Learning new ways to be creative during the pandemic
Mike Oberst, the co-founder of The Tillers, plays a show for the LAS Underground series 7:30-8:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, from Bromwell’s on Facebook Live. He talked recently about navigating this year after losing his livelihood as a touring musician, spending more time at home with his wife and two sons, and his hopes going forward. Listen here when he visited the studio in September 2019 before the release of his solo album, “Six Feet of Earth.”
Mike Oberst was riding a hot streak as 2020 began. His solo album, “Six Feet of Earth,” was critically acclaimed after its October release, he was headed out on a solo tour in January, and he was going to Europe with his bandmates in the Tillers.
Then the world changed.
“March was a scary time, it kind of came out of nowhere, didn’t it?” Oberst said. “I was in L.A. the last weekend in February. We had celebrated our son’s fifth birthday, had a big party, then boom.”
That boom was the coronavirus pandemic that plunged people into uncertainty. Schools and businesses closed, folks were told to stay a safe distance from each other. Although the music didn’t die that month, concerts were postponed then mostly canceled for the year. The Tillers have played one time, a benefit at the Southgate House Revival in September that was streamed online
“We had the option of having an audience there, but we said we’re just not going to do that yet,” Oberst said. “I think we looked at it as our last chance to do a quote ‘live show’ unquote before the cold months come. So let’s get in there and have some fun.
“We really weren’t thinking about it as a show at first, but when we got on that stage that we love so much, in that place that we love so much, where we have so many memories with our friends and loved ones, we just let it fly and had a great time. Then it felt like a show, a real show.”
Oberst will play out the second time Saturday in the LAS Underground virtual concert series at Bromwell’s. It’s a solo gig that will be streamed online via the Longworth-Anderson Series Facebook page. He’s also finishing a video for “Flowers of Edinburgh,” a track from “Six Feet of Earth” that will be available later this month.
He’s more comfortable in the streaming format now than he was in March when he joined seemingly every other musician playing from their home with varying degrees of technical expertise.
“Those shows were interesting and a lot of fun,” he said. “It was a whole new thing to get used to, playing for an invisible audience. (Plus) I had to learn how to use my cell phone properly. Trying to teach musicians how to be extremely tech-savvy all of a sudden (was a big ask).”
As he became more proficient at streaming from home, Oberst embarked on a project that had been percolating in his head for a while.
“I’ve always had the idea to do a children’s album called ‘Mike’s Totally Awesome Kids Album.’ ” he said. “I thought, I’m here all day with my sons (5 and 2), so why not put together a show where I run around the community garden where I live (in Sayler Park), read books, tell jokes and sing songs.
“In the process, it turned out to be the first steps in lightening the anxiety that had taken over my life. I’m trying to take care of these boys, and trying to hide my fears, just be real strong, but boy, I was nervous. That show really helped put me in a better place. And when I realized that a lot of families with young kids were tuning in, that made me want to do it even more. I felt like I had a purpose. Parents would write me Facebook messages from their kids, asking questions from the previous episode. It started to be really interactive. I did 15 episodes and they were all different, so I really enjoyed that time, especially with my own sons.”
Tough times can bring out the best in people. Oberst thought about looking for work outside the house, but instead he’s been teaching music lessons online. He also home schools his 5-year-old while his wife works full-time from home. The unintended consequences of the pandemic are not lost on him.
“It was kind of a hard lesson when we settled into the groove of this new normal,” he said. “Doin’ what I do lends itself to missing a lot of things at home. Not that I wouldn’t want to go back out and do it (play music), but just being able to have that time to reevaluate and see what you can do differently (has been valuable).”
LAS Underground presents Mike Oberst, 7:30-8:30 p.m. Saturday, live from Bromwell’s, on Facebook Live: Longworth-Anderson Series.
This is a non-ticketed, free show. Tips to the nonprofit LAS Underground program are appreciated and will be matched by The George and Margaret MacLane Foundation. The list of upcoming virtual concerts and an archive of past LAS Underground shows, visit Longworth-AndersonSeries.com.