Feature LEFT TO RIGHT:  Stuart Robinson, James Philips, Daniel Michalak

Published on August 30th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann


Measuring the Sound Affect of N.C. Pop Trio Bombadil

Whether they’re singing witty observations about life’s unexpected detours or crooning through darker, melancholic poetry about heartbreak, rejection, and  loss, the three members of Bombadil make even the simplest melody or phrase sound glorious.

The North Carolina-based trio — currently comprised of singer/pianist Stuart Robinson, singer/bassist Daniel Michalak, and singer/drummer James Phillips — have developed and fine-tuned their uniquely orchestral pop/folk style since Michalak and former guitarist Bryan Rahija (both students at Duke University) first started working on song ideas in 2005 after they studied abroad in Bolivia.

Robinson came aboard as the pianist in 2006, and Michalak’s brother John signed on to play drums. Through the late 2000s, they composed, recorded, and performed in the Raleigh/Durham area with the support of indie label Ramseur Records (home of their Tarheel brethren the Avett Brothers).


Right away, the band’s prickly, organic blend of classic folk-pop, Americana, Latin, and Baroque styles stood out among their indie rock peers in the region. These days, armed with a solid, dynamic new album titled Metrics of Affection, Robinson, Michalak, and Phillips are still making sophisticated music that’s difficult to categorize.

The New York Times recently compared the trio to Peter, Paul & Mary. They recently chatted with NPR’s Linda Wertheimer on “Weekend Edition.” She described their music as “whimsical folk-pop.”

“I try to avoid defining our sound whenever possible,” Phillips laughs. “We just simply sound like Bombadil. We can sound like just about anything we want to, due to the arrangements and the fact that we practice a lot. We think about how we do things from night to night. We all have diverse musical interests, but our main goal with this band is to sound like ourselves and not anyone who came before us.”

Phillips says the whole band has a deep love and appreciation for the Beatles and ’60s-era pop music in general (it’s easy to detect hints of the Kinks, the Faces, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Beach Boys in some tunes), but he admits his own musical upbringing featured plenty of standard ’90s-era alternative rock like the Smashing Pumpkins and Wilco — plus a bit of hip-hop as well.

A sample of “Angeline,” the lead-off track on Metrics of Affection:

      1. ‘Angeline’ by Bombadil (from Metrics of Affection)

“I listened to pretty basic white boy stuff, but growing up in Baltimore. I picked up on some of the hip-hop and soul that was going on,” Phillips says. “It wasn’t until college that I got into indie rock and less mainstream stuff. Now, we try to be kind of purposeful when we listen to stuff. I know that Daniel has been digging into some old country music and a bit of Gram Parsons. Stuart’s been listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and some classical music. A little bit of that bleeps into our music sometimes.”

A native of Baltimore, Phillips joined Bombadil as their main drummer in 2007, and he toured and recorded with them until 2009, when the band was forced to take an unexpected hiatus (Michalak suffered a debilitating nerve injury that severely affected the use of his hands). He relocated to Oregon where he played drums, bass, and keyboards with various indie acts and songwriters and kept busy with small side projects and studio production work, but he returned to North Carolina in 2010 shortly after the band released the masterful, 15-song album Tarpits and Canyonlands.

Bombadil - 2013

Bombadil (L to R): Stuart Robinson, Daniel Machalak, and James Philips (photo by Melissa Fuller)

By 2011, Michalak started showing signs of improvement after a slow, frustrating recovery process. By early 2012, Robinson, Michalak, and Phillips started rolling at full-power, working on lyrical and musical ideas for Metrics of Affection — a collection of refined, carefully crafted, emotionally executed pop, country, and folk originals released in July by Ramseur.

“We’re just happy to have it out,” Phillips says of the new LP. “There has a been a very positive response to it so far. We’re still a very small band, so I think there’s more reaction to come. Hopefully, most people will like it. We were all proud of it when we finished it, and we’re already at work on another one. We love making records.”

While you’d never peg Bombadil as a blues or soul act, the elaborate instrumentation, crisp rhythms, and rich harmonies on Metrics of Affection relate easily with the elegant orchestration of classic Motown singles or a stray Quincy Jones theme songs. The overlap is perhaps more evident in the recordings than in their on-stage set.

“We use a really limited palette on stage, so when we’re making a record we can’t worry too much about how we’ll pull it off live,” Phillips says. “We still want to get the spirit of the songs across, but we tend to focus on the singing while using the drums, bass, and piano to handle the arrangements. We have to adjust things to play them well.”

The trio’s ongoing obsession with instrument-swapping became one the sneaky elements in Bombadil’s approach to performing their songs on stage. It’s been a habit since their early days. Each member regularly demos their own song ideas, recording various instruments by themselves and bringing a full-structured arrangement to the rest of the group.

“I’m usually most exited to play bass on stage, and I think Stuart is most excited to play drums,” Phillips says. “I don’t know what Daniel is most excited to do. It’s hard to to tell. There has always been an element of switching around from instrument to instrument, but we’re actually doing less of that now. Stuart is best at piano, Daniel’s best at bass, and Im best at drums, so we just try to stick with what we’re supposed to do. But all of us are attracted to other instruments.”


Bobadil “a capella” at the Pour House, Dec. 2012 (photo by Ballard Lesemann)

Bombadil currently plays about half of Metrics of Affection during their current live show, with selections from previous releases rounding out the sets. They always try to deliver at least one a capella rendition at every show, too, which usually involves leaving their instruments on stage, strolling single-file into the audience, and assembling somewhere near the middle of the room.

“We like breaking down that separation between us and the crowd that way,” Phillips says. “We’ve become much better singers in recent years, so it’s fun to just go out and do it. We tend to do that most nights, It’s a nice set-breaker, right in the middle, It’s something totally different — a palate cleanser in a way.

“Every now and then, some drunk person tries to chime in and sing along, which is hard but can be funny most of the time,” Phillips adds. “But it usually it goes really well. It’s a challenge to get really quiet like that in a loud rock club. It’s like a little social experiment to see who’s out there and how they’re reacting to everything. It draws folks in, and it’s a fun way to connect.”

Obviously, Phillips and Robinson are very glad and relived that Michalak has recovered from his nerve injuries enough to perform and tour at a functional pace and to enjoy it and thrive at it as well.

“We’re happy and healthy and doing real well,” Phillips says. “We’re careful about what we do on the road, and things seem to be going the right way. Our team at Ramseur Records has been very helpful with getting us good shows. We’ve been able to open for some great bands, which kind of takes the pressure of headlining off of us. The road’s been treating us well, and we have our systems in place for recording and performing.”

Bombadil performs at the Pour House at 9 p.m. on Mon. Sept. 2 with support from the River Whyless. Admission is $7. Visit bombadil.squarespace.com and charlestonpourhouse.com for more.

Top photo by Harry Taylor.


Bombadil at the Pour House, Dec. 2012 (photo by Jessica Mickey)




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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.

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