Overhyped origin stories litter the indie music landscape, but Portland’s folk-pop group Blind Pilot just might have ’em all beat. Lead singer/guitarist Israel Nebeker and drummer Ryan Dobrowski first crossed paths while studying abroad in England, forming a bond busking on city streets. After graduating from the University of Oregon, the duo then hatched a half-baked plan to take a bike trip down the West Coast, an adventure that became Blind Pilot’s genesis. Sweetening the back-story deal, Nebeker and Dobrowski spent a summer recording and writing their ’08 debut album “3 Rounds and a Sound” in an abandoned cannery on the Oregon coast; the following winter, the entire building was washed into the sea.
Since then, thank God, Blind Pilot has enjoyed much smoother sailing. They’ve expanded to a six-person lineup, headlined big-ticket festivals like Sasquatch and Lollapalooza, and morphed into darlings of the NPR set — hell, they even performed on “The David Letterman Show” last month. Folio Weekly caught up with Nebeker to talk about the band’s rapid rise to success, its “pseudo-democratic” songwriting process and the similarities among Singapore, St. Augustine and Sasquatch.
Folio Weekly: Give us the lowdown on how Blind Pilot first came about.
Israel Nebeker: Ryan [Dobrowski] and I did a study abroad program in this surfing town called Newquay, which is a big vacation destination for young tourists, with lots of people playing music on the streets. We started busking there, but we didn’t play together again until we ran into each other in Portland after school. We were both playing in other bands, but for a summer project, we wanted to do a tour by bike. It started as just that, a bike trip, but we thought, “Hey, we could play music [along the route] — that way we wouldn’t have to save up a ton of money before we go.” The idea sounded better and better the more we thought about it, and that was the beginning of the band.
F.W.: Was the trip a life-changing experience or what?
I.N.: You said it all right there. I think it really solidified what we were trying to do with our music. We were playing in lots of out-of-the-way places, meeting people that never had bands coming through their towns, so we made lots of personal connections that way. The music became more significant, too; when you’re constantly in motion every day, your whole life takes on this metaphorical value. You get up and pedal, and it’s liberating to look back at your trailer that has everything you need. You’re not sure what you’re going to see or do that day, but you’re moving forward.
F.W.: Blind Pilot has toured in the past as a four-piece, a nine-piece and even an 11-piece unit. How do you determine who’s going to perform with you on any given night?
I.N.: Really by whoever’s available. We had a lot of people record on the first album, so we just invited everybody to play the CD release show. That went really well, so we said, “Let’s just keep playing with these 11 members in Portland.” When we started touring after that, only six of us could make it, and from that point, it’s been steady, the same six people.
F.W.: On your debut album, you handled all the songwriting. Were things different on last year’s follow-up, “We Are the Tide”?
I.N.: I still do all the songwriting, but it’s kind of a pseudo-democratic thing. Ryan and I still make the final calls, but we do things together as far as the instrumentation and orchestration of everything. With six people, sometimes you step on each other’s toes, so we sit down in the same room and find ways to help each other.
F.W.: The band’s all over the map over the next few months: St. Augustine, Singapore, and then a ton of big festivals. Are you excited, looking forward to such touring variety?
I.N.: I’m unbelievably stoked to go to Singapore; I’ve never been to that part of the world, and I can’t think of a better way to travel than through music. As for Florida, we’ve played in Orlando and Tampa, but we’ve never been to St. Augustine — I’ve wanted to go to that city for years. And then the festivals, Sasquatch especially … that’s such a beautiful spot out there, on the same river, the Columbia, that I grew up on. So, yeah, that feels very much like home.