Interview: Aqueous’ Mike Gantzer talks new music, song structure and benefits of concert streaming
Aqueous/YouTube

There doesn’t seem to be much room left for the outdated craft of guitar playing within the realm of mainstream music at the moment. Thankfully, Buffalo rock outfit Aqueous doesn’t exist in the traditional music world, but rather a predominantly east coast jam scene that is much more open and appreciative of guitar-based music these days. The band, which has been labeled “groove rock” by some over the course of their decade-long career at this point, continue to flourish and stay the course of remaining open musically, while also focusing on the importance of building and executing a well-structured composition.

Mike Gantzer is one of the band’s guitarists and singers, and has been with the group since their formative years starting back in 2006. He also plays a key role in fueling Aqueous’ signature makeup of communal composition while providing his own mix of very strong guitar licks. The young guitarist can also be heard soothing audiences with his surprisingly warm tenor vocals, which keep their songs somewhat normal in between what could be a 20-minute instrumental jam amongst his three other bandmates.

Over the past few years, Aqueous have build an impressive following along the east coast through their own headlining performances, as well as supporting more established rock bands within the jam scene such as Papadosio and Umphrey’s McGee. This summer, the band will be playing at a handful of east coast festivals including Electric Forest and Peach Festival, while also playing a few shows out west at venues like Denver’s Bluebird Theater on June 9.

Following what has already been a busy spring for the promising young rock outfit, AXS caught up with Gantzer via phone late last week to talk about what fans can expect from the band throughout the summer months and beyond. The interview, which can be read in full below, dives into what Gantzer thinks about the benefits of their live shows being cataloged online, how they stick to more traditionally structured rock compositions more often than fans may assume and what he really thinks of the two live albums the band released in 2017.

AXS: You guys have stayed pretty busy so far in 2018. What advice would you give to younger musicians or your younger self on the trick to consistently staying employed as a musician in 2018?
MG: 
I think a lot of it comes down to just sticking with it, and staying on the path and just trying to keep your head down while working as hard as you can. There’s something to be said about the longevity of the whole thing being sustained from thinking long-term. I think we’re living in an era when everything is super instant gratification and it’s super easy to just want everything right now. With music, I feel like all the artists who I love and respect, and even our experience as a band, has just been about that slow and steady build while connecting with your fans and just building something organic. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen overnight.

AXS: Were you pretty happy with the way Element Pt. I and Pt. II ended up sounding? How did you guys end up selecting the different tracks from the tour to end up on the albums?
MG: 
It’s funny, we actually consulted with a bunch of our fans. We took little polls, and I would have private conversations with fans of ours who I knew were really passionate and had listened through this stuff a million times. I started finding that there was some continuity between their answers in the material they really love. Sometimes on stage, we might have a different experience than the fans, and they'll connect with something that we weren’t too sure about, or songs that we think are great and they just don’t connect with. It’s important for me to stay in touch with what the fans are digging and listening to, and what’s important to them. It was almost a little social experiment with for us. I tried to make sure that the song versions they were referencing had compositions that were played cleanly, but more about what was happening in the improv sections and the uniqueness that came out from there. I’m actually really happy with how both of those came out. I think they’re a good representation of what we were doing in 2017.

AXS: Do you think the emergence of platforms like Nugs.net is the future of exposure and income for artists in the jam scene? What are your thoughts on selling live webcasts of shows while on tour?
MG:
I definitely appreciate the fact that we have a completely separate audience from our actual audience. There are the people who were at the show who obviously had that experience, and then there are the fans online from all over the U.S. who follow the rest of the tour via Nugs. I think that’s an amazing asset. I feel grateful that fans can hear all the different sets that we play, and it keeps us on our toes in really needing to constantly change things up, not just from city to city, but for the whole online fanbase as well. We’ve noticed over the past year or so that we’ve connected with a lot of new fans who discovered us via the Nugs app, and that’s incredible. We also have the advantage of having our band’s name alphabetically advantageous [laughs] as it’s one of the first names you see listed on there because of the “A.” I feel like given the current state of music and how everything is a bit more fleeting in terms of people not really buying records anymore, [Nugs] is a wonderful outlet, especially being a band which is primarily a live act.

AXS: What do you think the creative makeup of Aqueous would be like if you guys tried writing and performing like a traditional mainstream rock band rather than one rooted around collective improvisation?
MG: 
I feel like at this point that we’re existing almost in two different ways. When we go into the studio, we’re thinking exactly like that. It’s funny because I think the improvisation aspect obviously makes all the live stuff pretty long, but when we’re in the studio we pull from a lot of influences ranging from progressive rock and even just general rock, so we definitely draw from that format. We really don’t improvise at all when we’re in the studio, I mean we might improvise a take with a solo section if there are eight or 16 bars, but when we’re in the studio we'll listen to a lot of Steely Dan, or even Incubus and Cake records to try and find some influential music elements unrelated to the jam scene. We’ll really try to tap in and get really tight with the compositions to have the song stand for themselves first and foremost. When you’re young, it’s easy to write tunes with a sole purpose to jam around, and that’s cool and fun, and there’s a vibe, but I don’t think there’s a lot of art there and you’re not really saying much. Over the years, we’ve found that we really enjoy being in the studio on a composition level, and then having our live show be completely different, more in the moment, creative and loose. We actually just finished a new record of songs that are almost entirely unplayed, which a lot of people haven’t heard. We wrote them specifically for that [structured] format so there are definitely songs on there which are more whittled down and tighter in their composition and structure. I guess we’ll see!

AXS: When can fans expect to hear some of those songs make their live debut?
MG: 
I think right towards the middle or end of summer we’ll be rolling out that stuff. Then by the fall tour we’ll have the whole release out and we’re really psyched about it.

AXS: When you guys are working on building these more "structured" songs, do you still jam them out in rehearsal to see how they can stretch their legs so to speak and see how they might sound live?
MG:
To be honest, no. We try and get the song, like I was saying, to stand on its own. We’ve been a band long enough and have played together enough now where I think we can improvise off of almost anything. It’s really fun and sometimes it’s more challenging with certain tunes, but our experience has always been that once a song is written, we find a section that just naturally breathes. One of my favorite parts is when we start improvising to a song that we really only know as one structure until that point. It breathes with all these new jams because you have no idea what might happen. After a while, especially with certain tunes that you’ve been playing live for years, it’s easy to default to a certain type of jam, and we work hard at actively not doing that. There’s such an honesty though about the first 10-15 times you play a composition live and decide to improvise with it, because it’s just so exciting. It’s always really unique and fun.

AXS: So then what’s the ratio of pre-planned compositions vs. spontaneous creation for what the audience hears during a concert when planning a setlist? Is there a nightly theme?
MG:
I think it just comes down to the moment. Almost every time we have some big plans to play a song a certain way, it almost never happens. Something new and unexpected will instead come out of it and that’s the beauty. We did a lot of touring in 2017 and all of a sudden we just started jamming a bunch, without a conversation about it or anything, it all just happened organically. When you’re on the road and you get into the continuity of touring and just in that mode, there’s a certain trust and comfort in taking more chances musically, and this past year we really started stretching things out. Even the song compositions themselves will stay the same, but we’ll find ways to jam out different sections of them. Maybe one night we’ll jam after the second chorus of a certain song, then maybe we’ll change it to [coming in] after a more composed part of the song just to keep things fresh. It all comes down to balance as well, because not everyone in the audience is going to be down with every song to be a 20-minute journey. We try to find that balance when we can, but we’ve always been down with letting things happen naturally and letting the song be whatever it wants to be.

AXS: Any personal items on your summer to-do list away from the stage?
MG:
I’m actually getting married this year! I’m also going to visit California for the first time and I’m really excited about that. I’m hoping to get Aqueous on the west coast soon. We do a lot of touring and have gone as far west as Colorado but haven’t pushed too much further past there. I feel the west coast is always calling to me. I grew up in a big skateboarding culture and even the weather and whole vibe out there seems pretty right, so I’ll be finding out firsthand if that’s accurate.

AXS: Speaking of Colorado, you guys have a gig at Denver’s Bluebird Theatre on June 9. From a cultural perspective, there are a lot of folks who are really into the jam scene out in Denver. When you go to very open cities like that where jam and even jazz artists do really well, do you go into those shows thinking that this might go off the charts knowing that there’s a prebuilt fanbase already there waiting for you?
MG:
I think having that knowledge ahead of time always gives the band a certain confidence, which can put shows over the top. We’re of the mindset where we give 100% to every show, and try not to let any factor get too much into our process of playing every night. We’re musicians first and when we’re backstage before a gig we’re usually warming up and getting ready to get in the zone. We have the most fun when we play well, so it’s not always about having a packed room. When you add that level on what we’re already striving to do, however, it absolutely provides bombastic results and it’s so fun. A city like Denver is awesome because I feel like the music scene there is so strong collectively. It’s so diverse too, I mean people get down with so much stuff out there and that’s nice for us because our influences are so wide. We look to influences that are well outside of traditional jam stuff and we’ll integrate different styles and it’s awesome to go to a city like Denver where people are down for that mix. They’re in.

Fans can click here to purchase tickets to see Aqueous with Evanoff in Denver on June 9.