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Chasing the Rainbow

A new album and tour has Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers exploring unfamiliar terrain

For Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers, a band from Kalamazoo and Lansing, the name of their sophomore album couldn’t be more apt.

It’s called Terra Incognita, meaning “unknown land.” And although the band has been pushing the boundaries of the Michigan music scene for a little more than four years, it is blazing into new territory with the release of Terra Incognita and a tour out West.

Terra Incognita, being released Feb. 17 on the label Bad Mascot, has been highly anticipated since the Rainbow Seekers’ 2011 debut album, On Being. With that album, the band began to amass a loyal following, playing Michigan venues such as the Common Ground and Electric Forest festivals. The band had gained notice beyond the Mitten state, however, nabbing a coveted gig at last March’s SXSW, the massive arts and music festival in Austin, Texas, and playing alongside groups such as MGMT, Phoenix and Aloe Blacc.

Not bad for a group whose music seems to defy categorization. When asked what genre the Rainbow Seekers fall into, drummer Rick Hale admits, “We’re still trying to figure that out.”

The band’s Facebook page refers to their sound as “psychedelic post-Motown pop with a side of funk, folk, and R&B.”

Whatever kind of music they make, the Rainbow Seekers have come a long way from the Lansing attic where they began.

In 2009, Joe Hertler was a student at Central Michigan University when he bought a guitar and some recording equipment to impress a girl. He didn’t get the girl, but he did find a new vocation. He connected with guitarist Ryan Hoger, and the pair was invited to Lansing by Bigger Brush Media to record a series called the “Quilted Attic Sessions.” It was in that attic, with quilts covering the walls, that Hertler and Hoger first met Hale and bassist Kevin Pritchard, who were members of the band Loune.

Later that year, Hertler was booked as “the opener’s opener” at the 2010 Mittenfest, a music festival held in Ann Arbor on New Year’s Eve. He ended up sharing a hotel room with members of Loune, who offered to back his set the next day. They did, and it was the first time the musicians who would form Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers performed together.

It was the start of something good. At first, it was just the four of them. In the last two years, however, the band added violist Josh Holcomb, keyboardist Micah Bracken and saxophonist Aaron Stinson, a Kalamazoo native. Holcomb has since left the band.

“The first arrangements we had were bass, lead guitar, drums, and Joe,” Hale says. “Everything was sort of folk rock, and that was pretty much all we could reach for. But when we added our keyboard player and saxophonist, it really let us go anywhere and touch other genres. It gives us a lot of options.”

Stinson, a graduate of Portage Northern High School, brings a little of Kalamazoo’s jazz-rich influence to the band. “I’ve been playing gigs (in Kalamazoo) since I was 13,” he says. “I started with a jazz quartet called the Northside Jazz Quartet out of Portage Northern High School. Over the years I’ve built a good following in Kalamazoo playing in different bands, and then I joined the Rainbow Seekers.”

Both Stinson and Hale live in the Kalamazoo area, while Hertler and the band’s other members live in Lansing. All are Michigan natives, but their varying backgrounds influence the band’s unique sound. “My vision for the band is to have everyone’s own background and personality expressed,” Hertler says.

One of the ways they express their individuality is in their unusual attire at live shows. Loud, floral shirts and funky hats are staples, but the members often take it a step farther. Stinson has performed adorned in a vest/hat combo crafted from tree branches and bark. Couple the outfits with the band’s energetic stage presence, and Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers have become the group to see in 2015.

Chicago’s live music syndicate Audiotree agrees, noting in a review, “Bringing undeniable talent and natural charismatic exuberance to the live show, Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers’ performances are not to be missed.”

Hertler says the band really tries to connect with people through its recorded music and on stage. “That’s why I’m part of this and love doing it,” he says. “It’s one of the big things I pull from, and that’s what our music is there for.”

On New Year’s Eve, the Rainbow Seekers opened for Michigan music phenomenon Greensky Bluegrass in a sold-out Royal Oak Music Theatre. The performance marked Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers’ unofficial four-year anniversary and was symbolic of the band’s burgeoning popularity.

“The ride is one mountain after another,” Hertler says. “Will we ever be satiated? Probably not. But it’s that same lack of complacency that keeps you wanting to drive forward and do something different every time.”

On Jan. 31, the Rainbow Seekers kicked off a 15-city tour at the Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids. This month the band will perform across the western United States, playing in Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles before ending in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Feb. 26.

“We’re so excited for the tour. This is what I want to do,” Hertler says. “Our last run was really enjoyable. Whether there was a couple people in the crowd or a couple hundred, the shows were a blast.

“For me, it doesn’t feel any different. I very distinctly recall the first time I released a record there were 50 hand-drawn albums that I had at a coffee shop, with just about 60 of my friends there. I remember after that thinking, ‘Man, I love this. This is so much fun.’ I just remember that feeling, and, compared to now, it hasn’t changed.”

Despite the attention Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers are attracting, the band strives to maintain a humble, Michigan-rooted mentality. “It’s Michigan. It’s home,” Hertler says. “There is such a great sense of community here. I love this state, and wherever we may end up, this will always be home and I will always do my best to represent that.”

Hertler admits that the band’s future is as uncharted as it is exciting. “We’re crossing our fingers,” he says. “Either way, we’re gonna play rock ’n’ roll.”

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Listen to their music

You can find more information about Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers and listen to songs from Terra Incognita and On Being and joehertler.com.

Check out Feel recorded live at the Russell Industrial Center