Sometimes the best new thing is something not so new. Bombadil, an indie-folk band from Durham, North Carolina, released “Tarpits and Canyonlands,” their third release and second full-length album, in 2009. Inventive, surprising and heart-felt, it should have been the breakthrough release for the band, who had acquired a small cult following. But just before the CD release, Daniel Michalak, who plays bass and piano, was diagnosed with neural tension, a debilitating condition that prevented him from playing his instruments or even performing daily tasks like holding a book or toothbrush. The tour was canceled and Bombadil’s progress came to a halt.
For the next few years Daniel visited a slew of doctors and tried every treatment imaginable. As his condition improved, Bombadil was able to start recording and touring again. They released two more albums, including the most recent release, “Metrics of Affection,” which received critical praise and nudged them past cult status, landing them on bigger stages in a wider geographic area. But in a way, “Tarpits and Canyonlands” was unfinished. It never got its tour, its moment to shine.
But that’s about to change. In June, Bombadil is re-releasing “Tarpits and Canyonlands” on CD, as well as issuing it on vinyl for the first time. The supporting tour will allow them to give the album the focus and attention that it deserves.
As part of a series of in-depth discussions with songwriters about just one song, I talked to Daniel Michalak about “Sad Birthday,” from “Tarpits and Canyonlands.” The other members of the band are Stuart Robinson and James Phillips. All members sing and play multiple instruments. Bryan Rahija also writes songs and records with Bombadil, occasionally performing with them in shows.
I remember hearing that the song was written in Shawnee, Oklahoma, in Stuart’s parents’ garage.
“I guess it coalesced there,” Daniel says. “The piano parts in the song, Bryan had been playing for a while before that, but we never had any words to it for some reason. When we were in Oklahoma we thought we wanted to have a song about birthdays but there were already songs about happy birthdays, not about sad birthdays. So we wanted to have a song that talked about sad birthdays. Not all birthdays are happy. Each verse is like a little vignette about different things that can maybe go wrong on your birthday.”
In the hall we’re celebrating what is called sad birthday
You’re the host, it’s up to you to make a toast on this cursed day
Count to 3 but there is no one else to sing (1 2 3 ) happy birthday
Count your gifts count again what did you miss nothing anyway
Candles burn, make a wish and then adjourn to the next day
Cut the cake, get in line and take a plate the polite way
How old are you
Postman comes, a stack of bills between his thumbs just to throw away
Check your phone there’s just one message it’s from home and they forgot to say
Happy birthday to you
“I think, just personally, there’s a little too much emphasis put on birthdays, on being happy on that day. Or it being a special day for yourself. I like to take the long view that every day of the year should be special. Every day you’re getting a little bit older. And every day you should be getting presents and cake, not just one day a year.”
“I agree with that part, for sure,” I say. “So it’s one day when there’s a lot of pressure.”
“There is,” Daniel says. “Pressure to have this special moment, which may or may not happen.”
“Sad Birthday” is a song that combines sad lyrics with happy music. Other Bombadil songs have this juxtaposition too. One good example is “Johnny,” which tells the story of a person who is self-mutilating:
Daniel says, “That’s one of my favorite things in music: when things aren’t always what they seem. Something that feels happy, but when you look more closely it’s actually very dark and depressing. I like that, just having more layers to the music, more reasons to give a song a repeat listen. Each time you can maybe find something new in it. Take a song on a superficial level, you can have a nice time and bop along, but if you want to go deeper you can find more emotional content in the lyrics.”
I wonder if that approach is one of the things that gives Bombadil albums so much staying power for listeners.
“I like doing that a lot,” Daniel says. “Almost tricking people, where they have to work a little harder to get the full story.”
The studio versions of Bombadil’s songs are often instrumentally intricate, with many layers, so the band has had to come up with alternate arrangements in order to play them live as a four-piece band (when Bryan Rahija was touring with them) and then as a three-piece band. I ask Daniel about those challenges in general, although I mention that I’m not sure this particular song presented that challenge.
“Yeah, actually, contrary to what you were thinking, this song was very hard for us to work up live. We never played it as a four-piece that I can remember, maybe once. And then (when Bryan stopped touring with the band) we were kind of forced to when we didn’t have any songs we could play. A lot of the energy in the recording on the record comes from the hand claps, and the harpsichord sounding piano, and a lot of strange keyboard noises…that were hard to do live because we don’t have ten people who can clap at the same time, and we can’t get this funny keyboard sound. So it was hard finding a way to make this very full-sounding song still sound interesting. I think we have grown into it now. We’re happy with the way we’re doing it live.”
The strange keyboard sounds that Daniel mentions are in the chorus. They sound to me like a combination of the rumble of an airplane landing and whale noises, mechanical but smooth, the low, sustained note descending in pitch. I ask him how they made that sound. You first hear it around :28 in the studio version:
“There are actually a couple different things that are making that sound,” he says. “One is, I’m playing the bass guitar with my shoe.”
I try to stop him to clarify that he actually said he played the bass with his shoe, but he continues. “There’s also a reversed piano down there as well as organ, I believe, and those things are mixed together by the engineer in a way that came out with a really unique sound. There’s a different piano than the main piano track. I think there was a grand piano and we were using that for the really low end, that low sound that you’re hearing.”
But back to the shoe. I ask Daniel how he got the idea to play the bass with his shoe.
“The bass can be a little boring sometimes. It’s just four strings and you’re just kind of playing the low notes to keep the song together. I started to get bored doing that so I wanted to find new ways to play the instrument. Over the years I’ve tried several different objects, just touching them against the strings to see what kind of sounds they’d produce and I guess when we were doing this song I was in my shoe phase.”
“What other sort of objects?”
“Drumsticks, harmonicas, microphone stands, usually things I would find in a live setting. Those are things that worked out best. I’m sure I tried other things but those are ones I’ve enjoyed the most.”
“Sad Birthday” almost didn’t make it onto “Tarpits and Canyonlands.”
Daniel says, “It was the last song we had put together for the record. We didn’t even think it was going to be on the record. We recorded it the very first day in the recording studio just as a practice song to kind of get us in the recording mode and we really didn’t think it was going to be on the CD. We were just going to record it for fun. And it turned out so well we kept it.”
I ask Daniel how he feels about revisiting “Tarpits.”
“We recorded the record and stopped shortly after that. So we didn’t really get a chance to play any of these songs or see how fans or audience members would like them. So I remember always liking this song but I wasn’t sure if other people would like it. It’s nice to play it now and get a very positive response, so it makes me happy.”
He’s excited about playing new songs for audiences, but there’s also something special about getting to focus on “Tarpits.”
“It’s nice to have this resolution, because we’ve always heard from a lot of people that it’s their favorite album and how they found out about the band, but it didn’t get its day in the sun…so it’ll have a special day for itself.”
Kind of like a birthday…but no pressure.