For most bands, touring the country in a big, old, blue, not-entirely-reliable bus might be a bit out of the ordinary, but when it comes to transportation, the Portland, Oregon, folk-pop outfit Blind Pilot don't follow the indie-rock norms of cramped vans and U-Haul trailers. In 2008, the group toured the West Coast by bicycle, rigging trailers to carry their equipment. Not only was it environmentally sound, it was good exercise. In the years since then, Blind Pilot has grown from a two-piece into a sextet. So they bought a bus.
"We toured with a 15-passenger van for a couple of years," says singer-songwriter Israel Nebeker. "It wasn't so bad, but not being able to sleep wears you out after a while, and you never have your own space."
The enormous blue bus, which suggests a more conservative equivalent of the vehicles made famous by Ken Kesey and the Partridge Family, seats all six band members comfortably, with room left over for a sound tech, driver, and gear, which makes the long hauls between gigs much more bearable. On the other hand, it often breaks down. "Luke [Ydstie], our bass player, is usually the one who tinkers and finally fixes," Nebeker says. "Usually it's only a minor problem. There'll be a hose that blows, and then you have to replace it."
Blind Pilot's music is bound up in the notion of travel, and Nebeker's songs address exploration and wanderlust as their primary subject. "I've always been drawn to writing about place and the meaning of place," he says. "The band was born in that atmosphere of traveling for the sake of traveling, although we're much more about the music than the mode of transport." There is, of course, a downside to travel: "For the past three years, I've been away from home a lot longer than I've been at my home in Oregon," he says. "So that is always on my mind, feeling that absence of a home."
Back at home, the band is at the forefront of the Pacific Northwest's burgeoning folk-pop scene, which includes Norfolk & Western and Horse Feathers in Portland and the Head and the Heart in Seattle. These artists are distinguished by a love of old American music, although their engagement with the past can be alternately reverent or sincere. Perhaps because the band travels so intently or perhaps because they're simply better at integrating their influences, Blind Pilot don't sound like they're self-consciously drawing from a trendy set of influences.
"Any music you make is of course influenced by everything you've heard," Nebeker says. "I totally admire people who sit down and say 'I'm going to write a Paul McCartney song or a Spoon song' and can actually do it. I'm just much more comfortable trying to make something that doesn't sound like something else. And if it starts to sound like something that I know about, I'll try to steer it in a different direction. We all have a love for old roots and country music, but I don't think we ever purposefully try to make a song sound a particular way."
In 2008, Nebeker and longtime friend Ryan Dobrowski, who plays drums, recorded the basic tracks for Blind Pilot's debut, 3 Rounds and a Sound, then brought in friends to help flesh out the austere acoustic tracks. Those friends were eventually absorbed into Blind Pilot. When Nebeker began writing songs for their second album, We Are the Tide, he found himself writing for six people instead of two. "I was more comfortable having space in the songs, and I even tried for that," he explains. "Usually in the past I've written what sounded good with me playing guitar and singing, and this time around, I was thinking about how it would be orchestrated and what would sound good."
Nebeker did much of the writing about as far away from Portland as they could get: the coast of North Carolina.
"Ryan and I went in the off-season when it was stormy, and we were alone on the beach," Nebeker says. "A lot of the images from 'Half Moon' came from walking up and down the beach. 'Colored Night' was also written there. There aren't a lot of big cities out there, so there were more stars at night than I'd ever experienced. That song came from seeing these brilliant colors in the sky."
Away from that setting, Nebeker and the rest of Blind Pilot recorded the songs in Portland.
"We'd been playing the songs on our own in a live setting, but there was a point in the studio when we were able to explore more," Nebeker says. "It took a bit of experimenting trying out different instruments on different parts and seeing what worked. We had to make a choice: Are we going to keep the songs as we play them in our practice space, or are we going to do things that we might not be able to replicate live? We didn't stray too far out, but we definitely were trying things that we didn't expect."
For Blind Pilot, traveling to new places ultimately is integral to their creative freedom, and vice versa. Or as Nebeker sings on the title track to We Are the Tide, "Our time is ever on the road, the ride is in what we make."
Blind Pilot, with Brett Dennen
Tuesday, October 18th
8 p.m.; $20