Atwood Magazine dives into the depths of Blind Pilot’s substance, ethos and being as the powerfully expressive indie folk band enters its second decade.
There are deep truths we each carry but are rarely able to speak. The most exciting part about music, to me, has always been the ability to put those things into song.
There’s something incredibly special about Blind Pilot. Active over the past decade, the Portland-based indie folk band delivers powerfully moving, expressive music that goes well beyond the typical human connection. Frontman Israel Nebeker writes and sings from the heart, observing life not as a passerby, but rather as an active participant embedded in life’s bountiful ups and downs, as well as the breaths in-between.
From reveling in the present, to celebrating and mourning the past, to apprehensively and confidently facing the future, Blind Pilot deftly navigate the world’s complexities. The band’s three studio albums (2008’s 3 Rounds and a Sound, 2011’s We Are the Tide, and 2016’s And Then Like Lions) each capture sincere moments in our greater human experience: Love, loss, hope, doubt, and more fill a beautiful repertoire with themes that are not only relatable, but also deeply meaningful.
And while the group’s debut 3 Rounds and a Sound will always bear a uniquely raw weight, delicate acoustic grace and poignant fledgling poetry, Nebeker and company – the full band includes Ryan Dobrowski, Kati Claborn, Luke Ydstie, Ian Krist, and Dave Jorgensen – have managed to diversify their output, without sacrificing artistic integrity. We Are the Tide and And Then Like Lions find Blind Pilot continually adding to their warm sound with a variety of instruments, harmonies and intoxicating melodies that add new flavors and vibrant textures to each individual piece.
Atwood Magazine recently dove into the depths of Blind Pilot’s substance, ethos and being with Israel Nebeker. The future is bright as the band enters its second decade, flying into the unknown with heads held high. Immerse yourself in Blind Pilot’s world through our interview below, and be sure to catch their breathtaking live performance on tour this fall throughout the United States – dates below! With resonating lyrics and stirring sounds, Blind Pilot help shine a little light on life.
A CONVERSATION WITH BLIND PILOT
Atwood Magazine: Blind Pilot’s third record, And Then Like Lions, released this past August. How have your attitudes to making music changed over the past three albums?
Israel Nebeker: The approach to each of the three albums has been unique to that album. It’s not necessarily intentional. But life seems to move in chapters, so each time I gather together a group of songs they seem to speak about a common theme. The first, 3 Rounds and a Sound, was mostly nostalgia and connection to past while dreaming forward, completely helpful, of a near future. The second, We Are the Tide, was questioning the big concepts in my own life that always felt permanent up to that point- things like home, security, mortality, etc. This most recent album, And Then Like Lions, mostly focuses on community and loss, and how those two major aspects of life help form and support each other.
Panic in the first beat of the morning
Even what I’ve got isn’t worth offering
If I can’t cross the sheets and hold your beat
Talking in the street with who is listening
Nothing that I say is worth remembering
Even faces change my heart stays the same
Engine in the sky won’t let the moment go
Following behind always a second slow
If I’m far away, am I hearing straight
I’m no voice you want to know?
Listen: “Umpqua Rushing” – Blind Pilot
Reaching the ‘third album’ feels like a sort of milestone – as in, you’ve successfully made it out from under the shadow of your debut, and proved you’re here to stay. Do you feel that way?
IN: You’d be surprised how few bands and musicians I meet these days that feel they are here to stay. It’s a changing, chaotic time for music, requiring musicians to reinvent themselves constantly. Which is not a bad thing. Before Blind Pilot, I had already made the decision that making music would be my life. I know that’s here to stay, and as long as people are wanting to hear more, I’ll find a way to get it out there.
What drives you to continue to pursue music? Did you/do you feel pressure from within?
IN: I know some artists talk about an internal need; that there is no choice but to make. I get that, but I think it’s different for me than any pressure or strong desire to succeed. It’s more to do with [the idea] that art precedes reason. I feel waves of being pulled to write songs. Not to sound mystical, but I sometimes wonder if I choose to write songs or they choose me. That’s more how it feels.
You’ve now been at this for nearly ten years. Did you ever lose the creative spark, and if so how did you bring it back?
IN: In the past nine years of touring with Blind Pilot, I’ve learned a lot about myself in terms of what kind of writer I am. I’ve gone through two bouts of feeling very lost and not sure if I would ever write again. It was very dramatic and sounds silly to me now, because I’ve learned all I need are the right conditions. I’ve had to learn what to feed my writing self, that’s all. That, and the fact that creativity is a total mystery, which is the best part, and I’ve learned it doesn’t do any good to worry about it.
What constant, if any, can you say about your songwriting?
IN: There are deep truths we each carry but are rarely able to speak. The most exciting part about music, to me, has always been the ability to put those things into song.
Do you ever consciously go back and compare albums? What, do you find, are the most striking differences (musical or otherwise) between Blind Pilot’s three records?
IN: When I hear an older album of mine come on, I mostly just marvel at what a different person I was when I made that music. There’s a certain detachment and appreciation for who that musician was. I’ve learned and grown a lot since then, but I couldn’t make that same music now if I tried. I’m just glad those songs exist so they can bring me back to what life was then.
Albums mean something very different to the listeners than they do for artists. What (if anything) about your relationship with your records (or a specific album) do you think might come as a surprise to Blind Pilot fans?
IN: Actually, I’m a firm believer in that art works as a vehicle for expression, and that whatever you put in, gets communicated. Even if someone gets the meaning of my song completely wrong in a literal sense, I always find that there is an emotional line underneath that, which they totally have nailed. I learn a lot about my songs from the stories people tell me about them.
Five years is a long time in-between releases, and I understand a lot happened outside of music during that time. How does And Then Like Lions shape this time period, for you?
IN: I write from my personal experience, and then my songs shape my experience. Most of this album I wrote because I wanted courage or believe or strength that I didn’t quite have. And in the process, I discovered those things in myself.
To introduce your latest album you wrote, “The past isn't finished with us.” That theme of cherishing things come and gone, and of existing in the present, felt very significant at the time. What role does that balance of is and was play for you today?
IN: These days, I’m more focused on the connections that bond us in friendship, community, family, and love. Along with music, they are my most valuable possessions. It’s an easy concept to say, but it’s new to me, to feel it so strongly.
In the same space you also wrote, “Avoiding suffering, is avoiding real happiness too.” Music clearly has a greater purpose for you. Have your music and/or lyrics ever taught you anything new about yourself?
IN: All the time! I often write a line in a song because it sounds like something true, or something I want to believe is true, and then when I go to sing it sometime later, it will dawn on me that it is more true than I ever understood. For this reason, I think creating some kind of art has an important place in everyone’s life. You learn a lot about yourself, and it makes you have more to give.
Watch: “Packed Powder” – Blind Pilot
Music has been your key means of self-expression, but I sense a deeper philosophy within you. Have you ever considered trying your hand at a novel or exploring other mediums of expression? What did those attempts look like?
IN: I’ve never tried it, but I’d like to give it a go. Music has always been the way that my words click, but it would be fun to see if there are other ways too.
Love songs are inescapable in the music realm, yet you seem good at addressing love in deeper ways. Do you find writing love songs easier or harder to write than other material?
IN: It sure is harder to steer clear of clichés when writing love songs! But I find that to be pretty great practice. If I can write a love song that feels like my own experience, and not just the collective experience I hear on the radio, I’m on the right track.
Blind Pilot may still be called a Portland band, but by now your music has taken you far and wide. How has travel influenced your music? Have you consciously noticed any shifts in your worldview?
IN: I remember the first tour we did around the country. It was about 2 months. When I came back to Portland, what had seemed like a proper big city, it felt almost comically small. Travel makes you appreciate more the place you’re from, and it broadens your scope a whole lot. It’s astounding, how many different ways of living and different kinds of beauty there are just in our country alone.
You tell a story about writing “New York,” and your use of the harmonium. How do new instruments inspire you, and did you use the harmonium or other new instruments in And Then Like Lions?
IN: New instruments are so fun! I played five or six instruments on this album, but none of them [were] brand new to me. I did, however, write in a slightly different way for a few of the songs, where I used the recording process kind of like an instrument – that was new to me. I recorded demos, some of which ended up on the final versions, while writing the songs, and that process inspired new things in the songs like a new instrument would.
You sing “And then we are like lions / We are strong enough to give,” in the final words of the latest record, sending us (and yourself) off with a message of hope. What was the significance of ending And Then Like Lions on a positive note?
IN: Of all I learned in watching my dad go through sickness and death during his last years of life, the most profound was the way he made peace with death before the end. He was one of the strongest personalities I’ve ever met, and I watched him fight with all he had for a very long time. Then, some months before he died, he did something even stronger by becoming at peace with the great big mystery of death, and giving himself to that inevitable fate, whenever it was to come. To see that change in him was one of the most beautiful parts of life I’ve ever witnessed, and it seems like a good sentiment to end this album.
There are winds that wrap and hold me
There are whispers in the trees
I cannot hold all that is sacred
They are holding onto me
Kiss the years that all are dying
Kiss the face that makes you stay
They are in your rhythms walking
They are showing you the way
Breath and breath above a sickness
Shouting threats upon your life
And then we are like lions
We are fool enough to fight
It will cheat you in the balance
Taking more than left to live
And then we are like lions
We are strong enough to give
Listen: “Like Lions” – Blind Pilot
Do you anticipate another five-year gap in albums, or can we expect to hear Blind Pilot a little sooner?
IN: Not a chance. I’m already writing the next one.
I can’t speak for the masses, but I would love a Blind Pilot protest song. Any chance there’s one in the works?
IN: I sometimes think of “Like Lions” as a protest song. I admire Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Connor Oberst, and a lot of others for their protest songs. If I wrote one, they would have to come from a personal place. Not outside the realm of possibility.
Thank you again so much for your time. Finally: If Blind Pilot's career were to conclude today, what would be your proudest achievement and how would you move on? Do you believe in leaving a “legacy”?
IN: There are sometimes moments on stage when I feel completely lost in the connection to music and the crowd and my band. It’s a moment of gratitude for what I’m given and gratitude for what I can give. I’m sure those are the moments I will keep with me above all the other good ones I’ve made with this band.
Since the above isn't happening, what are you most excited to pursue next in music? What areas have Blind Pilot yet to explore, that you want to make happen?
IN: It’s too early to talk about, but there are some things in the works that I am very excited about. Whenever I finish an album, it’s a huge release which creates an open space. After this one, I’m feeling totally ready for covering ground that is new.
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photo © Ben Moon