Interview With Joe Hertler (of Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers)

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In the hands of a lesser band, Psychedelic-Motown-Folk would sound like a noisy mess of clashing sounds and bad, overly indulgent ideas. But in the hands of Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers, it’s the only way to describe their wonderful blend of feel-good Motown vibes and acoustic introspectiveness. Joe Hertler writes and sings the songs, but the Rainbow Seekers add their own distinct personalities to the mix. Their new album Terra Incognita (February 17th via Bad Mascot Records) continues their trend of blending various genres together while discovering new ways to tell the stories that we can all relate to.

I got the chance to talk to Joe Hertler over the phone about his songwriting process, what it’s like to write and perform with such a large band, local music scenes in Michigan, what makes Kanye West so great, his former life as a DJ, and much more.

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Where did the name Rainbow Seekers come from?

Back before we were an actual band, we were just hanging out as buddies and fellow musicians at this studio, and there was a record by Joe Sample called Rainbow Seeker and it’s a cool fusion jazz record that heavily samples a lot of really big hip hop albums. It was a great record that we were listen to a lot at the time, especially back then when we were working a lot with other hip hop artists and putting together analog beats – that’s how our band came to be initially. But the front cover of this record just shows this very stoic and lofty picture of Joe Sample standing there with a rainbow behind him, and he just looks like a totally badass, and I remember thinking, “Man, it would be really cool to be called the Rainbow Seekers.” Two or three months later we were a band and the name Rainbow Seekers was the name we chose.

Do you like Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros?

I do! He’s probably a top ten “If I could tour with anyone” kind of artist.

You have that Edward Sharpe sense in your writing, like in “What It Feels Like To Drown” and “Ego Loss On Grand River Avenue”. But then with that, there are also songs that straight up sound like Motown and funk songs, like “Feel”. And then there are some songs that sound like Edward Sharpe covering Motown songs, like “No Money (Jetski)”. You also remind me of Edward Sharpe in the sense that your band feels more like a collective of distinct personalities instead of just a band backing up your music.

I appreciate you saying that, because it’s the truth. Sometimes I feel unfairly credited that my name is right before the band because there are a lot of distinct personalities in this band. My vision for this band was to have that, where each person could express themselves in the way that they wanted to, stylistically or musically. It’s cool because I feel like our listeners key into all of the band mates. It’s quite the mix of musicians with a lot of different influences coming together as the Rainbow Seekers.

Was that your intention, that you started this band thinking that you wanted it to be a collective of very distinct personalities? Or was it just you saying, “Hey, I need a drummer and a guitarist,” and then eventually you got all these different musicians together and it just became the Rainbow Seekers?

I can put it like this: when I was starting out, I was writing folk singer-songwriter kind of stuff – like a guy alone with his acoustic guitar, which is what you call now “Folk music”. Yet I see music as a very social thing. It’s communication, like elaborate musical communication. I just feel like it’s one of those things that’s shared with other people.

I never really liked playing solo, and I’m a pretty social person as it is, and I always wanted a band. My mentors early on would go like, “Someday Joey you’ll have a band for this,” and eventually I found the guys for it, and they quickly became some of my best friends. I see music as something that’s very social and meant to be shared with other people, both in terms of the audience hearing you and the community within the band.

I don’t think I ever want to go back playing solo; some things are meant to be shared with other people and to be connective.

A lot of times when I listen to folky solo acts (i.e. Bob Dylan), it does tend to turn into “Watch me describe my feelings and don’t interact”. Your music seems to be a different approach to be more engaging.

The thing is, [my music] is nothing unique or special. I feel like the stuff I write about is stuff that everyone has felt before, and I hope to engage people with my band mates and with everyone who comes to our shows.

Most of your music is very uplifting, but lyrically you have a range – one minute you’re talking about spending all your money on a Jetski and then the next you’re singing about what it feels like to drown. In terms of songwriting, is there a specific aim that you have for your lyrics, or do you write the music first and then you let the music dictate the words?

It usually starts with concepts that I have in my mind a lot, and then I start writing out lyrics. I keep a journal and I’m always writing stuff down and letting them digest for a while. Sometimes I use songwriting as a way to make sense of some things as well, so if something bad happens it could take a really long time for it to come out in music, but there’s time to learn and explore the topic.

What will usually happen is that I’ll write four or five songs about the same things with similar lyrics, but then I’ll boil them down to one or two good songs, or at least songs that I could bring to the band. As far as what they’re actually about, it’s all about what’s on my mind at that point.

That’s funny you mention “Jetski” and “What It Feels Like To Drown”. “Jetski” is a really happy song, but I was so broke at that time. I was doing my student teaching then, and I remember selling my guitars to buy gas money to make it to the school I was teaching at, I was so incredibly broke. So this happy song came from this time, since I tend to be a guy who laughs at the pain of the world. It was a silly way to cope with being desperately broke.

But then “What It Feels Like To Drown” is about a really happy moment. I was hiking with an old girlfriend of mine in this absolute beautiful area and this is song is about being drowned in a moment and being taken back by the moment that you’re in and the beauty of it. It’s actually one of the happiest songs for me on the record, and it never gets old to play. So there are different ways to express yourself and that a sad song doesn’t always have to sound sad or a happy song doesn’t have to always sound happy.

The genre description on your Facebook page describes your music as “Psychedelic Post-Motown Pop with a Slide of Funk, Folk, and RnB”

Haha it’s because we don’t know who we are! Our new music is even more far stretched and polarizing. I just know that I want music that I can take to a live show and play it and have it be so much fun, but I also want people to feel something. I want it to be an emotionally connective experience, but I also want to make music for the lonely guy late at night with his headphones on to get something out of listening to the record. I want more slower, acoustic songs on the record juxtapose to the uplifting funky tracks.

So are you intentionally trying to create music that incorporates so many different genres, even if at times it’s almost contradicting, or is it that when you write music it just happens to sound like a blend of so many different genres?

Personally I think it has to do with the way I write music. Human emotion is so broad and diverse and dynamic, and I want to express that full range. You only have an hour-and-a-half to play a show, and in that time you want people to feel a wide range, happy, sad, and everything in-between. I owe a lot of that to my band.

I write songs on organ and guitar, and they often come off as very folky. Even my funk songs at first sound folky when you play them on an acoustic guitar in a coffeeshop. But then I take the songs to the band and I don’t tell them what to do. I might say like, “Here’s the overall arching vision of the song,” but ultimately the band might turn my folky song into a funk or pop song. I might define the structure or the general vibe of the song, but then they take it to a whole new level, and I love them for it. It’s such a liberating thing to have this trust that I have with my band mates. I know I can give them something and know that they’re going to do a good job.

Now with that said, if you ever have a very specific idea for a song and you give it to your band and they play around with it and they give you back a totally different song that either doesn’t click with you or doesn’t match your vision, how much trust do you still have in your band with that particular song?

It’s weird actually. Like the first time we tried “Jetski” it just wasn’t vibing, but the band knew that. We’re not all the best talkers, but we communicate through music and I think that if something’s not working then we know. Honestly, there are a couple of guys in the band who are better than me at saying “That’s not right,” and they’ll knock me down too, and I trust them. A lot of it is just finding that initial groove and the foundation of that song. Once you find that, along with the initial emotion behind the song, that’s when things start to come together.

It’s amazing how, when you’re writing a song, you know within five minutes you know you have an amazing song, and then it takes you five months to actually make it work.

Haha yeah it can take a long time. Especially now that we’re touring, it’s harder to have a really fresh idea and take it to the band. At first it was like, “Hey guys I just wrote a song, let’s try it now,” but now I have to build up this bank of songs in my head for like two months. It’s different, but it’s still working.

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Speaking of touring, what’s it like to tour with so many musicians? I can imagine that’s quite a task to try and get everyone and their gear from one city to the next while also trying to feed everyone.

Our tour manager is a miracle worker haha we’re all easily distracted and can act like a bunch of butterflies, some of us worse than others. We have a manger that always makes sure we have a place to sleep and that we’re getting to places on time.

A while back, our band manager used to take bets on how late we’d be. We became notorious for being one of the latest bands in Michigan, it was so bad haha when you’re a young band you don’t realize the importance of such things. We have people keeping us professional now and making sure that we do our part. They take care of us a lot.

On your website it says that the purpose of the band is the live show and that playing music is a symbiotic process and not a “High Art operation”. Could you elaborate more on what “High Art operation” means to you?

So there are tons of exclusive scenes in Michigan, and when I was first starting out I never felt included in a lot of these groups. I’m sure part of it comes from the fact that you have to pay your dues, but when I started this project, I knew that I didn’t want anyone to feel excluded, like they weren’t “cool” enough to be at our shows.

I want people to come to our shows and feel welcomed and embraced by the rest of the people there. I think at least in Michigan we’re achieving that. At lot of this comes from my background as a teacher; if people aren’t comfortable or don’t feel safe, then their experience is going to be less and they’re going to take away less. I try to make it this safe and relaxing environment where people can just let go and feel perfectly comfortable and like who they really are. Again, it’s all about connecting with people. That’s really important to me, and I hope that never goes away.

Who are your musical heroes and inspiration?

Someone I really look up to musically is D’Angelo. I love Tycho as well. I used to DJ a lot back in the day and I sort of retired DJing after I opened for him once and decided to focus on my band. It was so great, and Scott [Hansen] is a super nice guy, totally down to earth.

I love the Flaming Lips too. I love how wild their performances are and how long and creative their career has been. It’s something I really admire, that these guys are pushing their 50’s and they’re still doing things that other band aren’t and always trying to make it weird.

What are your thoughts on [D’Angelo’s] Black Messiah?

I love it! I mean, is it Voodoo? No, but I don’t think that it’s fair to compare the two. I still really love it. It’s quite political, but that’s what he’s feeling and I’m totally down for it. My favorite track on the record is actually “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” which is the one with Macy Gray on it. It’s fucking awesome. She’s actually “Tutu” on that song. It doesn’t sound like her initially since she hangs back a lot on her vocals, but it’s definitely her. She’s actually one of my favorites too. I used to cover “I Try” quite a bit – that used to be our main cover for a while.

What are your current covers that you’re performing?

I think we’re going to do “Space Captain” by Joe Cocker pretty soon. I don’t think it’s going to be widely received at first, and some people might think it’s one of our own songs. It’s not a super popular Joe Cocker song, but it’s a beautiful song. I think we’re also going to try and work on New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” soon.

What would be the ultimate dream collaboration for you?

If Kanye West called me up that would be pretty cool – he did that for Bon Iver, so there’s hope!

Well he’s working with Paul McCartney now, and it doesn’t sound cheesy or bad at all, so you never know! It’s great because it seems like it’s not him showing off to everyone that he’s hanging out with Paul McCartney but rather it’s a true attempt to create some great new music.

I think we can always count on Kanye being Kanye. One of the things that I love about him is that he’s such an open book and that he speaks his mind. He can come off as a total prick, but he still wants to be heard and to be understood, and he’s expressing that through his music. His music is always honest, and that’s why I think he’s great.

Who is an artist or a band that you wish more people knew about?

I have two Michigan bands. The first one is Vulfpeck and they’re made up of a bunch of jazz dudes and they’re the best musicians in Michigan. They were also the band that made that silent Spotify album. The other one is The Soil & The Sun. I really don’t know how to describe their sound except that it is huge, dynamic, and totally wild.

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Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber

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