Interview: Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers

The Sonic Lunch concert series is well underway in Ann Arbor, with Stepdad kicking off the series and Eric Hutchinson performing last week. This Thursday Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers are taking the stage with their Michigan-based, seven-man, folk/funk/everything-in-between band. I had the chance to chat with vocalist and songwriter for the band Joe Hertler last week, and we talked about everything from live performances and songwriting to how the band originated and where it’s going. Here’s what I found out.

Badger Senate: How did the band get together?

Joe Hertler: It was really just that we were friends. I originally started out as a solo artist, and I hung out with this guy in Mt. Pleasant, Ryan Hoger. He’s my guitar player. At some point, we got booked for a thing called Mitten Fest in Ypsilanti, and at the time, as an up-and-coming songwriter, it was a really cool opportunity for us. We were really excited about it. At the time I was also kind of hanging out in Lansing with this music collective called Bigger Brush Media, and the guys who eventually became my keyboard player, bassist, and drummer were in a band called Loune that was also part of this collective. I didn’t really know them at the time, but they were a part of this collective. They had also been booked for Mitten Fest, and so we decided we’d all come together and get a hotel because Mitten Fest was four days long or whatever and we were all going to the whole thing. So we were just kind of forced together in a hotel room, and they’re all super good musicians and they were like, ‘Hey we’ll play on a couple of your songs,’ and that’s really how Rainbow Seekers formed as a group. We had a lot of fun together that weekend. A bunch of dudes crammed in a hotel room. It’s kind of gone off from there. We’ve picked up a couple other members since, just mutual friends mainly. We’re all buddies. No one was really brought in through an audition.

BS: You guys collectively have a unique sound, with folk and funk influences. How do you guys decide on the band’s sound?

JH: We listen to a lot of D’Angelo, so there’s that. I’m big into dance music, like house and techno. I think some of the higher-energy dancing stuff stems from that love. A couple of the guys have a side funk band, so that goes into a lot of what we do. Everyone sort of has different musical backgrounds. Something I try to focus on a lot is making sure that each bandmate’s musical sounds are appreciated and they’re able to express themselves in the way they want musically. So if any of my bandmates are like, ‘Do this,’ we certainly play ideas off one another all the time. Everyone is kind of trusted to do their own thing, to add to the sound of the band, and sometimes we’ll sit down when I present the song and one band member will want to take it into another direction, and it’s because of that we end up with a lot of different genres being squished into one set. Typically it doesn’t always work, but we’re at a point right now where it’s still kind of a range of folk to funk to more dancy-er stuff. And then there’s the singer-songwriter stuff as well. I think people start to expect the wide range of sounds and it’s something we really value, too. There are a lot of different emotions out there, so we try to hit them all I think and see what happens.

BS: How did you guys come up with the band name, Rainbow Seekers?

JH: There’s this record that was a really influential record that the band collectively gets into. It’s this guy Joe Sample. He’s this like, Scientologist jazz composer. So once we all started becoming friends officially, that was what we were listening to at the time. He has a record called Rainbow Seekers. And before we were ever the Rainbow Seekers that was an influential record, and it carried over to the band name.

BS: You guys are all about putting a great live performance. Have any favorite moments of live performances over the years?

JH: There’s always special performances. I think Common Ground last year was definitely a highlight as far as a performance that went really well. As far as like, stories and stuff, we had this guy…my drummer used to wear this helmet with actual deer antlers on it, and one guy got on stage once and just took it, and was dancing around. We kind of just go with things, to be honest, when they happen. He ended up stage diving, and just landed on this girl, and hurt himself and hurt her, and everyone just moved away. I felt really bad for the girl, but I think she was okay. But it was just kind of funny, because this just wasted guy got on stage, took the helmet, and leapt off the stage and no one was there to catch him. It was a funny one.

BS: Sonic Lunch will be your third performance in Ann Arbor this year, and you’re coming back in July for Top of the Park. What is it about Ann Arbor that makes you guys keep coming back?

JH: I partially grew up in Ann Arbor. My grandma taught at U of M and Eastern and taught in the Ann Arbor School District. It’s always been a second home for me. There’s so much music in Ann Arbor, and there’s always the opportunity to play these types of shows. It’s really the only market we really play a lot in. I feel like we play in Ann Arbor more than we do in other places, but it’s just because there’s a special market there and people really do like to listen and they appreciate live music. So, you know, if we have an opportunity to play, especially in front of a new audience, we take those, when in other markets we only play once or twice a year.

BS: You guys are so lively on stage. How do you keep up the energy?

JH: It’s just fun playing. At this point, the only friends we have are each other, and we just have a good time playing. We all have careers. We’re all kind of stuck in our career world Monday through Friday until about 5 p.m., and it gives us a chance to kind of escape that with your friends, and do something that really means a lot to you. It kind of makes you, more than anything else, not all the time, but, it makes you a human being. It’s an escape from the monotony. So I think you get this, like, tension when you’re sitting in your office and your boss is yelling at you and you have some big project due or whatever, and then you kind of get to escape that and freak out a little bit on a Friday night.

BS: Are all of your outside jobs disconnected from music?

JH: For the most part it’s totally separate. I’m a teacher, slash curriculum solver, slash program coordinator, we have a couple engineers, a software/business guy, PR, so we all have careers and we all would like to quit and just play full time. And we are getting close to that, but we still have a ways to go. We still haven’t decided to give up the comfort of the job — the financial comfort. I think within the next year we’ll probably be in a position to make that decision of where we’re going with our lives. So we’ll see what happens.

BS: Your music video ideas are pretty unique, with the videos in the Russell Building in Detroit and the parade invasion at Michigan State. How do you guys think up ideas for your different projects?

JH: It’s like anything. When you get hit with, even just a silly moment or idea, just a creative moment. There’s not really a format to it; it just happens. Someone is like, ‘Hey we should do this.’ Kevin (Pritchard) seems to be the one with the video ideas. He’s like a project manager at heart, so he’ll be like, ‘Oh, I really want to do this,’ and he’ll gather us all around it and execute it. We’re all creative people. If someone has an idea like, ‘Oh, we should do this,’ they present it to the band, and if we’re all down with it, usually it’ll happen.

BS: Does music writing happen in the same way for you? Or do you have a specific writing process or ritual?

JH: I do sometimes force myself to play, and I’ll force myself to do certain things that will cause a catalyst for creativity — something as simple as traveling, or reading a new book. Those will provide me with the thought and the fuel to start writing. But what it comes down to is random. It’s about making connections and stuff. I think creativity is a result of those connections happening. Kind of these different experiences being tied together with bits of emotion, and those moments just happen, and you’re very aware of it when it’s happening. Like when that light bulb clicks. It’s the same thing as like, figuring out a mathematical concept, or you have a solution to a prompt. A light bulb clicks and then all of the sudden thought kind of just falls out of you. It’s very rare for me to go back and work on songs once they’re finished.

BS: Do you do it in one sitting then?

JH: Yeah, I do find more nowadays that I will go back. Since I have the band, I really want to change the way we write songs, so it’s a little bit more band focused, rather than me just writing a song and giving it to the band. So I do find myself writing less thorough songs when I first present it to the band. I’m presenting more ideas rather than complete songs. Sometimes songs just turn out that way. But when I present a song to the band that’s a fully written song, it’s going to be very, ‘I’m being styled.’ They’re much more singer/songwriter-y, and I think as a band, we want to have a balance between that and songs that tend to be more ideas that find a little more of their blossom as the whole band explores the idea.

Joe Hertler and the Rainbow Seekers will hit the Sonic Lunch stage in Liberty Park Thursday at 12 p.m. They put on a great show, so check them out.

Written by Kelly McLaughlin