By: Thomas D. Mooney
“I am an American Aquarium drinker.”
I never bring it up during my conversation with BJ Barham of American Aquarium. Mainly, because I’m sure he’s tired of answering questions related to the name of their band and the Wilco classic, “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart.” But also, because there’s no reason to; it’s something understood. Or should be at least.
If not though, I’ll explain. American Aquarium, in some form or fashion, is named in reference to what is probably the best “Am I in love” or “Am I in love with the idea of being in love with somebody?” Are you in love with that person at the end of the night in your haze of drunkeness or are you indeed, just eventually going to try and break their heart?
Barham undoubtedly writes a great heartbroken boozeworthy ballad (or rambler). We do discuss it later; being more than a break-up balladeer. But while it may not be entirely true, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong either. Barham has a way of making you feel his breaking heart. Or at least reminding you of yours. Like Barham says later, “It’s all about hating your town, getting drunk, and some girl leaving you.”
But, it’s not the whole story. These days, it’s more equal parts heartbreaker and Southern-Springsteen. Replace The Big Man (no easy task) with some pedal steel, add some southern accents, towns, and dirt roads, and you’re on the right path towards American Aquarium.
American Aquarium will be playing The Blue Light with Chris Knight this Thursday (March 1).
New Slang: You just recorded a new album with Jason Isbell producing. How was that?
BJ Barham: Yes, we just did that. We were down in Muscle Shoals for about 10 days. It was amazing. We’re all really big fans of his music. We’re all really good friends with him, so it kind of worked out. You really want to make a record with someone you respect that much. It’s a real treat. He was real hands-on in the process. We made a record we are really, really proud of. I think that goes to us being really comfortable with Jason and him being comfortable with us.
NS: You said it was recorded in Muscle Shoals. There’s a lot of great music history there. Where did you record, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio?
BJB: We didn’t do Muscle Shoals Sound. We did The Nutt House, which is Jimmy Nutt, who was an engineer over at FAME. It’s only about five or six years old. It’s where Jason did his last two records. We’ve been to Muscle Shoals Sound over on Jackson Avenue. But for what we were doing, Jason said The Nutt House was our best bet.
Ns: Now you also had Amanda Shires playing some fiddle on the album.
BJB: Yes, speaking of Lubbock. Yes, we were super-pumped. She was in town seeing Jason, and luckily, she was like “Hey, can I sing on the record? You want some fiddle parts?” And, you don’t say no to Amanda Shires [laughs]. We had a really good time hanging out with her. The stuff she put on the record was absolutely incredible.
NS: Yeah. Seeing and reading tweets from her, Jason, and you guys, yeah, it definitely looked like you were all having a hell of a time.
BJB: Yeah, it definitely didn’t have that whole “we’re making a record” feel. It was more like just a bunch of friends hanging out, having fun, and we just so happened to make a record.
NS: You guys went out karaoking as well. What’d you sing?
BJB: Oh man. I did “Thunder Road.” I played it pretty close to the chest with that one. I did “Thunder Road” and then I realized–see I went first out us three and we had to keep our choices secret. So I thought everyone was picking something that they were going to excel at. But, Amanda did 2Pac’s “Dear Mama” and Isbell did “We Belong To the Night” [by UFO]. So the second go round, I did a Nelly song. So I brought out the hip-hop. The more beers that were drunk throughout the night, you know, it just went down hill [laughs]. You could say I loosened up enough to stray out of what I was comfortable with singing [laughs].
NS: American Aquarium definitely has a “Southern Springsteen” feel. What’s your thoughts on Springsteen?
BJB: Yes, hands down, the single biggest influence on my writing and on our music. I think sometimes we don’t mean it to be. I think sometimes we try and steer away from it. But a lot of times, we love the big, epic songs. Even the slow stuff on this record, they’ve very big. I’ve always loved that about Springsteen’s music. Ever since I was a little kid. As a kid, I didn’t know any better, but all I’d listen to [by him], was “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Dancing in the Dark.” Even his pop songs, they’re huge, epic pop songs. But I went to college, started managing a record store, and I started getting into stuff like “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River,” and “Born to Run,” and that’s where it blew my face off. I was just “Oh my God; this guy is a genius.” And of course, when you listen to something for about four years straight and nothing else, it’s going to influence your music [laughs].
NS: I read in another interview where you described yourselves as “punk rock kids playing country music.” First off, that’s really Ryan Adams of you guys, in a good way.
BJB: Yeah, it’s really hard being from Raleigh, saying something like that, and not sounding like Ryan Adams.
NS: Yeah, I imagine so. I’ve got basically two questions stemming from this. One, why don’t you guys play punk rock then? Other than the fact you’re great at playing alt.-country.
BJB: I think because everybody’s already been there before. I think everybody was in that scene. Our drummer, our guitar player, our bass player. You know? When you’re fourteen-years-old, you want to piss off your parents. Fuck country music; we’re going to play loud as we can and play punk rock. And then you come to an age–we still listen to punk rock. It’s just that you come to an age where, it’s funny how the stuff your parents raised you on, you come back to it. There’s just as much Americana as there is punk rock stuff being played in the van. But you come to an age I guess where you realize that country music is just slowed down punk rock. It’s all about hating your town, getting drunk, and some girl leaving you. Except you throw a pedal steel guitar and an acoustic guitar on it, all of a sudden, it’s country. It’s really funny how those three chord songs breakdown [laughs]. You slow down any punk rock song down, and it’s always the same three chords. It’s E, C, and D. With that, you can play a country song. I think you just get older though. I think that’s the simplest answer for your question. There’s a couple of other bands I’ve seen around the country, and after a certain age, if you play something punk rock or similar, it just looks, not sad exactly, but like “what are you doing? why are you playing punk rock at 35?”
NS: Yeah, I know what you mean. The second part of that question is about Ryan Adams. He’s the biggest thing to come out of Raleigh. I don’t mean this in a bad way by any means, but it that kind of a hard shadow to get out of?
BJB: Oh yeah, no doubt. I’d say, the first two records we put out, it was hard to get out of that bubble. I’d so those first two records were–first off, I have to say, I’m a huge fan of the record “Heartbreaker.” I love all the Whiskeytown stuff. Hell, we even cover some Whiskeytown in some of our sets. I can’t say that Ryan Adams hasn’t influenced the things we’ve done. It’d be a complete lie. I love his music. But after the second record, I think we started making a change and playing the kind of rock and country stuff. I think our music made a change into more of the rock landscape. We still have very, very American music values in our music. But, I think Springsteen became a bigger influence than Whiskeytown. Whiskeytown was more of a reason why we started a band. I’d be lying if I said anything other than that. But I think, with us changing into more a rock approach. And once we started making a name for ourselves. And you also have to realize Ryan Adams moved away. But everyone else is still there in Raleigh. Like Skillet Gillmore, the drummer, does all of our studio artwork. And Caitlin Cary, the fiddle player, she’s sung on every single one of our records. Whiskeytown is still there. So when we first came onto the scene, we were the young kids, because that scene (The Whiskeytown era) ended in the late ’90s. And here we come in 2005, kind of doing a similar thing, so we were kind of looked at as the young kids. But now, those dudes respect us. It’s nice to finally have that nod from the Raleigh alt.-country greats. It’s nice to get that approval of what we’re doing.
NS: You guys are workaholics. You play a ton of shows every year, record and release about an album every year. You guys get tired?
BJB: Constantly. That’s why I missed your call earlier [laughs]. Yeah, you get tired. But, it’s what we love to do. I’m not really good at anything else, except for talking shit to people. I’d be a pretty terrible stand-up comedian. I’d rather be tired every single day, on the road living in a van than working a shitty desk job that sucks the life out of me. It’s not for me. It’s not what I was wired to do. But yeah, you wake up every morning, you’re hungover, you’re tired, you wonder what the fuck you’re doing in Albuquerque, N.M. But we look at it as we get to play music for a living. Every year gets better. More and more people are showing up to shows, and making it to where we can do this for a lifetime. It’s a very small price to pay to do what you love to do.
NS: Connected to that, like I said, you’re recording about an album a year. That’s a lot of songs written. Where do all those songs come from? How do you write that many songs and keep the quality up?
BJB: That’s always a problem every writer has. Just trying to keep your quality up and trying to make the next record better than the last record. That’s something that’s close to me. I’ve always been labeled as a guy who just writes about relationships and break-ups. I kind of got put in that one trick pony category. “You write really good break-up songs but nothing else.” This new record, it really doesn’t have any break-up songs on it. This new record is very much about life on the road. A totally new subject matter for this band to tackle. And that’s what I’m most proud of. This new record, hands down, is the best record this band has done. Ever. And I’m really proud of it from the lyrical aspect because I was able to break out of something a lot of people put me in to. It’s just challenging yourself. I try to sit down–when I’m home–every day for a couple of hours with the guitar . I might get a line, a sentence, or I might get two songs. It’s whatever hits me.
NS: When is the new album supposed to be out?
BJB: Right now, we’re looking for a late August release. That way, we can pretty much tour the rest of 2012 and 2013 taking it to the masses.
NS: What’s the title?
BJB: The title of the record is “Burn, Flicker, Die.”
NS: You said that a lot of people label you as that heartbroken and drinking song. What is ya’lls drink of choice?
BJB: Jameson. Jameson Irish Whiskey. Yes sir.