When Bombadil step onto the Cat's Cradle stage Saturday night to celebrate the release of their fifth record, Hold On, the musicians who play the album's material will not be the same musicians who made the album.
In early January, nearly a year after Bombadil recorded Hold On, Stuart Robinson surprised his fellow band members by informing them that, after a decade in a project he'd helped start in college, he was stepping away. During each of the last two years, Bombadil had played as many as 120 shows. Robinson, it seemed, had seen enough.
When Robinson made his announcement, Bombadil drummer James Phillips was recording a new solo album under the name Sumner James in Portland, Oregon. He called Daniel Michalak—essentially, his only surviving bandmate—to discuss concerns about continuing as a duo. The debate didn't last long.
"We maybe took five or 10 minutes to decide that we wanted to continue Bombadil and not start a new project," Michalak remembers. "It was clear that we wanted to keep doing music."
Bombadil have encountered bigger hurdles. In 2009, health problems and fatigue at large stalled the young quartet's momentum and, for a few years, even led them to quit altogether. But they eventually returned, fighting to recapture their young-man magic while balancing the priorities of approaching adulthood. Another member, Bryan Rahija, soon slipped into a background role so he could return to college. But not Michalak and Phillips: Befitting a band named for a character from J.R.R. Tolkien's grand mythology, the pair are determined to press ahead with Bombadil's journey, to turn the latest obstacle into a new adventure.
"It's something all four of us had talked about over the years—that the band doesn't necessarily have to be all four people or all three people or anybody really at one time," Michalak says. "All of us represent Bombadil, and any configuration is valid. It's in the DNA where we all try to write songs, and we all try to sing. Not one of us has a greater share than the other."
Bombadil's career has long reveled in the tension between proximity and distance. They've made some of their best music in very close quarters. The group's early years found all four members crammed into a cramped cottage in West Durham, lovingly referred to as "Bombi Headquarters." When they weren't home, they seemed to live in a van, touring relentlessly to build an audience ahead of 2009's Tarpits and Canyonlands. That sophomore LP linked the euphoric swells of keys, strings and horns with words both outlandish and sorrowful. In 2011, the rather restrained All That the Rain Promises emerged after 10 consecutive days spent working at a barn-turned-recording studio in Portland.
"It's important to get away and reduce distractions," offers Phillips, "and be in a place where a 12-hour work day is appropriate."
Metrics of Affection, Bombadil's most restless and diverse collection ever, found the four men cohabitating for the first time since their salad days back at Bombi Headquarters. Spending a summer in a rented two-story home, they wrote and recorded, reaching for the same kinship that had fueled their early successes.
That was again the case for Hold On. For much of February 2014, Bombadil retreated to a house on the banks of Lake Gaston. They drew from a pool of nearly 60 songs written during the previous two years and assembled a convincing display of their disparate strengths.
"Amy's Friend" inflates ukulele plucks with sprawling keyboards and off-kilter rhythms; it is the heir to Tarpits' indie-pop accessibility. "Forgive Me Darling" streamlines the lush electronic experiments of Phillips' Sumner James. The piano ballads "Sunny December" and "Love You Too Much" find Robinson balancing battered sentimentality and sardonic wordplay.
Though those fraternal spaces bridged Bombadil's disparate influences, life hasn't always allowed for such living conditions. In 2009, Michalak's battle with neural tension—a condition that sent agonizing pain shooting through his limbs—robbed Tarpits of a proper release party and any substantive touring. With Michalak's condition worsening, he returned to his parents' home, two hours west in Wilson, North Carolina. Robinson took his leave, too, and the rest of the band scattered across the country.
Michalak's unexpected recovery sparked the quartet's resurrection, but even that didn't last. Rahija exited after the Metrics sessions, shipping off to business school in Michigan and accepting only a small studio role with the band.
"I remember thinking about what's next and whether we all wanted the same thing in life. It emerged that we didn't," Rahija says. He works now for a marketing firm in Chicago. He will play with Bombadil at this week's release show, but he won't join them for the subsequent tour. He's satisfied with the arrangement.
"I had had other jobs beyond music that I liked and found fulfilling," Rahija says, "and it didn't seem like those other guys quite had those experiences. I also was interested in the notion of a family. The other guys aren't totally interested in that."
This saga of starts and stops, with members moving in and out of the fold, helped prepare Michalak and Phillips for Robinson's sudden departure. (After repeated requests, Robinson declined to comment.) Dolph Ramseur, who runs the label that Bombadil have called home most of their career, even sees these interruptions as normal for the band, the stuff that propels them.
"It's art imitating life," says Ramseur. "I still go back to the point that Daniel's able to get on a stage and perform. He's able to brush his teeth. He's able to feed himself. He can talk to me on a cellphone. There were times when he had a tough time calling people. To me, this is just a blip on the screen."
To that end, Michalak and Phillips returned to work not long after their cross-country phone call. As part of the fundraising campaign that paid for Hold On, the band promised donors an exclusive EP. When Robinson quit, they'd yet to record it. Not only did Michalak and Phillips have to rebuild as a duo, but they also had to release new music in a matter of weeks.
They established strict songwriting parameters, setting limits about what they could play. Though Bombadil have always favored a circus-like panoply of instruments, Phillips and Michalak wrote seven tunes using just a Rhodes piano, bass, guitar, drums and samples.
The result is fresh but familiar. Percolating tempos and oddball embellishments gird the customary mix of mirth and misery. On "Heartbreak During the Eisenhower Administration (Time Machine)," for instance, they trade clever lines over confident bass and keys. It suggests a humble, modern interpretation of Motown.
Michalak hopes this is the first in a series of short genre explorations for Bombadil. He wants to take detours through country, electronica and even hip-hop.
Phillips and Michalak are now 31. Their struggle to balance their love of music with a need to build sustainable livelihoods is mounting. They are optimistic that this music can sustain them artistically and economically. They've signed with a booking agent to make tours more profitable. And slimming to two full-time members makes the money they now earn last longer.
This all means, of course, they have to stay together.
"It's rare to find people that you like creating things with, and I want to continue those relationships," Phillips says. "I don't know if five years from now we'll be doing 120 shows a year. We're trying to make sure that we're building this into a career. Every year, there are better signs that that's happening."
For Michalak, such career aims mean that the time for grand statements like Tarpits might be past. Instead, it's their job to keep churning out records and hitting clubs. He leans on advice from Scott Solter, the Tarpits engineer who has worked with successful acts such as the Mountain Goats and Okkervil River.
"He said, 'You can either make one great record and then never make a record again, or you can just put out lots of records year after year. Those are the two types of bands you can be,'" Michalak says. "I want to be in a band that put out lots of records, because I just have lots of ideas. And I don't worry that I can't do everything in one record, because I feel like in the future I will be able to do that."
At least for now, that future continues to reside with Bombadil.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ramble on."