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Up-and-comers Blind Pilot play Bear Tooth's birthday bash

Blind Pilot's lead singer and songwriter Israel Nebeker carefully measured his words when contemplating the answer to this age-old musician question: "How would you describe your sound?"

"That changes, I think, because I'm never satisfied with the answer," he quietly replied.

"The word 'folk' is usually in there," he said. "I think it's folk in the tradition of the song structure, but the content lyrically and even the instruments we're trying to use are not trying to be that form of music."

Whatever the genre, Blind Pilot is in a constant state of evolution, cultivating a sound that has earned passionate fans worldwide.

The band's origins were a bit more humble. Originally intending a one-off project, Nebeker and his pal and bandmate Ryan Dobrowski began writing material for a tour from Seattle to San Francisco -- on bicycles. They started recording the songs before booking another bike tour but found themselves caught at a fork in the road.

"We had to make a decision: Do we want to go on this bike tour, or should we just stay in Portland (Ore.) and work on this album?" Nebeker said.

They chose the latter, eventually bringing in musician friends from around the Portland area to contribute, and that material grew into their first album, "3 Rounds and a Sound," released in 2008.

After that release, there were two watershed moments that made Nebeker realize that just maybe the decision to finish the album first was the right one.

The first was in July of 2008, when "3 Rounds and a Sound" track "Go On, Say It" was picked as an iTunes free download of the day.

"It was one of the first songs I'd written and the first time people heard it that weren't just friends and family and random people that sometimes show up at shows," Nebeker said.

The song quickly climbed the iTunes charts, and the band received emails from the iTunes staff sharing just how many thousands of people had downloaded it.

Nebeker was blown away.

"I just remember sitting in my living room and grinning," he said with a laugh.

The song was then featured on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," which Nebeker credited in helping the band reach a specific audience.

Since then, the group added four touring members and released last year's "We Are the Tide."

That album showcases a band that grew significantly over their years, thanks in part to the heavy touring schedule in between those two records.

"None of us had (been in) any band that had toured as much as we have," Nebeker said. "Just playing every night to a live audience is so much different than where we've been before."

The production on the newer record also shows a great deal more polish and finds the band further developing a sound that meets somewhere in the intersection of the hushed, introspective folk of Iceland's Seabear and the more driving and lyrically dense Okkervil River.

This year the band will take its live show across the country to a bevy of huge festivals and will open dates for some big names.

One of those is the Shins, a band Nebeker admitted to having previously dreamed of performing with.

"I've been a big fan of them for a long time, like a lot of the world," he said.

But before touring with The Shins, the band will be in Alaska to help Bear Tooth celebrate its 12th anniversary in style. Alaska is also the last state the group hasn't visited.

"I look back to the last couple years since we got started and there's definitely these milestones where there were really overwhelming things happening," Nebeker said, recalling Blind Pilot's growth from playing shows in small towns like Coos Bay, Ore., to opening for The Shins.

But for Nebeker, none of that changes the nature of the show: "You get to try and make this connection, and it doesn't change regardless of size."