Interview: Bombadil

Bombadil‘s music mixes delicate piano with unconventional rhythms and soft electronic touches, all topped off with thoughtful, literate lyrics sung in beautiful harmony. Prior to their show in Macon this Saturday at the Wise Blood House, James Phillips [drums/vocals/bass/keys] and I talked for a few minutes on election day about the band’s songwriting and collaborative process, development of and support from a music scene, and the reasons Bombadil should get your vote (spoiler alert: too late…)

Let’s start off talking about songwriting. Your songs seem to be simultaneously brutally honest and then they’re also extremely vulnerable. On the surface those two qualities might seem mutually exclusive. How do you approach writing songs that have both of those qualities?

That’s interesting. I don’t know, it’s kinda like baking a cake. The band has had four songwriters over its history. There’s a group voice that comes out that I would say features honesty, but the process has shifted and changed album to album. We’ve just wrapped up the recording and are getting our ducks in a row to put out a new record in the spring, and we shifted how we wrote for that record.

It’s much more a collaborative process. We gave ourselves a lot of constraints this time around, although ironically I think the same voice is present. This time we limited our sonic palette. We wanted songs that were relatable – easily relatable – and we wanted harmony vocals on it. We had a few songs that we used as models that were done, then wrote the rest of the record trying to write songs around those, the original songs. Daniel [Michalak] wrote a good chunk of them, and we co-wrote a good chunk of them, and then I wrote two, so probably our most collaborative record.

How do you approach that process? How has it changed over the years with so many lineup changes? How do you make it come together as one voice?

Editing [laughs]. Daniel and I, for years now – he’ll come to me with a song idea or we’ll have an idea just started, and I have a little recording studio at home. We do our writing there. It’s just kind of a routine that we have. When we don’t have rehearsal or some other pressing project to work on, we just get together and work on songwriting.

It slowly evolved over the years. It originally started when [Daniel] was having his hand problems in 2010. I would meet up with him and help record songs ideas – I was just the drummer at the time, and now I play keyboards and bass – but I would lay down electronic sounds for him or he would play very briefly and we’d record that. And that slowly evolved into the collaborative writing process between the two of us.

Speaking of collaboration, one of the reasons we started [Field Note Stenographers] is an attempt to get a music scene sort of revitalized here in Macon – it’s died down over the years. So we’re always interested in how scenes function and develop. Durham seems to have a really wide range of musicians and a healthy scene. Does that atmosphere impact how you create music in any way?

A little bit. I think that probably for both of us in Durham it’s more the general arts scene. I have a number of friends who are musicians, and I use my little studio to record other bands. Thats always fun, but I also have friends who are weavers, and my partner is a puppet artist, and a number of writer friends. There’s just a lot of encouragement to forge your own path and be creative in this town. Durham has been undergoing this explosion of growth in the last two years, and it’s attracting more and more people like that. You go to parties and you meet fellow artists.

I feel like it’s at this point broader than music scene, it’s an art scene. Certainly growing up here – I remember seeing a band called The B-Sides when I was in high school and being like, oh, I think I could play music – that’s an option. It was certainly modeled for me, and there’s a lot of resource sharing between local bands.

Maybe now that I’m thinking about it, yeah, of course the music scene really supports us. I think I might take it for granted in many ways. But yeah, I know so many people that play music and are pursuing it to some degree of professionality… there’s a lot of cross pollination of ideas and encouragement in Durham right now. That makes it great to live in.

On the same token, do you think there’s any sort of sense of place tied to music these days with it being so accessible everywhere? Do you think there is a way to pin down where a piece of music comes from or where a group of bands come from?

Sure. I think so. I don’t know that it’s necessarily something that’s incredibly important to us, although our new record has a lot of finger-picked guitar on it – I think you’d hear the new record and hear some Southern influences, but that might be the first time for us that you would hear those influences. That’s a good question that I wrestle with. Durham is like this kind of artsy pocket of the South. I feel the culture is a little different than it is other places. So maybe that place impacts us… but I don’t think I hear that in all my friends’ bands.

I’d be interested to know waht you’re reading or listening to you while you’re writing these new songs. Any influences stick out?

Sure, yeah. I’ve been listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell lately. I hadn’t really ever understood her, and then Daniel played me that song of hers like three weeks ago, and I was like, oh, I get it now. So I picked up a few LPs. We listen to a lot of Paul Simon. We worked on this newest record with John Vanderslice, who’s a producer in California and a former recording artist. He recommended Paul Simon’s first solo record to us. I spent a lot of time with that. I’m pretty eclectic. I listen to a lot of electronic music. The new Nicholas Jaar record is really great… [I listen to] a mix of classic singer-songwriters from the ’70s mixed with a little bit of classic rock, and then I listen to a lot of Talking Heads and things like that… I’m giving you really meandering answers. It’s because it’s election day, man [laughs].

Since it’s election day, tell me why I should vote for Bombadil.

Why should you vote for Bombadil?


Because we want to make you feel good! [laughs]

Alright, that works for me. I’ll write you in. One more question: tell me which came first, the band name or the songs.

The band name came very early on. It was suggested by a friend when the group was just forming.

Ok. It feels appropriate for that first record for sure.

[Laughs] I don’t know if it does now, but you know, you name something and then you just stick with it. It’s harder to come up with a new name than it is to just use the name you’ve got.

That’s another reason to vote for Bombadil, I guess.

Yeah, vote for Bombadil.

Bombadil plays at the Wise Blood house on Saturday, November 12th.