By Jeremy Essig
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The Northwest of the United States has become fertile ground for a musical paradox sometimes called "new folk" or "neo-folk" or, worst of all, "indie folk." The instruments are old, the songs are melodic and bookish, and the rhythms stomp and clap like buskers' rock & roll.
The neologisms and qualifications shouldn't be necessary, but they are, if only because preceding generations, most a continent away on the East Coast, have freighted "folk" with the ideological baggage of authenticity and purity.
But the Zeitgeist has its own plans, and a generation immune to the pop-vs.-folk culture wars have strummed on, blithely and often brilliantly. Young Northwesterners, especially, such as the Head and the Heart, Laura Veirs and of course the Decemberists are charting vital and redemptive paths through time-defying tunes and grand, often acoustic arrangements. A strain of romanticism and a love of unraveling narratives and humming pop music unite them all.
And that never-quite-naive and never-cynical Zeitgeist may have found its definitive expression in the personal folk and pop music of a group of Portlandians going by the name of Blind Pilot.
Formed in 2006 by two college friends, Israel Nebeker and Ryan Dobrowski, Blind Pilot has become a central band on the young Northwestern acoustic music landscape. The group has released only two full-length records, 3 Rounds and a Sound in 2008 and We Are the Tide in 2011, but it has carried its deceptively homespun sound onto a national stage via performances at festivals such as Lollapalooza and Sasquatch!, slots on the Late Show With David Letterman and Last Call With Carson Daly and even on NPR's Morning Edition, a radio session that proved one of the band's biggest early breaks.
Grounded in Nebeker's soul-scouring lyricism and handsome, consoling voice and Dobrowski's unwavering, easy-shuffling rhythms, the songs capture not just the vistas of Oregon, but something of their spirit as well. Wind-driven, richly colored but always shadowed by clouds, it's a consoling and restless sound, a musical approach that's lonesome but never really alone. Blind Pilot may explore folk forms, whatever they may be, but they'll never be caught studying Smithsonian Folkways 78s, emulating pre-war string bands or digging up Depression-era disasters. The rugged landscape of a coastal home and the inspiration of a new generation of songwriters provide more than enough fuel for the band to navigate through the old and new sounds they transform.
"I think the first time I started thinking about folk music was when I got really into Bright Eyes," Nebeker explains. "They were using folk instruments, and the idea of having a pedal steel on stage was really strange in indie music. I loved it. That got me thinking more about the tradition of folk music and songwriting in that way. I guess I never thought of writing a song that was written 50 or 100 years ago. I've always thought about them as modern songs, in my life and of this time, but that format of traditional music is still interesting to me."
As for the personal origins of Nebeker's music, those trace back to his grandmother and his youth in Gearhart, Oregon, where the Columbia River meets the Pacific.
"I don't really remember when it started," he says. "I was always pretty interested in music. My earliest memories are of my grandmother, who had a piano at her house. She taught me simple songs. When I was six I asked my parents if I could have lessons. It seemed exciting at the time. When I got older I felt I was being forced, made to practice scales. I told my mom I wanted to quit, and she would only let me quit if I took up another instrument: the guitar."
Nebeker and Dobrowski formed a band together in college, but that quickly dissolved, and the two kicked around the Portland-area scene looking for the right sound, and then, as Nebeker tells it, met again on the street and decided to get out of Dodge.
"The band was mostly based on the idea that we wanted something outside of the Portland scene," he explains. "It's a wonderful scene, but it's close knit and revolves around itself. We wanted to play to small towns on the West Coast. The idea of doing that by bicycle coincided with doing a music project. The main goal was just to try out music outside of Portland, especially in small towns that don't normally get to see bands coming through. The chemistry of the band formed there. It made sense to me, the way those landscapes affect me and inspire me to write."
The first thing to notice is that this musical bike tour — a charming, romantic project if ever there were one — would not have been possible in, say, New Jersey. But even on the Pacific coast, the tour was doomed: Nebeker and Dobrowski made it all the way to San Francisco, where their bikes were promptly jacked.
If you'd like a clue to Nebeker's world view, it goes something like this: "Even at the moment that the bikes got stolen — and I'm shocked still at this, because the bike meant a lot to me, especially after traveling a couple thousand miles on it — but at that point the tour had gotten better and better every day. We'd roll into a town, and we didn't know where we'd play or stay for the night, but we knew it would happen. And it did, every night. When the bikes got stolen, I thought, 'We've had such amazing luck so far, this is trivial bad luck for what we had.'"
A year later, Blind Pilot made it all the way to the Mexican border, and the duo had expanded to a quartet with Luke Ydstie and Kati Claborn along for the ride. The bikes are retired for now in favor of an old tour bus. The band's sound has matured, sounding less regional, less pedal-powered and yearning, and more fleet, ambitious and pop-lit, a sound captured in the Tucker Martine-produced album We Are the Tide.
"He's incredible," Nebeker says of Martine. "He and his wife Laura Veirs are the super couple of the music scene in Portland. I've loved Laura's records for years before I knew he was the one recording them. He's really thoughtful, but he lets the process unfold in a natural way. Rather than leaving options where you can go back and fix things digitally, everything is analog, and so all the decisions have to be made when you're mixing. He'll set it up and have you listen to it, suggest changes, but then that's it. It's like a performance."
If there's a theme to We Are the Tide and to Blind Pilot's music as a whole, it's that idea of life and music as performance — and a performance that only comes around once. How does a band, or a person for that matter, make the most of it?
On one of We Are the Tide's best fusions of folk and pop music, the song "Just One," Nebeker sings, "If I could have known then we were dying to get gone/I can't believe we get just one." A band such as Blind Pilot may or may not get just one chance, but it sounds committed to making any and all of its chances count.
"I don't know if I've ever thought about those songs strung together in that way," Nebeker says. "But that is an idea I think about, and sometimes it troubles me enough to write a song about it."