Aqueous is a successful Buffalo-born band and it’s hard to argue otherwise. Success, however, is such an imprecise concept these days. It can be boiled down to every individual musician having their own definition. Even then, it’s difficult to surmise that there’s ever one defining moment of success for anyone. That being said, if there is anything that Mike Gantzer, Dave Loss, Evan McPhaden, Ryan Nogle, and now Tom Vayo have been successful at as active musicians in one of Buffalo’s most beloved groove rock bands, it is this: viewing success as a ceaseless process and sowing carefully plotted seeds of progress along the way.
If Buffalo is a toasty incubator for musical talent, the guys from Aqueous are the eggs everyone is rooting for to hatch next. The band has four full length studio releases and multiple tours under their belts, and can draw a steadfast crowd at every show they play. You could describe Aqueous as a well-oiled machine, but I don’t find that to be the most fitting comparison. To me, the band is an even keeled water vessel — deliberate in their direction, adaptive to each wave hurled their way and heavily supported by a zealous crew of sorts.
With the recent announcement of their well respected drummer Ryan Nogle leaving the band, a new drummer stepping in, and a three and half month tour underway, the band seems to be at a pivotal point of reflection. The guys were kind enough answer a handful of questions regarding their current situation, their evolution as a band, and the enthralling things to come for them as a group.
buffaBLOG: This probably goes without saying, but how incredible was it to open for Umphrey’s McGee at Canalside a few weeks ago?
Mike Ganzter: Pretty incredible! It was one of those scenarios that I’d had aspirations about since I was a kid, like being 15 and thinking, “Man I wish I could play with these guys”, and a small part of my 15 year old self crept into the day I think!
They were a substantial influence when we were exploring our sound early on and the first band in the jam scene that made me feel like it was okay to get heavy with the music sometimes. It’s tough to not geek out too hard backstage, but I think we did okay with that. They were super nice guys and their whole operation is professional and tight. We were taking notes all day.
Beyond that element of it, I was really inspired and humbled by how psyched our fans were for that gig. I felt connected with them in that both the band and fans understood that it was a meaningful thing for us. We were represented so well that day because of the crowd’s energy and enthusiasm. That made the gig so much sweeter.
bB: You guys have been playing together for quite some time, since high school from what I understand. How has playing with a tight knit group for so long helped each of you evolve as musicians and even as people? How has the band evolved sonically over the years, especially from your first studio release in ‘09 to Cycles?
MG: I think there’s a distinct correlation between the growth in our relationships as humans with the growth in our collective musical paths. We’ve been friends for a long time and I honestly feel like we all get closer with each year that passes.
Even though we’re somewhat new to the larger jam scene, we’ve been a band for nearly a decade and we’ve all seen many obstacles come and go through that time. The difficulties in the journey have been such distinctive lessons and have helped us learn and grow together.
Also, I think recording music lets you catalog chapters of your life and it’s really fun to go back to one of our earlier records. It’s like a little time machine back to what we were into musically and there are lots of memories attached to each of the albums. We take the studio process seriously and try each time to improve the songwriting, sounds, textures and themes. Cycles is the first album that I’ve really felt proud of so far!
Evan McPhaden: I feel like being friends first is a huge part of our sound. I’d like to think that you can see a connection between us on stage and in our playing. It’s great because you can really explore your sound and try things and not feel bad if it goes wrong. It’s all good. We’re constantly learning from each other as well.
As far as our sound, it definitely has changed since our beginning. Back then, we had a few influences like classic rock, Phish and moe. But tastes change and you discover new music. Now, we have a bit of reggae, jazz, soul, prog, hip hop and everything between mixed in. Cycles is a great album that we’re all proud of but I’m very excited for our next album, because of all our growth as musicians.
bB: How has the local Buffalo music community (musicians and fans) helped to foster the growth of Aqueous?
Dave Loss: Buffalo is a great place to be. There’s a ton of amazing players and people hungry for music. We’ve been able to get a great fan base going in our hometown and they are endlessly supportive. From fans to other bands and musicians, the city has been good to us. Our fans allow us to take chances and we love having the opportunity to play certain songs that we might not play anywhere else. They’ve seen us many times now so we enjoy keeping things new and interesting for them!
EM: Yeah, Buffalo is a very musical and artistic city. Everyone is supporting each other. Also, festivals like Buffalove and Night Lights just confirm the togetherness of the scene. These festivals are so fun because everyone feels so good there. Fans show the love and every band kills it. There’s a great energy in Buffalo in general that allows bands and artists to do what they want and know that there’ll be people coming out and supporting. Another awesome aspect is when we’re on the road, we meet relocated Buffalonians. They’re always raging hard for us and want to help any way possible.
bB: Since the band’s inception, you’ve had some lineup changes. And you’ve just announced that your current drummer, Ryan, will be parting ways with the band due to a medical condition. How do you approach restructuring the band and dealing with transitions like this one, especially since it was somewhat out of your control?
MG: It’s never ideal to make any kind of lineup change. However, each time we’ve been down that road we’ve learned an awful lot about the process and how important it is to be as human and kind as possible during the changes. That’s a lesson we learned the hard way with our first drummer Brad — we were really young when we parted ways with him and I think all of us had regrets about how it was handled. We sacrificed an old friendship to move forward and that’s never how it should go. We’ve taken care to always maintain friendships and handle transitions really delicately since then.
Making the transition with our previous drummer Nick was different because he asked to step down. He just wanted a different path for his life and we still hang out with him every week. With a situation like Ryan’s, we all kept a positive attitude and sympathized with his condition. It’s definitely a tough spot to be in for him. We had to trust in the fact that the right person would come along to help us move forward and all of us worked together as a team to find an ideal replacement for him, which we found in Tom (which we’re all really psyched about!).
The thing about our band is that it’s also our friend group; these are the people I call to hang out with when we’re off tour, too. Those friendships carry us through the tough times and help lessen the blow of losing Ryan on the road, because we’ll still hang out and make music together outside of Aqueous. Beyond that, a new character can bring a new energy and Tom seems to have that energy in droves. We’re all really excited to jump into this new era with him.
bB: Tom, you are the newcomer to the band and have some pretty huge shoes to fill! What are you most looking forward to? What do you think you’ll bring to the group as someone who has played with a ton of different groups in the WNY scene over the years?
Tom Vayo: I’m pretty sure Ryan wears size twenty-twos; I could lay down comfortably inside one of his loafers, set up my drums, veg out for a few days, listen to some music, iron my slacks… His playing is incredible and I’ve already learned so much! AQ has had some amazing drummers, all the way back to Nick Sonricker, which is who I’ve been listening to a lot of while learning the material. I’m really excited to dig in to this fall tour and synchronize with the nuances of the band.
These dudes are driven and that excites me. They’re alway progressing, always learning music, and you can’t tease a song without them knowing how to play it. All three of them seem to know every drum fill ever played. That’s inspiring and keeps me on my toes.
Some things I’ll be bringing to the group are basically twenty six years of awkward moments (in the sense of musical contexts that I still look back on and was either intimidated by or perplexed by) that were absolutely key in my growth as a person and musician. The whole intimidation thing is falling away though. I’ve heard snippets of my own playing that somehow manage to intimidate me, which sheds a very clear light on how silly that whole thing is. Also, I have tons of production ideas that I’ve never really been able to apply that I’m excited to share in coming years. I’m always ready and willing to turn on a dime. I’ve already found that being in this band absolutely requires that level of openness. And… The Funk.
bB: What is the writing process like for you guys? Does everyone contribute pretty equally in terms of songwriting?
MG: It’s sort of an “open policy” in that anyone’s material that is brought to the table is considered and worked on as a unit. We try to keep an open mind when integrating different styles. Everyone in the band writes/contributes in multiple ways and we’ve streamlined our songwriting process in the past couple years in that we use recording programs like Apple’s Garageband to record ideas more thoroughly, and we email each other those ideas. We’ve found that having a little context before getting in a room together helps everyone to come in ready to work stuff out. New material seems to be the lifeblood of our band. It keeps the fire lit, and it can give you new perspective on some of the older tunes too.
bB: When did the band team up with Blue Stream Productions, and how has working with a management agency made a difference as opposed to not working with one?
DL: We’ve been working with our manager Josh for a while now. He’s been such a huge asset for us. It’s very important to have someone that’s not actually in the band looking out for you and trying to push you in the right directions.
We first and foremost think of him as our friend. We all trust him with a lot of different things and know that he’s got our back. He’s been with us since about 2010 and not too long after that he started Blue Stream. In the beginning he was booking all of our shows until we got on our current agency, but he is still very involved in that process. Josh has had a lot to do with our merchandise as well. Little things, big things, he helps with it all! Everybody needs a Josh Holtzman, haha.
bB: You’ve just embarked on a pretty hefty tour a few days ago, playing all the way up until December. What dates are most anticipated for everyone?
TV: The whole tour is a dream come true: Night Lights, Catskill Chill, I hear the Southland Ballroom is pretty dope! Our two night Halloween run at Buffalo Iron Works (October 30th and 31st) w/ Funktional Flow is technically my first hometown show in the band and I’m so pumped for that!
EM: This tour we’re hitting a bunch of relatively new markets which is really exciting! I love being down in the South and I’m really excited to be in Colorado. The scene in Colorado is amazing! People come out any day of the week to see live music and the scenery out there is breathtaking. I love that we’re doing Halloween in Buffalo and can’t wait to play the Java Barn at St. Lawrence University to close out the tour. It’s always a good time there. But really, playing anywhere with your friends is always exciting!
bB: Do you prefer playing shows in a festival setting or smaller venue setting?
TV: This might sound weird, but I’m excited for the club dates, where we really get to stretch out and groove.
MG: Both can be really gratifying in different ways, but I probably also prefer club shows. You’ve got more freedom to take chances and dive into improvising. With a festival play, you’re in front of many new faces that are likely seeing the band for the first time, so typically you’d want to do your best to show them some different facets of the band’s sound and use the time as wisely as possible (they’re usually one hour sets). That being said, festivals are really fun and provide you the opportunity to hang with many musician friends and catch a ton of amazing acts, it can be inspiring. Plus it’s nice to play outside and feel the breeze. People are usually really happy at festivals. There’s a distinct energy for each that I really enjoy.
bB: As you guys play more and more tours, how do you envision your live show in the future? Are you hoping to combine visual elements or would you prefer to just focus on the intensity of the music?
TV: All of the above. We’ve all been deeply moved by a dope light show and vibe on stage. However, sound quality will always be the foundation of a good show. It basically comes down to resources available to us.
MG: I agree, we’re definitely working on our stage setup. I really love the idea of theatrics, and we’ve dabbled in that realm a little bit, but let’s just say we have pretty grand aspirations to put together something really unique. Like Tom said, much of that aspiration comes down to what resources we have. As an independent band, you have to be careful with how/when money is spent. But as soon as we’re able, we’ll be doing some really cool stuff in that regard. Right now we’re working on locking down a full time sound engineer to ensure that we sound the best we can every night. It’s something we’ve wanted from the very beginning and I don’t think many people realize how important that aspect is!
I do like the idea of a show being able to carry itself without the visuals, but I also feel it can really enhance and intensify moments during a show. One of my favorite sets this year was at Summer Camp music festival and there were literally eight little lights on stage with only white light, but the crowd was raging so hard and it was really fun. I liked that people could still be so into it without anything except the music. But we definitely would like to up our game with the visual aspect.
Many things are in the works in camp AQ….
bB: What other local WNY bands are you guys excited about/currently listening to?
DL: There’s a lot of great music in this area. Local to Buffalo, we’ve been friends with the Funktional Flow guys for a while and it’s been great to listen to them grow. Also, the band Cosmic Kat is super tight. They’re really embracing soul music as a whole. And our man Tom has an improv project with Harry Graser from Cosmic Kat called Grayo where they just allow musical ideas to go where they’re gonna go with no restrictions.
Tom:I’ve been doing some playing with Stevie Fleck (also from Cosmic Kat) who happens to be one of my favorite up-and-coming guitarists. He has this amazing country sensibility and can improvise for days without repeating himself. Also, Intrepid Travelers… they have a fall tour coming up as well, so be sure to check them out doin’ they thang!
Drummers should check out the African Drumming classes that Slyboots is doing over at the Great/Pierce Arrow building on Elmwood almost every day! Tuesdays are a good way to start with 6pm Drum Classes and 7pm African Dance classes w/ drums. Then you have Neo Soul Tuesdays over at DBGB right after that. Tuesdays are hot haha! Plenty of music going on in Buffalo!
MG: The buffalo scene is definitely strong, can’t forget Lazlo Hollyfeld, those guys are sick, and what Griffin Brady does for the music community in general is incredible and really valuable.
Like Dave said, the Funktional Flow guys have been sounding awesome lately with their lineup being solidified. I’ve also done a few sit-ins with the Ajamaja dudes and they’re killing it, and any of Adam Bronstein’s projects are killer.
Our old drummer Brad has a newer group called Imperial Brown and their songwriting is really on point. We caught them at Buffalove music festival and they sounded great. Everyone on that festival are champions of the local scene. Sonder holds down the more EDM side of things and they’re really nice dudes.
I’m certain we’re leaving people out, there’s just such a fucking great scene here with too many to name!