Spotlight: Blind Pilot

Aaron Kayce on November 2, 2011

Photo by Ben Moon
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Israel Nebeker and drummer Ryan Dobrowski met at the University of Oregon long before they started the indie-folk outfit Blind Pilot. After graduation, they crossed paths when they were both residing in Portland, Ore. Nebeker was working on solo material while Dobrowski was playing drums with the electro-pop band Starfucker. The duo wanted to try something different, so in 2007, they jumped on their bicycles and toured small markets along the West Coast, towing their gear behind them.

“[Blind Pilot] began as a side project but [the bike tour] was the most fun I’ve ever had playing music, so we decided to keep doing it,” says Nebeker. “It seemed like the more vulnerable we were – out there on our bikes – the more the kindnesses of strangers helped us out. And that was pretty wonderful to get that perspective on this country, going through different states and finding good people and personal connections.”
After completing the tour, they began work on 2008’s debut 3 Rounds and a Sound. Adopting a loose approach, the duo invited local musicians to contribute to the recording session and subsequent album-release show. They enjoyed the robust sound so much that they stuck with a large band, eventually paring it down to the current six-piece configuration that has been together for the past few years.

The response to 3 Rounds and a Sound was unexpected: the band shot from obscurity to stardom, gathering millions of iTunes downloads, opening arena shows in the United Kingdom, touring with The Decemberists and playing festivals like Lollapalooza. Though they wanted to quickly return to the studio following 3 Rounds, “it was like, how can we pass up some of these opportunities?” Nebeker says.

After three years on the road, the band finally felt like they had time to record their sophomore album, We Are the Tide, which they released this September. Even though they’re now rolling six deep on a converted school bus with grand chamber-pop orchestration – upright bass, banjo, vibes, dulcimer, trumpet and more – they haven’t lost the immediacy and emotional connection of that first album and bike tour.

“We really wanted to keep a sense of, fragility or intimacy,” explains Nebeker. “Something about it that still sounds personal, but we wanted [ We Are the Tide ] to be more layered, richer and bigger sounding [than our debut].”
Whereas 3 Rounds was made with Nebeker and Dobrowski leading the sessions and creative vision, We Are the Tide is the result of six people coming into the studio “with an idea about the way they want it to sound” according to the frontman.

Nebeker – who writes all of the songs and lists new-folk luminaries like Conor Oberst, Gillian Welch and Joanna Newsom as inspirations – says that the new album contains recurring themes of distance, place and home, which he draws on from personal experiences. “Sometimes [the lyrics are] so personal that I’m not sure if there will be a universal thing for people to hold onto,” he confesses.

Despite Blind Pilot’s recent success both on tour and in the studio, the band members still carry themselves with a humbleness that yields an unassuming charm.

“There’s never been a plan,” Nebeker says with an easy laugh as he refers to the group’s future. “I can’t believe that we get to do this – travel around, play shows – and people are actually coming to see us. I think we’ll do that as long as people want to keep listening.”