It’d be difficult not to hear an echo of Fleet Foxes shaggy Northwestern Pacific folk-pop or Elliott Smith’s strummy melancholia in the delicate chamber-folk beauty of Blind Pilot’s second album, We Are the Tide. The Portland sextet’s September release is a dramatic step forward from 2008’s more austere, low-key 3 Rounds and a Sound, showcasing not only their growth as musicians and songwriters but the difference a full-fledged studio can make.
Originally conceived around the duo of singer/guitarist Israel Nebeker and drummer Ryan Dobrowski, the band grew to a six-piece by the time they started touring 3 Rounds and a Sound. That time on the road tightened not only their chops but the band’s chemistry. Responding to that, Nebeker and Dobrowski, who had previously co-written all the songs together, brought the rest of the band into the songwriting process.
“I was just talking to a musician friend of mine about this and he said, ‘Oh man, that sounds horrible. There’s always somebody who wants to hold court and have it be about them,’ but that really never happens with us. 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,” Nebeker says from his basement studio, where he’s working on material for their third album.
“It was a challenge having six people in the studio all giving their opinions,” he continues. “We did a lot of building the songs way up and then taking a step back and stripping them back down. There was some experimentation. It was a pretty fun way to do it.”
It’s a successful approach. While many songs boast orchestral warmth, We Are the Tide isn’t particularly lush, instead marshalling the effects into big crescendos and otherwise sticking to tasteful shading and color. The big sing-along harmonies and loping ’70s folk feel recalls Paul Simon, partly a reflection of Nebeker’s own airy tenor.
Nebeker first got to know Dobrowski in the early aughts when they shared a summer abroad program, working with kids at a day camp in Newquay, a surfing town in Southwestern tip of England. Busking is quite common, and after watching a cop on the beat linger, then toss a pound in the case of a cobblestone strummer, the chronically broke duo started doing their own sidewalk shows. They’d met each other at University of Oregon and even played in bands together, but this was when the bond cemented.
“Even though we’d played together before, that felt like the start of what we’re still doing now with Blind Pilot,” Nebeker says.
The pair went their separate ways, but reconnected a few years later, after finding themselves both sick of indie rock. In 2007 they wrote some songs and took them on a summer bicycle tour of small one-horse towns along the coast.
“It began as an experiment to branch out from the bands that we were playing in in Portland,” he says. “Having a sense of adventure to it and bringing music to unlikely places, to people that were not in our current music scene in Portland. That made all the difference. It made it exciting and more real feeling to us. I think that went into the music.”
The ensuing release 3 Rounds and a Sound is generally spare and reserved acoustic-based folk, brightened by subtle instrumental touches. They called in favors and many of their friends came in to provide additional instrumental tracks like violin, cello, and vibraphone. They played around town and invited everyone from the sessions to join them, their membership swelling to 11. By the time they returned to the road it was down to six, and that’s become the band’s core.
“[We Are the Tide] is the things we were trying on the first album just gone a little further down the same path,” says Nebeker, who points to the studio’s dramatic impact. “Skyler’s place was really just a garage setup. He has very nice equipment and it’s comfortable, but it’s still a home studio. This is the first time where there are records on the wall of things I’ve listened to hundreds of times. It was like ‘Whoa, we need to make it sound as good as that.’” Consider it “Mission Accomplished.” Meanwhile, Nebeker’s happy to have cleared the decks creatively and is girding for another run.
“Every time I make an album it’s like I just need to get rid of them in a way — finally put them in a solidified state so I can move on to the next thing,” he says.
Yet he’s happy to take a break, if it means visiting Boulder. “Colorado’s been pretty great for us, and we love it. It’s beautiful and Boulder in particular is an amazing city.”
On the Bill: Blind Pilot plays the Boulder Theater on Monday, Jan. 30. Doors at 7 p.m. Martha Scanlan opens. Tickets are $19.25. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.