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Aqueous: The biggest band to emerge from Buffalo in 20 years

Every year, the Goo Goo Dolls come back to Buffalo for a homecoming show or two, and every year, one can’t help but wonder when a new Buffalo band will gain the same sort of success the Goos have achieved. Sure, things have changed since the 1990s, when the Goos broke through, but considering the level of talent we see displayed week in and week out locally, surely we’ve got something fresh and contemporary to offer the world, no?

Well, yes, as it turns out.

Over the past 10 years, a quartet of lifelong friends from North Tonawanda has been chipping away at the Buffalo curse. Aqueous started as a group of talented kids playing earnest, emotional marathon shows to audiences of 20 people at places like Nietzsche’s and Mr. Goodbar. But today, they are Buffalo’s greatest success story since those heady days of Moe., Soulive and the Goo Goo Dolls, a regular presence on the national jam-based touring scene, and a favorite at festivals like Summer Camp, Peach, Electric Forest and Brooklyn Comes Alive.

The national press has had no choice but to notice. The Huffington Post ran an expansive profile in 2017, and music industry bible Billboard recently ran a feature story with an exclusive “first listen” of the band’s just-completed “Color Wheel” album.

“The Buffalo-based quartet's fourth studio album, and first full-length since 2014, is its most far-reaching to date, adding hip-hop flavors ('Split the Difference'), reggae ('How High You Fly') and balladry ('Good Enough') - as well as acknowledged influences such as Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, Robert Glasper, Incubus, Gorillaz, Fleet Foxes, Daft Punk and more - to Aqueous' regular blend of proggy jam band psychedelia,” the piece read, in part.

I caught up with guitarist and vocalist Mike Gantzer and we talked about “Color Wheel,” life in the post-record label music business, the enduring influence of his late father, and how traveling the country repeatedly has made him appreciate Buffalo’s music scene even more.

Question: Aqueous is the biggest success story to come out of Buffalo since Moe. broke through in the '90s. Back then, getting signed to a record label was still a thing. You’ve had to pursue success by different means. Can you tell me the pluses and minuses of the “post-record business” success model? I’m also wondering if it requires even more effort to come up with a genuine “album statement” in an era when there is not really much financial incentive to do so.

Answer: It's interesting out there right now. For us, the name of the game has been a slow and steady pace of constant touring and cultivating a closeness with our fan base along the way. In a lot ways, as a band that really loves making studio records, we really wish things were still geared a little more that way, where albums were valued more on the industry side, although the freedom to literally create anything we want without the input of a label that has a financial goal is pretty freeing, too. It has allowed us to express ourselves openly, and that's a pretty big positive gain.

Like most musicians, we've never really been motivated by a financial goal.  If we were, we certainly picked the wrong profession. We've always been fueled by the fact that we're all best friends, we truly love to make music together, and we've always had a strong desire to push ourselves and each other to be better musicians and people. There’s also been a growing sense of wanting to put something out in the world that gives people, even if on smaller scale, some hope and optimism.

Aqueous, from left: Evan McPhaden, Dave Loss, Rob Houk and Mike Gantzer. (Photo courtesy Zachary Todtenhagen)

Q: Throughout the album, I hear new colors that might be the result of new influences. Are there any in particular, or are you guys just sponges who soak up everything that inspires you, and run it back through the AQ filter?

A: It's almost laughable, the range of music that you could hear if you spent even a few hours with us on the road, but I think that's a good thing. One of the newer sounds that was explored a little bit on "Color Wheel" was our love for hip-hop and neo-soul. Modern jazz and funk-influenced stuff like Kendrick Lamar, Anderson Paak, Robert Glasper, Erykah Badu, and some old classic "G-Funk"-era stuff all inspired our approach to building some of the grooves. Other songs on the record were inspired by folkier music like Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, George Harrison, and Wilco's "Sky Blue Sky" album in particular; music where there's more of a lyrical and thematic focus and the structures of the songs are a bit simpler. There's some heavier riff-rock sections that came from listening to bands like Dinosaur Jr., Incubus, Queens of the Stone Age, and Muse, too. It's also worth mentioning that Steely Dan has always been a big influence for the band, but this time I think there's a more direct nod in places than ever before on an AQ record, mostly from a production standpoint.

Q: We’ve spoken in the past about your father, and the influence he had on you. I can’t help but feel that your dad is in the music on this album. There are a few points where I wondered if you were talking to him.

A: I'm really grateful that you picked up on that.  My dad was a jazz pianist and a hugely passionate music fan and had everything to do with who I am as a musician. My experience growing up with him educating me with records from Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan, Gentle Giant, Supertramp and the like has deeply informed my own musical identity and the choice to follow this path, to pursue music in my life. Really, that connection has always been my strongest association with music, and it's been difficult losing someone that critical to me and my relationship with all of this, to be honest.

But the experience of his death altered my perspective on life in a positive way; it forced me to come to terms with the finite nature of our existence in an honest and real sense that I couldn't understand before. I also now have complete affirmation that music is a strong connective thread and energy that can keep someone’s spirit present and alive. I feel him all the time when I play, and this album is filled with both musical and general values that were handed down to me from him. That sense of the finite helps me to remember to try and be good to people in the face of life's complexities, frustrations, and trivial moments, and that concept was a strong influence thematically throughout the record.

Aqueous on the steps of Robby Takac's GCR Audio recording studio. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Q: The annual AQ New Year’s Eve shows in Buffalo have become one of the most highly anticipated gigs of the year. You’ve come a long way with these. What’s in store for this year?

A: New Year’s Eve in Buffalo has always been a rowdy and memorable affair for Aqueous - our hometown fans are incredible, and there's always a palpable, uniquely Buffalo energy that happens when we play here. We tend to deliver a little something extra special for New Year’s shows, and as anyone can attest that was in attendance at last year's sold-out Town Ballroom show, things can get really crazy in the best ways for our hometown shows. This year, we're rocking Town Ballroom again for 12/31, but we've also offered our fans a special VIP package where they get access to a private show on 12/30 at Nietzsche's, the bands' old stomping grounds.

Aqueous performing a sold-out show at the Town Ballroom on New Year's Eve in 2017. (Photo courtesy Zachary Todtenhagen)

Q: You’ve traveled consistently for years now. Has this given you a different perspective on Buffalo – the music scene, and the city itself?

A: If anything, it's made us truly appreciate how rich of an arts culture we have here in Buffalo. We've got world-class musicians and artists, paired with a supportive scene for original music, a myriad of thriving music venues, amazing and original jazz, hip-hop, folk, rock, pop, soul, and indie bands and musicians, art galleries and installations, incredible food, music festivals, access to affordable recording studios - we've got it all.

Beyond music, the city itself has so much to offer, and people are uniquely kind here, too. Aqueous honestly owes everything to our fans here in Buffalo. It was their love, pride and belief in our band from really early on that helped propel us first onto a regional scene, and then ultimately to the national scale, primarily by word of mouth from a small and passionate group that was seeing us with maybe 10 other people when we were first playing at places around town like Pearl Street and DBGB's and Mr. Goodbar, in the early 2010's.

It's a rare gift to come up in a city where there is such a sustained and tangible sense of pride. Buffalo is just a really proud city, and I get a sense that whatever level of success we've experienced thus far has an awful lot to do with the people that were lifting us up from the beginning right here in Buffalo. That pride is a strong part of the whole foundation that we take with us on the road. Our band's identity is inherently Buffalonian, and we feel a deep sense of gratitude toward this city and its people, and an even stronger sense of pride and responsibility for representing it.

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