A Profoundly Cool Experience: Aqueous’ Mike Gantzer Talks New Music, moe. Mentoring & More

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Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with John Popper, Andrew “Red” Johnson, Jimmy Herring, Rob Barraco, Nicki Bluhm, Neal Casal, Alan Evans and many more. (A full archive of more than 50 The Art Of The Sit-In features is here.)

We’ve talked much in this space on the idea of the jam scene being a remarkably self-renewing thing: young bands with favorable buzz begin their climb up and benefit from word-of-mouth, old-school audience nurturing buoyed with new-school techniques and the patronage of long-since-established bands who decades ago were themselves the unproven climbers. In 2018, it’s a list that jots Twiddle, Spafford, TAUK, Turkuaz, The Revivalists, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Papadosio, Dopapod, The Werks and plenty of others … including the mighty Aqueous, the Buffalo “groove rock” foursome that’s absolutely earned its place on the up-and-up.

Aqueous guitarist Mike Gantzer joined our latest installment of The Art Of The Sit-In to look back on a seminal year for the band and look ahead to a lot more new music and aggressive expansion plans. Aqueous – Gantzer, Dave Loss, Evan McPhaden and Rob Houk — put a lot of heart into their songs and live shows, and what would be clear even without thrilling musical chops is that it comes from a place of friendship. As Gantzer notes — and with a self-awareness that musicians twice his age sometimes never learn — that’s fundamental to maintaining a band over the long haul.

JAMBASE: I remember a few years back when we started hearing about you guys and that buzz got louder and louder — it’s national now. Can you recall a moment or moments where it was clear to Aqueous you’ve hit that next level?

MG: There was a recent one. We come from Buffalo, it’s our hometown, and I remember even as recently as a few years ago playing places like Iron Works and piling a few hundred people in. We just played our first headlining show at the Town Ballroom and sold it out — that was a huge deal for us. It’s insane, actually, in our minds because we grew up seeing shows in that room and wishing we could someday play there.

But there have been a lot of those moments, and many have also come at festivals like Peach Fest or Summer Camp. Pretty much everything that happened in 2017 — it was a mind-blowing year for all of us. We’re stoked, man, to find an audience like this. We started in high school with not a lot of intention to go far and this has turned into something really special.

[Origami | Town Hall Ballroom December 31, 2017]

JAMBASE: When did it become clear this could be a full-time pursuit for you guys? I’m sure it didn’t happen in high school but you guys aren’t that old, either.

MG: [laughs] Definitely not in high school. But I think you want to be able to be friends and have fun together first. As we got a little older, and I remember it was senior year of college, we started to do the weekend warrior thing where we’d do Thursday through Saturday. I skipped every Thursday class to be on the road, and I ended up working it out with the school — they were actually really nice about it. Later around that time, and this was 2012 or 2013, we saw we had kind of a regional buzz. So we said, what if we just go out there and play 130 to 150 shows a year and see what happens?

Fast forward four and five years and a lot has changed and fallen into place. Once we brought in our drummer Rob Houk, and that was about two and a half years ago now, a lot changed for us. From then on there hasn’t felt like anything to hold us back, and we focused on the quality of our shows. But there was an immediate response when Rob came in, so really in the past two years we’ve buckled down, and all of us said, let’s make a run at this.

JAMBASE: How do you balance shoring up the markets where Aqueous is decently established with breaking into places you’ve barely or never played?

MG: It’s a little of both, for sure. We need to keep coming back for the fans that came early while at the same time explore new markets, and I think we have a nice, even balance. We’re able to do our established markets as a headliner now, and also open up for other bands in newer markets. But we’re definitely thinking in the national sense now, and last year, in particular, we got out more, especially to the Midwest and Colorado. It’s been great to see a couple of sold-out shows, and any time that happens our mind is blown. We’re kids having fun, man. This is all very pleasant.

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JAMBASE: You’re a great example of the idea that the jam scene keeps renewing. Aqueous was bred by word-of-mouth, the endorsement of established bands you yourselves grew up seeing, and more and more visible gigs.

MG: That’s exactly it — the beauty of this scene. The word of mouth is still everything. A lot of conversations happen on the internet and you can engage that way, but a friend telling a friend about a positive experience and sending that friend to see you really does seem to be a make-or-break. So, once we sensed we were catching a buzz on the scene, we tried to make sure we delivered on that buzz. We invested in a lot of the aspects of our show like sound and lights, and have stayed focused on just nailing it — giving people a reason to come back. Bands really do interact and support each other on this scene, and if you step into other scenes, it’s not always like that, or not ever like that.

JAMBASE: I read that you grew up a punk and ska fan, that Pink Floyd was your tip-over into classic rock, and that you added bands like Phish, moe. and Umphrey’s McGee and that’s what started on you on the jam scene.

MG: That’s exactly right, man, wow.

JAMBASE: And it has to be something that you’ve played with a lot of those guys now, especially in moe. and Umphrey’s. What have you learned from them?

MG: I feel like both camps really have a unique thing going on and I’ve learned a lot from both. Umphrey’s, you’re amazed by their whole operation and how cleanly they run it, from end to end, it’s just so thoroughly thought-out. Our crew and their crew even spent time together and we learned how they operate and communicate. But it’s not some cold business thing, either. That was a huge takeaway: work hard first, put the business thing first and make it as tight as you can, and provide good results. You hear it in the music — Umphrey’s is so tight and so well-rehearsed. They rehearse before their shows, every show. We do that too and honestly, we’ve been doing that for two years now because we knew that they did that [laughs]. A band 20 years deep into its career that’s still so engaged and so friendly — they’re always cracking jokes but nailing everything — that was a big experience for us.

For moe., moe. is a really family-oriented thing and just very inclusive, warm and kind. It seems they just want to get to a unique headspace together and create something authentic — just have a really organic build. It’s a looser flow over there and you can hear that difference, but either way, the takeaways from both camps are that they look in a younger band like us, and they are kind to us. moe. invited me to sit-in in Albany — we opened for them — and that was just such an honor, especially because they knew that we grew up listening to and going to hear their music. They treated us like equals. That’s amazing to get there and have them be as kind and nice as you’d always hoped — I couldn’t believe it because some musicians are the exact opposite. It inspires us how much they support other musicians.

JAMBASE: You guys have a live release out and it sounds like new music is on the way — what’s cooking?

MG: We’ve been in the studio for about a year cultivating originals that no one has heard. That’s different because we’ve always kind of road-tested songs before, but this time it was let’s just write songs for the studio and not overthink it and try to write the best possible songs and experiment on them later, live. We’re really excited to put out a new album in the next two to three months of stuff most people haven’t heard. We have some unique plans of how we’re going to release it, too, and then we’re planning to do a huge headlining tour in the fall supporting it in most of our major markets.

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JAMBASE: As you noted that’s the inverse of how most bands in the scene deliver albums. Was that a group decision?

MG: We all kind of talked about it collectively. It’s something we’ve never been able to experience, having songs be brand new in the studio format. I think a lot of time in the jam scene, people get a preconceived notion of songs with really long improvisational sections, and if they’re familiar with them, hearing them in a studio setting can deflate them. No doubt jamming is a huge part of our live show, but we also love production and being in the studio. We wanted to flex that muscle a little bit, so we kind of collectively decided we would. Our biggest challenge now is that we’ve been dying to play this stuff. We have 10 new songs that we’ve been holding back. We have other new music too, about four or five other songs not part of that 10, and you’ll hear a lot of them in the next six to eight months.

JAMBASE: Do you all write for the band?

MG: Yes. It’s all about a collective experience with Aqueous — we all write and contribute and that can get kind of scary with how the approach is but everyone will send each other little demos, half-completed or even a quarter-completed, and all have a chance to sit with it, get together collectively and hash out a full composition. It can be a really raw thing where we just show up together, grab practice instruments, and work on it. We try to incorporate everyone’s ideas and we’re open about that. It’s easy when you’re younger I think to write by yourself and then get very attached to your vision of what it should sound like. That we overcome that gives the band a unique sound — you hear a collective voice when it’s us. Even the lyrics are really collaborative.

JAMBASE: Turning to some other things you’re involved in beyond Aqueous, you and Rob Compa from Dopapod have a duo thing. Talk about that and also other things you’re working on.

MG: I like side projects and always have. Every time I do a run with another musician or another band, I’ll take something away from what they do and get some insight into how other people do things. That honestly helps you come to appreciate your own guys even more, I think. You can appreciate your own people and expand your horizons — it’s healthy.

Rob Compa … Rob is one of my favorite musicians. We have made some really interesting connections together, and we started playing like this a few years back when he was living in Rochester. We’d get together and just pick on guitars and pick each other’s brains. When we do these duo gigs, we improvise together on acoustic guitars, with no vocals. We’ve done that a few times and it’s a little scary because you really cannot hide on just an acoustic guitar. You’re putting yourself out there and it’s only two of you, acoustic, and there’s just not a lot of sound going on, so you have to work together as a team to make it sound cool. It’s just so raw. You have to put aside your fears and see what comes out. We’ve had some amazing musical conversations, for sure.

As for other things, I’m doing a Steely Dan tribute — learning a bunch of those tunes. This past year I was also lucky enough to do a Green Day tribute with Ryan Stasik and Kris Myers from Umphrey’s. For me, that was so fun. My roots are in punk, power pop and ska and it was just bashing out these two and three minute songs as loud as we could play them.

[When I Come Around | Dookie Tribute – September 24, 2017]

JAMBASE: Let’s talk sit-in stories — you with other bands, other people with Aqueous or other lineups. What comes to mind?

MG: It’s interesting with sit-ins. My whole approach is that a lot of it comes down to what to add. You’re up there to be featured and make a statement — that’s why you were asked to do it — but I always try to think about what’s already there and what can be contributed beyond that. Typically, I try to assess what the rhythm section is doing, and from there, how I might engage everyone on stage and make people smile, take some of the seriousness out of it.

Sometimes it will be super off-the-cuff. We did a Twiddle tour, and | Mihali [Savoulidis] would walk past and be like, “Hey, you want to come sit-in here? It’s these three chords and it’s a song you’ve never heard but it’s all good.” So you’ll maybe get like a few minutes to listen to it on your phone before it happens. In that case, you’re on your toes and you live in the moment, which can be really exciting but also really challenging depending on the complexity of the band.

[Syncopated Healing | Twiddle – March 5, 2017 Town Hall Ballroom]

Other times, though, you’ll get ample time to prepare, and I love that because I really like to do homework. Years ago I sat-in with TAUK, for example, and they told me two days ahead of time what they wanted me to do and gave me the songs. I sat down, added a bunch of little harmonies, and I remember watching their expressions on stage when it was clear I really knew the tune — it was fun to freak them out a bit. [Laughs] Then there are different scenarios where you have to adapt on the fly. Papadosio was one of those. They’re a really great band and they do some things that are more out there stylistically and that I don’t have a lot of experience with. That was a challenge. They gave me their song “Utopiate” and it has these cool changes and odd meters and different sections, and their sound is very dense already, so I had to figure out: do I do more soundscaping? Should I try some delays or reverbs? You want to do more in a case like that than just more shredding, you know?

Every scenario is different. Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad is a different approach and set of voices than Kung Fu, or Dopapod. I was up with Jimkata recently before they began their hiatus, and they are very electro-leaning — I really, really love stepping into another band’s world. You have to respect their flow, and when you do, they let you inside of it and let you engage.

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JAMBASE: That’s a much more scientific explanation of this than we hear a lot of times, and it’s admirable. Most of the time, even if it’s not the intention of the sit-in guest, folks just kind of get up and wait to be pointed at to solo, which is fine, but as you said, not really engaging. So coming full circle, Mike, how did you apply your approach to sitting-in with moe. in Albany? I think it was on “Waiting For The Punchline”?

MG: Yes, that was it. Growing up in Buffalo, moe. was huge for us. I saw them in town when I was 15, and I remember moe.down was the first festival I ever went to. Everything was still CDs. The internet was there but I was young and didn’t access a lot of that yet, the way people do now. I knew a big chunk of the moe. catalog that I had heard on CDs but somehow — somehow — that song just wasn’t one I had heard. That was cool, actually, because it wasn’t one of the moe. songs I already knew every word or change for.

That sit-in was also a bit off-the-cuff. I was packing my stuff up from our opening set, and one of their road crew came by and said, “Chuck [Garvey] wants you to sit-in, leave your stuff up there.” They had just had their setlist meeting about what they were going to do and I went over to meet with Al [Schnier]. Al is a really smart dude. You can just tell how bright and sharp and quick he is, and he gave me an experience I’ve never had before, which is that he took me completely through “Waiting For The Punchline.” Literally took me through it in a straightforward way: “This is going to start like this, and then go like this, and then go like this,” and it was like three to five minutes of how it was going to work. I ran upstairs after that, got Spotify going, and the way he explained the tune was exactly how it was — it was so eloquent an explanation than when I listened to it, it just clicked. It was like Coach Al, man!

[Waiting For The Punchline | moe. – February 28, 2018 Palace Theatre, Albany NY]

It made it so much easier, which was great because that was a higher-stakes scenario — the nerves, my nerves anyway, were a little higher on that one. I got up there and kind of just took my time. There are already two guitarists in moe., and Al did his thing, and Chuck did his thing, and he signaled to me to do my thing and that was a little throw-and-go, but because of how concisely Al had explained the song, it lowered the pressure and made for a better contribution.

It’s funny. There was actually a moment where Chuck looked over and made a throat-cutting sign that the whole band was going to cut out. I don’t know what happened but I must have looked scared [laughs]. He came over after and was like, “Hey, Mike, I was just signaling for the band to cut out, not for you to cut out.” [Laughs] And then later, I was saying goodbye to the guys and was shooting the shit with Chuck about gear, and he said again, “I swear I wasn’t trying to tell you to cut out.” [Laughs] And I knew that and I told them that, but I must have looked terrified!

Anyway, that sit-in for me was a definitive life highlight. Standing side stage and getting ready for it, I just remembered going to moe.down all those years ago, and then I go out there and I’m looking to my left and right and seeing Rob [Derhak] and Chuck and just thinking: this is a profoundly cool experience.

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