Bombadil’s James Phillips talks solo debut
It may come as some surprise that James Phillips is the first member of Bombadil to unveil a solo record. After all, as the drummer of the Durham-based ensemble, he has yet to make a songwriting contribution to one of the band’s records. But Phillips played a huge role in shaping the sound of last year’s striking and stripped-back All That the Rain Promises, producing the record and giving it an unfettered and spacious feel that suited the songs wonderfully. This summer, he and Bombadil have been hard at work on the follow-up, but Phillips spent February recording 29 Days, the debut full-length from his new project, Sumner James.
Turning away from Bombadil’s whimsical folk, the record takes a wide angle-approach to electronic music. Dense, dub-influenced vocals play over atmospherics that prickle and percolate. At its best, it’s like James Blake as produced by The Books, off-kilter detail adding authenticity to Phillips’ emotional croon. Two songs from the album are streaming below.
Shuffle‘s Jordan Lawrence caught up with Phillips via e-mail to ask a few questions about 29 Days, which drops on Aug. 28.
Shuffle: How did this record come about?
James Phillips: I had been working on demos, loops and various projects on my own since Bombadil stopped touring in 2009, but I wasn’t finishing anything, and was getting frustrated with myself. I read about February Album Writers Month, which is an online challenge to write a full record in a month. I liked the idea and thrive on deadlines, so I decided to go for it. I was planning on moving back to North Carolina in march, so I moved out of the house where I was living in Portland and into my good friends Scott and Sherry Pendarvis’ barn. Their farm is a really magical place, and I knew I could both focus and be inspired there.
Shuffle: How did you get interested in electronic music? It’s a far cry from what Bombadil is up to.
JP: I was looking for new music when I moved to Portland, and the group of friends I fell in with there were all into electronic and dance music. A couple of my friends are DJs, and dancing was a pretty big part of the social scene. I was pretty unfamiliar with that kind of music, so I kept being introduced to the best of the best of the genre. I started playing around with synths and computer audio and really liked how populist electronic music is. You don’t need to know how to play an instrument to make music. I’ve read online that electronic music is the folk music of the 21st century, as it can be made by anyone with a computer.
Shuffle: I’m intrigued by some of the other influences here. For instance, the calypso-informed space funk of “Why I Love It Here.” How’d you end up going so broad with the sounds?
JP: I think the broad range of influences comes from the short time I had to make it and allowing myself to be influenced by the musicians who played on my record. “Why I Love It Here” was actually a live jam that happened with my friends Miri and Darka and Michael, which I edited into a song. Then I had everyone else improvise to the track, and then edited together my ideal jam. I love soul and funk, and I wanted to have something a little less rigid on the record.
Shuffle: Why the name Sumner James?
JP: Sumner is my first name. I am named after my great-grandfather Sumner Barlow, who was a fellow ginger, poet, musician and piano salesman. I’ve always felt a connection to him, although he died several years before I was born, and I was reading his poetry during my time in the barn. The first verse of “Tribute” is actually one of his poems. Anyway, it seemed if I was going to do something musically on my own, I needed to honor the heritage of my name. I liked using my two first names, as it’s more personal.
Shuffle: You titled the record 29 Days. Is that how long it took to make? What was that process like?
JP: I wrote all the songs and recorded almost everything in the 29 days of February. I settled into a routine pretty quickly, which basically was sleeping in, starting my day playing piano for a few hours to get the beginning idea for a song, then eating dinner with the Pendarvises and playing ping pong with Scott Pendarvis and then working late into the night by the wood stove. It was wonderful.
Shuffle: You’re using Bombadil’s Sept. 1 date at Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle as a release party for the album. How do you expect it will be received among the band’s fans?
JP: I honestly have no idea. I hope they like it. I can’t play the stuff live yet, hence not having my own release show, and I thought releasing it would at least demonstrate the breadth of interests that make up our band.
Shuffle: Are you working on any more solo material?
JP: Not yet. We are just wrapping up a new Bombadil record that we’ve been working on pretty intensely for the last few months, and now, I’m taking a little vacation to Canada.
I want to start working on a follow-up solo record once I’m back, and we’ve finished mixing the Bombadil record. I am hoping to create a live set-up with a synth and sampler and effects rig and write everything for the next thing with an eye towards live performance, so I could do a show from time to time.