A Conversation With Mike Gantzer (Aqueous)
Words by Kevin Alan Lamb
Aqueous (pronounced “ay-kwee-us”), like water, is as smooth and groovy as a Western wave at sunset. Since forming in Buffalo in 2006, guitarist Mike Gantzer, guitarist/keyboardist David Loss, bassist Evan McPhaden, and drummer Rob Houk have manifest “groove rock” stylings into the jam scene, developing a special sound characterized by meticulous compositions and rich exploratory jams that easily transition from laidback, in-the-pocket grooves to furious, high-intensity peaks.
Carving their way through their second decade of precision and technical prowess, Aqueous has emerged a shimmering star in the scene, navigating the constant conflict of the road on a foundation of honest music, made consistent with conviction and a positive attitude. Given his first guitar at 12-years-old, Mike Gantzer was given the blessing of music from his dad Doug, who has since left this realm, but not before bestowing such musical gifts as The Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd, and a passion for improvisation that connects Mike with his dad each time he and his best friends take the stage to do what they were put on this earth to do, jam.
When I woke up this morning I knew it was with a purpose, but I did not know that I would be interviewing Mike, or that after asking my first question I would learn of his dad’s passing as a result of cancer, or that I would be compelled to share my own internal fear and struggle resulting from my Mamyte’s diagnosis with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or that I would be so compelled by our conversation to let Mike know that I would be honored to include Aqueous as one of the 10 bands featured in my next book, This is a Good Sound; and though I never met his dad Doug, I am inspired by his relationship with his son, and feel like I know him a little better after reading Mike’s remembrance on the most recent Father’s Day.
“As the years go by, I seem to have a different perspective and feeling on my Dad’s passing. It naturally becomes a little more distant, but also as life moves on, I feel like he lives on more and more in ME as I lay out the framework for the rest of my own life with him in the back of my mind, ever present, in a different kind of way. Sometimes it’s simply a feeling of longing to share things with him when I make new music or reach some cool new achievement in my life that he would appreciate in a way that was very unique to who he was - this very intuitive, intellectual human that was an almost conflicting combination of heart, feeling and soul, and critical thinking and science - truly unique and special in every way.
His passing was a crash course in staying grounded to the concept of the finite, to recognize that our journey is short and to try to live our best lives and love strongly and stay off the fucking internet and see the world and explore and to do all those things that you would definitely do if you knew your time was near, which is kind of ironic because certainly, for all we know, it IS - but of course, it’s natural to get caught up in life’s complexities, and some days it’s easier than others to feel in touch with that side of it.”
While I rarely dwell over the possibility of life after death, or have any fear of where I may emerge if there’s another side, Mike’s relationship with his dad helps trade my fear for faith, and is a timely reminder to live with all of your fucking heart, be good to others, be grateful for all of our time, and leave behind a story worth telling that could one day be a story worth listening to frequently enough to birth hope into the hearts of those who use their energy to protect all that is sacred, honest, beautiful, and fascinating about life itself.
I don’t believe in coincidence and only serendipity could create the causality which gifted me the opportunity of sharing this love story in the three-day-window between Father’s Day and Electric Forest, which will be Aqueous’ first performance since the day this story will likely remind us all to hold a little closer to our hearts.
KAL: You’re gonna have a chance to both play weekends of Electric Forest, and honestly, I haven’t gotten a chance to check out the schedule, what stage are you playing?
Mike: We’re playing The Observatory.
KAL: Duuude, that’s my favorite stage!
Mike: Me too! It’s so cool. It’s right in the thick of it.
KAL: You’re blanketed in all those trees, guests are so close, it’s so personal.
Mike: Yeah the architecture is so cool and it’s such a unique vibe for a stage, I’ve honestly never seen anything like it, it’s sick!
KAL: I’ve been pouring through all your past interviews, this came up quick, and it’s cool learning about you in a crash course on your life. You picked up your dad’s guitar, and you thought he was gonna be upset because your fingers were covered in doritos, then he gave you your first guitar on your 12th birthday.
Mike: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
KAL: What’s your dad’s name?
Mike: His name was Doug. He passed away a few years ago… He lived in Florida, and I grew up outside of Buffalo and I live in the city now.
KAL: I’m sorry to hear about your dad, Mike.
Mike: It’s alright, it’s part of life unfortunately.
KAL: Yeah, it is. I recently learned that my mom has pulmonary fibrosis, which is a hardening of inside the lungs, which limits your oxygen. I remember where I was when I got the call… and you know people come and go, but you always have this feeling that your parents will live forever until one day you realize they don’t.
Mike: Yeah man, I’m sorry to hear that too, it’s definitely an intense thing to go through, especially the younger that you are, the harder it is. It’s interesting, because it was Father’s Day recently, I wrote this whole thing on my Facebook, kind of reflecting on my experience, how it’s really hard to let go, but it’s also a reminder that life is finite and it’s important to live, and be present, and with social media… everyone glued to their phones, that’s one beautiful thing about playing music festivals, especially in the jam scene, you feel so alive, and I think people are really connected in that atmosphere, and I feel like I need that more than ever, and other people do to, and a bit of my takeaway is that, you know as hard as it is to let go, it’s a good reminder that everybody is going to have their time so you really gotta make the best of it, you know?
KAL: Absolutely. What was the first show you played after Father’s Day?
Mike: We haven’t yet so this is gonna be it, man. Electric Forest, Weekend One is going to be my first one, and to give a little context, my dad was a jazz musician, an amazing piano player, so him and I were very, very connected through music, so for me, that’s how I keep his memory alive, and I think that vibe will definitely be going through me for the weekend. It kind of alway is, to be honest, I keep a picture of him and I on my guitar case to kind of always remember to play honestly, and with purpose, and passion. But I think those vibes will be with me a little more this weekend because I’ve kind of been reflecting on it, and thinking about him more.
KAL: That’s so special man, everyone goes to concerts and festivals, and everyone’s lost something, sometimes it’s a loved one, sometimes it’s a job, sometimes it’s… who knows. We all go to places like Electric Forest to be connected with others, to be vulnerable, to have the music mean something, and help fill us in places that are hurt, or fractured, or feel empty.
KAL: That’s pretty cool man, I really appreciate you sharing that, it’s organic, and I think it’s a little better that I didn’t know because that might have felt a little weird.
Mike: No, and honestly I know a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about stuff like that, but I think it’s important to talk about shit like that. It’s an inherent part of life, and there’s no way around it, and I’m totally good with it, it’s alright.
KAL: That’s what’s real. Music is medicine and we have to face things; music builds community and we all are going through things and we have this way of alienating our feelings that make us feel like our struggle is original, but really - no struggle is original or ours alone to bear. There’s always someone else, likely thousands of people that have gone through the very things, and I think that is very freeing, even though some people might think that makes our experiences not special, I think that just connects us to one another.
Mike: I think that’s a great sentiment, like you’re never really alone and that’s important, and again, not to keep harping on social media, but in this world that we’re living in where we are comparing our own experiences to everyone else’s, and everybody sort of presents this best version of themselves, it’s not always totally accurate to the complexity of life’s difficulties, you know? It’s okay to be honest from that perspective that life’s fucking hard sometimes and everybody goes through it in their own way, and that’s okay, and I completely agree that it’s like a beautiful thing to know that other people have gone through something similar and can understand you and relate to that, people need that!
KAL: And it’s cool, while on this topic of processes and changes we didn’t expect, I got let go from work last week and it sort of came out of right field. I made the place my world, I think I did a pretty great job and most of the people, whether they were guests or artists that came through would probably agree with me, but it’s wild. Sometimes you need to be shown the door to realize it was a bit of a cage. I loved that place, but I was there for a year-and-a-half and I’m an artist like you in many ways, and this past week I’ve been working in Corktown, Ford bought the Train Station which is a historic and beautiful building in Detroit, and it feels really good to be back out into the wild. I’ve been helping with operations and running into so many people! I was a substitute teacher for a year-and-a-half and I ran into some of my students, running into all of these people who I haven’t seen in a while because I was serving another man’s dream, not my own, and I’d only see my friends when they came to shows, and it was amazing and I loved my time there but now every day I feel better, more alive; yesterday I had my next great book idea which is gonna feature 10 bands, and with the way this conversation is going, I think you guys just found your way into it.
Mike: Nice! [laughing]
KAL: It’s gonna be called This is a Good Sound, 10 bands. I’m going to have a brand or sponsor connected with each band so that sponsor can connect their brand with all of your community and I’m gonna let the bands have the book at cost so you could sign it and price it however you wish and make money selling it on your merch table, having our stories connect and it’s just really cool. I don’t think this would have come to me (speaking of social media) in the middle of running all the social media, doing all these things, but I got reminded that I have to live.
Mike: Dude yeah! And I guess in one way, congrats I think that’s amazing! Sometimes, I think a lesson that I keep learning in life is that sometimes that change that you fear so much is the light that you need, or the fire that you need to be relit, and sometimes it’s hard to see it from that angle, but I think that every time I emerge on the other side of something I thought was a negative change, it has lead me to somewhere much better. And you can resist those things but I think that after a while you have to kind of stop fighting upstream, and kind of just give into the current of life and I think you kind of heed those signs, and that stuff’s great. I’ve had that same experience to, and in regards to the book thing, of course we’d be honored and I appreciate you even considering us for something like that. Yeah man, good on you.
KAL: Thank you. I’m reading this JamBase interview and I’m seeing that you’ve been really excited about these 10 studio songs and you’ve been holding them back… are you still holding out?
Mike: Yeah, yeah, yeah! We have a whole release plan and everyone is going to see, but it’s awesome because we’re writing songs, and most of those are brand new, and never before heard or played, which is a really cool process but beyond that, we’ve had enough time while we had to finish post production on that to keep writing more music beyond that, so once our fall tour hits, once that’s announced we’re going to have a lot of cool shit to bring to the table for that, and add to the catalogue, and even do a bunch of older stuff, a ton of debuts and a ton of first time plays; we’re gonna really hit the ground running with so much new material for fall and that’s really exciting for me!
KAL: One of my favorite things in the past year-and-a-half of opening my home and heart to this is really building relationships and getting more familiar with the struggle. A lot of people really only see those shining moments, kind of like you said about social media; they see the performances, but I’ve learned that there is an infinite number of struggles that go on between maybe even a Tuesday night performance and a Wednesday night performance. Can you give me an example of one of the more difficult obstacles you’ve had to overcome while on the road between two different performances?
Mike: Yeah, I mean I think on any given night there’s so many variables that can change the way you feel, the mode that you’re in, or even just logistical stuff like your trailer breaking or the transmission going out on your overnight nine hour drive to a gig, which has happened many times. I remember actually, like a year-and-a-half ago we had this crazy run of shows with Dopapod, in Covington, Kentucky, which is basically Cincinnati, and actually to even go back further, we played New York City for a Phish after party with our friends Mungion, and then drove straight through overnight to go to Covington to play with Dopapod, and then drove straight back to play with Twiddle in Albany at the Palace Theatre on a New Year’s run, and it was already chaotic! It was already going to be a thing where like, this is pretty intense. It’s the dead of winter, we’re doing all this back and forth driving across eight or nine hour spans, and literally, at 6:00 AM on the second drive back towards Albany the transmission went out on the van and it’s like five degrees outside. We’re right outside of Erie, PA, still close to Buffalo but didn’t quite make it to Buffalo, and we literally had to just stay up. No one ever really slept other than the three or four hours while we're driving. Everyone stayed up and we pulled together, rented a U-Haul, got all of our gear there, borrowed some stuff from Twiddle and played the show! I remember sitting in with Twiddle that night and literally falling asleep side stage with my guitar in my hand, having to slap myself to stay awake to sit in in front of this huge crowd. It was one of those moments where you’re just like, “Man, you really gotta want it, [laughter], you know?"
Mike: But that’s just off the top of my head. We’ve been in bands long enough where if I sat down and thought about it, I think conflict is just built into this thing, you know? And for us, it’s been a lot of different learning experiences. Ultimately, we’re just good friends and I think that helps you navigate those issues, stay positive and do what you can. It’s kind of like a "what are you gonna do" type of scenario. All you can do is laugh, or smile, or make the best out of it while joking your way through it and try to just not go totally insane at some points. I think without the contrast of those difficult moments, the beautiful ones wouldn’t shine as bright.
KAL: Yeah. The only thing that you can control is your attitude, right?
Mike: Yeah, that’s a great way to put that!
KAL: On those nights, when you haven’t slept, and you have to pull through, can you talk about the energy the crowd gives you, and help make what you do possible?
Mike: I think that’s a factor almost every night, you know? I think the energy of the crowd can, honestly, it’s really profoundly powerful, and that’s what I’m drawn to about this; that reciprocal energy between the band and the fans. It’s a really, really, real tangible thing to me. I can think of instances where, I remember when we had a show in Rochester (New York) a few years ago and I had the flu, and I’m one of those people who’ll have to die to not play the show, like, "I want to play the fucking show." I was throwing up right before we went on, and I threw up between sets, but the second we hit the stage, I had sweat beading down my face. I normally don’t even sweat that much, but I was like dying as we walked on. I kept getting the chills and all of that stuff, but literally the second we hit and started playing music, I think it was a sold out show back then, and the energy was through the roof in the room! I don’t totally remember those sets directly, but I remember the sickness itself on hold almost, like, it’s fascinating on a physiological level. I don’t really know what happened, but music took over and got me through both sets and an encore. I threw up between sets, but I played the whole night and it’s fascinating and makes you wonder, the next time I’m sick maybe I should just do something else. I think the secret is there’s not that many things that are that powerful that distract me besides music, and I think there’s something to be said about that.
KAL: That’s pretty cool. I mean, more and more we’re hearing about these studies that come out documenting that people who attend live music shows live longer, are healthier, are happier… it’s real! [laughing].
Mike: Yeah, I don’t think there’s too many people out there that could really refute that at this point, and how many thousands and millions of people have had that experience, and even historically have had that experience? I think it’s definitely hear to stay, you know?
KAL: Can you think of a fan experience that has really stuck with you, and inspired you?
Mike: There’s a lot of that man, to be honest, people will sometimes reach out and share very personal experiences with me. I had a fan from Toronto that messaged us out of the blue about how I think he saw us at Peach Festival, or one of these music festivals, and it was fascinating. Earlier in this conversation you and I spoke about my dad, and things ending, and life and death, and this person had messaged the band saying, “Hey, your music has meant so much to me and got me through my dad’s passing and we shared all of this music together, and Aqueous was the first set of music that I saw after his passing,” or something to that effect. He said, “With your guys' band, and these songs, and these lyrics - I just wanted to thank you.”
And it was so interesting because so much of his experience mirrored mine, down to the fact that he was at Peach Festival, and my personal experience… my dad’s last time ever seeing us was at Peach Festival. He had grown up being a huge fan of The Allman Brothers and the Dead. He was super into that whole music scene and introduced me to a lot of that music. Even when he was really sick he flew up from Florida and came to see us at Peach, and it was actually the last year The Allman Brothers played as well. The last time he got to see me he was in the crowd, and there was just so much tied to that experience, but he was describing my own experience with my dad but through my music, and it was one of the most meaningful, full circle moments that I had in my lifetime. I messaged him right back and shared that with him and connected with him instantly! That’s just one example, but if I sat down, there’s been so many moments where I’ve been just floored by what people share with us, and how much our music has meant to them, and that’s like a pretty crazy thing to us. We never really set out, we kind of just try to write music honestly, and play honestly, and it’s beautiful that people can pick up on things that aren’t so overtly stated, but it’s there. Maybe a certain feeling, or pain, or sadness, or happiness, or whatever that’s in music, maybe there in a subtle sense, but sometimes people really pick up on those things. To be able to read into that on a really profound, and emotional level is a really cool thing for me.
KAL: That’s spectacular. If you and your dad could sit in with anyone, together, who do you think it would be?
Mike: Man, I think that would be a really tough trade off between Pink Floyd and The Allman Brothers. The Allman Brothers would probably be more fun because I think it’s looser, there’s more room for jamming, and maybe the whole vibe is a little looser. I think Pink Floyd, in my mind, I read Nick Mason’s (drums) biography (Inside Out) and the tension was always so palpable within that band and it was intense, and angry, and stuff like that, but it's some of myself, and my dad’s favorite music of all time. And I’d say if I wasn’t so intimidating, and I could really read music I’d say Steely Dan, but that also sounds like a really intimidating scenario, so I think I’d definitely go with The Allman Brothers now that I think about it. I think that my dad’s style of piano playing, he grew up playing classical music, really influenced by all of the improvisational stuff, I think that his style would really shine there and that’s one of his most important bands. I’m a huge fan too and even later iterations like Derek Trucks is huge for me, so I think that would be the ultimate scenario.
KAL: Can you give me your best story experienced when you had a day off while touring, in some city, in some place in the world?
Mike: Yeah, there’s a lot really. On our days off we [laughing], one of the most common things we do is we find a fucking put-put course in every city, I don’t know what the deal is but that’s just our jam. We’ll do a lot of put-putting, you know the past few years, I’ve definitely stopped as much now, but myself, our front of house engineer and light designer, Ryan, him and I both skateboard, so we would hit all these different parks. You know, find all these different spots and that was a really fun vibe, but to be honest, I kept hurting myself and getting closer to hurting myself and I kinda cooled it on the skateboarding. I’m still super into the culture and I subscribe to Thrasher Magazine, but I’m living vicariously through others because I can’t break my fucking wrist and throw away a whole summer’s worth of touring, you know what I mean? It’s not worth it so I pretty much just bring a cruiser board and kick it that way. I’d probably say the most common activity for us is low key drinks, and put put.
KAL: Who’s your favorite skater?
Mike: Oh my God, that’s a really, really good question. When I was growing up, all the heroes like Jeff Rowley was one of my favorites. Andrew Reynolds had a Birdhouse video, and mind you not just a Birdhouse video, but a Birdhouse VHS tape called The End. Most of my favorite skaters were in there, and actually the first video I ever got was this one called Fulfill The Dream, which was from Shorty. That was at the height of Chad Muska stardom, and there was a lot of skating in that that I really loved, particularly this guy. I don’t even know if he still skates, but his name was Steve Olson, and something that stuck out with me was that it was my first introduction to hip hop, too. One of the two songs that he had in his part was “Gangstaar Above the Clouds,” and it really floored me. I was like 11 or 12 and I didn’t know that much about hip hop yet, and that was my introduction, but it’s sick now because there’s all these skateboarders that are out who are just doing the craziest shit. One of my favorite dudes is Chris Joslin. He’s a younger cat but honestly, I feel like even if you’re not into skateboarding you could watch one of his newer parts and be so inspired. I feel like you can’t watch it, and even if you didn’t understand how fucking insane it is or what he’s doing, I feel like almost any person could watch that and be like, “Holy shit, that’s crazy!”
And it’s funny, because skateboarding really does inspire me, even musically, there’s a lot of similar risks associated with that lifestyle; a lot of travel, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of dedication to your art form, and a lot of stylistic choices, so skateboarding has always been something that’s a part of my blood.
KAL: When’s your birthday?
Mike: September 15th.
KAL: Alright, so for your next birthday I’m going to connect you, and get you a hangout with Chris Joslin, cool?
Mike: No way!? What!?
KAL: Yeah, why not? I’m putting it into the universe, I’m gonna make it happen, and you heard it here first.
Mike: [laughing] That’s my dream man. That’s my dream. I’ll put it into the universe too, hopefully we can make it happen.
KAL: Yeah, it all starts here right?
Mike: That’s true!
KAL: Yeah, I mean I’m sure Chris is going to be stoked to hear that it’s your dream, and you could be jamming and he could be skating and maybe we could even curate a cool video where two dreams combine, that type of thing…
Mike: Yeah! I’ve always wanted to connect the jam scene with skateboarding, because there’s a lot of music in skateboarding and it’s a huge part of it. I’ve discovered so much music and obviously there’s a lot of punk and hip hop, but I literally discovered David Bowie through a skateboarding video, and a lot of different skaters are into different shit. I know there’s this one cat who’s on the team with Chris Joslin, who’s in Plan B with him named Torey Pudwill. I watched one of his parts and it had “Fearless” by Pink Floyd in it, and I was like “What the fuck!? I get this guy.”
You know what I mean?! I always wondered, some of these cats, let’s get 'em out to some music festivals, or show them what this whole scene is like, and maybe they’d be down to collaborate somehow? Another thing that I’ll kind of giveaway here, on our new album, there’s this track that’s an instrumental thing that’s more hip hop leaning, and I want that to be in a skateboard video more than anything in the whole world. And also the other thing, there’s some local skateboarders from Buffalo, Dan Plunkett is this one dude, I went to the same high school as this guy, but he’s maybe five or six years older than me, and he was like a local fucking hero! I used to go to this Fleet Bank, that was like this skate spot, and watch him crush it. And there’s this other cat, Jake Donnelly who skates for Adidas crushing it out there. I actually hit him up once on instant messenger and was like, “Yo, I’m a fan, and I play music,” and he got to me and was like, “That’s cool.”
And I think that’s the case of skateboarding as a community, a lot like the jam community; a lot of that building each other up and supporting each other, and being homies, and getting out, and representing, and there’s definitely some commonalities, so it could be a good hang with a bunch of skate cats, and musicians.
KAL: Mike, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I believe the universe provides for us, as we need it, and talking to you today has been the highlight, absolutely, and I’m gonna cook this up and get it out. I’m going to be at Electric Forest Weekend Two, and I’m stoked to at least say "What’s up" and give you a hug, alright?
Mike: Yeah man, let’s definitely hang there for a minute, that’d be great, and I appreciate you having me man.
Mike Gantzer is an eloquent, humble, and hopeful human who shines brightly amidst a sparkling, summer sky. He can do things on a guitar that most only dream of, but it is his insightful, gracious, and honest way of being that I am fascinated with and drawn to. I hope you all will join us at Electric Forest in Rothbury, Michigan on Sunday, July 1st, at 11:00 pm at The Observatory for Aqueous' set and a spectacularly Phun Photo. Just in case you were listening for one, This is a Good Sound.