Band of the Day

2012.01.08

Blind Pilot

Classic-sounding folk rock set apart by phenomenal songwriting
It's not hard to live like a ghost, I just haunt all that I've wanted, And leave what I don't.
lyrics from Half Moon

Blind Pilot is a folk band based in Portland, Oregon. The band was formed by singer/guitarist Israel Nebeker and drummer Ryan Dobrowski in the mid 2000s while they attended college at the University of Oregon. The duo later relocated to Portland, Oregon and continued focusing on the band. Nebeker and Dobrowski undertook a tour from Bellingham in the north of Washington state to San Diego in the southern edge of California entirely by bicycle, playing many small towns along the way. Soon after their bike tour, Blind Pilot released their June 2008 debut album 3 Rounds and a Sound, an album of simple but gorgeous folk songs which reached number 13 on the Billboard Top Digital Albums Chart. Seeking a richer sound, the band added four touring members to the band. Soon after the band set out on an extensive tour including European stops with fellow Portlanders the Decemberists. Blind Pilot released their sophomore album We Are The Tide in September 2011, a more orchestral album, it makes excellent use of the band's added members and increased instrumentation.

Portland, Oregon's Blind Pilot are part of a long line of great folk bands from Oregon's largest city. From Elliott Smith to the Decemberists, Portland has proved itself a hot bed for roots music in recent years, and an extremely positive, supportive musical community as Blind Pilot singer/guitarist Israel Nebeker describes it. Blind Pilot have won themselves acclaim with their heartfelt songs, richly garbed with orchestration including banjos and trumpets, and made even more compelling by Nebeker's evocative lyrics. Backstage at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall before their headlining show later in the evening, Nebeker seems just as genuine and egoless as you'd imagine from his songs. He listens intently to every question, weighing his answers carefully as we discuss topics ranging from how the band has grown over the last few years to the importance of place in songwriting.

Band of the Day: Question: You've been on tour all summer, how's it been going?

Israel Nebeker: It's been really great! The turnouts have been good. It's exciting as our album came out while we were on this tour and we saw a progression of the people not knowing any of the new songs to "oh, I see some mouths singing along to the new songs," and now it's apparent that they know the new songs.

Band of the Day: This is the first record Blind Pilot has made after expanded beyond a duo, what have been some of the challenges and positives of adding more people and instruments to the band?

Israel: The positives are having all those different instruments to draw on in the studio. It's really fun, we can experiment with a lot more textures. If it's not quite working you can say, Dave will play trumpet there, Kati can you play banjo and see what works? But that's also a burden sometimes, because we spent a lot of time doing it in the studio instead of just having the bare bones of the songs and let that just be how it is on the record. We went in with the goal of having it very layered with lots of instruments. So yeah, it was a very different process than the last one.

Band of the Day: For your first album you went to a secluded area in Astoria to write and record, did you go somewhere out of the way for We Are the Tide as well? Is it important to be somewhere secluded for the writing and recording process?

Israel: For me it's important, the way I write, to be in landscapes that are inspiring. If I'm sitting at a desk at a typewriter and I'm stuck I just walk, preferably in nature, and that will somehow inspire something to come. Astoria is a great place for that, I grew up near there. We Are The Tide [the song] I wrote in Portland, and it was a lot about being in a city and feeling the pulse of the city. Same with the song New York on this album actually, so yeah, I think just being in inspiring places.

Band of the Day: So not so much being somewhere secluded as being in different places and being inspired by your surroundings. You guys are playing much bigger venues on this tour than you were this time last year. Has that been really exciting? Has it had a big impact on your life?

Israel: I wouldn't say it's had a big impact on my life on, on our lives. We're still doing the same thing, touring the same way.

Band of the Day: Well not on bikes [Blind Pilot famously did their first tours entirely on bicycles].

Israel: But not bikes. [laughs] No we haven't done that for a while. It's incredibly exciting. It's funny, if three years ago we were to play this show at a place this big, we would be pretty overwhelmed. Probably too much. It's funny what you get accustomed to as it gradually comes. It's like, ok, this is our life now, wow this is amazing! It's wonderful, so many people are coming. And then you get to be alright.

Band of the Day: Was there a moment in the progression that felt especially drastic and amazing?

Israel: I think there was a bunch of them.

Band of the Day: So there wasn't one really drastic step when you thought "wooooahhh"!

Israel: Not really. I don't think we had something like that. Well actually, I shouldn't say that. I remember the very first time that our music got out to more people than just our friends and friends of friends. We got the single of the week on iTunes. That was a long time ago, before the first album was released. But I remember that moment, seeing our single climb in the chart in iTunes. My mind being blown that people I have no relation to are listening to it. That was a big deal, the first time.

Band of the Day: When you did your bike tour you stopped in some really small towns. Do you have any feeling about playing in a city versus a really small place? Is it a different experience?

Israel: For sure. We always try whenever we can to diffuse the barrier between us and a big audience. But it does seem like the bigger the audience, the more that is there, and it's just not there in a small place. You're so close to everybody, you can see everybody's face. But it's just different. I wouldn't say one is better or worse.

Band of the Day: Were people super excited to see a band in small places, and more excited even if they didn't know your music?

Israel: Well, the whole goal of that was to see if these songs we were playing Portland, which has a really close music scene, would relate to people who never see bands in small towns. I wouldn't say they were excited, but more curious like, "What are these guys doing?" But it was pretty cool, at those shows we'd always make at least one or two connections with people that were there.

Band of the Day: You said that Portland has such a strong musical scene, do you guys feel like you're part of a musical community there? Does it feel like a community?

Israel: Yeah it really does. It's ironic that I was living in Portland and trying to play shows there and it's hard.

Band of the Day: There's a lot of bands.

Israel: Yeah there's a lot of bands! It's hard to get shows and to get people to give it a listen and it seems like as soon as we got a little of success, it was like, wow! I feel really part of the Portland music scene. And now I'm always traveling and not there. But it is a really great music scene and the best thing about it is that there's not any competition or ill will, it's a lot of genuinely wanting other musicians to succeed and be happy for them.

Band of the Day: Your music isn't trying to chase trends at all, do you feel connected to any musical movements outside of Portland, any larger shifts?

Israel: I don't know if any musician likes it when people say "they sound a lot like them, they're a part of this scene." Looking back on it, the way were formed in Portland, the way our bands came together, it does seem very much like we're in the scene of orchestral folk that came out of the Northwest in that time. But it never feels like that. It came together really naturally, like, "oh you have a friend that plays the trumpet? Let's try it out." It just came together pretty naturally and casually.

Band of the Day: Obviously having more instruments there's more textures you can have on the album, and We Are The Tide has some more rocking moments and some more country moments. Are there any other genres you'd like to explore in the future?

Israel: I'm not sure, I don't think we intentionally go for genres. If anything I intentionally, I have a lot of musicians that I admire, so much that I have to be careful not to sound like them and if I start to make something that sounds like a certain artist then I'll have to be like, well I need to start over. The first album felt a little more cohesive, a little less varied than the last one. I think that all we really did was push the directions a little bit more that were already there.

Band of the Day: What are some of these artists you are really inspired by?

Israel: I'm all about songwriters that have amazing lyrics. And unique delivery and vocals styles. I'd say Conor Oberst and Joanna Newsom, Gillian Welch.

Band of the Day: When you say you write songs and sometimes it sounds too much like certain people, is that in terms of the sound or the lyrical content? Like, oh that sounds like something Bob Dylan would say?

Israel: That's interesting. I've never had that happen with lyrical content or never known it maybe. Mostly just stylistically.

Band of the Day: I assume you are doing this full time? What's the best part about being a musician full time?

Israel: You don't have to … the best part is that it's hard to find enough hours to write and rehearse and do all that when you're doing another job. It's amazing having all that time to work on it. That's the best part. It's this thing I've been working towards, and hoping for a long time, so it's great.

Band of the Day: It seems like We Are The Tide is a bit more optimistic than the first album, does that come from being able to do what you love full time?

Israel: No actually, I think that … I like the idea that songs can mean something different to somebody else, and I don't believe that I necessarily know the full meaning of the song. To me, the songs on this album were coming out of a lot darker, more difficult content, so that was one of the reasons why I was like, I don't think anyone will want to hear this, it's a little bit difficult to hear and be absorbed in. I wanted to make them really appealing to hear, and something that would draw people in. And that was one of the motivations to have it layered and lush and richer.