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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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.'"

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