The Tillers first came into being in 2007 while busking for free food and spare change around Cincinnati’s gaslight district. Since these humble beginnings, the band has gone on to record three full length albums and tour extensively with some of the biggest names in Americana and folk music. They were awarded CityBeat Magazine’s Cincinnati Entertainment Award for best folk and Americana act in 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014. Using the clawhammer banjo, acoustic guitar, and the upright bass, The Tillers resurrect timeless folk classics and craft original music that packs a distinctive punk-inspired bite while paying homage to the historical roots of Americana. You won’t want to miss Cincinnati’s favorite band of folk vagabonds, The Tillers, with opener Jonathan Rundman Thursday, June 29th at The Cedar.
We spoke to multi-instrumentalist and co-founder of The Tillers Mike Oberst before their show at The Cedar to discuss their formative years as a folk band, evolutions in the Americana community, and some of his personal inspirations lately; buy tickets to their show here.
Q: So let’s start from the beginning: you began your music career in Cincinnati’s lively West Side punk rock and hardcore scene. How does your past as punk musicians find its way into your music today?
A: I suppose our punk pasts have given our sound a certain edge and intensity. We put a lot of energy into our live shows and some of the topics we choose to write about may feel more punk than folk. However, punk and folk aren’t that different in our eyes. They are both made by everyday folks. The songs are a release from trials and tribulations and speak to the soul. We have all been listening to American roots music for just as long if not longer than we have punk music. It wasn’t a new thing for us when we started The Tillers. We’ve been around this stuff since we were kids, thanks to our parents.
Q: You have been together for nearly 10 years now. How have you seen Americana or folk music scenes evolve over that time?
A: Well, it definitely seems like there are a lot more bands playing fiddles and banjos. There are more festivals and venues booking roots music, which is fantastic. I feel a lot of the bands sound very similar now. Not as much originality with some of the newer bands out there. It’s the same with any other genre of music. As a certain sound starts to get popular, it becomes a blueprint for what folks think they need to sound like. My favorite bands are the ones that follow their own path and don’t just conform to what’s “hip”. There is still a lot of incredible and unique bands out there. You just have to look for it. I feel the truly passionate and original have and will persevere while the bandwagon jumpers come and go.
Q: You have described the crowds at your shows as being an assortment of eclectic individuals of all ages, with the amount of 20 year olds sharply declining over the last few years. How do you think we should get more young people involved in the Americana and music scene?
A: It seems the only people under 30 that are interested in going to shows are the ones who are also interested in being musicians themselves. Younger folks seem to be more interested in their iPhones or watching Netflix than they are getting out of the house and having true personal interaction or memorable experiences. I don’t really know the answer, other than starting them young. Expose your children to music and culture at a young age. Don’t allow them to become brainwashed couch potatoes. There are so many family- friendly festivals and concert series out there. Many of them are free or inexpensive. Take them and let them bring their friends. Make that the norm. They will thank you for it one day and you will enjoy it too.
Q: Through your musical journey, you have met amazing friends including Pokey LaFarge who you opened for at The Cedar in 2013. What does that sort of close collaborative experience mean to you?
A: We met Pokey and the South City Three back in 2008, I believe, and became fast friends. They are one of the hardest working bands in the industry, fantastic players and composers, and world class showmen. Watching him rise to popularity has been very cool and being able come along for the ride on many occasions has been some of the highest points of our career. He took us along on our first European tour and included us on his infamous Central Time Tour. It’s always more fun to tour with friends, but touring with a band of that caliber allows us to play for much larger crowds and helps us grow our fan base. We have learned so much from our time with Pokey and have had some of the best times you could imagine.
Q: What’s been inspiring you lately?
A: Shoo. Lots of things. Society, the environment, politics, our friends and family, our children, work, addiction, the woods, Cincinnati, the Ohio river, the road. The list goes on and on. If you cant get inspired in this day and age, you need to open your eyes.