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Hugging Highway 1: Blind Pilot's Bicycle Tours

The band Blind Pilot literally rode a pair of bicycles to success. The folk-pop outfit, formed by singer-guitarist Israel Nebeker and drummer Ryan Dobrowski, has taken two bike tours, playing its music all along the West Coast. The first of these two tours was supposed to run from Vancouver all the way down to the Mexican border. Unfortunately, the trip was cut short when the band's bikes were stolen outside San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art.

"It was a fine ending to that tour," Nebeker tells Morning Edition's Ari Shapiro. "Ryan took it a bit harder than me."

"Yeah, because Israel got his bike back," Dobrowski says. "He found it on Craigslist for sale, so he bought it back for like $50, and I lost my bike forever."

They recently finished a second bike tour with a couple of additional bandmates, hugging Highway 1 down the coastline. One of their most memorable scenes occurred at a tiny grocery store in Leggett, Calif. As the group played, a crowd began to gather around it, including a handful of unexpected onlookers.

"It was great, because all these truckers said that they'd seen us for the last few days," Dobrowski says. "We were playing music and having beers at this little grocery in the middle of the woods."

Blind Pilot is on another tour now, with six members, and this time they're all traveling by van. It's a far cry from those first bike trips, where they didn't even have a support vehicle to haul gear.

"Everything was bike-powered," Nebeker says. "We had little bike trailers and carried our instruments."

Other band members, like bassist Luke Ydstie, even constructed their own storage pieces to help move equipment.

"He calls [his case] a treasure chest," Dobrowski says, "but everyone else calls it a coffin. And it definitely gets the most attention."

"[The tour] was actually a pretty great way to meet people," Nebeker says, "because then they'd ask about what we were doing. We'd tell them we were playing music down the coast."

While the band had a number of shows lined up in bigger cities, many of its performances weren't planned in advance, a decision Nebeker attributes to the uncertainties surrounding traveling by bike — like flat tires and getting lost. Other bands may cringe at the thought of such a tour, but the recipe seemed to work for Blind Pilot.

"It's more appealing to us," Dobrowski says. "I'm sure a lot of people still want the drugs and the women and the tour bus, but we like our campfires and our lakeside biking friends."

Big Red And The Origin Of Blind Pilot

Nebeker and Dobrowski met in college at the University of Oregon. Although the band is based in Portland, the pair wrote many of the songs in Astoria, a coastal town where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. The two friends spent a summer living in an old cannery building with no plumbing. It's a landmark locals call "Big Red."

"They used to make and repair nets there and repair boats," Nebeker says. "It was built in the late 1800s, and it's just standing on pilings in the river. So it was great just to be out there. It's private; the only sounds are the water, the wind, the birds, the pilot boats going back and forth, and some of the big ships coming into the mouth of the Columbia there."

That's where they came up with the band's name: Blind Pilot. Nebeker's father bought the cannery building years ago, so he and Dobrowski were free to spend their days there, writing music and painting. (Dobrowski did the cover art for their debut, 3 Rounds and a Sound.) The winter after the duo lived there, though, a huge storm swept in off the ocean. Nebeker recalls assessing the damage for the first time.

"The place where Ryan and I were recording and spending most of our time, the top floor, is what got sort of lifted up and blown out into the river. I cried when I first saw it. It was really tragic just to see it, kind of with its top blown off. But I also feel really lucky that we did it. We went out there and made what we did while we still had the chance."

The band seems to bring a similar philosophy to its bike tours, making the most out of available resources. Despite the challenges of the road, Blind Pilot has found its own set of rewards along the way.

"We'd played a lot of places where the crowd would really not know quite what to make of us," Nebeker says. "And eventually they'd usually really warm up. And that was definitely a great feeling — to win people over for the first time."

Click the link above to hear the full story from Morning Edition's Ari Shapiro.

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