Interview: The Tillers
Music is one thing that binds all of us together. Every single person on this beautiful earth enjoys some type of music. Even as music tastes evolve, and new types of music emerge, there is something special about music-that dance between rhythm, melodies, and beats that brings people together and evokes emotion. One genre of […]
Music is one thing that binds all of us together. Every single person on this beautiful earth enjoys some type of music. Even as music tastes evolve, and new types of music emerge, there is something special about music-that dance between rhythm, melodies, and beats that brings people together and evokes emotion.
One genre of music that really speaks to my soul is folk music. Even as a teen, in band, I always had a fascination with the stripped down music-the primal elements like harmonica, banjo, and even washboards. It’s something that’s so raw and organic-it’s so untouched-that it seems more familiar and enjoyable to me.
I went and spoke at a festival recently, and the music scheduled for that night was The Tillers. The Tillers are based out of Cincinnati, and just released their new album released by Muddy Roots Records in Tennessee on July 5th, entitled, “Hand on the Plow”. The Tillers use their music to not only preserve the past, but strive to expose others to the organic sounds of raw music-unfiltered, un-processed, and un-touched. The result is a nostalgic, time-transporting album that leaves you craving more.
I was immediately taken with their music. The tracks range from uplifting melodies with contagious lyrics such as “Old Westside”, to one of my favorite songs of all time, “Willie Dear”, which is a tragic love story drawn from a true haunting in a building that The Tillers frequently play in-The Southgate House.
I scored a few minutes with Mike Oberst, the lead singer, and asked him a few questions about his passions in life, music, and his plans for the future. But before we get to that part, here’s some back story to Mike Oberst, from his website, www.mikeoberst.com:
Mike was born and raised in the Sayler Park neighborhood of Cincinnati, a stone’s throw from the historic US Route 50 as it winds down the banks of the Ohio River. He was introduced to music at a very early age, starting Suzuki piano lessons at the age of four. At the age of 13, Mike’s father showed him some chords on the guitar, and within a year, he began forming and performing in punk rock bands with his friends. Over the next decade, Mike’s bands “Disarm” and later, “The Resurgence”, became fixtures on the local punk scene.
Mike’s interest in traditional music began with his membership in the Cincinnati Caledonian Bagpipe and Drum Corps from the ages of 17 to 22. At age 23, Mike became a part of “The Blue Rock Boys”, an Irish Traditional Folk band, which gave Mike his first taste of the life of a touring musician.
When The Blue Rock Boys disbanded in 2007, Mike began performing solo shows around town. During this time, he became consumed with a love of clawhammer-style banjo playing and an interest in American folk music in the vein of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and other Depression-era performers. He soon chanced upon a like-minded musical compatriot in the form of guitarist Sean Geil, with whom Mike formed the band “The Tillers”.
The Tillers’ rise to prominence in the local and regional folk scene was a rapid one, bolstered by a stroke of good fortune in the summer of 2009, when The Tillers’ recording of Mike’s song “There is a Road (Route 50)” was featured on veteran NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw’s USA Network television documentary on the history and significance of US Route 50.
Here’s a little bit more about Mike that he discussed with me in the interview:
Mike, tell me about yourself without using the word artist, or musician:
Mike: I’m is really into organic gardening and everything that revolves around it and growing things. If I wasn’t doing music I would try my darndest to be a farmer. I live in an outer suburb of Cincinnati by the river where I grew up. After my mom passed away when I was 21, I took over the home. There is a pretty large amount of city owned land next to my house and over the past 5 years I realized it’s an empty lot of grass that I was mowing – so, I started tilling and adding organic material. I have successfully converted city land into raised beds and a 10×50 plot into organic vegetables, grapes, asparagus, and lots of perennial edibles like berries, quince, pawpaw, and apple trees, along with a water collection area to harvest rainwater. I’m also exploring permaculture and native plant preservation. I’ve also set up another area on the city land for native plants. I’m also pretty obsessed with my chickens.
Essentially, Mike’s a guerrilla gardener with a purpose-he likes sharing the bounty with friends. He frequently gives the harvests to neighbors and friends, or trades for other needed items.
How did you go from your punk origins into folk?
Mike: I got my start playing in Cincinnati in punk bands while I was washing dishes at kaldis’. Every week the crew would listen to the most talented bluegrass musicians. I got used to listening to the sound of bluegrass and it caught my ear. I also stumbled upon an article about taking back country music, and the commercialization of rural American country music and how it had evolved from a place that was more about the working class individual and struggles and hardships, like the great depression – and I discovered a raw form of music created by non-professionals, that they were putting their heart and soul into.
Tell me about your creative process. How do The Tillers come up with their songs?
Each band member writes individually. Sean or I may come up with a melody /lyric, and then we hash it out collectively. One of us puts the simple melody on the table and everyone chimes in and changes it until it suits the whole group.
What song haven’t you performed that you’d like to?
Mike: I was in a bagpiping drumcore for a while that I enjoyed. In high school, I had a friend that did Irish dance and when he was 16 and my mom took me to his friend’s dance and there was a bagpiping drumcore called the Cincinnati Caledonian Pipe and Drum, which opened up the ceremonies. It was all these middle aged guys marching into the room in their formal Scottish garb in formation, and there were drummers following them and the sound was so loud and abrasive but so powerful. I was impressed by how well put together they were and how they could make such a loud noise that some would deem obnoxious-but I found it intense and stirring. I said “I’ve gotta do that” and they had a pamphlet saying “Drummers wanted” and the next week I started going to their practices. I played snare and learned how to play the bagpipes on the side-we’d even go and compete at highland games. Every big city has a drum and pipe corps-there’s always another world within niches of music.
What is your goal in creating music?
Mike: Music makes everyone happy-touches everyone-and I’ve loved nothing more than music my entire life. I’ve always played music in some way – it does my soul good, and I don’t know what would replace it. It makes others happy, and I’m able to create. To be able to reach into your own mind and make that into something audible that can be experienced by others, is incredible. With traditional music, one goal is to keep people aware of the fact that there are a lot of great songs written by great people that were regular old folks. Kids should know they can create music without commercial or financial input. Music can be organic. Music today is auto-tuned, and kids are being groomed to think they can’t sing or play because they don’t sound perfect, or look perfect – and that’s not music. Music should be from the soul.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened on stage?
Mike: Well, there’s a pile of harmonicas on stage and one time, Sean dropped his pick and we both bent down-me to get a harmonica, and Sean to grab a pick, and we smashed our heads together. That was pretty awful.
What’s the worst thing to happen on stage?
Mike: Breaking too many strings! Sean breaks a lot of strings- he broke three strings in one song. We don’t stop playing if he breaks a string-he’ll change it while the song is going. Also, it’s really awful when I forget lyrics. Also, sometimes, people get drunk and they run into the microphone, and we get hit in the face with it! We’ve gotten to a point now where we have to kick people out of the way when they’re heading towards the microphone.
If you were a Jim Henson character, Which would you be?
Mike: Fozzy Bear. He’s a nerd with a weird sense of humor people don’t get. He also has an awesome hat.
Tell me about “Willie Dear”. That song is one of my favorites. How did you come up with the story and the lyrics?
Mike: “Willie Dear” is a ballad type song that I wrote about a ghost story from Newport, KY. Ross Raleigh of the Southgate House Revival was telling me some old haunted stories about his old establishment, the original Southgate House. He told me a tale of a young girl named Elizabeth who worked or lived at the Southgate House, and her lover (who I named William) going to work on a river boat. She waited for his return and months later spied the ship coming into port. The ship burst into flames and there was a great explosion. Thinking that Willy was dead, Elizabeth wrote him a letter and then hung herself in the loft of the building. The ship was not Willy’s and he returned the next day finding Elizabeth. It is said that Elizabeth haunts the old Southgate House building.
No joke, this is one of my favorite songs ever.
The Tillers also have a huge heart for philanthropic work. The group performs at many benefits throughout the year, including a benefit for a group that helps developmentally disabled people called LADD. They also perform at local can drives and homeless benefits in their area. The Tillers are also going on a tour this fall that includes England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Mike also has a solo project, and plans to release a kids CD.
For more information on The Tillers, check out their website at : www.The-Tillers.com
The Tillers on Facebook: www.facebook.com/TheTillers