Oregon band Blind Pilot toured by bike and encourages other musicians to try it
Israel Nebeker has a message for the musicians of Austin. If you dread piling into a van for weeks at a time and dropping hundreds of dollars on gas, Nebeker would like you to know that there's another way to tour: by bicycle.
"Touring in an automotive vehicle is horrible. After about a month, it starts to break you down," says Nebeker. "On a bike, though, ... I don't think you could have a bad experience. Even if it's a sketchy experience, you're just creating pretty amazing stories."
Nebeker is the self-effacing singer, songwriter and guitarist for Oregon-based sextet Blind Pilot, which has twice — in 2007 and 2008 — toured the West Coast by bicycle. Both tours were about 1,500 miles and took about six weeks, and their longest day of riding was about 120 miles.
The band began as a partnership between Nebeker and drummer Ryan Dobrowski. Together, they crafted buoyant, vulnerable, soaring folk-pop in the tradition of Bright Eyes, M Ward and Damien Rice. Their first album, "3 Rounds and a Sound," a cult hit released in 2008, earned plaudits from USA Today, the Boston Globe, NPR and others. Blind Pilot expanded to six members and racked up festival appearances and opening slots for the Decemberists, Counting Crows, Hold Steady and Dave Matthews Band.
In 2011, they released their sophomore album, "We Are The Tide" — a sweeping, musically rich effort with striking harmonies, big hooks and achingly earnest lyricism. But Blind Pilot wasn't initially intended to succeed.
"It's really ironic that this band is the one that took off. I had been in bands where I'd said, ‘I really believe in this, I think we can go far, let's try to conquer the world,' " Nebeker says. "Blind Pilot was the first project that was the opposite of that. We were purposefully giving ourselves a break from the Portland scene and making a totally different kind of music just for fun."
Though Blind Pilot's bicycle touring days are behind them — when they swing through Austin to play at La Zona Rosa on Friday, they'll be in a van — Nebeker has fond memories of the experience. And he thinks it's an option that other bands should research.
Because Austin, like Portland, boasts both a fertile music scene and a well-established cycling culture, we asked Nebeker to share some of his best advice for bands that might be considering hitting the road on bicycles.
Bicycle touring tips
1. Whatever type of bike you ride, make sure it's strong. "Steel is good, because it absorbs shock well, and that's a big deal when you don't know what kind of roads you're going to be on. Plus, since you'll be carrying lots of weight, you need something sturdy."
2. Use bicycle trailers to carry your gear — and build your own, if you have to. "We carried most of our stuff with these Yak trailers, which are made by a company called BOB. Luke (Ydstie) made his own trailer for his upright bass. It was this lightweight wooden case with wheels attached. It looked like a rolling coffin."
3. Schedule your tour to minimize the risk of inclement weather. "We got really lucky. I think we had just two days of serious rain. But it did make a pretty big difference in the mood of the trip. So you should try to do it in the driest part of the year — or the most hospitable, if you're in Texas and heat's a concern."
4. Leave some flexibility in your route. "Let your schedule be a bit loose. There are days that are just slow, for whatever reason — flat tires, headwinds, whatever. Book shows in the major cities and leave plenty of breathing room otherwise. That way you can get sidetracked and have adventures, and just roll into town and find a place to play."
5. You don't have to be an expert bike mechanic. "I don't think you have to be crazy knowledgeable. I think a general knowledge of wheels, how to adjust your brakes, and how to fix a flat tire is most important. If you know how to fix typical stuff like that, you'll be able to at least get to the next town."
6. You might not have to train as much as you'd expect. "The first few days of both tours beat us up hard. We were extremely sore. But it's amazing the way your body gets through it. When you do something everyday, your body can adjust faster than you'd think. You get in really good shape."
7. Be prepared to camp a lot. "There were a few really great chance encounters, where we met people who took us in and let us stay with them. But for the most part we slept in campgrounds. Fortunately, most of the towns we played in were pretty small, so it wasn't that big of a trek to find a campground."
8. Bring the right equipment — and the right amount of it. "Helmets are good! Lights are one of the most essential pieces of gear. Get as bright of bike lights as you can find. And as far as camping gear goes, if you can possibly share it, then just bring one of it."
9. Eat and drink a ton. "You will easily eat twice as much food. When your body is burning that many calories a day you can get away with eating a lot more. Personally, I discovered that hard-boiled eggs are, like, the ideal food to eat while bicycling."
10. Cars can be scary. But cycle defensively and cautiously, and you will get used to them. "It can be seriously freaky when cars come super-close to you and you have no protection but your helmet and your body. But it's funny — humans just get used to danger. At some point midway through it just wasn't as scary."
11. Make lots of friends. "When we didn't know exactly what was going to happen or where we were going to stay that night — when we were in that vulnerable place — we met lots of people. People respond when you put yourself out there like that. We made some really meaningful connections."
12. Keep a positive attitude. "You have to keep a positive outlook. If someone is having a hard time, help them out. If someone's in a bad mood for too long it will derail the whole thing."
13. Take the train back home. "Trains have plenty of room for you and your bikes. It's kind of expensive to travel with bicycles on planes. And you can't really do it on a Greyhound."
14. Do it for the right reasons. "I feel funny saying this because we've had so much success from it, but if you do a bike tour, you should do it for the sake of having an adventure and having fun, and not for the success of your band. If you really want to conquer the world and race to the top of the charts, it won't get you there."
15. That said — do it. "I think every group should do it. Without question. I think you'll have a ton of fun. It's a perfect way to travel and play music and meet people."
Blind Pilot with Lost Lander