To an outsider, it might sound like I’m hitting on Israel Nebeker throughout this chat without the Blind Pilot frontman, and that’s probably because I might have been. I’ll let you decide. Either way, this bashful bike-lover was affable and sweet, working hard to answer my scattered questions about marshmallows and songwriting, all while maintaining the cordiality to laugh at all my mediocre jokes.
You may have heard of Blind Pilot (Nebeker, Ryan Dobrowski, Luke Ydstie, Kati Claborn, Ian Krist, Dave Jorgensen) when you read about a crazy band doing a bike tour from the Northwest Coast down to Southern California. Or maybe you saw them open for The Decemberists on Israel’s birthday where a giant teddy bear floated onto the stage last year. The 6-piece group that started years ago as a duo has turned heads over the course of the past several years, releasing its second folk-sex-dream-pop album We Are The Tide this past fall. They’ve now garnered opening slots with The Shins & Dave Matthews Band, and they are playing every single festival known to man this summer. Wherever you go, Blind Pilot will be there first, and probably on a bike.
Israel and I worked our way through a labyrinth of questions, allowing him time to find the words to describe some of intricacies of his lyrics and how his songwriting has evolved over time. It’s challenging to describe such a creative process sometimes, but he laid out the basics for me.
“I write the bare bones of the songs with me playing them on guitar, and then I bring them to the band and everybody writes their own parts.”
Israel struggled to find the words to describe some of his process, since, as you can imagine, it’s far from a practiced science or a cookie-cutter repetition.
“It’s a hard one to answer [this question about the songwriting process] because it does change a lot. Sometimes a chord progression will click and a melody will be in there, and it will just be chords first, melody, and then I just have to sit down and figure out what it’s about…with lyrics. Often times though, and usually the more naturally sounding songs, the more successful ones, the lyrics come right away with the melody. And probably just something that doesn’t make much sense, just sort of nonsense, and usually I almost always say to myself… I’m going to get rid of those as soon as I think of better lyrics. But I always end up being unable to get rid of them, and try to figure out a way that maybe makes sense.”
Yet the moments of nonsensical lyricism and changing methods paid off. The band gained quite a following when its debut album climbed up to #13 on the Billboard Digital Album Charts, and between the group’s first and second album, Israel acknowledged that the writing process evolved.
“I think the biggest thing for me was just knowing that anybody would hear a song if I wrote it. I had hoped that people would relate to songs that I write, but mostly I’d be thinking of my sister and friends and maybe a handful of people that I didn’t know that might come to a show randomly. But it’s really different when you know that there are a lot of people that will hear it. And that’s a wonderful thing — it’s awesome — I’m not complaining at all, but I had to figure out some solutions… I guess reminding myself why I’m writing songs and who they’re for.”
We Are The Tide dropped in September and Israel admits that writing some of the album was “kind of nerve-wracking.” The band had come to a point where it was no longer simply their family and friends who might be listening to the songs; if you take a glance at their upcoming tour dates, it’s obvious there are quite a few more people than close relatives anticipating their music. Despite the growing crowds, Israel is adamant about one sentiment.
“The biggest thing is connecting to people in the towns we go to,” which changes when the band goes from the approachability of rolling into venues on bike and pulling up in a re-vamped vintage school bus. And while I didn’t ask about their one-of-a-kind touring vehicle, I can assume the band played a large role in its restoration, as they truly are a group of creative artists. Ryan, the group’s drummer, designed the cover art for the album, Israel did the lyrics book, and the rest of the group works to write each of their own instrument’s part after Israel writes the bulk of the song.
“We all do the arrangement in the same room, together, sitting down seeing what works with all six of us. I mean, like, I would never write a trumpet part for Dave, because he knows way better how a trumpet would sound its best…”
This kind of collaborative process resonates in We are the Tide; its shining moments make it obvious why the group is playing everywhere you might not be this summer. The lyrics are mysterious and poignant, and the live show allows for intimate moments when Blind Pilot often walks off of the stage and into the crowd. Israel reflected on some of his favorite tracks and live performances off of We Are the Tide.
“I think, of course they’re [the songs] different and they’re more meaningful in different ways. I’m always kind of amazed when we play the song ‘We are the Tide,’… how much that song, so much more than other songs, really connects people to what we’re doing… and us to them. And I love that moment when that happens in a show. As far as personally, and what they mean to me, I’d say ‘White Apple’ is my favorite.”
Still, one of the most intriguing stories behind Blind Pilot’s songwriting comes from a tale about the title track from the debut album, “Three Rounds and a Sound.” The lyrics are memorable and a bit odd, and interestingly enough, were inspired by a bike magazine and a moment where Israel’s cousin asked him to play a Bright Eyes song at his wedding. Yes, a Bright Eyes song at a wedding. Seems morbid, right? Yet it helped create something beautiful.
“I was working at a bike shop in Hawaii, and I was reading a bicycling magazine about this specific kind of bike… and they’re just everywhere all over China. And that phrase three rounds and a sound was in this article. And it was just basically making a point about how important bicycles are… And it had to do with when a newlywed couple is getting married [in China] they need three things to start their new life together. No wait, four things. They need a round, a bicycle wheel, the round of a clock face, the round of a sewing spool, and the sound of a radio. These are just the practical things, the objects, they need. That just struck me as kind of odd and kind of neat…just how practical it was.”
Later on, when he was asked to do an impromptu performance of Conor Oberst’s [Bright Eyes] “First Day of My Life” at a wedding, Israel was able to build on his idea, finding a connection between the phrase ‘three rounds and a sound’ and the concept of a couple having ‘their own song.’
You can’t argue with the thoughtfulness behind these (and many other Blind Pilot) lyrics — whether they always make sense to listeners or not. And even though Israel plays Bright Eyes songs at weddings and wants to resurrect Elliott Smith as a songwriter, he’s far from a dark soul. We were able to intermittently chat about some of the more lighthearted things in life like carrot juice, Bob Marley, the fact that no one in the band is single, and how Gator is a slightly less ridiculous name for a child than Bullitt. And, as our time together winded down, we played a familiar game that probably only I find fun, Rapid Fire.
Weirdest place you’ve ever written a song?
Completely lost in the woods. (No, this is not a mistake — both The Lumineers and Blind Pilot write songs in the woods.)
Best ‘newer’ band you’ve gotten into?
They’ve been around for a while making music, but, The Barr Brothers.
Best Beatles song?
Worst Beatles song?
“I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” which is a great song by the way.
Worst part of playing a festival?
The Sound. The stage sound.
Best part of playing a festival?
And the people are truly who will matter to Blind Pilot as they prepare to embark on an extensive summer tour that has them stopping at Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, Newport Folk Festival, Firefly Festival and Lollapalooza. Swing by with a glass of carrot juice, a bike lock, and a lust for delicious indie folk and everyone will end summer happily.