Four Guys from Buffalo Go All In On Their Music, Blending Chemistry and Groove Rock
Aqueous shut down the entire month of February with the Beatles’ beloved sing-along “Hey Jude.” They had intertwined the Fab Four’s music into their set all night – this final night of their monthlong residency at Nietzsche’s in Buffalo, N.Y. As the young musicians joined together in the tune’s infamous all-hands-on-deck outro, the fans on the floor began stripping strings of lights from ceiling beams. It was a moment in time, refracted poetically through music and photons, that conveyed well what the four guys in Aqueous are doing on this planet.
“The idea was to try something different in Buffalo – to set a precedent and do something we hadn’t done here,” guitarist Mike Gantzer says. “We’ve been playing shows in Buffalo for a long time and we’ve only started branching out in the past two years. This place holds something special for us, because this was the first place that started to grow our fan base in Buffalo. We were just all reminiscing about the fact that our first Buffalo show was at Nietzsche’s on a Wednesday – just like this – in front of, like, 12 people. And we were super fucking psyched to play in this room.”
That’d be Jan. 13, 2010, when the band opened with “LA Woman” and slipped a couple early touchstones into the setlist: “Dave’s Song,” “Triangle,” and the “Super Mario Brothers” theme. Since then, their purview on the music scene – locally, regionally, nationally – has only widened. They’re growing up. The February 2014 residency gigs showed a band determined to achieve dreams and make people happy.
Gantzer is joined by the rest of the band post-show in Nietzsche’s grungy green room upstairs. Guitarist Dave Loss, bassist Evan McPhaden, and drummer Nick Sonricker recline on ancient couches and joke about the “Hey Jude” action.
“The Aqueous fan base is amazing. They’re super energetic, though that goes for all of Buffalo too – the whole music scene is very supportive,” McPhaden says. “Specifically, the Aqueous fan base is very rowdy. And you saw it tonight as the lights came down!”
“We like that, though,” Sonricker adds. “They throw the energy right back at us, and that makes the show that much better.”
2/26/14 Buffalo, N.Y.
I: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band > Warren in the Window, Complex > Magical Mystery Tour > Flying > Blue Jay Way > Mice, Eight Days a Week, Coyote Run > Strawberry Fields Forever > Staring into the Sun, For No One, Happiness is a Warm Gun > They’re Calling for Ya > Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) > A Day in the Life
Encore: Timmy’s Blades > Hey Jude
First-time visitors to Buffalo should drive directly to Allen Street, park the car, pick an upstanding restaurant at random, and enjoy a fine pint while early-evening neon flickers outside. This street is the main nerve in Aqueous lore. This is where you go to tap into the most concentrated grooves in their past and present.
Over drinks at Allen Street Hardware, one local resident exclaims, “Aqueous? Yeah, they’re our guys!” The Buffalo Sabres game glows overhead. People are gathering slowly, swapping plans and laying the framework for the night. It’s Feb. 26, and Aqueous is preparing for one last night of their February residency at Nietzsche’s. It’s “mystery artist” night (complementing “decades,” “love,” and “Willy Wonka” nights earlier in the month).
Inside the doors at Nietzsche’s, Brown Sugar is playing a dirty set of funk in the corner. They drop Phish’s “Black-Eyed Katy” to raised glasses up and down the bar. In the back of the room, the guys in North Carolina-based Big Something are sound-checking. McPhaden is seen mingling with fans before heading off to join the band elsewhere.
“We didn’t want to travel too much in the shitty part of winter,” Sonricker says, mere hours before a massive snowstorm is set to crash into Western New York. He’s discussing the thought process behind the residency. So far, according to fan base chatter, the shows have been hits. “Let’s play, but let’s not travel too far. So if we’re gonna play four shows, we need to bring four different bands and we need to change ourselves to make each show different and interesting. We also made sure not to do any repeats. It forces us to play deep into our catalog and play stuff we haven’t played in a while.”
Loss jokes about the band’s “huuuge catalog,” but it’s all quite accurate. The band never duplicates a setlist. And despite still being a young band, they’ve got three studio albums under their belts with a Kickstarter-funded fourth coming ASAP.
The idea of “catalog” in jam band lore is an interesting one. Fans tend to diffuse toward titanic jam staples, the sorts of tunes that can anchor a set (“Strange Times,” “Origami,” and more recently “All In” and “Complex”). Then there are the laid-back, sometimes goofy-poppy singles (the major chord fun of “Marty,” “Dave’s Song,” and more recently “The Median”). It’s fantastically fun getting to watch a band grow its collection of songs, and Aqueous has been using time on the road very well. Their four-part jams extend at times past the 20-minute mark and often present multi-movement odysseys. In turn, the fan base has taken up the traditional task of trading tapes/.mp3s and working the word-of-mouth circuit to generate well-earned fervor.
Which brings us to the sort of time and place wherein a young band can organize a monthlong hometown residency and bring in fans from as far away as Ohio or the Carolinas.
Aqueous opens this show with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” bleeding into the whole “Billy Shears!” interlude bit and seguing immediately into “Warren in the Window.” It’s impossible not to clink glasses with the people around you; the magic is settling in.
“Aqueous is a term used to describe a system which involves water. The word aqueous is also applied to a solution or mixture in which water is the solvent. When a chemical species has been dissolved in water, this is denoted by writing (aq) after the chemical name.”
– Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.
North Tonawanda is a small Western New York town that straddles the Niagara River. It’s a nice place to grow up. It’s the hometown of people like retired MLB pitcher Jim Britton, jazz trumpeter Cindy Bradley, and the guys in Aqueous.
“At that age, we weren’t certain of anything. I don’t think we had any plans,” Gantzer says, sort of wistfully recalling the band’s early days circa 2007 or so. Then he casts an arm around the green room at Nietzsche’s. “This, to us, is a big deal. And we’re goal-oriented now.”
Gantzer and Loss helmed two bands at North Tonawanda High. Their complementary styles led them to bridge the gap and bring everyone together as Aqueous (long story short). Very soon, they began making waves across suburban Buffalo.
In April 2007, the band – at the time featuring Brad Darrall on drums – won a “Battle of the Bands” competition at Niagara University. It was an early win for a band whose trajectory would be marked by many in the years to come. That success poked a hole through the basement jam sessions that sustained them early on. It showed the band that there might be something bigger than simply playing Rush covers together.
Sonricker joined in late 2008 (he would later take over full-time drum duties following Darrall’s departure in 2011).
“We learned so much over those six years. And that’s a long time,” Gantzer says. “Who the fuck knows what I was thinking back then? Probably something really silly. Probably my math homework.”
His mention of being goal-oriented these days is a critical one. What factors must be at work to take a high school band this far with this much promise for the future?
Ever humble, the guys had no problem rolling out a bit of swagger as they began slowly expanding their live shows. But pinpointing several other important facets of early and consistent Aqueous lore, a mid-summer 2009 MySpace post reads: “The stage is where Aqueous comes alive! The dynamic guitar work and creative lyrics of Dave and Mike are unlike anything anyone has ever heard before. While the two guitarists take the lead, Brad, Evan, and Nick set deep grooves that hold the foundation and give Aqueous that unique sound. The chemistry between the members can be attributed to their unique bond off the stage. The band members are all long time friends and all share a passion for music.”