Blind Pilot's core members Israel Nebeker and Ryan Dobrowski are Oregon natives based in Portland, but they didn't really connect until they crossed the pond for a study abroad program in the resort town of Newquay, England. There, in a strange land with the barest stipend, they quickly bonded over shared poverty and music via busking.
"The first day we went into town we saw people busking, and I thought it was so cool. People were actually stopping and listening, not giving any looks of shame. It was totally respectful," Nebeker says. "A cop came and I was like, 'Oh, no.' He stood there and listened to him for a second, then flipped a pound into the guitar case and walked off. It was like, 'OK, this is a little different.'"
Blind Pilot hails from the Pacific Northwest, so it's probably not surprising to hear the sextet's rootsy baroque-pop echoing the work of artists like Elliott Smith and Fleet Foxes. Last year's second album, We Art the Tide, features dulcimer, trumpet, violin, pump organ, ukulele, piano, vibraphone, and pedal steel, but this isn't the Decemberists. There's an unassuming simplicity to their music, and their chamber-pop instrumentation is used sparingly, maintaining a hushed bedroom whisper dynamic when not building to a crescendo, shadowing a melody or pushing a chorus.
Though their experience abroad cemented a bond between the two, it would be a few more years before they'd form Blind Pilot. By them , they'd grown tired of their indie-rock bands and were looking for something different. "Blind Pilot began as an experiment to branch out from the bands that we were playing in, having a sense of adventure to it and bring music to unlikely places," Nebeker says.
This idea took the form of a bicycle tour playing small coastal towns from Vancouver to the Mexico border. It only lasted until San Francisco, where their bikes were stolen outside the Museum of Modern Art. (Nebeker would later buy his back on Craigslist for $50.) Though the tour was cut short, it inspired them much like the busking. "It wasn't that the music was that much of a departure — it just had a sense of inclusiveness and trying to make real connections to people," Nebeker says.
Prior to leaving, Nebeker and Dobrowski recorded 3 Rounds and a Sound with producer Skyler Norwood in 2008. Invigorated by the bike tour, they added four new members to fill out the sound, and even went on another tour the following summer.
Last year, they released the more full-bodied We Are the Tide. The process was completely democratic, which made things a bit difficult, but all the more rewarding once they had the finished product.
"It was a challenge to have six people in the studio, all giving their opinions a lot," Nebeker says. "We did a lot of building the songs way up and then taking a step back and stripping it back down. I don't think it would work with every group. I'm lucky to be playing with the people I am. Everybody is very aware and respectful about what kind of energy we're creating as a group, rather than trying to shine as an individual."
We Are the Tides' minimalist beauty sparkles like the distant stars, starting with the bustling and subtly opening track "Half Moon" through the pretty, nearly six-minute album-closing ode "New York." The album's suffused with a strong sense of place and a longing for home burnished on those first few tours.
"For sure, the content has been influenced by us traveling and moving always away. Some of it is dealing with the idea of what is home. The two years before writing that album, we were gone a lot from home," Nebeker says with a hint of melancholy before catching himself. "It's great. I love traveling."
It seems particularly fitting, given how the musical bond was cemented during their time away from the comforts and security of home.