Like the years for eons before it, 2017 began with many of us reveling in the fresh start. If you didn’t make a resolution, I bet you at least cleaned out your closet or your fridge or your brain. I was in the throes of past-year reflection and new-year projections when I got the pleasure of interviewing Israel Nebeker, lead vocalist and guitarist of Blind Pilot. In all of my flurrying to make plans for the months ahead, he spoke a truth that convinced me to slow it down: “There is a pleasure in the pathless woods.”
That idea is the foundation behind his band’s moniker, but it also embodies the place that Nebeker has found himself a few years ago. Blind Pilot, born in 2008 and based out of Portland, Oregon, had released two albums (2008’s 3 Rounds and a Sound and 2011’s We Are the Tide) and Nebeker was preparing to write the third when his life took a turn. “In a single month I lost my closest group of friends, my 13-year relationship ended, and my dad was diagnosed with cancer,” he says. “I had just stopped touring to write the next Blind Pilot album, but instead I was watching each of my plans unthread as a new season pulled forward relentlessly.”
The emotions he experienced throughout that time, during which he moved back to his hometown to help take care of his father, are woven throughout the band’s new release, And Then Like Lions. “My reason to tell this story isn’t because it broke me and pinned me breathless. There was suffering, but those two years, as I moved to my hometown to help my parents through my dad’s sickness and eventually his death, also brought me true closeness, a deeper will to care and hope, and many moments of beauty I can barely describe,” he says. “This album came from love for my family, my town, my friends, my community. We don’t have to be so afraid of loss. We can speak and share its name, knowing we are together in it. If these songs are invitations to talk about loss and death, the invitation is to talk closely of the courage we find when we face loss honestly, cracked open and unsure of what we will become.”
Nebeker is joined by bandmates Ryan Dobrowski (drums); Luke Ydstie (bass, vocals); Kati Claborn (guitar, banjo, vocals); Ian Krist (vibraphone, percussion); and Dave Jorgensen (harmonium, trumpet). Originally conceived as a duo with Dobrowski, Nebeker says something just clicked into place as they played. “Blind Pilot was meant to be just a summer project. I’d been in other bands and they’d always follow the same path of rising until self-implosion, with egos getting in the way,” he explains. “So at the time we started, I was on a different path. I was writing, recording, and performing on my own, but Ryan and I did this bike tour thing and it turned into just the best chapter of my whole life. We decided to keep going with that feeling and invited other Portland musicians into it, and now it’s still going. It was unexpected, how it all came together.”
It doesn’t take a leap for the listener to feel Nebeker’s experiences—full of sadness and beauty all at once, like he says—throughout And Then Like Lions. But Blind Pilot certainly leaves the space for all of us to explore our own sweet experiences with the two, which are so often mingled. And that’s Nebeker’s invitation to everyone who listens: “Whether I’m listening to music, or writing and performing it, what’s most important to me is an intention that is honest,” he says. “As soon as an intention comes in that is narrow and for a very specific goal, you’ve lost a whole lot of what music can really be. I don’t think anyone can say exactly what art is and isn’t, what all its benefits are, or how it works. So my desire is to be respectful of that unknown by being honest. I put all I can into it, both the good and the bad, and I hope that it enriches someone’s experience and mine through a real connection.”
In my opinion, your New Year resolution—and it’s not too late—should be more good music in your life. Trust me when I say you’ll have plenty of ways to make good on it this year in Birmingham, and one way is letting Blind Pilot lead you into the (pathless) woods. They’re at Saturn on Feb. 13. Take yourself and bring your heart along. •
2/24: Griffin House at WorkPlay. For fans of Ben Rector and Ray LaMontagne.
2/27: Amos Lee at the Alabama Theatre. For fans of Ben Harper and Matt Costa.
3/1: Jimmy Eat World at Iron City. For fans of Yellowcard and Taking Back Sunday.