BJ Barham, lead man of the crossover country/rock band American Aquarium, played a solo show at Proud Larry’s in Oxford, MS – home of Ole Miss and the occasional loudmouth country boy. The event was a sit-down affair. Barham had come to play his songs – Barham now almost-famous with a cult following dug in and growing – to tell the stories about how these songs came to be written and what they mean to him. The bar was packed with avid fans, singing along quietly with Barham and listening intently between songs to Barham’s commentary – except for a couple of college kids, possibly frat boys (but whether they were or not let’s pretend that they were—it makes for a better story).
So these two guys were just talking away, having their own very loud, very obnoxious conversation – oblivious to the show going on or anything else in the world besides themselves. Barham stopped playing in the middle of his song. The crowd leaned forward in their seats in anticipation. Barham pointed directly to the “frat” boys, and said something to the effect of, “Hey – you two – yeah you – I will personally buy you a round if you will take your conversation outside. I don’t know if you noticed, but I am trying to play a show here, and these people are trying to listen.”
Those may not be the exact words Barham said. There were probably more than a few choice expletives left out. The crowd cheered. The boys got kicked out of the bar. And Barham played another great show.
Fast forward to winter of 2014. Rolling Stone named American Aquarium band “Number One” out of the list of their ten “New Country Artists You Need to Know for 2015.” Bandsintown named them “Most Active Act of 2014,” with 206 appearances under their belt for the year…more than any other act in the site’s database.
American Aquarium’s sound is a blend of grassroots rock and country, but it has more power and grit to it than most any other fusion of this combination yet to hit the country/rock fusion scene. There is also an indie feel to it, although the “indie” that exists there is not only in their unique sound. It also lies in the honest lyrics of Barham, paired with unexpected background music that can switch from sounding like Hank Williams (and doing it well), to sounding like the newest indie band from Nashville (and doing it better). Barham’s lyrics have that “indie”-like, renegade rebel attitude, which is not just an act. He reveals himself in every song he writes, attracting fans with his sincere “fuck you” attitude. He once spoke of the band Florida Georgia Line, who once opened for them, this way: “They now have millions of fans, tons of money and all the cut off bedazzled denim vests anyone could ask for. At least we still have our self-respect. Here’s to the working bands out there that never settle.”
If you had asked Barham in 2012 if he thought the band would still be together now, a band that had been going strong and gaining momentum for seven years at that point, he probably would have said, “No.” The Raleigh, North Carolina-based band had been touring heavily since its inception, produced six albums in seven years, and has attracted a large group of very dedicated fans. This is what likens American Aquarium to jam bands – that, and the fact that Barham never beats around the bush when telling the truth in his songs about the partying and philandering that went on for the vast majority of those first seven years.
Barham spoke candidly before the American Aquarium show at Proud Larry’s this past April about the rock-and-roll lifestyle, and the part it played in his career up until the release of their newest, critically-acclaimed album Wolves. “Wolves,” the title track, includes the line, “I just wish these wolves would get their claws out of me.” When asked who these “wolves” were, he explained it this way:
BJ Barham: It’s mostly talking about addiction…talking about the things that I wanted out of my life for a long time and I just couldn’t get out of my life. Mostly drinking and drugs…being a bad person…Being on the road is a lot of fun, but it also lends itself to making a lot of really bad decisions, especially because of the drinking and the drugs. So, it was just about getting my life in order by trying to get straight. And so, this year…I turned 30, I got married. I got sober. It’s been just a really great year, and it’s just kind-of about kickin’ the things that you didn’t think you could…the things that you thought were bigger than you…the things that you thought you could never get rid of out of your life. I’m livin’ proof that you can definitely say, ‘No’ to the things that get their claws in you
Barham went on to describe how the 2012 hit record Burn.Flicker.Die came to be made, an album produced by Barham’s friend and colleague Jason Isbell in legendary Muscle Shoals, AL. He also talks about his songwriting process, and about the well-deserved fame the band has garnered from the press written about both Burn.Flicker.Die and Wolves:
Honest Tune: Burn.Flicker.Die, the last album, seemed like a tribute to Raleigh, or your upbringing, songs like, “Cape Fear River,”…memories [of growing up], and “St. Mary’s,”…
BJ: Oh, yeah.
HT: “St. Mary’s” sounded like it must have been a tribute to the girls’ school.
BJ: Oh, yeah. St. Mary’s Girls’ School…I used to walk right by there on my way to downtown all the time and, I mention my favorite bar, it’s a place called, “Slims” in Downtown Raleigh, “….the land-locked nights down at Slim’s,” [lyric from “St. Mary’s”]… I write what I know. I write what I’m involved with, what is inspiring me at the time. Burn.Flicker.Die was really supposed to be our last record. We were supposed to break up after that record. We had been touring for seven and a half years…we were exhausted. And we had a batch of songs laying around and said, “We’re going to record this record. We’re going to tour on it a little bit, and if it doesn’t hit…if we don’t see any kind of success from it, then we can say that we did our best.”
We put out six records in seven years, and we’re proud of it. And, it turns out that the record about us breaking up turned out to be the record that was actually really successful for us, and kind-of paved the way for us to make Wolves, the record that we always wanted to make but we never knew how to make it. We weren’t able to make it. And, so, we were finally able to make it, and Wolves is something that I’m going to be able to look back on in twenty years and be like, “That’s a cool record. I’m really glad we did that [laughs].”
HT: Yeah…and I’m sure you’re not the only one that feels that way. It’s a fantastic album. Rolling Stone Magazine called Wolves, “…rooted in the brawny, barroom country rock of fellow road warriors like Lucero and Drive-By Truckers.” What’s your response to that?
BJ: That’s awesome. [Those are] two bands that made me want to do this. I started listening to…Ben Nichols, [who] is one of my favorite songwriters. And the Truckers…Isbell, Cooley, Patterson Hood…those records got me through everything. Everybody has these bands that are their favorite bands because they are the soundtrack of certain points in their life…that you hold dear. And Lucero and Drive-By Truckers were the moments in my life where I started realizing that this is what I wanted to do for a living. I wanted to be a songwriter. And they paved the way very clearly. The only way that you can write this kind of music and do it is to be on the road all the time, and tour.
It’s funny, I’ve played shows with both those bands quite a bit and I’m friends with a lot of the people in both those bands and, it’s just been really cool for them to go and be like the inspiration to us and being like their…their…their co-workers. We’re kind- of in the same game. You know, the Americana circle is very small, so, once you start getting a little bit of success and you just, you really know everybody. And, it’s really nice…Lucero and Drive-By Truckers…inspired a lot of the early stuff that we did. And now, it’s just nice to call them friends.
HT: And Isbell produced Burn.Flicker.Die?
BJ: Isbell produced Burn.Flicker.Die, yeah, we did that down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We did it at the Nut House…Jimmy Nutt left Fame and went and opened up his own place and so…it’s an old bank that’s been converted into a studio. It’s absolutely amazing. And, we went down there for eight days. Jason Isbell was down there, he had just started dating his wife, Amanda Shires, so she played fiddle and sang backup on vocals, and Jason sang all the background vocals on the record. We made the record that kind of saved the band…you know…without sounding cheesy or too dramatic, you know, that was the record that kind of made this whole thing happen.
HT: Do you think the Muscle Shoals legend helped to motivate you guys to produce such great material?
BJ: Oh, for sure. There’s a mojo. There’s a definite mojo down in Muscle Shoals. There’s something in the water. You’re in that town and you just know what came out of that town and you know what has come before you, and you don’t want to be the one band that messed up anything, so you don’t want to be the one band where when they talk about Muscle Shoals, like, “Well, this one band came here and made a really bad record.” You want to leave that place and feel like you did good, and I think we delivered.
I think we left Muscle Shoals with something that we were proud of. And it turns out that in the past three years, Jason’s star has risen exponentially. He’s arguably one of the best songwriters of our generation. And it’s funny that we just went down there to make a record with a buddy of ours. And it’s turned out that not only did we have a lot of success, but a year later, he put out a record that completely changed his life. So, it’s cool to look back and have at least a little bit of a story like that.
HT: Rolling Stone also called your new lineup since 2012, “…a genuine band firing twin barrels of punky, country and Southern rock.” Do you agree with that?
BJ: Totally. I’m not going to disagree with the Rolling Stone when they say something about me. Rolling Stone has been really nice to us on this record. They named us one of the “Top Ten Country Bands to Watch for in 2015,”…um…whatever they say, I’m happy with it.
I tried for ten years to get them to say anything, and they wouldn’t, so now that they’re saying stuff, I’m not going to critique it.
BJ Barham begins his solo tour at Slim’s in Raleigh, NC, on July 6th (yes, that “Slim’s”), touring solo all over the Southeast with only one night off, ending the solo tour right back home in NC on July 23rd at The Garage in Winston Salem. The very next night – July 24th, BJ joins back with the full band at the House of Blues Myrtle Beach, SC, to begin another grueling tour schedule that will no doubt land them on the “Most Touringest” list of Bandsintown for 2015. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch one.
American Aquarium Website: http://www.americanaquarium.com/
Catch American Aquarium on Garden & Gun’s “Back Porch Session” recorded live at South by Southwest here: http://gardenandgun.com/media/back-porch-session-american-aquarium