There are few universal truths in rock & roll, but here's a widely accepted dictum: It sucks to be an opening band. If you're lucky, the headliner's fans will ignore you and let you play in peace. If you're not so lucky, the crowd will talk over your set, heckle you or call out for "Free Bird." So it was a surprise when, at the Decemberists' May show at the Pageant, a winsome folk band from Portland, Oregon, called Blind Pilot held the crowd's attention for the duration of its opening set. Each song was met with genuine applause, and many in the crowd went and purchased the band's debut CD, 3 Rounds and a Sound, during the intermission.
The RFT caught up with Blind Pilot singer and guitarist Israel Nebeker right after he and his bandmates had crossed the Canadian border, having wrapped up the last leg of their tour with the Decemberists. Nebeker described the challenges and rewards of warming up the stage for indie-rock royalty and the freeing experience of touring the West Coast by bicycle.
RFT: I saw you a few months ago with the Decemberists at the Pageant. What was it like opening for a big tour like that?
Israel Nebeker: It was awesome. It was much larger venues than we had ever played in the U.S., and that was really fun. All the places they chose to play at were these really beautiful theaters, for the most part, and it turned out that their crowds seemed to appreciate our music. It was all-around pretty wonderful — and pretty surreal, because we respect the Decemberists a lot and have listened to their music for a while, so it was really awesome to open for them.
Were those the biggest crowds you had played before?
We had just gotten back from doing a tour opening for Counting Crows in Europe, and those were pretty massive crowds — almost stupidly massive. But this was way bigger than the last tour we did in the U.S.
Has that been a trial by fire for you guys, going from playing smaller clubs to big halls to what I assume are big festivals with the Counting Crows?
It kind of changes the whole idea of what a show is when you get to that massive level. It feels a lot more like a production than setting up and playing for people to come listen. I think we're almost getting used to it and getting a lot more comfortable with it. I'm also excited that we're gonna go pretty soon to do our own tour across the U.S. and play our own shows. That will be a nice change of pace.
What was the response like opening for those bigger bands? Opening bands always have a tough knock, depending on the crowd.
Especially with the Decemberists crowds, we were well received — a lot better than we had hoped for. We're definitely not an arena-rock band. Sometimes in arenas over in Europe with the Counting Crows, it can feel out of place.
It's funny that you mention arena rock, since the Decemberists really moved in that direction with The Hazards of Love.
Last night at the show in Vancouver, I invited a friend to come see it. He was listening to it, and I could tell he was kind of into it, and I leaned over and told him, "This is kinda like a rock opera." And it clicked for him. It was confusing to him that the Decemberists were playing '70s rock licks.
Blind Pilot started as a duo but has now grown to a six-piece. Has that been an easy progression?
It's been a really easy progression. It happened really naturally, and it was all surrounding the recording of the album. We contacted friends or friends of friends, and it seemed to click pretty well and be a really easy transition.
I read about your bicycle tour last year. How did that come about? It seems like the antithesis of what most rock & roll tours are all about.
Yeah, I think that was the point. We were in Portland, and Ryan and I were both playing in other bands. Portland has the most amazing music scene — it's really wonderful, and I can't say anything very negative about it. But it still is a music scene, and we were kinda curious how it would be to ride down the coast and play in small towns and be forced to play in towns you would probably never stop in in a car. [The tour was] just to see how the music would sound to ears of people that were there. It was the point — the antithesis of a rock tour, or being in a defined music scene, and getting up out of that.
So you were on your bikes and toted your gear behind you and just stopped where you stopped and played there for the night?
Mostly. We had some scheduled shows in the cities where there were a lot of music venues, but most towns down the coast have really rural sections where there's no venues, and we would just stop and ask around if people play anywhere, if ever, and then we tried to set up a show that night. Or at campgrounds, we'd be camping and would walk around and tell people that there was gonna be a show in some park.
Did the locals take to that? They're probably not used to having roving minstrels come down on their bikes and ask to set up a show.
It was a really vulnerable feeling — in a lot of ways, the whole bike tour was. We were putting ourselves out in the elements for a while. One of the ways it felt vulnerable was to play for people in some pretty seedy bars, where we didn't know if they would like us at all. In those moments, you're really just playing for yourselves and each other, and it was a good experience to solidify that idea. But also, almost every show where we felt out of our element, people would start listening and be into it.
Is it safe to assume that you won't be biking to St. Louis for this tour? We are not the most bike-friendly city.
I don't know — we were dreading biking through LA the whole trip. We thought it was gonna be crazy going through downtown LA. And it was one of the best rides.