Images supplied by Blind Pilot.
Some bottles and bikes, a cheese grater, and a bucket helped shaped the unique beginnings of Portland, Oregon indie-folk band Blind Pilot. Clearly, the common trajectory to musical discovery was not the path Israel Nebeker and Ryan Dobrowski were on when they started busking together on the streets of England armed with a lot of musical talent and things to bang on. Then there was the time the two loaded their instruments onto bike trailers they built themselves and peddled between Bellingham, Washington and San Diego performing at over two dozen stops along the way…even when their bikes were stolen! Despite their name, these pilots had a path to blaze, eyes wide open, and it didn’t matter if it was unconventional.
Others noticed too! Word started to spread about the band on the bikes and, in the midst of all this, Blind Pilot released their debut album 3 Rounds and a Sound. It was exceptionally well received reaching number 13 on Billboard’s Top Digital Album charts.
“When your biggest dream ever starts actually happening, it’s a strange and amazing feeling of inevitability, disbelief, and luck,” Nebeker tells Ottawa Life before the band rolls into town for a show on CityFolk’s RavenLaw Stage on September 15.
The duo would add more members to the band in 2009 which flushed out a new colourful pallet in their sound. A second release, We Are the Tide, followed to more praise. As Blind Pilot’s popularity began to climb the band took a break that would last five years and lead to their most personal release to date. During this time Nebeker lost his father to cancer and his relationship of 13-years ended. There was much cause for reflection and change, personally and for the band.
The resulting album, And Then Like Lions, is soul baring and while it doesn’t shun sadness it also seeks out the light. There’s those cracks Leonard Cohen sang of, where the brightness breaks through and there’s hope to lift you. It takes you into the storm of loss and grief but ensures you have a map to navigate through it.
For Nebeker, it was the hardest stage of his life. Now, with his collection of songs of reflection, thankfulness and courage, he delivers his catharsis from the stage as he moves forward.
Though they’ve now ditched the bikes for more conventional touring wheels, Ottawa Life chatted with Nebeker about his time touring on two wheels and how it shaped his song writing as well as boldly facing his recent losses through his music.
Ottawa Life: Let’s get the bike trip out of the way, first. I gather you must get a lot of questions about it being a rather unique part of the band’s history. What inspired that tour and what went into some of the logistics of pulling it off?
Israel Nebeker: It was one of the best things I’ve done in my life. Ryan and I set off on that tour intending Blind Pilot to be a summer project, but the further we went the more the trip took on significance and became a metaphor for what we both wanted to be making in music. As much as we’ve talked about it by now, and as much as I disliked that story becoming the story of our music for years to come, I’m really grateful for how that tour set the tone for the band and the music to come.
Can you share with me some of your favourite memories from the bike trip?
We were in Northern California and decided to take a route that went through more remote and beautiful stretches of the coast. I remember being out in the middle of nowhere at this campground that had an amphitheatre up a hill in the middle of all the campsites. We went from site to site and invited people to come hear us play at dusk. We played for about twenty people and most of the time it was so dark in the middle of this deep forest that no one could see a thing. It was amazing, getting to play for strangers that we couldn’t see, and who couldn’t see us, in the middle of a beautiful forest. We could have been making music anywhere or nowhere. That one will stick with me.
I read that even on that tour you had doubts about the band working. Did that experience bring you closer in what, I’m sure, were moments of madness?
It did. There was a spot where we hadn’t found any legitimate shows to play in a few hundred miles of biking. Ryan was ready to throw in the towel and continue just with his bike (and to be fair, his drums were heavier than my guitar). But we reassessed what it was we were doing and what our intention was. That was an important spot, to almost give up. It made us realize what it was we really wanted to be succeeding in.
Busking also played a part in the formation of the band. Can you tell me a bit about your time playing on the streets of England?
Ryan and I were in a study abroad program together in Newquay while we were attending University of Oregon. We saw how much people liked buskers, and didn’t treat them with a negative stigma, as is the case in the United States. I had my guitar and Ryan put together a drum kit out of a scratch pad, bottles, a cheese grater, a bucket, and some other things. We made so much money right off that we felt a bit guilty and decided that whatever we didn’t need for food and expenses, we’d spend buying drinks for people we’d meet in the pubs and clubs there. It was a great summer.
How do you feel those experiences shaped you and your music?
They shaped a lot of how I approached songwriting and connecting with an audience. If you can hold a space while you play that allows for a constant stream of changing listeners, that’s a pretty sturdy space to make music from.
Such experiences must generate a greater intimacy with your audience. How do you find the shifts to larger crowds like you might experience at the CityFolk Festival?
Actually, I find larger audiences just as intimate, but in a different way. At least, that’s how it is when it’s a good show. When you’re connecting like that with a whole theatre full of people, and you’re all sharing that experience together at once, there’s an intimacy there that is strong and hopeful.
In 2009 you decided to expand upon being a duo into an all-out band. What caused the shift in direction?
We wanted 3 Rounds and a Sound to have more instruments than we could play, so we invited friends and musician around Portland to come record parts. We got lucky and some great players came and sat in, and that was the start of what would become the six members that it’s been since then.
3 Rounds and a Sound achieved recognition quickly. Were you surprised by that at all?
When your biggest dream ever starts actually happening, it’s a strange and amazing feeling of inevitability, disbelief, and luck.
Speaking of the first release, did you feel much pressure to emulate the first albums success on We Are the Tide?
Not at all. I couldn’t remake the albums I already have even if I wanted to. That holds importance to me because I can see how I’ve improved as a writer and musician, but also I appreciate who it was that made those first albums.
What are some of the ways you come at writing, getting those ideas out of the head and onto the page?
Snippets of songs come to me when I’m not looking, or in dreams. The work is finding the rest of them and what they mean. I’ll try anything it takes. Usually I’ll go hike and hunt for words, or I’ll give myself short writing assignments. When it gets desperate, I’ll pull out the big guns and fast until the song is finished.
It was a long and revealing process each step. It took the majority of two years for me to write, and then another full year to record.
It’s been five years between releases. What were you all up too?
A lot of life happened for each of us. We toured on We Are The Tide until 3 years ago, and then a lot happened in our personal lives after that.
This album is born out of much loss in recent years (the ending of a relationship, the death of a parent). Was it difficult to pour it all out into a more personal releases then your previous albums or did these tribulations serve as a cathartic release?
I don’t see the other two albums as any less personal. This one made me have to learn a new way of writing, though, and about topics I didn’t know much about before.
Where do you have to dig internally to bring such songs into the light?
I think of them more as already out in the air, and I just have to get myself to a place of listening really honestly.
Does playing them live each night help you move forward?
It does. It’s nice when they become familiar and mean something personal to other people, because then they take on an entity of their own away from me and I can hear them as a listener too.