If you see Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers live, you are guaranteed a good time. Officially called a pop-funk septet, the Rainbow Seekers touch on a number of genres in their music, taking their listeners for “a ride on the rainbow” — a journey that touches on motown, folk, Americana and of course, funk. The diversity of their music combined with the eccentric personalities of each member of the band and the deep connections within the group makes the Rainbow Seekers unforgettable.
When Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers first came together, they were just a group of college students who loved playing music. Bassist and producer Kevin Pritchard discovered Joe Hertler after seeing him play at the Quilted Attic Sessions and it didn’t take long for Pritchard to connect Hertler with drummer Rick Hale and guitarist Ryan Hoger to form “the core of the rainbow.” The group was not done there, as they soon added percussionist Micah Bracken, saxophonist Aaron Stinson, and violinist Joshua Barber Holcomb into the mix. The group has not only grown in size over the years, but also in popularity. Once a staple of the college music scene in Michigan, Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers has gone from playing local gigs to major festivals including SXSW and Bonnaroo.
Now, Joe Hertler and The Rainbow Seekers are preparing for the release of their third studio album Pluto and their upcoming U.S. tour. In February, Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers dropped “Lonely” the first single and video off of Pluto. The quirky video perfectly represents a live performance with the band- highly energetic, curiously connective, and wonderfully exuberant.
I got a chance to talk with Joe Hertler about their upcoming projects and the past, present and future of the Rainbow Seekers.
Smile Politely: Can you talk about how you guys came together as a group?
Joe Hertler: We were friends in college. I went to Central Michigan University and then a bunch of the guys went to Michigan State University. There wasn’t really an arts and music scene during my first years at CMU, or at least not one I could recognize as a new student to the school. During those early years, I started hanging around Lansing a lot because it was a bigger city and it had that type of thing going on. I stumbled into my future bandmates on a number of occasions. A couple of them were really good friends with someone who lived near my best friend so every time I would go to MSU to hang with him I would see them around acting like college kids. That’s really how we met, threw hanging out. Eventually we started playing music together and became very close friends. I would say it war around junior and senior year that the musical relationship really started to blossom. Some of them were studying music and I had been doing some acoustic solo stuff in coffee shops and I got booked for this event called Mitten Fest in the Ann Arbor area. At the time it was a really big deal for me. I was an opener- the very first slot. The band that my bandmates were in at the time also played so we shared a hotel and hung out. In the hotel they put music to some of my acoustic songs and we kind of bonded over that time period. Eventually we decided to be a real band.
SP: Did you guys have a particular vision when you first started playing together?
Hertler: Not really. We just enjoyed hanging out and playing music. It was comfortable. Right away, we could be total idiots around each other. We were bros and we were having fun. I really don’t think there was much direction at all. I don’t think anyone thought it was going to go anywhere. We were playing co-op parties and doing goofy folk records. Then all of the sudden, people started showing up to shows and identifying with our music. We started to solidify our identity in the college music community. It was a really fun time. Very innocent, no business involved. We weren’t making any money. It was great. It’s still great.
SP: How have you guys changed over time?
Hertler: I think now there’s a focus on how we can sustain ourselves. It’s a goal of ours to get to a point where we can do this, focus on this. There’s been a number of periods where I’ve been able to do it full time.. It’s how I communicate in the world, how I connect best with people. It’s very natural to us and we love doing it. Eventually we’re going to have families and other responsibilities but we want to be able to keep doing it.You can’t be broke forever. We all have life obligations that we need to take care of. But this is our real life and we’re trying to turn it into real life. It’s realer than anything else that we do. We would love to get to a point where we could sustain ourselves playing music.
SP: How would you describe your sound to someone who is unfamiliar with your music?
Hertler: Well we jump all over the place. We’re not consistent with our sound, for better or for worse. When we were on a major label it was like you guys should go for a pop-funk sound but we tend to not stick to one type of genre. There’s our pop-funk side. There’s our jam-band side. There’s our introspective singer-songwriter side. Those three elements combined make up our band. Then of course, there’s a lot of strong personalities in the band, and they are very much expressed on stage. My name might be on the front but there’s more than one frontman. I think that’s one of the reasons why people enjoy our music. If someone isn’t crazy about what I’m doing they might connect with Aaron or they might connect with Micah, who’s a really technical player.
SP: Let’s talk about your upcoming release, Pluto. Can you talk about what the creation process for the album was like?
Hertler: I would say my role in our creative process for an album starts at a very fundamental level. A good portion of the songs just started in my little home studio. The songs pretty much start with an acoustic track, or i’ll write stuff on accordion or piano sometimes. They’re skeletons. Then I bring them over to the band and they’ll flesh them out. They’ll put the meat on the bones and feed them until their something much greater. I don’t really tell my band mates what to do. I have ideas and I’ll sometime demo stuff out but for the most part everyone has their own role in in the band and they all bring something and we respect each other’s goals.
SP: Where do you find your inspiration for the songs you write?
Hertler: Just life really. That’s the best answer. It’s like putting your experiences into a package that’s accessible and that people can engage with. You can dress it up in certain ways to make that engagement more fun. As far as catalysing the creative process, I read a lot. Reading is one of the greatest things to do as a writer. I think I’m more of a writer than I am a musician. There’s so much in a book. You can open it up and learn incredible things. Then those things sometimes feed into songs. There’s’ a lot of literary references in my music. It’s kind of fun when every now and then someone will say “hey was that a reference to —” and then I get to talk to them about some book I really liked for the next hour. It’s so cool.
SP: Are there any tracks on your upcoming album that you’re particularly excited about?
Hertler: There’s one called “Old Love.” It’s based off of a Japanese parable called a Chrysanthemum Pledge. The original version is about two samurai who become friends on the battlefield. The friendship becomes pretty intense and they promise each other that once the war is over they’re going to hang out and be buddies. Unfortunately, they’re unable to so they commit suicide because they took a vow and they were unable to keep it. I took that story and made it so they fall in love on the battlefield and they commit suicide because they can’t be together. Then they go up to samurai heaven and find each other there and there love is rekindled. It’s one of the more impersonal songs on the record. It was like i was writing a fictional story than writing about myself. But maybe I was writing about myself. I don’t know. But the experience of writing that song, as silly as it might seem, felt like a sacred experience. I really tapped into this story. There’s actually going to be a video counterpart that hopefully will be released soon that tells the story more explicitly. I really care about the characters and their story and I want to do it justice. A lot of the stuff on the album is way more personal. But in those instance where you can write about fictional characters is so fun.
SP: I know that live shows are super important to you guys. What can audiences expect when they come to see you perform?
Hertler: I think in our live shows, what we do as a band is fully realized. Our shows are whimsical. We wear costumes, there’s a lot of color. We tend to veer towards more high energy, party music. When people come to a show they want to have fun. They’re very connective. They’re a social gathering. We want people to make memories at our shows. I know that concerts that I’ve attended in the past have been very important to me. If you enjoy something you’ll remember it vividly and I think that we take a lot of pride in making sure we play our hardest so that memorable things happen. We get silly too. One time I came out to a show wearing a bird’s nest. My sax-player is a master level woodworker and he built this huge bird nest out of vines and I went on stage in a pterodactyl suit and birds nest on my head. Especially for our headlining shows we go hard. It’s a lot of fun. Especially when our silly gimmicks work out. Sometimes we’ll call our manager two days before a show and tell him we need a pterodactyl costume or seven power ranger suits. We like our costumes. They help us go from normal life to show mode.
SP: What are you most looking forward to on your upcoming tour?
Hertler: Hanging out with the band and playing the music. It’s exhausting but there’s something about being crammed in a band with a bunch of people that’s really fun. We’re really fortunate that we love hanging out with each other.. The music and the songwriting is something I would do regardless of whether or not I was playing shows and I love playing live. But there’s something to be said for just the experiences that come along when you’re on tour. When you’re passing through the mountains or an old friend hits you up to take you skiing on an off day. We like to hike and camp. People are always really excited to share their city with you. We love that. Those moments are so special and we’re fortunate to have friends and supporters who welcome us into their cities. I love seeing people who are proud of where they’re from.
SP: Thanks so much for speaking with me today. I’ve really enjoyed listening to your music!
Hertler: Thanks! We always have a great time in Champaign-Urbana so we can’t wait to come back!
Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers will release their latest album Pluto on Friday, March 31st. The group will be playing Canopy Club with Church Booty on Sunday, April 2nd, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door.