Too many of us wake up begrudgingly in the morning knowing a full day of boredom at work that was exactly like the day before will follow, but hey, we’ve gotta pay the bills somehow, right? Luckily for us Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers refuse to wake up and feel that way. In accordance with their latest album title, Terra Incognita, Joe and the crew took that great leap into the unknown and quit their jobs to dedicate their lives to their shared passion of creating refreshing, upbeat music. After a successful first half of the band’s first headlining tour, Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers will kick off the second leg at Canopy Club in Urbana this Friday.
Smile Politely: You guys are just getting ready to start your second leg of the tour, how was the first?
Joe Hertler: It was great. I think the general idea about your first tour is it’s supposed to be this horrible experience and just difficult in general, and this is actually really fun. Whether there were 20 people or 200 it was just a lot of enthusiasm in the crowd. We were met with a lot of warmth in general when we traveled and I think on your first tour it just feels particularly good. It was certainly challenging, I mean, health was the hardest part you know, just kind of taking care of your body. For me especially, being a singer, I had to not talk when we weren’t playing, kind of had to give up alcohol and cigs and caffeine. It was a constant uphill battle trying to keep the voice healthy, and it went for the other guys in the band too in their own way. But yeah other than that it was great.
SP: Any learning experiences from the first leg?
Hertler: I think one of the biggest things is you get really practiced when you’re playing every night. You get really tight with your band when you’re playing a set every night and you just start to feel like you’re really learning how to actually play it. I think prior to going on tour we were like, “Yeah you know we’re a pretty tight band, we’ve been playing together for a long time, we’re good friends,” and then I think once you’re out on the road playing together over and over you take a special kind of pride in how tight you can actually be. There’s this confidence that comes along with that and it frees you up to play around and jam a little bit more. It brings a whole new level of comfort, I think is the best way to put it. You just feel comfortable in playing and comfortable in your craft and being able to explore it in a live setting.
SP: How did you all come together to form the band?
Hertler: About three or four years ago our first show was New Year’s Eve, going into 2010. We played a show together, I just started hanging out with these guys. I was from a place in Michigan an hour away from Lansing, Michigan’s capital where most of my bandmates lived at the time. So I was invited over by an acquaintance that we had to come share a little of my music with this collective that they had going on at the time in Lansing. It just started hanging out with these guys as friends. They were in another band at the time and I, as a solo artist, got booked at the same festival that they did. They put instrumentation to my music in the hotel room that we were sharing for three or four days over new years and we partied a lot, we just became very close over this short period of time and not long after that we were discussing becoming an actual band. We did that for a little while, sort of casual like, “Hey we’re in a college band” kind of thing for two years. I would say about two years ago we started taking it more seriously and six months ago we all quit our jobs to do it full time. It’s terrifying. Every day I’m terrified over the decision I have made, and it’s really strange going from a regular paycheck job. We were all living the post-grad cubicle lives. I was in education strangely enough so a little bit different, but still strange going from post grad cubicle life to rock n’ roll. So I’m learning what it is to live paycheck to paycheck now. I mean it’s hard but there’s a lot of enthusiasm with what we’re doing right now we’re all just really excited to be doing this. Really for me I wasn’t too crazy about my job prior to this so it just feels really, really good to do what you love doing and get to do it every day. It’s just refreshing, it feels good. Besides being totally broke [laughs].
SP: Was there a specific moment where you decided yeah we’re really going to go for it?
Hertler: There was a couple of them. Most notably we played at a festival called Electric Forest last summer and I knew this is what I wanted to do in my life but that was the kick in the butt that was like, “Okay you’ve got to start taking this more seriously, look what’s happening right now, embrace this and take the opportunity.” It was this really driving feeling that washed over me following that festival. Part of it was like I got back from that festival, and I had taken a couple days off of work, and just like landed back in the office and I was like “oh my god I can’t do this” [laughs] And I think that happened to the rest of the guys too. Probably one of the coolest, most genuine music experiences we had ever had, and being rushed back into the workforce was a tough contrast. That was the most recent moment of, “Oh crap, I have to do this.”
SP: On the newly released album Terra Incognita, going off the meaning of the name, how is that album representative of something unknown or unexplored?
Hertler: It’s funny you ask that cause actually the album title came to me when I was browsing maps. I was looking at this old English map and it said “Terra Incognita, here be dragons” and I was looking into it and they put “here be dragons” in these parts that were unexplored. It sort of felt cheesy but it felt right-cheesy to call it Terra Incognita just cause it was like a real departure from the folksier side of music we were making. I was kind of born out of this folk singer and songwriter scene in Michigan. And my stuff was very introspective, very personal, it was very folky. I was just kind of this one-man show, I had to write and record everything. Then all of a sudden I had this band and our first record was very much centered around all of these songs that were written to be performed solo they weren’t written with consideration of the band. Once we pushed past that cycle of music I found that I was writing for the band and leaving a lot more space. I was composing the songs thinking of my band mates and what they could do in this spot, not necessarily like I would tell them what to do but more like, “Oh this would be a great opportunity for my guitar player to do something cool.” I was structuring them that way, and it ended up really changing our sound. It became the Rainbow Seekers rather than just me. And that was great, that’s what I wanted. I was way happier, I don’t think I was every happy with music as a solo artist. I mean there were definitely times where I thought, “Man I’d love to do this with my life,” but I wasn’t as interested as when I found the band. It took it to a totally different level. They brought in these funk and R&B elements. We could really stretch our wings and because of that we sort of left the folk genre in a way. I still revisit it, and a lot of my songs start out folk but then I give it to the band and they take it to a different place and develop it into something more than just a folk song. And that’s sort of where the album name Terra Incognita came from.
SP: How would you define your sound now?
Hertler: So we recently, after much conversation as we have traveled over the last month, kind of found something that might be suiting to our sound—post-Motown folk rock, which I think works. I’m not sure. It’s really hard for me to say what our genre sounds like because I hear it from other people but that was brought up and it seems to have stuck for the time being. I don’t know how long it will stick around but as soon as I feel like anyone gives us a genre I kind of write something in a different genre in this subconscious rebellion against it maybe so we’ll see how long it sticks. Right now there’s a lot of Motown and funk kind of vibes going into the music, but at the same time we will end up playing a lot of shows like jam bands and stuff like that so I’m not really sure what we are. But there’s a strong undercurrent of both rock and Motown.
SP: For your outfits in the live performances, is that planned out or did everyone just walk out to play one day dressed crazy?
Hertler: I didn’t want it to be just me, I wanted everyone’s personalities to be represented on stage in the way that they wanted it so I don’t ever tell my bandmates what to wear, there really isn’t a whole lot of coordination, some of us just take it to more extremes than others. My sax player, his on stage outfit is completely insane like sometimes he dresses like a tree, he’s got this deerskin, crazy thing; he’s got a burch bark suit; he’s got all these crazy costumes. So he’s like the top of the costumes food chain then I sit underneath that with my wings, I kind of wear this, like, dress now so things keep moving up. It just started happening, it was like this is who we are, you know. It’s just who we are, we’re weird, there’s not a lot of sense to anything we do. So I think it’s just sort of a reflection of that.
SP: How do you try to connect with the audience?
Hertler: I think that’s what it’s about in general, connecting with the audience. I’m not a particularly good musician when it comes to like regular music sensibilities, but I like to connect with people and I use music to do that and when those connections are happening I think very much that’s what defines a good show and I think a lot of that starts with opening yourself up to the performance and opening yourself up to the audience and giving it your all and being honest about it. You can sort of cover yourself up but I think for us to perform really well we just kind of have to go, “Screw it, we’re gonna be ourselves up here and play this hard and play it like we mean it and hopefully just have a lot of fun,” and I think that’s where the connections happen. When you’re in a live show setting like that it’s just something that happens—you have a group of people together who are sort of conglomerating together under music that they appreciate and they’re having fun and I think that’s honestly the main goal of music, art, and any performance—to use those connections and cause them to happen. That’s why I play music. If those connections weren’t happening I’d do something else. And I hope you give people a little break from their lives, you know, a good time for an evening. That’s why I like to play music.
Don’t miss Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers Friday at Canopy.