We were very excited to film this session with Portland’s Blind Pilot, ahead of their Manchester show with The Decemberists. All the instruments came out for this passionate performance of ‘Two Towns From Me’.
There’s no shortage of angles to Blind Pilot’s story: the tours by bicycle, the sheer volume of iTunes downloads, the dizzying ride from relative obscurity to headlining a national club tour in less than a year. But the real story of Portland, Oregon’s Blind Pilot is about the songs. Led by the acoustic guitar and gentle voice of songwriter Israel Nebeker, Blind Pilot’s heartfelt music is the sort that cultivates devotion among fans, that elicits sing-alongs at concerts, that inspires late- night mixtapes.
Portland is a city positively littered with folk-pop bands, but the sincerity and modesty of Blind Pilot’s music stands out from the pack. Once heard, the gorgeously seductive songs are not easily shaken or forgotten, as more and more people are discovering. The band has performed on Carson Daly’s show, has opened arena shows in England, has been selected as iTunes’ Single of the Week—but these achievements belie the intimacy of the group’s music. After a busy summer that included the Lollapalooza, Sasquatch!, and Outside Lands festivals and a high-profile slot opening for fellow Portlanders the Decemberists on select dates, Blind Pilot is embarking on a national headlining tour to support their magnanimous debut, 3 Rounds and a Sound, released last year on Expunged Records. Initially a duo of Nebeker and drummer Ryan Dobrowski, the group now includes Kati Claborn on banjo and dulcimer, Luke Ydstie on upright bass, Dave Jorgensen on trumpet and harmonium, and Ian Krist on vibraphone.
Nebeker and drummer Ryan Dobrowski first met as college students at the University of Oregon. They played together in the occasional band, but the roots of Blind Pilot didn’t take hold until the two friends spent a summer abroad in Newquay, England, a laidback surfing town in the coastal county of Cornwall. Nebeker says, “The first night we saw a musician playing on the street. A cop came up and we thought, ‘This guy’s going to get busted.’ But the cop stood and listened, then flipped a pound into the guy’s case and walked off. So we said, ‘Oh, we’re doing this!’” Nebeker strummed an acoustic guitar while Dobrowski, a fine art student, kept time on a makeshift percussion kit constructed out of a sketchpad and pencil tin. “I used that sketchpad more as an instrument than for artwork,” laughs Dobrowski. “By the end of the summer, the tin was all flared out from me hitting it.”
After that summer of busking by the English seaside, it was a couple more years before Blind Pilot became a serious endeavor, but when Nebeker and Dobrowski decided to focus on making music as a duo, they again sought the ocean air for inspiration. In 2006, the pair relocated to the dramatic landscape of Oregon’s Pacific coast, a few miles north of Gearhart, Oregon, where Nebeker grew up. His hometown memories are strung throughout the lyrics to 3 Rounds’ “Things I Cannot Recall”: “We took off sleeping by the river and the beaches in your car/Up where you taught me how to drive a stick and told me your family secret.”
In the fishing town of neighboring Astoria, Oregon, the pair camped out on the top floor of an old cannery to prepare songs without outside distraction. The building jutted out into the water, not far from where the Columbia River’s broad mouth collides with the Pacific Ocean. Against that tumultuous backdrop, the gentle songs took sturdy formation. Nebeker’s honest delivery, accompanied by Dobrowski’s uncluttered timekeeping, steered a batch of very personal songs to completion—much like the river’s pilot boats, from which Blind Pilot derived their name, guide the mammoth, freight-laden barges up the Columbia.
Both avid cyclists, Nebeker and Dobrowski decided their next move would be a tour by bicycle. Once the songs were together, and a batch of CDRs was readied and hand-pressed, the two embarked without a map or any gigs scheduled. They biked down the West Coast, playing wherever they could along the way. The effort of touring by bicycle was reward in itself. “If we rode all day and we couldn’t find a show, or we played for just ten people, we still felt good about our day,” remembers Dobrowski.
The first Blind Pilot bike tour started in Vancouver and ended abruptly in San Francisco after their bikes were stolen. But when 3 Rounds and a Sound was finished in Portland last year, they toured again by bicycle, this time making it all the way down to San Diego with new members Claborn and Ydstie in tow—Ydstie’s upright bass lumbering behind in a coffin-like trailer. Says Nebeker of touring by bike, “Ironically, the harder you worked, the more fun you had, as long as it’s good work for a good reason. When you just sit all day in a van, that’s not as much fun.” Of course, for this upcoming national tour, Blind Pilot will be traveling by van—a circumstance borne out of practicality, and a necessary side effect of the group’s remarkably quick success—but they hold future hopes to tour by bicycle again as soon as possible.
In the meantime, the songs of 3 Rounds and a Sound have stood up after countless miles of road- travel, and Blind Pilot has evolved into a live unit whose group dynamic elevates the music with a seemingly effortless grace. On record, songs like “The Story I Heard,” and “Go On, Say It” are intimately personal meditations, but in the live setting, they take on a communal, celebratory air. The luminosity of Nebeker’s voice is buttressed by Claborn’s and Ydstie’s soaring harmonies, and the folk-spun, roots-inspired arrangements take on both the austere gorgeousness of classical chamber music, and the breathing, perspiring qualities of a great rock ’n’ roll show.
“They’re playing our song/Can you see the lights?” sings Nebeker in 3 Rounds’ title track. “Can you hear the hum of our song? I hope they get it right/I hope we dance tonight before we get it wrong/And the seasons will change us new.”
Those lyrics are of careful optimism, accepting of the ever-changing nature of things—but Blind Pilot already has much to look forward to. Very near the start of their journey, they’ve reached a broader audience than they’d ever imagined, yet they’re not willing to make themselves comfortable, even insisting that their first European tour will be via bicycle. “And one of the things I’m most excited about recording the next album is to see how different we can make it,” Nebeker adds. “The sound that we have going is working really well right now, but I’m totally excited to mess it up.”
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