[live review + q&a] Blind Pilot @ The Paradise

Uncharacteristically high temps aside, plaid shirts were out in force last night at the Paradise in honor of the arrival of Oregon folk-rock outfit BLIND PILOT. After a solid opening from Gregory Alan Isakov and a healthy dose of songs featuring harmonica, the Portland band took the stage and delivered a flawless 90-minute set. The power of Israel Nebeker & Co.’s vocals are gripping enough on the album, but were positively chill-inducing as they reverbed off that damn pole in the sightline (still, kinda) of folks not directly in front of the stage at the Paradise.

As the crowd screamed its usual declarations of love and devotion after each song, Nebeker would smile a shy little smile from under his mop of curly hair and magnanimously thank the audience. By watching the happily bewildered looks on his and his bandmates’ faces, it seems that this kind of attention is still a shock to the six members of this seamless, harmoniously-genius musical juggernaut.

Six weeks into the tour, the band’s robin’s-egg-blue-vintage-schoolbus-turned-tour-bus is gaining some serious mileage. I caught up with drummer Ryan Dobrowski after soundcheck to see how the tour's been coming along...

How’s the road treating you? Is that bus even comfortable?

The bus is super comfortable. I think some of us are finally feeling how tired we are after six weeks, but we’re still loving it.

So, as a founding member, what do Blind Pilot’s beginning’s look like?

Israel and I met at the University of Oregon and we did this overseas program where we were running a summer camp, and every evening we would go into town and play music on the streets. We had this great musical moment, where we were really engaging and winning over strangers. After a couple years, we had moved up to Portland, and we had other bands at the time, but we sort of missed that organic thing that had happened in England.

So we decided to put together this group, and the initial idea was we’re just going to make albums ourselves and bike down the coast and play for small towns wherever we could find places to play. When we made 3 Rounds and a Sound, it sort of, I don’t know, snowballed. People really liked the songs, and when we started touring beyond the West coast and beyond the bicycles, the band grew into what it is now -- very much a six-piece ensemble.

What’s the story behind the name?

When we putting the initial songs together, we were in Astoria, where the mouth of the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean. It’s a big shipping lane, there’s these pilot boats that go out to meet these giant ships, and on the side of these little boats, it says “pilot” in these big block letters. I wanted to take something from that area, which was pretty influential to the whole thing. Then... I don’t know, you need a band name... and I don’t really know how “blind” came around, but it fit on there pretty well and it didn’t sound awkward. (laughs)

I’ll put, “It sounded good,” as the answer.

Exactly. There’s a lot of long and awkward names out there where people are trying to be a little too clever.

And now it’s on marquees all over the country. Is that weird?

It’s kind of surreal, still. It is sort of strange to see your name on marquees, but it’s stranger to see the number of people that come to the shows and know the words and seem to enjoy it. It’s pretty moving.


How would you compare the 2011 tour to the 2008 bike tour?

It’s so different. Things were just starting, and I’ve often said that the bike tour was sort of the greenest grass we’ve been on. There were no expectations and we were just doing our thing. And to be biking that much everyday, that felt really good. We would come across all sorts of problems, but it really felt like we were working together and pushing ourselves. We’re definitely pushing ourselves now, but it’s in a different way. There’s people that help us organize all this, and there’s more expectations. We really want to bring a good show every night, but it can get pretty exhausting after a while. It’s a different type of tired when you’re waking up in a new city every morning.

How many different instruments are you travelling with?

There’s more than six, for sure. Israel has a few songs where he’s playing electric guitar now, Luke [Ydstie] plays electric bass as well as upright, Kati [Claborn] plays two different types of banjos, two different mountain dulcimers, and the ukulele, so she’s got five right there...

Looks like she’s winning...

Yeah. And then Dave [Jorgensen] has trumpet, keyboard and harmonium. Ian’s [Krist] vibes, and I’m on drums. So that’s fifteen different instruments.

Do you think that’s something that sets you guys apart?

I definitely think it’s the diversity of the instruments we’ve chosen. It’s not that uncommon for guitarists to have five different guitars, but there’s not too many bands with a full-time vibraphone player or a mountain dulcimer. And very few with a harmonium.

Agreed. Do you feel like people automatically lump you with that Pacific Northwest granola-y musical niche?

I really feel like it just happens. There’s some bands, like the Fleet Foxes, that people compare us to, and I sort of hear it, but our albums came out at the same time. Their first album just got a lot bigger than ours. We still get compared to them, but I think it’s really a regional thing. We wear more plaid.

What about Blitzen Trapper? They wear plaid don’t they?

Yes, plaid and beards. We don’t sound anything like them either, but we get compared to them too. I’m definitely not opposed to being in the same place as either one of those bands. I think there’s a push in the Northwest to have bands...well, with people in them! There’s a lot of cool stuff happening with backing tracks and synthesizers, but it’s fun being able to play without amps and with a bunch of other people.

The new album sounds a lot livelier to me, and I don’t want to say more joyous, because 3 Rounds and a Sound is very joyous in it’s own way, but it’s more mellow from a listening standpoint. What were your intentions for We Are the Tide?

When we did the first album we were a two-piece, so granted some other people came in to play, but it wasn’t really a band at that point. It was the two of us, and we had structured the songs around drums and guitar and vocals. We went in this time knowing we were going to be able to expand the songs so much more sonically. We were excited about that and had all these different voices from the beginning. We didn’t want to make the exact same album, but not do a total 180 either. There’s songs that really sound like continuations from the same body of work and then some that are pushing harder than what you might expect from a band that gets pegged as a folk group most of the time. We didn’t want that, that was something that was put on us. We don’t want to stick to any one formula.

What would be one word that describes each album?

I feel like this is going to come off awkward and pretentious! (laughs) Alright...maybe album one I would go with ‘vulnerable,’ and album two, ‘expansive.’

That’s very VH1 of you.

Thank you, thank you.

In what ways, besides the addition of 4 people, has the band changed since 2008?

Our lives are a lot different, obviously, because we’re on the road a lot and that affects our relationships back home and it changes your view of the world. I really love it, and I always knew I wanted to be moving around a lot. When we were first starting, we really wanted to get going, so we got on bikes. Instead of hesitating, we just got dropped off in Vancouver, BC and got going. It’s sometimes surprising how we’ve acclimated to playing on larger stages, when before we’d be stoked if there was 20 people at the bar.

What would you be doing if this hadn’t taken off?

Before the band took off, I had an art gallery and I was painting. I’d probably still be doing that. I don’t know about the gallery, but I still keep a studio back home and I paint when I can. I’d find some way to travel with that.

Who’s the best/worst to travel with? Does someone snore really badly on the bus?

Someone does, but I’m not going to say who it is.

[Mike, the sound guy, appears in the room] He sleeps above me!

Best stage moment so far?

When everyone sat down for “3 Rounds” in New York, that was a pretty cool moment. I wasn’t expecting that from them, because New York can be a little intimidating to us Oregonians. At this point, there’s been a lot of really great ones though. We’ve started to incorporate this unplugged version of “3 Rounds” when we can, and the first couple times we did it, it was pretty amazing. Those are the best stage moments, when we get off the stage. It’s similar to how we first started. Israel and I used to just play covers to get people to sing along, and it was always ‘You guys know any Oasis?’ So we learned Oasis. That’s all people wanted.

Is it weird for Kati to be the lone girl among all you guys on the bus?

No, no, she’s tough. I think she handles immensely well. I think it’s really good for us to have. There’s just something about a bunch of dudes together in a van that doesn’t bring out the best in anyone. The balance is good.

How collaborative is the writing process?

The lyrics are Israel. It’s great, I really enjoy his lyrics and he takes it really seriously. I feel like some people really pay attention to lyrics and some people just want catchy melodies, but it’s amazing how many bad lyrics are out there. It’s nice to have someone that cares about the words, and for us to be able to stand behind them. It’d be a bummer to have a hit song and have to say something really stupid day after day, for the rest of your life. (laughs) I’m really happy to be doing this, all of this.

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