EYES WIDE OPEN Blind Pilot

Indie-not-indie medium
cool is the way to go.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

Just over the border from Vancouver, British Columbia,
Blind Pilot’s Israel Nebeker marvels that customs agents didn’t search the van.
“First time ever!” he enthuses. The border crossing ostensibly interrupted a
conversation in which Nebeker aimed to convince the band’s bass player, Luke
Ydstie that Bill Callahan makes great music.

 

Conversations like these are the luxury of vehicular
touring, which is kinda new to Blind Pilot. Their last two tours-one where just
Nebeker and band co-founder Ryan Dobrowski went, and another that featured
their now six-member band-were bicycle-powered. Forty to eighty miles rides
through their home state of Oregon and into Northern California left them fatigued by the time they
dismounted at their destination, but the prospect of the show left them
energized. And like true cyclists, the ride-the scenic, “exciting, engaging,
experience”-helped pump them up. “We’d have quite a bit of energy once we
started to play.”

 

Though their music is vital and exhilarating in its own
right, Blind Pilot is more of a listener’s band. Nebeker sings their
character-driven story-songs like a laid-back raconteur, reliving its
inspiration and conveying its emotional significance to his audience in calm,
dulcet intonations. Behind him, the band plays spare accompaniment, likewise
mellow and sweet. It’s well suited to the itinerant musician archetype, and a
lot of song ideas came on those pedaling sprees, outside backwoods groceries,
around campfires and in homes of kind strangers who’d invite them in after
hearing them play.

 

“There was rarely time to stop for a whole day to write,”
says Nebeker, “[but] it proved to be one of the more productive songwriting sections
of my life. I felt vulnerable to everything-the land, the people, the cities,
the crowds. Being on a bike and without certainty of what was coming-that was a
good time for writing.”

 

Clearly. Blind Pilot’s debut album 3 Rounds and A Sound (Expunged Records) gets universally gooey
praise from publications like The Onion,
Boston Weekly and the Philadelphia Inquirer. And tastemaker
radio network NPR has championed the group, inviting them for in-studio
sessions and interviews, and asking them to play at their big shindig in Austin for the
South-by-Southwest festival. Blind Pilot is a band on the ascent, much like
past-current-impending tour maters such as Gomez, Andrew Bird, The Decemberists
and Josh Ritter.

 

Interestingly, these acts are stylistic kindred spirits to
Blind Pilot, elegant outfits that value songwriting and composition-and they
share a common career arc: All were once the indie act du jour, and all have
retained their critical acclaim, and even indie status, as they’ve permeated
popular culture and the consciousness of fans who’d typically accept the
lowest-common-denominator fare. That is to say, they’re breaking out, but not
necessarily blowing up, without doing much different musically than when they
started. That, perhaps, is a clue as to the direction of the music industry,
and Blind Pilot.

 

“It says quite a lot,” tells Nebeker. “The driving forces
that make bands known in the world, are no longer music TV and radio, but
rather streaming and downloading online. It’s wonderful. It seems to make less
mega-stars and more semi-well known bands, which seems like an honest movement
toward how things actually exist. I mean, how many Mozarts or Jonas Brothers
can there really be in the world?”

 

Both men savor the idea that indie-not-indie medium cool may
become the model, and that the way things are going, rock bands could be less
rich and famous and more like regular Joes with cool jobs. “One of the worst
things a band can do,” says Dobrowski, “is put their focus into becoming a rock
star. The end result always ends up feeling disingenuous.” But Nebeker reckons
there will always be rock stars and corporations waiting to exploit them for
filthy lucre, because “the world was never that way.” The way he sees it,
there’s just more room for more “extraordinary people” to make their mark in
less conventional ways. “The biggest change now is the internet and the
explosion of media everywhere, all the time, and at once-the change will
hopefully be transparency, not mediocrity.”

 

For their part, Blind Pilot strives to follow that ideal.
Hence their name, which comes from watching pilot boats off the Oregon Coast.
To Nebeker, “it has something to do with not following people blindly, because
leaders don’t always have sight. It has even more to do with stepping out to do
before you’re completely ready. That was a big theme in my life during that
first bike tour, and I took meaning from the name in that way.”

 

And so they continue to travel the country playing their
music wherever someone will listen, whether it’s that woodland grocery store, a
theater (Murray) in Utah or a huge festival (Lolla-something) in Chicago, where
they’ll head after their Salt Lake gig, making good listeners out of the worst.
“I’m not sure which affects the other more: music or the environment it is in,”
says Nebeker. “I think any music that has a personal resonance goes well with
any time and place, because it changes that time and place.”

 

 

 

 

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