Joe Macheret of The Tillers, set to play at the Yucaipa Performing Arts Center (YPAC) Saturday, Feb. 22, sat down with Samantha Johnson, to share his experience as a fiddle and guitar player and member of this modern Folk/Bluegrass band.
Describe to me in layman’s terms what your music is like. Can you explain what it is that sets you apart from other Folk acts?
“I would say we’re a mix of various American Folk styles, in that we take a lot from old-time Appalachian music and old ballad writing. We also take pieces of Bluegrass music, where we’re playing up-tempo high harmonies, and intense fiddle and banjo solos. We also take a lot from Folk-singer sort-of ways and traditions. We sing songs about where we’re from. We have a bunch of songs that are about the Ohio River, which we all live near. One of our songs is an old ghost story from the Ohio River, which we live right across from, that we wrote into a ballad. There are bits of Jazz and bits of the Blues in our music as well. We take from all these different places because they are all important pieces of traditional music we love.”
“We have a pretty unique bunch of inspirations. There aren’t a lot of bands that are telling you about where they are from and telling you those stories. That used to be a big part of being a songwriter and Folk singer. I think our inspirations and how we portray those in our music definitely is what sets us apart from other bands who are also doing traditional string band music; other Folk bands just might have their different inspirations and traditions they may want to keep alive.”
Are The Tillers’ songs original?
“For the most part, we perform songs we’ve written. Occasionally we toss in a fiddle tune or a traditional tune we’ve put our spin on.”
According to your website, The Tillers “find new stories wherever they go.” Tell me a little about that.
“We tour a lot and have toured a lot for years now. I think those experiences and being able to see and hear different perspectives on life find a way into our music and the stories we tell. We try to get where we can, and usually that's in the Eastern half of the States. It’s sometimes difficult to get further out because we have families and kids. We went to the UK last November, and we’ll be going to Europe in June and July. We make our way around despite having limitations to how much we can do, and we’re excited to be coming to California for a few days.
What audience demographic do you usually attract?
"We attract all kinds of people. I've always liked that about our band and other music that I've enjoyed making. We play on a lot of old traditions and old styles that a lot of people today may not be aware of, as opposed to older generations. We have people of all sorts of backgrounds and age groups coming out to our shows. We played a show in Louisville, and my buddy told me that his favorite doom metal band was standing up front at our show. We play all kinds of places, too. We play our fair share of clubs, and we play more listening room concert series, too. We play a lot of places that attract diverse groups of people.”
Can you explain more about The Tillers’ Punk influence?
“Mike Oberst used to be in a bunch of Punk bands in the local Cincinnati scene. He had a record label and was organizing shows and was into the DIY aspect of Punk -- between Punk Rock and what people consider to be Punk. He had this DIY perspective that you can do it yourself and do as much as you can. He did a lot of cool things with that and had a record label called Reggieville Records.”
“Sean Geil, who plays guitar in The Tillers, and his brother, Aaron, who plays upright bass with us, were both in Hardcore bands and Rock ’n’ Roll bands and were in similar circles as Mike as well. They were in the same boat where you’re really doing it yourself and finding how you can succeed doing that, as opposed to looking from the outside in. They really put themselves into it and just did it.”
“I’m a bit younger than the other guys. I didn't get into Punk Rock and Rock ’n’ Roll. For me, Punk Rock might be more like 50s garage rock sort of stuff. I've always been into the DIY mindset, too. I joined the band a few years after they had started, and it was great to work with people who appreciate that side of doing things and are aware that through our own work, we can accomplish a lot. A lot of people are looking for gatekeepers -- other people that can help them reach another level. You have to appease these gatekeepers, and you start to lose what makes you unique to you. I like being able to work with people who don’t need someone to help us take “the next step.” That approach is great, but at the same time, we can put a lot of work into it while we’re out on the road and developing our craft. It isn't very mainstream. When you do it that way, you're on the fringe for a while, because you’re not getting in the way of your own morals and ethics just to get an audience.”
How and where did The Tillers come together?
“Mike and Sean would play on the famous Ludlow Ave. in Ohio. They met at a couple shows with their other bands. Both admire each other and happened to go to Chipotle at the same time separately. They were standing in line next to each other and recognized each other as the guys in the other bands who they appreciated. They decided to get together to jam, and that’s how The Tillers began. It started at Chipotle. They came together with their ideas with the music they wanted to create, which became what The Tillers are.”
What has been the highlight of your musical career with your bandmates?
“Honestly, I don’t think there’s any specific moment. We've gotten to open and play with some amazing musicians; some of my heroes who I've become friends with, which is amazing. I think what I appreciate and I’m grateful for the most is that we can have a positive influence on people's lives and open them up to some new emotions or ideas that they weren't open to before. It’s fulfilling to have people who come up to me after a show and want to know more about the songs and music. It means a lot.”
Who are some of the bands you’ve been able to play with?
“The Del McCoury Band, one of the biggest--and our favorite--modern Bluegrass bands. We’ve also played shows and become friends with Rockstock street band, the Legendary Shack Shakers, and The Hooten Hallers, who are one of my favorite Blues, Soul, and Rock ’n’ Roll bands. We played with them, and it’s fun because we’re a string band and they’re a Rock ’n’ Roll band. It’s fun to have a diverse show. I already loved their music before we got to meet them. Other guys who are our inspirations are the Swingin’ Utters, one of Mike’s favorite Punk bands, who are a Southern California band, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who is one of the greatest Folk storytellers. These are some of the heroes and friends who we’ve played with or whose music we really appreciate and love.
Is there something that fuels you to keep creating great music?
“I’d say it’s just the connection with people and finding a way to live outwardly. We have that opportunity with what we do. It keeps the inspiration and motivation alive.”
Have you ever heard of Yucaipa? How do you feel about playing in a small town(city)?
“I had a buddy from Yucaipa. We play in plenty of small towns, and we’re excited to meet new people and explore the community. We hope people really get into the music and that they even dance a little if they want.”
The Tillers rose to prominence in the local and regional Folk scene 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. The Tillers released three more albums since then, becoming a staple at Folk festivals throughout the country.
See them live at the Yucaipa Performing Arts Center Indoor Theater Saturday, Feb. 22. Purchase tickets online at yucaipaperformingarts.org, or at the box office on 12062 California St. in Yucaipa.