This is an installment in a series called “One Song,” in which I talk to a songwriter about just one song. I caught up with Daniel Michalak and James Phillips from Bombadil before their June 21st, 2013, show at Snug Harbor in Charlotte. Daniel is primarily the bass player for the band, and James is the drummer, although all the band members are multi-instrumentalists and often swap instruments during performances.
We talked about “Escalators,” which Daniel wrote. It’s on Bombadil’s new album, “Metrics of Affection,” from Ramseur Records.
The song is made up of two parts, although the radio version edit omits the first part. The two sections of the song are starkly different in sound, although lyrically related. Daniel wrote the second part of the song but the first part, the intro, was more of a collaborative effort.
Part One of Escalators
“It was originally supposed to be two songs but James said he just wanted it one. So we turned it into one. It was really a full band collaboration on that one. Stuart (Robinson) and I started working on it and then James helped me put it more together and we got Bryan (Rahija) to help us with some of the arranging,” Daniel says.
The first part of the song has a slow, Beach Boys-esque sound.
“Not really orchestral because it’s not orchestral instruments but much more lush (than the second part),” James says. “There’s just accents on really reverbed drums. It starts just with Daniel on the ukulele but then builds.”
Part Two of Escalators
The second part of the song has a different sound. It’s more rhythmic and Daniel’s vocals have almost a rap feel, with short rhyming phrases: Do you ever think about the future? What holds those invisible sutures together? Is the doctor in? What ever happened to spontaneity? That’s my deity and I’m in charge of me.
Daniel explains that the song actually began as a rap song.
“During this time I had trouble playing instruments because I had problems with my hands so I was trying to think of ways to do music that didn’t involve playing instruments. One of the few musical genres where you don’t have to play instruments is rapping. So I got into doing a lot of beats and loops. So it started more as a rap song but I think as it went along it devolved away from that.”
Those opening lyrics (the sutures, the doctor) also sprung from what was going on in his life at the time.
“I had a summer job one summer at a hospital where I was helping high school kids learn about hospital stuff. So they would go work with the emergency room for an hour and then they’d go to the laundry room for an hour. I was in charge of them, making sure they didn’t get into trouble and they showed up every day. But I had a lot of free time and so I started writing lyrics.”
Interpreting and Over-Interpreting Lyrics
Before talking to Daniel, I listened to the lyrics of the song. They seemed to suggest a struggle between conventional and unconventional paths in life. He asks If I gave in to the corporate tactics, would you say that I jeopardized all that I once believed in? He sings about checking things off a laundry list, cups made in China, plastic happiness. The very first words in the first part of the song are If I lay down on an escalator would you step on me? Are they about rejecting the pressure of upward mobility? I ask Daniel.
“There was this meme. Is that was they’re called, memes? It must have been back in 2010, whenever, there were these people, they would stretch out.” Daniel demonstrates, stretching out on the grass between Snug Harbor and the parking lot.
“Planking?” I ask.
“Yeah! Well, it came from that. There was ‘Top 20 Planks’ and someone was planking on an escalator.”
“This song’s about planking?”
It’s not exactly a surprise that Daniel and the other songwriters in Bombadil draw from unexpected sources for lyrical inspiration. Songs on previous albums have focused on unicycles, jellybean wine and a circus bear. But still, it’s hard to let go of the notion that the escalator represents something more.
I ask Daniel, “One of the things I’m hearing is the conflict between living in the planned, conventional way and maybe the more unconventional, more spontaneous way. Is there anything to that?”
“I think so often, at least in this song, the lyrics were stream of consciousness. So it’s not like I had some story line or some over-arching point. So I think when I entered this, just writing lyrics, you end up just kind of writing about yourself or what you’re thinking about at that moment.”
But he acknowledges that a larger meaning can also be taken from the lyrics.
“That’s always a struggle, at least that I have. Do you live a normal life or do you go off and climb Mount Everest? Maybe other people don’t have this struggle.”
I ask about some lyrics in the second verse that felt poignant to me. Of the things been checked off, forgotten or left off, and all the lights you never turned off and I’m the man who pays.
“I was just making more of a joke there. Well, not a joke, but, all the lights you never turned off, and I’m the man who pays. No, I just mean on a superficial level, when someone doesn’t turn off the lights but maybe they don’t care because they’re not paying the bill.”
“It felt sad to me when I heard it. So I shouldn’t have been sad?”
“No, I meant it as sad. Things can be happy and sad at the same time.”
“I want to make sure that I wasn’t sad for no reason.”
“No, you were sad for the right reason. But sometimes I feel like I have deep meanings but other times I’m just kind of going with it. But subconsciously I’m sure there are thoughts going on there. I think sometimes artists BS. ‘Oh, this reminds me of the time when I was in pain’ or something like that.”
This conversation with Daniel made me realize that the push and pull between the superficial and the deep is one of the things that make the lyrics in Bombadil songs so interesting to me. The concrete details, often everyday objects, are accessible. They paint a picture and draw me in, and then as I linger, I see connections that lead me to consider a more abstract reading. Maybe that reading isn’t what Daniel and the other songwriters had in mind, but it doesn’t really matter. This is what art does—it provides a prompt for thought—whether the piece of art is a song or a metal statue. It leaves space for interpretation.
Or as Daniel says, “I guess it’s deep and light at the same time.”