The lion is a central figure in religious tradition and popular mythology that represents strength. Throughout history, lions have adorned royal coats of arms while political figures have taken up variations of the moniker to demonstrate valor. Known as the king of beasts, its likeness is just as common in fine art, literature and popular culture. Think The Lion King (R.I.P. Mufasa) or The Chronicles of Narnia. So it’s not surprising that when Israel Nebeker, the singer and co-founder of the Portland, Oregon, band Blind Pilot, set out to make an album about courage, he found inspiration in a childhood keepsake—a flag adorned with a lion.
“When I was a little kid, my brother and my sister and I, we each received a flag that my dad painted and my mom sewed together,” Nebeker says. “When you did something really great, like maybe you were really generous with one of your siblings or you did something great at school…your flag would go up on the wall in the kitchen.”
A photo of Nebeker’s flag graces the cover of Blind Pilot’s third release, 2016’s And Then Like Lions, which he finished after his father passed away from cancer.
“I ran across the flag when I was writing the rest of the album after my dad’s death and I was like, I’m gonna hang this up in my studio just to kind of feel like he’s still offering encouragement,” he says. “And it took on the symbolism of having courage through hard times. So I decided to put it on the album cover—also as an inside joke. I just thought it would be really funny if my flag, my personal do-good/good job flag, was all over the country on albums.”
Blind Pilot’s origins can be traced to when Nebeker first met drummer Ryan Dobrowski at the University of Oregon. The two were in the same study abroad program in England—and both were struggling financially—when they came up with an idea.
“We ran across some people busking on the street and it was really great and we noticed that it was perceived very differently there,” he says. “Like a cop came up that first night and listened for a while and I thought they would get busted but the cop just slipped a pound into their suitcase and kept walking.”
Nebeker had his guitar, and Dobrowski put together a drum kit with a bucket, some bottles, a sketchpad and cheese grater from their house for their busking sessions.
From there, the duo recorded Blind Pilot’s first album and recruited four other members when they set out to tour, rounding out what is now a six-piece. And Then Like Lions came five years after the band’s sophomore effort. Nebeker says the space was a necessary step in the creative process.
“I started writing for [And Then Like Lions] and then my life just kind of changed in a bunch of different ways and the songs I was working on didn’t make sense anymore,” he says. “I didn’t really want to follow them; I wanted to make other ones that were more current with where my life was so that I could feel them.”
Nebeker wasn’t the only one going through personal changes. Bandmates Luke Ydstie and Kati Claborn also had a baby during that time.
“So I took time off to do personal stuff with my family and to write and everybody else was pretty busy too with things going on in their lives,” he says. “I mean, basically we just all grew up at the same time in different ways, so we needed some time for that.”
Crossing the threshold into adulthood was the perfect musical fuel, and when Blind Pilot reconvened to record, the result was an expansion of the lush folk-pop that had become its calling card. These slow-burners unfold over eloquent layers of strings, horns and piano arrangements. And although they are direct reflections of the group’s personal experiences, the songs are meant to be accessible.
“I wanted to write these songs for myself to try to dig up what I needed and that was my way to do it, and also for my family, to give them encouragement,” Nebeker says. “…what I really hoped was just that it would be a conversation to invite people into about loss in general because everybody goes through it and we don’t like to talk about it very much. It makes it so much better when there is space to talk about it and you don’t have to just think that you’re going through it alone.”
But these ruminations aren’t meant to be downers. Instead, Nebeker wants listeners to walk away with a sense of meaning and hope—just as he did.
“To me…the greatest thing about writing songs is that you can distill a desire or some really important expression into this three- minute thing where then you can look at it like you’re looking at yourself,” he says.