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BURNING BRIGHTLY: American Aquarium

The world seemed like it was on fire. His entire band quit on him. He was contending with being a new dad. So B.J. Barham decided he was up to the challenges—literal, existential, logistical, emotional—and created the album of a lifetime.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Last year BJ Barham, frontman for the North Carolina Americana outfit American Aquarium, was set to head out on the Lower 48 Tour – a wildly ambitious trek that would see him hitting up at least one show in every state (sans Hawaii and Alaska). And then his band quit.

Every single member. And all at once.

He understandably felt blindsided. What was the point now?

But just a few weeks after absorbing the psychological blow of having all five members of his band walk out at the same time, his wife gave him some frank advice: “You can either bitch about it or you can change it.”

And that statement become the overarching theme of Things Change, his latest record and easily, with little room for argument, his best collection of songs to date. (Amen. That goes for everyone else here at BLURT, too. – Ed.)

Oh, and he did embark on that exhaustive tour, solo, a little over a month after the dissolution of that version of American Aquarium.

Just a week before the June 1 release of Things Change, with a brand-new band and a new baby at home, Barham was kind enough to talk to Blurt, revisiting the great exodus of 2017, discussing the new record and the politics and optimism that are woven into the new music.

BLURT: I’ve been looking forward to interviewing you for a while now and thought I lost the chance when it looked like the band was broken up. So, I guess, thanks for keeping it together?

BARHAM: Ah, man, I am way too stubborn to give up.

Let’s talk about what happened with your band. You’ve said that everyone just left. Was that a surprise to you or did you see it coming?

It was a surprise because I didn’t expect it to come when it came, and it all happened at the same time. I’ve had over 30 members of this band since 2006. It’s been a lot of turnover, but I’ve been pretty lucky to keep a core of the band for the last eight years, but I’ve never made the same record with the same band back to back; every record has had either someone quit, or someone replaced, so I’m used to turnover. If it had been one person, it would have been a regular day at the office. If it had been two that would have been a little harder… but, I had five guys walk into a room and all quit. It was a mutiny aboard the ship. All the signs were there, I just ignored them. It was just general unhappiness.

We all started this band when we were in college. We wanted the same things, we wanted to tour everywhere, we wanted to play music for a living. We believed in this awesome plan, but over the course of nearly a decade people’s interests and people’s lives change and they go in different directions. What they used to be in love with they no longer care for and what they used to believe in has changed. By the end of that Wolves tour, it got to be that the show was the least important part of the day to those guys. They were worried about what they were going to do before the show or after the show. Those 90 minutes on the stage, that I still wake up in the morning for and live for, became an afterthought for them. And when they quit, I had about two or three weeks of sulking and then my wife said, “You can either bitch about it or you can change it.” And that’s one of the central themes of the record.

I went out and I got lucky. I was on the Lower 48 Tour and ran into a mutual friend from Austin and he said “Hey man, I heard about the band quitting. Can I put a band together for you?” I said, “Sure man, whatever,” and he put together just a crack band of guys that have been doing this for 10, 20 years. I fly into Texas for that first rehearsal and everyone knew every single song from start to finish. We took this thing on the road last fall as a trial run to see how we do with each other and it went gangbusters. It was amazing. We went to the studio and made a record together and things went great. (Below: the smoke-colored vinyl LP version of the album.)

This new record, the first track (“The World is on Fire”) grabs you right away. You didn’t waste any time getting in to what you wanted to discuss with this album.

Every artist says this about every new project because we’re vain immature children, but I feel like this is the best thing I have done so far. And a lot of friends who are honest with me – the ones who would tell me “this one sucks” or “good luck trying to get this one going” – everyone has been super supportive. I think creatively and musically we took a step forward with this one and I think that’s all you can ask for as an artist; make the thing that you put out better than the last thing and I think we did that this time.

As a father, “The World is on Fire” really struck a chord with me. You realize whatever is going on right now doesn’t just affect you, but your kids as well.

Exactly. That’s where that third verse really came from. That song was such a progression of 2017 for me simply because I wrote that first verse the day after the election, just anger fear and I had so many questions. I had no idea how to explain what I just watched. I put it aside because I didn’t want this record to be about fear, to be about hate because every other thing that has changed in my life since Wolves (his 2015 album) has been pretty positive so I didn’t want to write a record around this. I wrote the second verse after I had been on tour for a while and talking to people at the merch table after the shows – people from the left and the right and people who didn’t vote – and I regained a lot of faith in humanity. I realized not everyone is a bigoted, misogynistic hatemonger, but some people are in just desperate situations and the right has done nothing for them and the left has done nothing for them and they voted for a wildcard. I started to become a little more empathetic and just to listen to others instead of just pointing my finger at them and telling them why they were wrong or why they were right. I think this last election is the result, the epitome of people just wanting to be heard.

I had no chorus and two verses at this point and just sat on it for a while. During that tour me and my wife realized we were having a child and that just immediately changed my perspective. No matter how much my generation does to fuck things up, we’ve still got hope in that next generation. As long as a majority of us teach (our children) to be good, honest people we have nothing to worry about and that’s where that third verse came from. Don’t just bitch and complain about change, do something and inspire that change. Once we finished that song it was a no brainer that it would lead off the album. Some records warm you up, but this one gets it going right out of the gate.

Jason Isbell’s last record was probably his most political one so far. The same with Superchunk and just about any band that’s known for thoughtful lyrics putting out records since the last election. Was there any part of you that was nervous about alienating fans by talking about these issues?

Of course. I think anybody would be. You’re talking about alienating up to half of your audience, so you have to approach the topic intelligently; you have to approach the topic conversationally. You can’t come out and say you are all a bunch of fucking idiots. They’ll turn the radio off and throw out your records and say, “fuck that band!” But if you come at it with the attitude, “Hey man, we both love NASCAR, we both love fried chicken, we both love college football. I just want to know why you feel this way about this thing.” Letting folks know we’re the same people, we come from the same places. We disagree on this one thing, so how can we have an open dialogue about it. If anybody listens to this record and walk away thinking, “man, he’s way too political” then they’re missing the point. That first song isn’t about politics at all. It’s about finding hope in dark situations.

I don’t care what area of life you want to apply that to, but it should affect every American right now. And the third song, “Tough Folks,” if you walk away from that thinking, “Man, that’s just about his politics, he lost it,” then you’re not listening to the song. That’s a song about perseverance, hard work; that’s a song that says no matter how bad today is you can work yourself out of it. I think people from both sides should be able to get behind both of those themes that run through this record.

So, have you thought yet about how you go about introducing these songs from the stage yet?

Yeah, of course. We’ve played them live a few times and I just let everybody know this is a song about finding light in darkness, this is a song about not giving up hope, this is a song about either complaining about your situation or changing your situation. This whole record is a living tangible testament about a guy who was at rock bottom last year when my entire band quit. I could sit at home and complain about it, writing mean songs or I could pull my bootstraps up and keep this thing going and try to be positive, try to fix this fracture in our country. To a lot of people who listen to these records, politics may just be the one thing that’s different. I just want to make people aware that we may be way off base on this one thing but think of the hundred other things that we are right beside each other on.

There are a lot of mainstream country artists that aren’t speaking out and I can understand that because for the longest time I didn’t speak out because I thought people would judge me for it, but I think I’m approaching this record with almost a humble approach. We all grew up the same, I’m just trying to figure how we all grew apart. That’s the hope of this record, that people hear it and try and start a dialogue about it. Try and heal a fracture.

There does seem to be an optimistic thread that runs throughout the record. And I don’t know if that’s because you’re a new dad.

You know, I spent years of my life complaining and blaming all of my problems on other people and this record, more so than any I’ve written before, is me saying most of the problems I’ve seen in my own personal life, I’m going to take responsibility before and write just as honestly about how I’ve messed up my life just as much as I think others might have. It’s harder to take blame than to just put it on someone else. I think it’s a mix of me being married, me having a new child and me just growing up.

I just turned 34 and I’m looking at where I am now compared to where I was three years ago when we recorded Wolves. It’s night and day.

American Aquarium are currently on tour. More details at their Facebook page or the official website.