After years of struggle, the North Carolina band of overachievers finally taste success. “But we’re a 100 percent independent band,” notes frontman BJ Barham with pride. “I’m not a rich guy, but I’m a pretty happy dude.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
For all intents and purposes, American Aquarium seemed certain to fail. Despite four studio albums, an EP and a live disc in just six years, the endless traveling, countless late-night dives, ruined romances, meaningless one night stands, booze, drugs and an inability to rise above their impoverished existence all combined to convince the band they ought to consider ending it all. Nevertheless, they decided to take one last shot to see what might pan out.
The result was 2012’s Burn, Flicker, Die, an album whose ominous title seemed to sum up their sad state of affairs up until that point. Enlisting producer Jason Isbell, the Raleigh, North Carolina, six piece — singer/songwriter/guitarist BJ Barham, bassist Bill Corbin, guitarist Ryan Johnson, drummer Kevin McClain, pedal steel player Whit Wright, and guitarist Colin DiMeo — finally struck pay dirt, offering up an album that not only garnered critical kudos, but raised enough awareness to give them the needed impetus to carry on.
American Aquarium had looked disaster in the eye, and emerged that much better for it.
Wolves, the band’s new outing, finds them taking a victory lap of sorts. Shorn of the hollow-eyed ballads and despondent dictates that characterized previous efforts, it finds them celebrating a new sense of stability that keeps them out on the road — they log approximately 300 dates a year according to Barham — and feeling secure at home once they return.
We recently spoke to Barham in order to catch us up on American Aquarium’s current state of affairs.
BLURT: Some of the lyrics you were writing early on seemed pretty despondent at the time. Did people come up to you and try to offer encouragement?
BARHAM: Being on the road as much as we are led to a lot of broken relationships. We screwed up a lot of things that may or may not have been around a little bit longer if we had actually been around more. When I was 25 and 26, singing these songs on the road, people would come up to me and say, there’s no reason why that much shit should have to happen to someone in 25 or 26 years. (chuckles)
Did the band share your sentiments?
When I bring a song to the band, the boys can usually pinpoint a verse or two that sums up exactly what I’m talking about. I’d be candy coating it if I didn’t say it like it is. When you’re doing something strictly for the love of the art, it doesn’t pay the bills or help credit. You rob Peter to pay Paul and you’re always in limbo when it comes to making the van payment this month, or paying the insurance, or paying the guy that’s loaned us $500. We were really hard up until the last record.
That struggle to survive seemed to be an overarching theme in your earlier albums. Troubled times.
Oh, for sure. I’m definitely an autobiographical writer. Every song I write is about me, or someone close to me, or some experience I’ve lived through. The good — or maybe the bad — thing is, I’m such a chronological writer. Every record tells you what I’ve been doing the last year or two since the last record from me. I kind of write about what the current state of affairs in my life is. Sometimes that gets old for people, because for eight years, I wrote about what it was like to be in a struggling band, trying to make ends meet, the vices of the road, one night stands. For a long time I was sleeping on floors, living well below the poverty line, but doing it all for the love of making music. The fifteen or twenty people who would come out to see us making music is what kept us going. We felt we had something, and if twenty people turned out, maybe we could get another twenty people, and they could turn another twenty people on to it as well.
It says in your bio you were living in a storage unit for a while. That sounds really horrible.
I lived in a storage unit for about three years. But I was on the road about 300 days a year, so I was only in the storage unit about 60 days. There was a gas station down the road where I could use the bathroom facilities and I had friends that let me stop in and shower. I had a group of ten to fifteen friends who I could rotate between. Every fifteen days or so, I’d stop in to clean up. I could usually get a shower a day, and only bother my friends like twice a month or so. Those were the times that made me who I am today. They made me appreciate having an apartment… a wife… some stability.
Things are different now?
A lot of things have changed since those days. I’m sober, I’m married. A lot of things are going really, really well for me and the band. It’s nice to look back and see how far we’ve come. I wouldn’t change what we went through for anything. I never would have gotten here if none of that stuff had happened to me. I wouldn’t be able to appreciate what I have now.
What’s the vibe like in the band now?
We still get excited every time we walk out on stage. We’re not jaded. We’re not like some buzz band that made it big with their first EP and have never had to experience the lows. All we’ve had is lows, so it’s nice to be finally enjoying the highs. It’s nice to see something we’ve been working on almost a decade finally coming to fruition. We can finally make a living doing this. And not just a musician’s living. Everyone has an apartment. Everyone has an address. It’s a huge thing. No one has to work a day job. We can do our art and make a living doing it.
It’s a really rewarding thing. It’s been really hard work, but the ethic of this band has been if we’re ever going to get anything, we’re going to have to work our asses off for it. Hence the 300 gigs a year. Hence giving up everything except for the instruments we have to make our music with. We’re still just a very small little blip, but it’s our blip. It’s our little bit of success. Every time you reach a new rung on the ladder, you appreciate the rung you’re on. You don’t have to count the millions of rungs ahead of you.
Your last album, Burn, Flicker, Die, seemed to arrive at a critical juncture. It could have been your swan song?
We all talked about that at the time. We faced the possibility that maybe we were finished. We gave it our best shot and we worked hard and we did everything we possibly could. But maybe at the end of the day, this wasn’t what we were supposed to do. We were ready to live with it. So when it came to that record, we wanted to put everything we had into it. Desperation yields some pretty cool results sometimes. That’s exactly what Burn, Flicker, Die is. It’s these talented dudes who were a month away from watching their entire life’s dream completely shatter. If everyone ever came down the road and asked whatever happened to this band, we wanted to be able to hand them this record and say, this is what happened to them. This is the story. This one record will give you every reason why we did what we did. And why it led to the drinking, the broken relationships, the always wanting more out of life. We summed it up in eleven songs.
So if that album hadn’t garnered the critical acclaim that it did, what would you personally have done? Would you have given up your music career? Formed another band?
I definitely wouldn’t have the band I have today. Me and the boys had been together six years. We were all going to go our separate ways. But I’m too stubborn of an asshole to give up completely. I’d be playing open mic nights if I had to. Writing songs is cathartic for me. Writing songs is the way I put up with a lot of the nonsense that I had to deal with over the years. So I’d be doing it on some level. Before I started doing music, I was a really shitty waiter, so I’d probably be a marginally better waiter, or a bartender, or that annoying friend who’s over 30 and still inviting his friend to all his open mic shows. I would be that guy. I’d like to say I could walk away from music, but it’s got a hold on me.
On the other hand, did the success of the last album put pressure on you when it came to working on a worthy follow-up? You certainly set a high bar.
Of course. But it’s a good intimidation, and it’s a good challenge. Burn, Flicker, Die did set the bar. So when we set about doing Wolves, we knew we had to do another good record. At one point we said, maybe we should just not do another record. Maybe we should just leave it with Burn, Flicker, Die and maybe that would have been fine. Maybe we should just walk away from it. However, when I brought the songs for Wolves to the table, we knew we had a completely different monster. Wolves is a progression, a step in a completely new direction. You can listen to this record, and you can listen to Burn, Flicker, Die, and you’ll realize this is a band that’s growing musically, sonically, lyrically.
So what do you see as being different?
The songs aren’t as depressing as the last record. (chuckles) It shows a different perspective. You’re talking to a guy who is sober and in love. Wolves is about a band finding its identity. This is a band that’s saying, yeah, we’re never going to be this huge monolithic band, but you know what? It’s cool. We’re okay with that. We sell out all of the club shows we play and we have at least 200 or 300 people willing to come out each night to sing these songs with us. And that’s our success. So we don’t have to play the amphitheaters and the theaters and headlining festivals. We’re able to make a living doing what we love doing, and if that’s as big as it ever gets, that’s awesome. We’re content with that.
That’s what Wolves is about. It’s a record that says, you know, we may not be the biggest, and the strongest, and the best, but we’re happy with who we are. We’re accepting the fact that we were fuck-ups for quite some time, but we’re lovable fuck-ups at this point.
It sounds like you’re pretty happy with this record.
Wolves represents a huge growth, a huge collaboration for this band. Musically, it pushes us into a different direction. After being a really good bar band, sonically, we’re taking some chances. We’re doing a lot more atmospheric stuff. We’re letting the songs breathe. It’s got a lot less solos and a lot more emphasis on melody. We couldn’t be prouder of this album. There’s not one thing I don’t like about it. There’s not one thing I wish I could change about it.
What funding method did you use?
We used Kickstarter for Burn, Flicker Die and Pledge Music for the new one. In the first five days, our fans funded it 100 percent. In the remaining 25 days, they funded it 200 percent. This is the first record where we were able to hire a proper publicist, and a proper radio guy, and a proper everything. It’s nice to be able to see how it’s supposed to be done… and to afford it as well. Our fans basically gave us a bigger budget for this record than any major label would have given us. A major label would want to own our songs. We still own every one of our songs. We’re a 100 percent independent band who have an enormous fan base and we own all eight of our records. We control every aspect of our operation. It’s a neat thing to look back ten years and be able to say we own everything we’ve ever done, and nobody else owns a piece of it. We own the rights to every song. It’s a neat feeling.
It could have turned out differently.
At the end of the day, I feel like we did it right. We didn’t cut corners. We didn’t take the easy way out. We didn’t sign to Atlantic Records and have them tell us how to make a record. We made a lot of mistakes along the way, but it led us to this point now where I think we all know what we want to happen. We like being an example of how hard work can pay off. If you work your ass off on something and believe in what you’re doing, you can be successful. We’re living proof of that.
The band has been amazingly prolific in the last eight years.
For the first five years, if we took any time off the road, it was to go into the studio and make another record. I wrote a lot of songs about touring and being on the road, but that’s what we know. I’m not going to write a candy coated love song because for a long time I didn’t know what that was. I did know about trying to closing a bar down. I did know about talking to a pretty girl in a club at 3 a.m. because I only had a floor to sleep on and so maybe I could go home with her. I knew about that kind of stuff so that’s what I wrote about.
Not to fan the flames, but do the other guys in the band ever express an interest in contributing to the songwriting?
I’ve written every song American Aquarium has ever recorded, and the boys have trusted me with that since day one. They tell me, “We wouldn’t be here if not for your songs.” And I trust them. I don’t tell them what to play. I don’t tell them what the drums should sound like. The songwriting process is me offering three chord folk songs to the band and then together putting skin and muscle on top of those chords. I trust them in that aspect as much as they trust me to write the song. We’ve gotten really good at that collaborative process. Nobody else wants to sing and nobody else wants to write. This band was built around the fact that it would have a really good songwriter and would also be a really great live band. Just like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. We wanted to sing about common themes with a kick-ass live band behind it. I’d put us up against anyone.
Both those examples you mention also found the leader going out and doing solo albums. Can you foresee that possibility for yourself?
I’m not saying that’s out of the realm of possibility. If I write a record and the songs would be better if they came from me, then yes, I would consider it. The boys know that. I’ve toyed with that for a long time. I’ve had a stash of songs pulled off to the side in case I ever decide to do anything. But right now, my focus is 100 percent on the band. These are my best friends, and this is what we do. We’re in our best element when we’re onstage and we feed off each other. There’s an energy that those boys put out that we all soak up. We don’t have to tell each other what we’re thinking. It’s a look. It’s a nod. I’ve played well over a thousand shows with these guys, and that’s just in the last four years alone. (chuckles). There’s an unsaid trust there. They’ve never said that a song wasn’t good.
That’s quite an accomplishment.
There have been a long of songs that I’ve written that didn’t make the cut because I chopped it off before I gave it to them. So every time I present something to them, they now it’s going to be good quality. Then we talk about what direction we want it to go, and if that doesn’t work, we take it in another direction. If that doesn’t work, we go back to the first direction. It’s a true definition of what collaboration should be. It’s all about, let’s make the best thing we can make. We don’t argue. We don’t fight. It’s a family. It’s kind of weird how close we are. We eat dinner together every night. We still sit down together and laugh at each other. We’re not bitter. We’re not mad. Some bands can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. We know how to piss each other off, but we try to avoid that. We focus on the positives, what everybody brings to the table instead of what they’re not. It’s a great way to work.
You seem very content.
I have the best job in the world. I get to see the country and see the world with my best friends, and play music for the people. Then I get to come home to a great place, which I consider one of the best cities in the country. I have a wife. I have a dog. I have two cats. I have an apartment. I’m the happiest guy in the world.
Not many people can say that…
That’s the American dream right there. Being happy. I’m not a rich guy, but I make enough to eat and to have a roof over my head. And occasionally, me and my gal get to go to a movie. I’m a pretty happy dude.
On the web: https://www.facebook.com/americanaquarium