Q&A With American Aquarium’s BJ Barham

American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham chats with Pollstar about how life has drastically improved on both a professional and personal level since the alt-country band put out 2012’s Burn. Flicker. Die.

The LP could have been the act’s last album, after countless nights on the road and not enough to show for it. Fast forward a few years and American Aquarium is still putting in miles on the tour bus – but things are definitely looking up.  

Burn. Flicker. Die ended up being the band’s most successful album to date, bringing in great reviews from critics and much bigger audiences at shows. Barham talked about the simple joy of being able to “live a normal life” by getting an apartment and paying bills on time. Before releasing the LP, the signer/songwriter was so poor at one point that he was forced to live out of a storage unit for months.  

And now American Aquarium, which formed in Raleigh, N.C., in 2006, has a new record to show off. Pollstar called up the singer/songwriter on Monday, the day before the band released Wolves. Marking American Aquarium’s sixth full-length album, the 10-track LP was released independently, thanks to funds raised via a Pledge Music campaign.

Although Rolling Stone just named American Aquarium one of its “10 New Country Artists You Need To Know” Wolves leans more towards rock than its previous releases. Barham calls it “a fully blown indie rock record.”

The title song looks at addiction as a pack of hungry wolves. Another standout track is “Man I’m Supposed To Be,” a love song that multiple publications have compared to Bruce Springsteen’s ballads. Both tunes cover personal topics for Barham, who is newly sober and recently married the girl he was serenading in track No. 3.  

Along with Barham, the band features guitarists Ryan Johnson and Colin Dimeo, bassist Bill Corbin, drummer Kevin McClain, and Whit Wright on keys & pedal-steel guitar.

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

You played two shows in your hometown this past weekend. How did those performances go?

They were great. They were sold out. That’s Lincoln Theatre, here in Raleigh. Both of them sold out back in December so we didn’t really have any worries this week going into them. We just got to have a lot of fun.  

Do you still call Raleigh home?

Yeah, we all still live in Raleigh. We play about 250 shows a year though so calling Raleigh home is a bit of a lie. It’s where all of my mail gets sent. That’s how we joke about it.  

Congratulations on your new album coming out this week.

Thank you so much. We couldn’t be happier about it.

I was looking at your bio on your publicist’s website and it described the album as a “departure from the band’s signature twang” with a sound that draws more from alternative rock. Was it a conscious choice to switch up the sound? How did that come about?

It’s one of those things where as a band you want to grow, you want the last record to do better than the one before it. We named the band after a Wilco song but none of our stuff has ever sounded like Wilco. (laughs) We were definitely more of like a Whiskeytown-influenced band. But as we’re getting older we have slowly been moving away from the country sound into more of a rock territory. And this record is a fully blown indie rock record. Anytime I sing on a record, it’s going to sound Southern (laughs), it’s going to sound twangy as long as I’m singing just because I sound like a redneck but the band itself, the musicality of this record, is leaps and bounds above anything else we’ve ever done. Instead of the pedal steel playing a predominantly country role, it’s definitely exploring a lot more of the atmospheric stuff the pedal steel is able to do.

That’s exciting to keep growing.

Yeah, that’s the goal. I think the fanbase would get really tired if we just kept putting out the same record. And I know that we would get extremely bored doing the same record over and over again. Not only does it keep us excited and motivated and trying to push into a different territory, it keeps our fans kind of on our toes. That way they’re never really able to get bored with us. (laughs)

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

As you mentioned, the band’s name was inspired by the Wilco song “I’m Trying To Break Your Heart.” When you named the band, what about the phrase “American Aquarium” or the song in general appealed to you?

[Yankee Hotel Foxtrot] was one of the first records that proved to me that Americana music could really, really stretch the definition of what Americana music could be. Americana, in my mind, up until that [point], was a mixture of bluegrass, folk, country influences. … [The album has] lots of weird ambient noise, lots of sound, lots of weird time signatures, key changes.

That record was the first record that really stuck out to me like, “Wow, this is what this can be.” It was a record that didn’t leave my CD player for the longest time and one day I was driving down the road and – when the record ends, my CD player starts it right back over – I just remember hearing, “I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue” and I was like, “You know what? If I ever start a band, that’s what it’s going to be.” A year later I started a band.

This album is definitely the most similar thing to Wilco we’ve ever done. You can definitely tell that we listen to Wilco on this record. The other records you really couldn’t tell that we listened to too much Wilco.   

Can you talk about the process of writing and recording the album?   

This record was a huge growth for the band. We were kind of becoming stagnant playing the same live show every night. We just voiced our concerns about it and finally we were at that point where we needed to do something different, we needed to do something fresh, we needed to do something new. So we booked time at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, N.C., got a buddy of ours, Brad Cook, to come in and produce the record. And really the goal was to do something we had never done before. We wanted to really have a collaborative effort. Instead of me just writing folk songs and then the band just kind of playing behind them. It started off the same. I wrote a bunch of three-chord folk songs and then we really tried to deconstruct it as much as possible and then re-build it. We wanted to break down the song to the simplest parts and then see how we could stack it back up.

You had a quote about the new album where you said, “I’ve always written about being the drunk guy at the bar at 2 a.m. This is more personal.” I was wondering, was your past material more about different characters? Were they pieces of you?  

I write everything autobiographical so it’s one of those things that I’m definitely part of. I definitely wrote those songs about the kind of drunk asshole that I was at the bar, because for the longest time that was what the road was to me. The road was playing in front of 10 people every night, hopefully getting paid. We knew we at least had a free bar tab so we always took advantage of that. And then it was about going to a different bar and talking to a young lady or something. And it just got to the point where that got really old and in Burn. Flicker. Die. you could start seeing me getting tired of that kind of lifestyle, that kind of writing. And so in the past few years since Burn. Flicker. Die. came out I’m sober, I’ve been sober for five months. I’m married. I’m in a lot better place. Clarity mixed with happiness is a much better place for me as a writer to be in than drunk and just miserable. So, yeah, it’s a good thing. This record was the first record I actually got to write from an extremely happy viewpoint. … [It] still tackles the darker things about being on the road but there’s somewhat of a light at the end of the tunnel in a lot of these songs.

That seems like it would make a big difference in terms of the writing process because if more of the songs were downers you would have to put yourself back in that place.

Oh, for sure.

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

I know at one point you thought that 2012’s album would be your last. You started to answer my next question because I was going to ask how things have changed for you guys since then.

We looked at the last record as just kind of, “We’re going to give it everything we have and if this one is not the one that works out, then, you know, we tried our best. We gave it a shot. Maybe we just weren’t meant to do it.” And it’s really ironic that the record about us not being a band anymore is the record that was our most successful. It just took us to a different place. Instead of playing in front of 15 or 20 people every night, we started selling out shows, we started selling merchandise, we started selling CDs. Fans started bringing two or three friends to every show and then our numbers went from 20 to 40 to 80 to 300. And then you start getting paid and then you start being able to live a normal life and actually come out of debt and get an apartment, pay your bills on time and start living like an actual adult instead of being a 30-year-old 18-year-old (laughs).

Do you have any favorite tracks from the new album?

“Wolves,” the title track is one of the first songs that I wrote for the record and it’s one of my favorites because it’s just a song about me overcoming being a drunk all the time. It’s a song for anybody who’s battling any kind of personal addiction.

“Man I’m Supposed To Be” is another one of my favorites. I wrote that about my wife, before she was my wife, when we were just dating. I wrote that for her, basically explaining I’m not a lot of things but the one thing I am is yours. That’s the one thing I’ve got in this world. I’ve fucked just about everything else up I could possible fuck up, but this is the one thing I’m not going to fuck up. It’s almost just kind of like a letter to her, letting her know, just put a little bit of faith in it – I’m going to be an OK guy. (laughs)

And now you guys are married.

Yeah, and now we’re married so it must have worked.

You said American Aquarium plays something like 250 shows a year. If you could give advice to bands that are just getting started, what tips can you offer about keeping touring exciting and not getting burnt out spending so much time on the road?

Make sure that this is really what you want to do before you get into it. This is one of those jobs where a lot of people get into being a musician because they think, “Oh, it would be cool to be a musician.” What people don’t realize is you might be playing 250 shows but you’re away from your family and your loved ones 250 shows a year. And that’s the hardest part, being away. There are cool aspects – you get to see the entire world for free. You get to travel. I’ve been to almost every single state. I’ve got to see every major landmark in the U.S., big or small, and it’s super cool. But just make sure this is what you want to do because if not, you’re just clogging the highway for other people who are really passionate about it. It’s a huge sacrifice to be a musician, especially one that tours. You’re going to ruin at least 20 relationships, be it friendships or girlfriends. Because if you decide to do this for the rest of your life and this is what you’re truly passionate about and what you truly think your calling in this life is, you’re not going to give it up for a girl, you’re not going to give it up for a friend. It’s always going to be your priority. To live a normal life, you have to find someone that understands that balance, would never ask you to be off the road. It’s a hard life. It’s a fun life, don’t get me wrong. It’s a job at the end of the day, but it’s one of the coolest jobs you could ever have.

So anybody’s who’s starting, I would just ask yourself, can you be away from everything? Can you give up everything you love for 250 days a year? And if you can’t, you know, go work at a bank or something. Don’t try to do it unless you can put 100 percent into it because if you don’t put 100 percent into it, you will absolutely fail. Because I know plenty of people who are willing to put 100 percent into it and they still fail.

It’s one of those things where …bust your ass, play as many shows as you can, interact with your fanbase, never become an asshole, never become a guy that forgets his fanbase. Because I’ve watched too many bands get really big and then forget that their fans are the ones paying the tickets, buying the records, supporting their life. And then you know, the worst thing you can have is your fans turn on you and your fans stop coming to your shows, stop buying your records, all because you were a cocky asshole.

It sounds like you really appreciate your fans.  

Our fans are amazing and we understand every single time we get in that van, every time we sell a CD, every time we walk on stage that it’s them. It’s not us. We’re delivering our music but they’re the ones that are going out and supporting [us], they’re the ones that are telling their friends, they’re the ones that are buying it. And without them we’re nothing. And so I answer every single Facebook message personally on the band’s page, I answer on our Twitter, on our Instagram. We stand at the merch table every single night and sign CDs until nobody wants anything signed. It’s about your fanbase and when you lose sight of that, when you lose that relationship with your fans, that is when you’re going to have a problem and that’s something I hope we never do.   

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

Upcoming dates for American Aquarium:

Feb. 6 – Knoxville, Tenn., Barley’s Taproom
Feb. 7 – Greensboro, N.C., Blind Tiger         
Feb. 11 – Athens, Ga., Georgia Theatre        
Feb. 12 – Asheville, N.C., New Mountain Theatre  
Feb. 13 – Charlotte, N.C., Visulite Theatre   
Feb. 18 – Chattanooga, Tenn., Rhythm & Brews     
Feb. 19 – Birmingham, Ala., BottleTree        
Feb. 20 – Valdosta, Ga., Ashley Street Station         
Feb. 21 – Savannah, Ga., Jinx
Feb. 24 – Louisville, Ky., Zanzabar 

Feb. 25 – Bowling Green, Ky., The Warehouse
Feb. 26 – Newport, Ky., Revival Room        
Feb. 27 – Jackson, Mich., Weatherwax Hall at the JSO        
Feb. 28 – Goshen, Ind., Ignition Music Garage
March 1 – Columbus, Ohio, Rumba Café
March 3 – Lawrence, Kan., Granada Theatre
March 4 – St. Louis, Mo., Off Broadway Nightclub            
March 5 – Kansas City, Mo., Knuckleheads
March 6 – Lincoln, Neb., The Single Barrel 
March 7 – Weatherford, Okla., JC Cowboys

March 9 – Tulsa, Okla., Cain’s Ballroom
March 11 – Lubbock, Texas, Blue Light Live Lubbock        
March 12 – Denton, Texas, Rockin Rodeo
March 13 – Oklahoma City, Okla., Wormy Dog Saloon     
March 14 – McKinney, Texas, Hank’s     
March 17 – Concan, Texas, House Pasture Cattle Co. (Rio Frio Fest)
March 20 – New Braunfels, Texas, River Road Icehouse                         
March 21 – Parker, Texas, Southfork Ranch (Texas Music Revolution)   
March 28 – Richmond, Va., The Broadberry        
April 2 – Boone, N.C., The Boone Saloon
April 3 – Charleston, S.C., The Pour House
April 4 – Rocky Mount, Va., Harvester Performance Center
April 7 – Gainesville, Fla., Loosey’s
April 8 – Tampa, Fla., New World Brewery
April 9 – Tallahassee, Fla., Pug’s Live
April 10 – Jacksonville, Fla., Jack Rabbits
April 11 – Orlando, Fla., Will’s Pub
April 15 – Baton Rouge, La., Varsity Theatre
April 16 – Oxford, Miss., Proud Larry’s
April 17 – Nashville, Tenn., Exit / In
April 18 – Waverly, Ala., Standard Deluxe (Old 280 Boogie)
April 24 – Greenville, N.C., The Buccaneer Music Hall
May 30 – Manchester, Md., Private Function
June 27 – Luling, Texas, Watermelon Thump Festival Grounds (Watermelon Thump Festival)
July 25 – Floyd, Va., FloydFest Festival Grounds (FloydFest)

For more information please visit AmericanAquarium.com. And visit the band’s Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram.