"Thanks, dude," drummer Rachel Blumberg says cordially to the waiter delivering her hot toddy. "You're welcome, dude," he counters. "I call everybody dude these days," she explains, crediting the habit to "being on tour all the time." It's a cool Thursday morning at Northeast's Tin Shed Cafe, and—over French toast, fresh fruit and eggs—Blumberg's just beginning to settle into Portland after touring the U.S. and Europe with Conor Oberst's iconic emo-folk outfit, Bright Eyes.
But Blumberg's perhaps best known as an ex-Decemberist and the regular drummer in guitar virtuoso M. Ward's band. The raven-haired 38-year-old also writes and records with local noise-folk outfit Norfolk&Western—a band helmed by Type Foundry studio founder (and Blumberg's boyfriend) Adam Selzer—who also moonlights as part of Ward's live band. As if that's not enough to keep her busy, Blumberg's excitedly describing yet another undertaking: "I've been meaning to do my own project for a long time," she says, referring to a solo album of piano- and ukulele-based songs she's recording with another Ward bandmate, guitarist/bassist Mike Coykendall. "I'm so used to being part of a band that, even though I write songs on my own, I put it on the back burner," she explains.
Things haven't necessarily calmed down since the Bright Eyes tour—Norfolk&Western's gearing up to play Spain's Tanned Tin Festival (Oct. 31 to Nov. 4 in Castelló) and record new material in Europe with Camper van Beethoven's Victor Krummenacher—but Blumberg thrives on activity. And she's particularly jazzed about Norfolk's new direction. A quiet songwriter project-cum-orchestral chamber-rock ensemble, the decade-old band is currently playing as a pared-down three-piece. "It's just been me and Adam and [bassist] Dave [Depper]," she says. "We're cutting out all the extra stuff, and I feel great about it."
Blumberg, who ran a girls' empowerment program for a local nonprofit before going pro as a drummer, talks fondly of being on the road with Bright Eyes. But she's also happy to be back playing with her local "peeps" (Norfolk&Western and Ward), where she feels a sense of ownership. "One thing that's really cool about touring is you only have what's right in front of you," she explains. "It really forces you to live in the moment." But after performing on Letterman with Ward—which she says is "less of a big deal once you do it"—and experiencing true fanaticism playing to Bright Eyes crowds, Blumberg says Portland's making her feel "more realistic." "The shows were all sold out," she says of the Bright Eyes tour. "There [were] girls screaming, 'I love you, Conor!' In London, these girls chased him down...and pushed me out of the way! I'm like, 'Dude, I'm in the band!' They're thrusting CDs and vinyl into his lap to sign, and I'm like, 'Are we the Beatles?'"
On the other hand, Blumberg concedes, things were pretty cake: "I had a drum tech," she says, laughing at the improbability. "I didn't have to do anything except show up and play. Wow. I got spoiled."
Norfolk & Western plays with John Weinland Friday, Oct. 19, at the Mission Theater. 9 pm. $10. 21+.