and Michalak told their parents they wouldn't be headed to graduate school. Instead, this band was going to live together in an attempt to achieve their crazy dream.
Paula Michalak is a physical therapist in the eastern North Carolina town of Wilson. Her son Daniel, the first of four children, had been a high school sports star who went on to attend Duke. "This was not the course we would have chosen for him," she says five years later. "But everyone has to live their own life."
Echoes Rahija, "My dad wanted me to do something more traditional with my college education—go get some job somewhere, clock in and climb the ladder. I think he was afraid that the band wouldn't work out and that I wouldn't be in a good situation."
Bombi Headquarters, an unremarkable but notably cramped 1,500-square-foot cottage, became a testament to their commitment. Built in 1903 on a quarter of an acre, the three-bedroom home once sat a few hundred yards from the reservoir used by Erwin Mills. Short, secluded and overshadowed by a set of modern apartments, Bolton Street now feels more like an alley than a road, meaning it is mostly hidden, forgotten and cheap. When Phillips moved into the house, he paid $110 to live in the dining room. It was the quintessential upstart art space.
When Bombadil was home, their gray Ford tour van commandeered the postage stamp-size lawn. Google Maps immortalized the band's existence on Bolton Street when a street-view camera captured the van's rear seat sitting on the front porch. It had been removed to make room for more gear.
That photo's an important memento because it epitomizes one essential Bombadil trait: They were rarely off the road. Phillips' addition finally gave them a full-time, fully committed drummer, meaning that Bombadil could find a booking agent and move beyond the weekend-warrior, regional-roadster status of their first three years. In February 2006, for instance, one of their first proper "tours" included three shows—a Friday in Myrtle Beach, a Saturday in Charleston and a Sunday at a place called The Money in Rock Hill, S.C. With Phillips, they could hit the road for weeks on end. It was what they needed.
That transition cut both ways. Bombadil's initial attempt at becoming a full-time band came at a nebulous time for the music industry. Just as they began building their catalog and fan base, music sales continued to slump. Thanks to the rise of Napster and the innumerable illegal file-sharing strategies that followed, people simply weren't buying music. According to conventional wisdom, in order for a band to build a career and fan base, they must tour relentlessly, even if they are largely unknown. A romanticized rite of passage, it's also a grueling, uncomfortable process that involves sleeping on a lot of floors, eating too much bad food and resting very little.
In the last few years, another model has removed some of the legwork and discomfort from the equation—a young band posts a few MP3s online, generates some interest on blogs and music websites, earns the notice of music-business types and then begins to navigate a maze of nightclubs and long-distance drives. They start, at least in theory, with a built-in crowd.
Bombadil began touring shortly before that new system really worked. They were, after all, under the aegis of Ramseur, a manager who'd made that old-fashioned model work. They felt the pressure of precedent. If they arrived in a town for a show early, they'd find a street corner or college campus to busk, more keen on drumming up local interest for the night's gig than picking up a few bucks. They'd flyer towns as they arrived in them, and they'd tour in repetitive patterns so as to build loci of support.
In some cities, Bombadil started to find a foothold, but each member has his own memory of a night when no one came. Phillips remembers an enormous, impressively engineered club in Salt Lake City, a stop on their way to an excellent festival called Pickathon, just outside of Portland, in 2008. They played their set for the bartender, who bought them pizza, and the bouncer, who bought a copy of A Buzz, A Buzz. Such nights took their toll.
"There was this idea that we needed to be touring constantly, but then there wasn't time to work on songs," says Robinson. "Then there was how hard it was to keep up with Internet relationships, like returning emails when you're in a van. You're either playing or driving or sitting in a seat and typing."
Robinson persevered, largely for two reasons: He still liked these songs and these people. The four members of Bombadil boasted an almost fraternal rapport of inside jokes and esoteric references. They were four smart kids who simply found and got one another. As Ramseur puts it, they were the kind of bright and slight nerds who would've been ridiculed at his tiny high school in rural North Carolina in the '80s. Bombadil is named for a rather obscure character in the Tolkien universe, after all, and they've written songs about Kuala Lumpur, self-mutilation, suicide and the Rosetta Stone. On tour, Michalak says one of the band's favorite games was to establish and defend the ideals and laws they'd use if they started their own civilizations—sort of a philosophical Sim City for the open road.
But camaraderie, Robinson was learning, could only sustain a struggling band for so long, especially given Michalak's steadily deteriorating condition. Not only was Michalak gradually giving up his duties within the band, but the same symptoms were starting to spread through the rest of Bombadil. "Daniel's were the worst," Robinson admits, "but all of our hands were hurting." He describes his discomfort as somewhere between an irritating warmth and an unscratchable itch inside his skin. He watched Michalak suffer, and he didn't want to weather the same progression. For Robinson, the fatigue and worry just weren't being repaid. No matter how good Tarpits seemed to be, the prospects of success didn't seem to be a safe bet.
"I felt like we needed to stop playing," he says after a long, considered pause. "It was hard to feel like we were going anywhere."
The attrition worked quickly. Robinson was the first to leave, a loss the trio first thought they could weather. But they'd taken time off to give Michalak a chance to heal his hands in the summer of 2008, and he wasn't improving. Rahija and Phillips toyed with the idea of hiring people to help play the new songs live, but this was a band of devoted friends who'd happened to find a few enthusiastic people to help them along. As writer Rick Cornell said in an Independent Weekly story about the band in 2009, "Bombadil isn't a hired-gun kind of outfit."
It was over.
"Daniel and James are in it for life," says Rahija. "This is what they love, and they cannot imagine doing anything else. But Stuart and I were willing to sacrifice less. We were able to imagine enjoyable things outside of that area."
Bombadil's diaspora didn't take long: Robinson decided to stick close to his girlfriend after he left the band. They moved in with her parents in Salisbury, where he kicked around without a job, trying to tease out his next move by researching Department of Labor projections about long-term employment prospects in various fields. He didn't play music or talk to the band for six months. He needed space.
"I didn't have anything against them, but living in the same house for three years and being around each constantly and in the van, I needed to do something on my own," he explains.
Phillips had sprinted to Portland, where he'd met his girlfriend a few days after that memorably unattended Salt Lake City show. At Duke, Rahija had interned in Washington, D.C., with the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog nonprofit five blocks east of the White House. When the band pushed Pause, he headed north for a job interview with the firm. He's worked there as an online editor ever since.
Of the remaining Bombadil three, Michalak made the shortest move, heading just 70 miles east back to Wilson to be with his parents. It was by far the most significant relocation, though. A month before Ramseur Records released Tarpits, Michalak had abandoned the band life he once knew. In Durham, he lived less than a mile from his alma mater and even closer to the restaurants and shops of the city's Ninth Street district. In Wilson, he lived among strip malls and ceaseless fields of cotton and tobacco.
Every member of Bombadil concurs that Michalak was the engine behind the band, the kid who'd decided at any early age (six months, his mother suggests) that his life pursuit was music. But now he couldn't play or even sing. He could not slice his food, drive a car or hold a book. After he'd brush his teeth or eat with a specialized fork, he'd have to lie down with ice packs over his muscles, just to ease the pain.
"I'm still very much a hyper-energetic person, but I had to change my lifestyle," says Michalak. These days, he manifests a lot of that energy in his speech patterns, slowing through the verbs and rushing toward the periods as if he's speaking by way of hurdy-gurdy. "I had to be happy or comfortable with my entire day being sitting in front of the television, saying that's still a productive day."
But Daniel didn't want that to become his life. He wanted to be more than a shut-in, so he and his family continued a five-year hunt for a cure. There were chiropractors and orthopedists, family practitioners and physiatrists, neurologists and psychologists. There were pain medicines, nerve stabilizers and antidepressants. There were more experimental attempts to fix the problem—the ancient system of acupuncture, the deep-tissue realignment of Rolfing, the body systems analysis of biofeedback. The number of doctors climbed into the double digits.
"Many times, we left feeling like the doctors thought his problem was psychosomatic," says Paula Michalak. "One doctor told him he was 'depending on his parents too much' and that he was 'going down a very dangerous road.'"
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."