photos by Kyle Johnson
Blind Pilot is an indie-folk duo from Portland who tours the West on bike, even hauling all their gear in tiny coffin-shaped bike trailers. The press has drawn the obvious, big name comparisons to the duo like The Shins, Bright Eyes and Neutral Milk Hotel, but like their approach to touring, there’s something more organic, down to earth, and undeniably “Portland” about the act. Whatever magical coffee bean Portland is using in their espresso to churn out bands like Blind Pilot who are at the front of the evolution of independent music -- especially in their approach to touring and evading crippling gas prices -- needs to be shared already.
interview by Jim Beckmann
After their set, I sat down with Israel, Ryan, Kati, and Luke, four bike touring members of the band:
Jim: I’m interested in the bicycle tour. How does that work? How did it happen the first time?
Israel: The first time it was just Ryan and I, so it was just drums and a guitar. The more we thought about it, the more it seemed like it would work really well. We moved out to Astoria, lived in a cannery building where we recorded an EP, and then started out on the road.
Jim: What kind of places would you play?
Ryan: We ride about 50 miles a day and mostly go to small towns and play little local bars, where ever there’s the most people. Our music kind of lends itself being flexible. We can amplify everything or play acoustic. I can play the drums so that it doesn’t overpower his guitar.
Jim: Speaking of that. I heard you have a modified drum kit for the road.
Ryan: For the bike tour, I made a kick drum by mounting hardware to a hard shell tom case, and inside the case I have snare, high hat, more hardware, and then I have a kayaking dry sack with simple hardware. It’s very minimal and I can actually make it sound pretty good. But then I’ll usually try to set up to have a full kit when I can or just use the band’s who played before us.
Jim: Did you book any of the shows in advance?
Ryan: Just a couple.
Israel: On this tour, be booked quite a bit.
Jim: Because people were starting to pay more attention?
Ryan: Mostly. We wanted it to be a bigger thing. We have a real full length album now that we’re touring with.
Jim: And now there are four of you? [Asking Kati and Luke] How did you two get added on?
Luke: I demanded it.
Israel: We were playing as a nine-piece in Portland and threw it out there, and though, ‘Yeah, right, like anyone’s going to want to come on a bike tour, but you all are welcome to come.’”
Jim: Is it easier or harder than you expected it to be? Were you like, “I want to play, but I don’t know about this 50 miles a day thing?”
Luke: For me it’s not really a lot. I’ve done a little bit of touring before. This way, I think we’re living a little easier and it’s a little more relaxed. I thought that touring like this would be harder than it is.
Jim: You’re bringing the full sized bass, right? How do you manage that? Are you bringing trailers?
Israel: We all have trailers. Luke built his trailer himself. It’s great. It kind of looks like a coffin, but it rides very smoothly.
Kati: It’s really great for getting people’s attention on the road... for safety and to get people to come to the shows.
Jim: How has it been on the roads? Is it dangerous out there?
Luke: Not as dangerous as it should feel.
Israel: You start to feel a little invincible, especially when you’re all riding together. Nothing bad can happen to you, but then these logging trucks are whizzing by and you get sucked in by them.
Luke: I kind of that feeling when the truck passes you and for a second you get caught in that “whoosh”!
Jim: Do you camp?
Israel: We’ve only had to camp twice coming down from Bellingham.
Jim: Then do you stay at people’s houses?
Kati: For the most part. People are very generous, even when we have six or seven people with us, and open their space for us.
Jim: Technically, your tour is still in Eugene. Where do you go from there? Down or up?
Israel: We’re taking an old logging road out to Coos Bay, and then from there down Highway 101 and take that all the way to San Diego.
Jim: And then wind your way back or straight back?
Israel: We’re not coming back.
Israel: From there, we’re doing a long week on the East Coast. It’s still undecided how we’re going to get back to Portland.
Jim: Would your tour by bike on the East Coast also.
Ryan: Not really. It will be cold there by then.
Israel: Yeah, [biking] has its limitations. You can bike anywhere, but we’re going to fly to Minneapolis and rent a van there.
Luke: We’re letting everybody down!
Jim: Have people ever come up to you and asked you how you do it? Has there been interest from other people wanting to do this?
Israel: This guy in Corvalis says he wants to do it. He wants to bring his accordion and guitar.
Luke: It’s not anything complex.
Jim: Seems more simple than any other way. But logistically, it does seem like a challenge. Like, To bring a standup bass is admirable because you could make do with something else.
Luke: We were actually thinking about that when we were getting ready for this tour. I could have brought and electric bass, but then you have to bring an amp, and it just doesn’t sound as good. There are small basses, but the sound just doesn’t carry.
Israel: We need to be able to play acoustic.
Jim: So what’s the coolest place you’ve played on the road?
Kati: The Udder Room. [All agree]
Israel: We were biking from Seattle. It was raining in a pretty bad way.
Kati: We missed our ferry.
Israel: We wanted to get to the closest campground because it was getting dark. We rode past this big barn and their was a sign for songwriters. There was this guy inside playing the bass with this huge mustache. And a guy with the biggest hands I’ve ever seen playing the guitar.
Ryan: It was so surreal. In the back room, they had this little bar.
Israel: They just gave us the stage and we played.
Kati: It was someone’s birthday... Kim’s...
Jim: I take it you just met Kim that night?
Ryan: Those are the best parts of touring by bike because you just stumble upon things much more often than if you were just touring by car and driving to your next city.
Israel: And you give things a chance to work out. Like this guy in the Udder Room, and he said that he recognized us on the ferry coming over and he invited us to stay at his house.
Jim: Any groupies? Anyone follow you on the road?
Ryan: One. On the first day, she showed up. She had contacted us on MySpace.
Israel: I’ve never understood. Did she show up just to ride with us?
Ryan: Just to ride with us. I’m not sure where she was from, maybe Canada. She was fine, but she had said she was a massage therapist and would give us massages. But it never came up.
Israel: It’s like she was avoiding it in conversation!
Ryan: She rode with us for a couple days, and that was fun, and then a couple people road with us from Eugene.
Jim: It would be cool to ride with a team of people who go from one city to the next.
Luke: It’s great until we don’t know where we’re going to stay, and then we have to vouch for all of these other people.
Ryan: And everyone is expecting you to show them the way, and we don’t always know.
Jim: How about songwriting -- are you writing on the road?
Israel: That was originally the plan, but we haven’t had a lot of down time because we’ve been playing the new one. But there are songs in the works.