Each festival season, Buffalo-based jam band Aqueous see their name inching closer and closer to the top of some pretty major festival bills. This summer, most notably, they’ll play two sets at one of the city’s most anticipated local festivals, Cobblestone Live!, on July 27 and 28 in the Cobblestone Distrcit alongside headliners Broken Social Scene and fellow jam bands like Turkuaz.
In May the band played at Summer Camp music festival in Chillicothe, Illinois with acts like moe., Umphrey’s McGee, Diplo, and Cypress Hill. In July, just before Cobblestone Live!, they’ll set up at Electric Forest in Rothbury, Michigan, where they’ll share the festival stage with acts like the String Cheese Incident, Bonobo, Cut Copy, and Bassnectar.
“Electric Forest is chaos. That’s one of the biggest festivals we’ve played,” says Aqueous guitarist Mike Gantzer.
When I meet up with Gantzer at his house on the West Side of Buffalo to chat about his band—which also includes bassist Evan McPhaden, drummer Rob Houk, and guitarist Dave Loss—he’s a week off from the band’s spring tour. They went on what he calls a light tour, 25 to 30 dates, so that they could finish up recording for a new album. During our meeting, he tells me a little bit about his favorite recent festival experiences.
At last year’s Summer Camp music festival, Gantzer joined members of Umphrey’s McGee for a Green Day tribute. They played as a trio during a late night jam. “I didn’t know what to expect,” says Gantzer. “It was like a three in the morning thing in a tent and there were a couple thousand kids moshing to Dookie.”
Running up to the festival, the band was on tour with Umphrey’s McGee, so Gantzer would rehearse Green Day songs with them in their spare time. He also found himself practicing alone, re-learning some of the songs he first learned to play on guitar in high school.
“‘Brain Stew’ was probably the first song I ever learned to play and I didn’t even play it right,” Gantzer says, sipping from a cup of tea, sitting in his living room, an XBox controller on the couch next to him.
Just touring with a band like Umphrey’s McGee, let alone jamming with them on stage is a big deal to Gantzer, who grew up listening to the band, who has become synonymous with jam music.
“We try to play it cool and quietly appreciate moments like that but it’s definitely a big deal for us. I grew up listening to that band. When we were younger we listened to a lot more of the jam band stuff, like Umphrey’s and moe. and Phish and stuff, we don’t as much anymore just because of a natural evolvement of where our interests went musically, but that’s where a lot of our roots are.”
The term “jam band” has become a a loaded term that for some evokes scenes of drugged-out hippies mindlessly swaying in a field listening the endless noodling of a band taking themselves too seriously.
But, of course, many fans of the genre view the term differently—they see as a group of musicians, sometimes virtuosic in talent, working together to create new sounds, much of the time on the fly in a live setting.
Aqueous’s sound and lighting technician, and a fan of jam bands in general, Ryan Bress puts Aqueous into perspective as far as jam bands go.
“The term can be used in a negative way. I think in the jam band scene there a lot of bands that can taint the term because it’s sometimes used to refer to bands that like to noodle a lot or don’t have that much structure. Aqueous does a great job of being more structured. The way that they jam is not so much noodling, but well constructed jams in the sense that they’re really good at knowing when they’ve exhausted a certain groove,” says Bress.
This week we talked to Gantzer about his thoughts on the term, how his band uses sign language on stage, their growing legion of super fans, and the bromance that is Aqueous.
Do you embrace the term jam band?
Yes and no. I think that the general understanding of that term is kind of negative in connotation. People assume a lot when people hear that term. You can get grouped in with a lot of things, I think specifically with Aqueous, we’re not a lot of those things. So I feel like I’m careful with using the word. I’m definitely not offended by it because in so many ways, Aqueous is a jam band. There’s no way around that. That’s mostly, I think, in our live show. We took a lot of the cues from that culture. We’re playing two sets every night, doing a lot of improvising within song structures. I definitely think that’s where we were born out of, but I think sometimes people think of jam bands as like a band playing an A minor chord for 30 minutes and just noodling over it, and I hope to God that’s not what we are. I think we touch on a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with jam bands. But we’re also a jam band.
What would you say is one of the defining features of Aqueous?
Honestly, I think it’s our friendship. I’m starting to understand that there’s this intangible thing that our fans seem to latch onto and they can’t always pinpoint exactly what it is. It seems to be the feeling that’s created between the four of us. Sometimes if we’re improvising we’ll get on these weird telepathic wavelengths and it’s just fun. All four of us work really hard musically, on our own individually, to become better musicians every year and to keep pushing our boundaries and bring in influences outside of what people might expect of us, but ultimately we really try to work together and create something as a unit and try to be a team. So much of that comes from friendship. We try to do stuff that will make each other smile on stage.
Is there a challenge to maintaining such a tight friendship?
You see it with bands all the time that they have this great thing on an artistic level but just don’t get along as people. You see that with so many different bands, big and small. Of course over the course of 10 or 11 years you’re going to have ups and downs. Even with people you’re really close to you can hate them for a minute or feel frustrated, but to be honest we started this young enough that a lot of the pitfalls that a band faces in those early years, we traversed those early on. By the time things were getting serious, with touring, playing bigger shows and festivals, we were pretty darn good friends. I think we passed a threshold around the age of 24 or 25 where we were going to be friends forever.
Your trajectory as a band has been so steadily upward. There hasn’t been that explosive moment yet, but each year I see your names further and further up on festival bills. What’s that like?
We’re just starting to see our work pay off. We average between 115 and 150 shows a year, so we’re out there. I think it’s just hustle. We keep it interesting for ourselves and our fans and that was another cue we took from some earlier jam bands—always be mixing it up, change up set lists, and keep things fresh. Always be working on new material, always keep people guessing, so to speak. I think that has helped us grow.
How do you keep it mixed up for the fans? How many originals do you guys have?
I would say in terms of originals we’re somewhere between 40 and 50 that are in rotation. In a typical headlining Aqueous show we might play five to six songs per set. The compositions themselves, when you whittle it down to a studio version they’re typically between five and nine minutes. But when you’re improvising during a live set, suddenly an hour and 15 minutes is gone in four or five tunes. That’s a beautiful thing about the jam scene; we don’t have to go out and play the same 18-song setlist every single night in the same order. Part of my role, and something I spend a lot of time on, is writing our setlist. I spend a lot of time analyzing what we played in a city or region the last time we played there to make sure we either do no repeats or are really careful not to give people even a close to similar experience as they had last time.
You’re keeping pretty close track of all of your setlists.
It’s funny because our fan group does that. So we have to keep up with them. They love the stats. We have fans that keep track of how many shows they’ve seen, what percentage of the time they hear a particular tune. It’s really cool.
You’ve gotten to the point where you have super fans that need to have a stream of a live show the next day. What’s that like?
It’s great! We started working with a website called Nugs.net, which is a streaming service kind of like Spotify, but specifically for live music. Our sound and light engineer, Ryan Bress, multi-track records and mixes every single show and puts it out within a few days. That’s a lot of work but it’s great for the fans because besides the people who are in the audience from club to club, there’s also all of these people online who are following every single show, so you have to change it up. It’s been challenging but it’s a great challenge. That’s a great place to be in because it pushes you to think outside of your boundaries.
Is that a lot to keep track of?
Luckily we have people who help us keep track of a lot of it. We send them the setlist with annotations and notes every night and they database it on our website. If you go to aqueousband.com, there’s a tab that says setlists and it has every single show from 2006 or 2007 on. Every time we play there is a whole notes section. During improv sections all sorts of funny weird stuff can happen. In Rochester, during a set break we were joking around singing a Randy Newman song, “Short People,” and we were like what if we just threw this in just for a second? So we kind of learned it in our 15-minute break and threw that into the middle of one of our songs. So when you go to write out the setlist after the fact, we make note of where that was played. It’s actually more common for us to just work in stuff like that off the cuff, though, usually in a silly way. We take the music side really seriously, as far as our musicianship goes, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Do jams ever derail?
As the years pass you learn to recover from moments like that, but those moments become inevitable. A lot of times it’s weird stuff like gear breaking in the middle of important moments. If something goes wrong on a gear level, we have hand signals that we use, which we use for improvising anyways. We have different hand signals—like a signal to stay on the chord that we’re on, or to keep something going. Typically it’s like one person misses a cue and usually you know what’s happened pretty quickly—like if we are calling for a change and you missed it, you can just jump to the next change.
Let’s talk a little bit more about how communication happens on stage.
We use a bunch of sign language.
Like actual sign language or your own version?
A mixture of actual sign language that a deaf person would use and our own little symbols that we’ve come up with. We’ll use the first couple letters of the sign language alphabet to signal key changes—A, B, C, D. A closed fist will be like the signal to tighten up. A lot of it is playing with dynamics. We recently started experimenting with a talk back microphone. We all have in ear monitors so we can hear each other and I’ll use a talk back mic—like a normal stage mic that’s behind me—so I can talk to my bandmates. The audience can’t hear it but they can. To be honest 90 percent of the time we’re just using it for jokes and to screw with each other just for fun, but when you talk about moments that get derailed, that’s the most efficient way to handle that. I can be like “hey stay on this chord change holy shit I have to fix my stuff.” But on our best nights we don’t need any of that, our improvisation just comes out, and it’s incredible.
What inspired the hand signals?
It came out of necessity. We needed a better way to communicate with each other. There’s bands that we’ve seen do that over the years. I never really knew what they were doing and it kind of occurred to me later how good of a system that is. Nonverbal communication became critical.
Your last show in Buffalo was on New Year’s Even at the Town Ballroom and your next show will be at the Cobblestone Live! Festival in July. That’s a long time between hometown shows.
We’re touring so much these days that we only get to Buffalo two or three times a year. Which is a far cry from where we started. I was looking for fun today on our website, and as we were building the band we played Nietzsche’s 32 times. Doing Town Ballroom on New Year’s sold out, so that was a huge deal for us. That’s like the venue. It’s weird, identifying so much as a Buffalo band and having so much pride from being from this city, we don’t get to spend as much time in it as we’d like.