Durham, N.C.'s Bombadil specializes in remarkably precise, painstakingly crafted pop songs that still leave breathing room in their arrangements. The seemingly effortless songwriting presents infectious choruses and sing-along verses with lyrics that are somehow playful and somber, direct and obscure.
However, those deft touches with melody, arrangement, and lyrical perspective don't necessarily mean the band that created them has had a smooth ride. Bombadil has been together since 2005, and it seems like each of their releases has suffered some sort of uncertainty. The band began as a quartet founded by Duke University undergrads Daniel Michalak and Bryan Rahija. Daniel's brother John played drums, and Stuart Robinson joined on keyboards. Thus ends the easy part of Bombadil's history.
After releasing a self-titled EP in 2006, John Michalak left the band to finish school. He was replaced by James Phillips, who turned out to be an adept studio engineer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist in addition to a skilled drummer. After releasing two full-length albums, Daniel was forced to temporarily leave the group after developing a difficult condition called neural tension, which made it painful for him to play guitar. During the forced hiatus, four members moved back to Durham to record 2013's acclaimed Metrics of Affection, their most melodic, fully realized release yet.
At which point founding member Rahija left the group to attend business school.
"It's been hard to keep a steady lineup going," Phillips says with an understated chuckle. "But we just keep on keeping on."
The band recorded the perhaps appropriately titled Hold On, released last March, as a trio, and it's such a meticulously constructed, smooth-flowing album that it's surprising to find out that the band recorded it in fits and starts between stretches of touring.
"I think that around the third day in the studio you really start to hit your stride," Phillips says. "And there were only a couple of extended periods where we could hit that stride. But Daniel and I have worked together for so long that we've been able to tap into that mode much faster."
Phillips says that the stop-start recording process was a challenge, but that the band was buoyed by the amount of material they had to work with: They wrote around 50 songs for Hold On.
"We were fortunate this time around to have far more songs than we ended up releasing, so the songs we ended up picking were the ones we were the most excited about," Phillips says. "There was this well of enthusiasm for the material that we could rely on while we were working on it and honing it."
So how do you narrow a 50-song track listing down to a 12-song album? Simple: you lock the band members in a vehicle for two days. "We were shooting a video for 'Escalators' (a track from Metrics of Affection) in Greensboro, which is about an hour's drive from Durham," Phillips says. "And the shoot took two days, so the three of us had an hour's drive to and from Greensboro two days in a row. So we just burned CDs of all 50 of those songs and the three of us each made lists of our top 10 or 15 favorites. And we looked at where the lists meshed and where they didn't, which got us about two-thirds of the way to what became Hold On. And then there were some songs that were written closer to the sessions that we were really excited about, so they ended up on the record."
Perhaps it's not surprising, but as soon as Hold On was completed, Bombadil endured another lineup change. Robinson departed once again, leaving Daniel and Phillips as a duo. But Phillips says that, rather than being discouraged by the new challenge of recreating their arrangements live, they've been invigorated by the challenge of working with both new players and creating new roles for themselves.
"We've played with three different people this year on tour, and all of them play guitar," Phillips says. "So what Daniel and I did was arrange the vocals and rest of the instrumentation so that he and I are covering all of that. We've divided up the set so that he and I are each singing lead about half the time. And the other big shift is that we added a bass synthesizer to the drumset, so that whoever's playing drums, which is me most of the time, can play bass at the same time. It's a four-piece-rock-band kind of sound using two or three people."
Phillips admits it was a fun discovery. "It was kind of like doing origami or solving a Rubik's cube," he says. "Once you know how to do it, it's not that hard, but learning how to do it is pretty hard. It's taken a lot of practice, but it's been a lot of fun to be able to cover more melodic and harmonic ideas with less people."