Aqueous Reigns Over the Local Jam-Band Scene
Local Buffalo Band Delights Fans
Brad Darrall, a senior mechanical engineering major, and Evan McPhaden, a senior environmental studies major, are part of one of UB's best-kept secrets.
It's called Aqueous, and it's not a vocabulary word from one of their science classes (although it used to be). It's one of Western New York's most exciting up-and-coming jam bands.
Comprised of Mike Gantzer (guitar/vocals), Dave Loss (guitar/vocals), McPhaden (bass), Darrall (drums), and Nick Sonricker (percussion), Aqueous describes itself as "Buffalo's most dynamic and exciting live band."
Although the group often sounds a lot like another jam band with UB roots – moe. – Aqueous fans are just as likely to hear the band perform The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" or Warren G's "Regulate" as they are to hear a classic rock medley at a live show.
The three-piece rhythm section sets a straight-ahead, rock-solid foundation with a healthy dose of funk, allowing the two guitarists to come over the top with loads of blues, progressive rock, and psychedelia. Imagine some sort of hybrid between The Allman Brothers Band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and The Roots, and then model that after jam bands such as moe., Phish, and Umphrey's McGee.
Formed in 2006, Aqueous is actually a combination of two different bands from the members' days at North Tonawanda Senior High School.
Many fans have assumed that the band is named after "Aqueous Transmission," a popular Incubus song. This is not true, and Aqueous members were quick to dismiss the misconception. The name actually came from a chemistry lecture about aqueous solutions.
"We stumbled upon [the name] when we were in high school. Brad and I have been playing together since ninth grade," Gantzer said. "We were taking chemistry at the time… We had been playing together without a name, and we kept coming back to [Aqueous] because it worked for our sound."
When Darrall and Gantzer began playing together, they learned how to play Rush songs because, as Gantzer says, "there's nothing cooler than playing Rush covers in the basement." Meanwhile, across town, Loss, McPhaden, and Sonricker had a band of their own, preferring Hendrix covers.
North Tonawanda didn't seem to be big enough for both of the bands.
"Dave was the other [rival] guitar player in school," Gantzer said. "We started playing together, and we started doing harmonies and singing, which is not really something I had ever done yet."
Gradually, the two bands became one. The lineup was finalized when Sonricker, originally a drummer, converted to a percussionist. He also brought other advantages: a recording studio in his basement, an impressive skill for web design (check it out at www.aqueousband.com), and the willingness to serve as the band's de facto manager – he negotiates for gigs and operates the band's e-mail account, among other things.
"That really pulled our band together [when Nick joined]," Gantzer said. "Any gaps that were there before were filled."
Many drummers might struggle with the addition of a percussionist; working together might be challenging, or worse yet, the spotlight might get stolen away. These aren't problems for Darrall and Sonricker, however.
"One of my philosophies has always been to keep things simpler," Darrall said. "Straightforward stuff is better than [crazy drumming]. Nick can focus on the intricacies."
Just as Sonricker and Darrall work together to create a unified rhythm, Gantzer and Loss combine forces to chart out intricate melodies and timbres. The two guitarists set up their tones relative to each other, and that's the way they play their guitars as well. Neither considers himself the "lead guitarist" – while one melts the crowd's collective faces with a blazing solo, the other provides counterpoint or strums the backing chords.
"I don't think either of us care about [being the lead guitarist]… sometimes rhythm just feels better," Gantzer said. "I think we're all dedicated to the whole, as opposed to, ‘I just want to solo so people think I'm cool.'" ("There's no hero," Loss added.)
All the while, McPhaden's bass serves as the link between the tag-team guitarists and percussionists, providing a constant, low-end tone that both strengthens the rhythm section and complements the leads.
At an Aqueous show, though, you probably won't notice any of these separate elements alone, even if you're not too busy dancing. Instead of hearing five individual instruments, spectators are hit by one enormous sound – a goal that almost every band strives to achieve.
Though Aqueous does have studio recordings, many are drawn to the band by these live shows. No two Aqueous setlists are the same, and for that matter, rarely is the performance of a single Aqueous song ever the same. Original material is performed alongside cover songs, which are both "teased" and performed in full.
It's also common for the band to play a string of songs without stopping, improvising its way from one song to the next. Sometimes, it goes so smoothly that spectators doubt if the performance was really improvised, suspecting the band of rehearsing the segues ahead of time.
"These a**holes give me the setlist five minutes before we play, sometimes less than that," Darrall said of his fellow Aqueous members, as they laughed and nodded their heads in confirmation. "I have no idea [about the transitions]."
It's that adventurous mentality that keeps the band fresh and exciting for longtime fans.
"Every once in a while, we go out of our way to change it up for all of the returning fans, the ones that come to all of the shows," Gantzer said. "We make it new or different each time."
Jake Morseon, a senior accounting major, recalls a Sept. 17 show at Nietzsche's during which Aqueous was firing on all cylinders.
"The thing that I remember most about the show is [the band's] chemistry on stage," Morseon said. "While they were improvising, they each seemed to know exactly what the others were thinking. It was fun to watch."
In addition to seeing Aqueous put on a show, spectators can also take home free copies of Live Nugs, a two-volume release of live material that is given away at every performance.
Another part of the Aqueous appeal is the band members' sense of humor and willingness to avoid taking themselves too seriously. During a Nov. 5 show at Mr. Goodbar on Elmwood Avenue, the band seemed to be playing a standard reggae jam until Loss stepped up to the microphone and started singing "Bed Intruder," a song from a viral YouTube video that auto-tuned a newscast featuring eccentric interviewee Antoine Dodson.
The crowd went crazy with laughter and cheering, and nobody stopped dancing, either.
"I think we knew we needed to cover it as soon as we saw [the YouTube video]," Gantzer said. "It started off as a joke and pretty much went from there."
That idea may have been one, but the band is the furthest thing from a joke. The Aqueous network of fans seems to grow more every day, and the band has secured gigs at Artpark, Ellicottville Oktoberfest, and the Crooked I in Erie, Pa. (where Aqueous will open for national act The Brew), to name just a few venues.
So what's next for Aqueous? For the long term, the possibilities seem endless. For the short term, though, the band's next show is on Friday at Nietzsche's (248 Allen St.). Opening acts will begin at 10:30 p.m., and Aqueous is scheduled to perform at 12:30 a.m. Later this month, Aqueous will play at the Pearl Street Grill on Dec. 23 at 9 p.m.
And if the show itself and the free copy of Live Nugs aren't enough to satisfy a fan's appetite for Aqueous, the band is in line with the Grateful Dead-inspired policy that is an unwritten rule for jam bands: they're taper friendly, dude.