Being funny is, in the super-serious world of your average indie rock band, more hindrance than help, as though a smile would crack the fragile veneer of emotional detachment riding through every forlorn, mid-tempo melody.
Bryan Rahija, a founding member of the Durham, N.C.-based Bombadil agrees. "Humor is a strange guest in the rock world, an unexpected party-crasher." Good thing then, that Bombadil isn't your average indie rock band.
But humor has become a trademark of the band, which formed when Rahija and Daniel Michalak, then Duke students studying abroad in Bolivia, began writing songs together. "We just had a lot of free time when we were down there and had a common interest in music so we just wanted to make something," says Rahija.
Upon returning to Durham, the two recruited Stuart Robinson and Michalak's brother John on drums — John was later replaced by current drummer James Phillips. Not long after, they became a talked-about presence on local stages. A late-2005 gig at UNC-Chapel Hill opening for The Avett Brothers led to their eventual signing to Concord, N.C.-based Ramseur Records; the release of an eponymous EP; this year's debut long-player, A Buzz A Buzz; and an endless series of tour dates.
Musically, the band traverses territory from Rahija and Michalak's exposure to Bolivian folk music and the ragtime-inflected Piedmont blues native to the band's hometown. Elements of Robinson's classical piano training mingle with the wide-eyed simplicity of Pacific Northwest twee-pop. And it's all doused in good old American rock 'n' roll, making for a flavor unique to Bombadil. Rahija puts it to metaphor: "Sometimes when you're cooking, there's stuff that you don't think would make sense together, like pistachio ice cream or something — it's not an obvious flavor, but it's actually pretty good."
The Bombadil we hear on record thus far can feel confined, as if the studio restrains the full Bombadil experience, but the charm and, yes, humor of the songs remains. And live, the band's instrument-swapping antics, sweat-drenched energy, and broad-grinned enthusiasm are infectious. Whether busking on campus for whoever happens by or packing a venue as large as Chapel Hill's 750-person-capacity Cat's Cradle, the band makes a noticeable — and effective — point of involving its audience through humor. Rahija says, "Making people laugh, I guess, is the least you can do to get people involved."
There's not a single whiff of pretense or over-seriousness, but Bombadil is far from a joke band. "Johnny," a standout track on both records, is a whimsical tune conveying a tragic tale. "Rosetta Stone" and "Three Saddest Words" are heartbroken pop tunes, touching for being relatable. The humor is in the presence and personality of the band. "So often I go to rock shows and everybody looks so damn somber on their instruments, just like sitting still and playing their instruments, and we just have so much fun playing music," says Rahija.
"If you're not smiling when you're playing music, you're doing something wrong."