On a blustery January morning in the McMenamins Kennedy School library, two owls fist-bump a Red Baron pilot in old-timey, onesie pajamas. A man in a bear costume joins a sing-along around another fellow in a gnomish red-and-white-striped sleeping gown. McMenamins always feels a bit like Alice’s Wonderland, but these adults have another excuse: they’re preparing to perform in the hugely popular kids’ variety show You Who, and today’s theme is pajama party.
By night, the jammies-clad bunch in the corner sells out rock venues across the country as the indie-folk band Blind Pilot, but today they’re working on a different kind of set list. Singer-guitarist Israel Nebeker leads the bear-dressed bassist Luke Ydstie and banjoist Kati Claborn, both bouncing like kids themselves, through several children’s songs, including “Where Are My Pajamas.” The Pete Seeger tune opened the Coast Community Radio program Bedtime Stories, to which both Nebeker and Ydstie fell asleep as kids in their neighboring beach towns of Gearhart and Astoria. “It’s really important to any child of hippie parents on the coast,” Ydstie says of the song.
Meanwhile, drummer Ryan Dobrowski, wearing the striped sleeping shirt, labors over the song order. “I haven’t been this excited for a show in a long time,” he says—an enthusiasm all the more notable considering that, with an audience of 400, it may be the smallest concert the band has played since it went on the road full time in September 2011 with the release of its second album, We Are the Tide. “We’ve got to keep it peppy. These kids are drinking Red Bull.”
“Blind Pilot’s songs already have a palette of voicing, harmony, and orchestration that is rich and colorful. The chance to expand that into the sound world of an orchestra will be a natural fit.”
—Conductor Troy Peters
For a band that had difficulty finding a venue to play its first record-release show, Blind Pilot has experienced a precipitous climb. Since iTunes picked the debut album’s song “Go On, Say It” as a single of the week in 2008, it has built national momentum, touring the country and Europe, appearing on NPR, performing on The Late Show with David Letterman, and, recently, Ellen DeGeneres’s birthday show as her favorite new band. Not much for rest, on April 27 the band will take on the opposite of You Who: a debut with the Oregon Symphony. From energetic tots to solemn suits, Blind Pilot is pushing the definition of a crossover act.
“Sometimes collaborations can seem a little desperate for symphonies,” says Thomas Lauderdale, the Pink Martini bandleader and symphony board member who initially set the partnership in motion. “But Blind Pilot is so melodic and lovely and symphonic that it seems really compatible.”
Blind Pilot, the band, was never really supposed to happen. After meeting at the University of Oregon, Dobrowski and Nebeker traveled to England to work at a summer camp. They busked the streets at night, Dobrowski playing a sketchpad and pencil tin for percussion, but they went different ways upon returning to the US.
After struggling to find success with separate bands, the two reconnected in Portland several years later and decided to see if they could rekindle their UK magic. They spent a summer recording an LP at an old Astoria cannery at the mouth of the Columbia. The pair then set off down the coast for San Diego on their bicycles, performing at any venue that would let them set up along the way. “Bands get caught up in doing the right things in order to become a big band,” says Dobrowski, sitting next to Nebeker in the Kennedy School restaurant between sound check and the You Who show. “We sort of threw all that aside to have something really immediate.”
Their bikes were stolen in San Francisco, but their musical partnership solidified. They set to work on a full album, picking up Ydstie, Claborn, Ian Krist (vibraphone), and Dave Jorgensen (trumpet, keyboard) along the way, and released 3 Rounds and a Sound in July 2008. This time, they took the whole band down the coast by bike, having built a special trailer for the stand-up bass. iTunes released their single, NPR selected the album in its yearly top 10, and NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro (a Portland native who heard the band while appearing on the same Live Wire! episode) did a story about their bicycle tours. Before long, the band was traveling the States and Europe with the likes of the Decemberists, and also headlining its own concerts. The nonstop schedule only picked up steam with the release of We Are the Tide in 2011.
At a 2009 dinner party that deserves a place in Portland music history, Shapiro introduced Blind Pilot to Pink Martini, who were both in DC to perform. After a late-night piano sing-along, Lauderdale eventually brought the symphony’s director of operations, Susan Nielsen, to see the band at the Crystal Ballroom last year. “It was a funny meeting,” recalls Nebeker of sitting down with Nielsen the next morning. “I think they were already on board, but we didn’t realize until midway through that they were serious. We were over-the-moon excited.”
Watch Blind Pilot's recent appearence on the Ellen DeGeneres Show below or check out the band's 2011 studio session at OPB.
Nebeker, Ydstie, and Jorgensen all studied classical music, but they never imagined they’d share a stage with a symphony. The band hired Sean O’Loughlin, who’s worked with everyone from Feist to M83, to create the symphonic arrangements.
Blind Pilot with the Oregon Symphony
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
1037 SW Broadway
For the symphony, the appeal is obvious: a vibrant young band that has deep indie and NPR cred. “I don’t think every person who shows up to hear a rock band with an orchestra will say, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to come back and hear Brahms,’” says the concert’s guest conductor, Troy Peters, who has a history of working with rock musicians ranging from Phish’s Trey Anastasio to Yes’s Jon Anderson. “But some people will, and they’ll find that when a great orchestra is firing on all cylinders, it rocks, no matter what it’s playing.” Indeed, the Boulder Symphony and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra have already contacted the band about potential gigs.
“We reside in this indie music world, where the emphasis is on what’s cool,” says Dobrowski, right before he has to take the stage at You Who. “The symphony is about musicianship; it’s beautiful, rich, and moving. This definitely is going to be an exclamation point in our timeline.” Although, as he heads toward a roomful of stoked children, maybe a comma is the better punctuation. “We should do a tour with symphonies,” he adds, “but we should also do a tour of kids’ shows.”