Bombadil: Scattered By Fate, A Band Regroups And Rebuilds

Jul 20, 2013
Originally published on July 20, 2013 7:32 pm

Bombadil was founded by a group of friends who met while attending college in Durham, N.C. They graduated in 2006, released a self-titled EP that was well-received, and soon seemed on their way to finding an audience. But by 2009, bassist Daniel Michalak was struggling with an unexplained pain in his hands.

"I started noticing it during shows," he says. "And it got to the point where I couldn't hold a spoon to feed myself, or brush my teeth, or hold the phone to my ear."

Michalak's daily routines became increasingly difficult — and draining.

"I ignored the warning signs and tried to push through the pain, rather than listening to my body," he says. "And it got worse and worse, to the point that in early 2009, we had to stop — stop playing, stop everything."

The band released an album that year, Tarpits and Canyonlands, to positive reviews. But with Michalak still sidelined with what was diagnosed as nerve damage, members of Bombadil went their separate ways. Michalak says the months he spent getting well were long and hard.

"I couldn't do anything. I spent a lot of time just looking at the ceiling," he says. "I did a lot of walking. And then I had a lot of time spent in doctors' offices, trying to figure out what was wrong."

Pianist Stuart Robinson spent that time trying to actually be a doctor. He pursued medical school and, for a time, stopped playing music altogether. But the bandmates remained friends, and one day, Robinson says, he and Michalak had a big-picture conversation.

"We were talking about how it was going to be 10 years before [I was] an independent, practicing physician. And he kind of mentioned, 'Well, think how far you could grow a band in 10 years.' Not just an upstart, struggling band, but, I think, something that really existed.' "

Robinson says making music in the immediate present suddenly felt like "a priceless opportunity." Bombadil reconvened in 2011 and has been active since then.

The band spoke with NPR's Linda Wertheimer about its fourth album, Metrics of Affection, out next week. Click the audio link to hear more of their conversation.

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BOMBADIL: (Singing) Take another left, Angeline. Can't you see the light's turned green, and you are lost in the city. Keep going straight, Angeline. This part of the town looks all the same and I hope that you find it pretty...


That is the music of Bombadil, from their new album "Metrics of Affection." They sing about anything from the awkward beginnings of a relationship to the plight of Moby Dick, all in whimsical folk pop. The band is four friends who met in college in the Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. They produced an album and then another one. They got good reviews, and it seemed like they were on the verge of making it.


WERTHEIMER: But Daniel Machalak, the band's bassist, found himself struggling with unexplained pain in his hands. He, like the rest of the band, was not sure that Bombadil would be able to keep playing. In fact, they couldn't even play at their own record release party.

DANIEL MACHALAK: I started noticing it during shows. And it got to the point where I couldn't hold a spoon to feed myself or brush my teeth or hold the phone to my ear. And it was a slow, chronic buildup, and I think - honestly, I ignored the warning signs and tried to push through the pain rather than listening to my body. And it got worse and worse to the point that in early 2009, we had to stop, stop playing, stop everything.

WERTHEIMER: In 2009, you also released an album. It's called "Tarpits and Canyonlands." It got very good write-ups. One review said it was a breakthrough and a breakaway. We have a song off that album. This is called "Honeymoon."


BOMBADIL: (Singing) Honey, if you took back all the promises and rings and little things, and when it sings, would you still know what lies behind that honeymoon? Movies that you make when you hit stop and you hit play and the scenes are day by day, would you still know what lies behind the honeymoon?

WERTHEIMER: Who's singing there?

MACHALAK: That's me - this is Daniel - singing.

WERTHEIMER: The song seems to be about a letdown after a romantic honeymoon. And I guess you could say that when your album came out, you sort of had this success but the honeymoon was way over and the band was breaking up because of you, Daniel. Yes?

MACHALAK: That's right. Yes, because of me, yes.


STUART ROBINSON: This is Stuart talking. I might say that instead of "Honeymoon" being about a sadness or disappointment, "Honeymoon" is more of a warning. Maybe honeymoons aren't always a perfect thing. And what comes after honeymoons isn't always perfect or you can't really take that for granted and assume it's going to be perfect.


BOMBADIL: (Singing) What lies beyond that honeymoon.

WERTHEIMER: So, then you all went your separate ways. All of you were looking at maybe other things to do. You were changing your lives. And, Daniel, you were trying to get well. What were those most like for you?

MACHALAK: They were very long and hard 'cause I couldn't do anything. I spent a lot of time just looking at the ceiling. I did a lot of walking, and then I had a lot of time spent in doctors' offices trying to figure out what was wrong also.

WERTHEIMER: Now, how did it happen that you decided that it would be OK to restart Bombadil?

MACHALAK: I think during this whole time I was continually trying to push myself to play music again. And we would get together periodically a few times throughout the year and play or we used to talk about Bombadil. And so at one point, it felt like that we could do a show, and we did.


WERTHEIMER: Now Daniel, there's a song on the first album that you released after you got back together that is called "One Whole Year."


BOMBADIL: (Singing) And now all I got to show for these empty cans of paint is a portrait of my mother, a suburban landscape. All the people that I met, all the time that I spent was a poor man's fortune but it didn't pay the rent. I made it one, one, one whole year. Think it went pretty well and I'll tell you in a minute it was shorter than it felt.

WERTHEIMER: This is a song about how that long year was shorter than it actually felt.

MACHALAK: Sure. It's definitely about, one, us failing as a band. I think trying to get a go at it and I say not being able to pay the rent, although we did have a lot of fun.


BOMBADIL: (Singing) I made it one, one, one whole year, and it went pretty well. I think it went pretty well.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, how was it for the not-Daniels in this group - for Stuart and James. You had a life in music and that went away. And then you had another life, and then you blew that life off in order to go back to music. That sounds like it would be a fairly difficult thing to deal with.

JAMES PHILLIPS: Linda, this is James here. There were certainly transitions. I, for one, pretty much never stopped with the music. I performed with other bands, but I never found something that felt like Bombadil did. I think Stuart's had a very different path over that time.

WERTHEIMER: Which was what, Stuart?

ROBINSON: I would say, contrary to James, I did basically totally stop doing music for a while. I actually spent a couple of years pursuing medical school. And I was talking to Daniel at one point and we were talking about how it was going to be 10 years before, you know, you're kind of an independent, practicing physician. And he kind of mentioned, well, you know, think of how far you could grow a band in 10 years. And not just like an upstart struggling band, but I think something that really existed, kind of a priceless opportunity.

WERTHEIMER: Let's go back to the brand new recording, "Metrics of Affection," and listen to a track from that one, which is called "Whaling Vessel."


BOMBADIL: (Singing) Skin is made of the softest oils, does this make me a factory. My fins that take me through the sea, bounty of a royal man that's trying to get the best of me on his whaling vessel...

WERTHEIMER: This is a song which appears to be written from a perspective of a whale who's being hunted, yes?

MACHALAK: This is Daniel speaking. Stuart at one time had an idea that we should put together a musical. We wanted to be on Broadway and have a Broadway musical. And so he wanted to do one about one about Moby Dick. And so he had written four or five songs and he told me I should write some too. And this was one of those songs from the viewpoint of, I guess, Moby Dick.


BOMBADIL: (Singing) A thousand miles beside the rest and then I'm gone before they set the sails on me in their whaling vessel...

WERTHEIMER: So, now that you tried the music and then you sort of moved away from it and now you've come back to it, what do you think? Do you think - is it a career yet?

PHILLIPS: We are able to support ourselves from Bombadil, and we have more songs than we know what to do with, so. Hopefully the touring and the shows will just continue to grow and we'll be able to do this for a long time.


WERTHEIMER: Daniel Machalak, James Phillips and Stuart Robinson of Bombadil. Their new album is called "Metrics of Affection." Gentlemen, thank you very much.

MACHALAK: Thank you.

PHILLIPS: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: I just heard from two of you. Where's the other one?

ROBINSON: Thank you so much. Sorry. This is Stuart. I'm ungrateful.


BOMBADIL: (Singing) You can't have diamonds made of gold, you can't stop from getting old...

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.