It was Bob Dylan who said it: “Well, it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Rich Seiner always knew he was gonna have to serve somebody. And he found out early on that you can’t serve two masters. A native of West Caldwell, he received a B.S. from Rutgers and an M.S. in electrical engineering from Columbia. His father was an engineer, and he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. So the son dutifully followed.
But Seiner soon found out that he couldn’t get away from music, no matter how hard he tried. So in 1997, he gave up engineering and went into music fulltime. He founded a band, Rainbow Fresh, which plays a combination of rock, pop, and Latin music and which has had a few incarnations and configurations, but now operates as a trio.
“I loved music, and I figured I could work as an engineer and save up,” he said. “But I was naive to think that I could do both. You cannot live that type of double life. In anything arts related, whether it is music, art, or writing, you have to devote yourself fully to your art. I was part of the corporate world, and I made a decision to leave that world.”
Rainbow Fresh will perform New Year’s Eve at Triumph Brewing Company in Princeton; the show starts at 10:30 p.m. “I think it’s going to be a very fun time. I can’t wait,” Seiner says.
The band features Seiner on guitar and vocals, bassist Chip Moore, who also sings, and drummer John O’Brien. “I feel I’ve met my soulmate — musically,” he says of Moore. “I’ve waited 10 years to find a musician like him.
The drummer’s chair in the band is shared almost like in a potential football quarterback controversy, such as that in Philadelphia — Donovan McNabb or Jeff Garcia? — or, more apropos, the University of Florida — Chris Leak or Tim Tebow?
Seiner unabashedly says that O’Brien is his first choice. “He is a great jazz drummer who is always in demand for sit-ins and studio gigs. He has to make a living, so I cannot expect him to devote his total energy to an independent band like this.”
Kenny Soule, a North Carolina native to whom Seiner refers as a “master funk drummer” will be on the New Year’s Eve gig at Triumph. “When John’s not available, I use Kenny. When Kenny’s not available, I use John.”
Rainbow Fresh sometimes plays in an acoustic setting, such as it did with its gig last week at Triumph in New Hope. Seiner says the group sometimes plays unplugged when its drummer is not available, or when he and bassist Moore just want to chill a bit. “It’s a lot of fun to do things stripped down. Sometimes, without the third element there, you have to concentrate more on the form of the music you are playing before stretching boundaries. You have to be a lot more simple, and concentrate on the melody, and control the things you need to control in that type of setting.”
Seiner spent most of his time as a “typical Jersey kid” in West Caldwell. “I had a good time growing up,” he said. “It was your typical crowded North Jersey town, about 10 miles from Newark, mostly Italian and some Irish. I used to think that the world was 90 percent Catholic and the other 10 percent Jewish,” he says.
Seiner, 39, is the son of Peruvian immigrants. His father, Juan, and his mother, Elsa, met and began raising a family, thriving in their native Lima. But Juan, who was an electrical engineer, had gone to college in Canada and had always wanted to come to the United States. In 1967 the family moved to New Jersey. Rich was born soon after, the only American-born child (“americanito”) among the four Seiner siblings. “Growing up in the United States, we just tried to fit in with the community,” Seiner says.
He listened to the same types of music everyone else did. “My older brothers and sister used to listen to the Stones a lot, and Led Zeppelin too. When I heard ‘Black Dog’ when I was seven years old, I just thought that was the greatest thing I ever heard. It was that kind of sound, the guitar, the imagery, that attracted me to the instrument. I always wanted to play the guitar.”
Seiner didn’t really speak Spanish or identify strongly with Latino culture growing up. But his mother spoke Spanish at home, and he at least understood the language as a kid. “At first, it was my mom speaking to me in Spanish and me responding in English. Now, though, I speak to her a lot more in Spanish,” he says. “About 10 years ago, I began to realize just how much of my heritage I had lost, and so I began to relearn how to speak Spanish.”
Musically his tastes have evolved as well. He has always been a rocker, and he always will be, but Seiner’s parents were huge fans of Latin music, and at home he heard singers like Mexico’s Juan Gabriel and Puerto Rico’s Jose Feliciano. Juan Gabriel, Seiner says, “is a very powerful, emotional presence.” Feliciano is more well known, at least to American audiences, as a pop singer, but Seiner has always admired his guitar playing and his passion. “He is such an amazing singer, and an amazing guitarist,” Seiner says. “I hear him, and I can’t believe how good he is. I just can’t say how much of an influence he has had on me as a musician.”
But an equally large Latin influence is Ruben Blades, the Panamanian multitasker who first became popular in the late 1970s as a salsa singer. Says Seiner: “He was the first guy who really came out with the socially-conscious lyrics. For him it was always more than, ‘I love you, and without you I’ll die.’ He was very politically active and intelligent; he was a Harvard graduate, and he had run for president of Panama. And he was an actor. I have so much respect for him.”
Seiner, who is single and lives in Weehawken, says he makes his living by playing music and working as a bar manager in New York. “It’s not a job that I like but it pays the bills, and it gives me time to work on my music during the days.”
He doesn’t regret leaving his nice job as an engineer. “I am financially poor but I have never been happier in my life. For me, playing music is what I was meant to do. I got a late start on it, but I don’t care. As long as people are listening to me I will do it, and I will keep doing it, and I will be happy doing it.”
New Year’s Eve Party, Sunday, December 31, 10:30 p.m., Triumph Brewing Company, 138 Nassau Street, Princeton. Hosted by the band Rainbow Fresh. $10. 609-924-7855.