If you want an idea of what the last few years have been like for Blind Pilot, a good starting point is to watch the promotional video for this year's MusicfestNW. In the ad, a group of middle-aged women are seated in a conference room, reacting to the names and photos of various bands playing the festival: Explosions in the Sky, Archers of Loaf, Butthole Surfers. No one has heard of any of them. Then the moderator mentions Blind Pilot. Everyone nods their head in recognition.
Sitting around a table outside Ole! Ole! on East Burnside Street, the band laughs. It gets the joke. Of all the acts at MFNW, the group's gentle, pristine folk is the most appealing to suburban moms who listen to NPR while driving their kids to soccer practice. It's a funny punch line, but it's also indicative of how far and how fast Blind Pilot has traveled from its obscure origins.
Four years ago, singer-guitarist Israel Nebeker and drummer Ryan Dobrowski were writing and demoing songs in a warehouse in Astoria. After the group's 2008 debut, 3 Rounds and a Sound, caught fire—aided by a much-publicized bike tour down the West Coast—the album hit No. 13 on Billboard's Top Digital Albums chart. The band, which has since expanded to six members, would show up to headline venues in cities such as Lawrence, Kan., and find lines wrapped around the block. At first it was overwhelming, the band admits. Now, it's settling into the idea that this project is, in fact, a success.
"At times, it's definitely felt like a bit of a whirlwind," Dobrowski says. "We're getting better at being grounded and more calm about what we're doing."
But success has its drawbacks. In Blind Pilot's first WW profile in 2008, Nebeker said the key to his songwriting process is to "forget that you're writing a song that anyone is ever gonna hear." Of course, it's easy to write a song as if no one will ever hear it when there's a good chance that will end up being the case; when there are people actually anticipating hearing those songs, doubt starts to creep in.
Stalled by apprehension, Nebeker battled a virulent strain of writer's block when he started to craft the group's second album. "I would find myself in the middle of something I was excited about writing, and then the thought would pop in my head: 'How would this come off at a show?'" Nebeker says.
Even after breaking through the blockade, the second-guessing followed Nebeker and the rest of the band into the studio. "It was in the back of our heads, and we had to get to a spot where we weren't thinking about that," he says. "You can't make the best work you're capable of if you're thinking, 'Is this going to be pleasing to somebody?'"
It's hard to imagine Blind Pilot fans not being pleased with We Are the Tide, though. As its first record as a full-fledged sextet, the band wanted to make a bigger-sounding album than the sparse 3 Rounds. Indeed, it's a lush, polished collection: Opener "Half Moon" soars heavenward beneath layers of cello, mandolin and a touch of trumpet; on the title track, Dobrowski's drums—usually delicately brushed—get a chance to gallop, driving the group's most buoyant song yet. But the band was careful not to smooth away the intimacy that attracted its audience. Songs such as "White Apple" and "The Colored Night" frame Nebeker's confessional voice with acoustic guitar and the subtlest of accouterments. Even with the heightened production values, Tide remains the work of a band that built a career from the seats of its bicycles. It might not earn Blind Pilot the attention of the Pitchfork crowd, but that's never been a demographic the band's coveted anyway.
"One of the reasons why the band formed is that we wanted to make music we could take to people who weren't in Portland, and see if we could make a connection in those places where they don't normally hear our kind of Portland music," Nebeker says. "Something about that makes me really happy, that there are atypical Portland music fans who are into it."