by: Thomas D. Mooney
“We burn too long; we flicker and die.”
BJ Barham may be the most underrated lyricist in alternative country–check that–in music today. The southern Springsteen. Last time American Aquarium played Lubbock, Barham and I talked about the Springsteen influence and likeness. It’s more apparent than ever though on the band’s latest record, “Burn. Flicker. Die,” which was released earlier this year.
Barham’s always been able to able to write clever and quick lines, but on “Burn. Flicker. Die,” he takes it up a notch. He’s a wordsmith. Putting together line after line of bar room images that could even make the likes Jason Isbell, Ryan Adams, and Patterson Hood jealous.
You know how in Quentin Tarantino films the dialogue is just perfect? Like how it just runs so smoothly? There’s never a wasted line. Never a wasted word. Every word depends on the previous and next word. They’re always lines that are so cool, you can’t think of them being said by anyone you actually know. Well, that’s really kind of how Barham’s lyrics are.
He smashes together lines that run together smoothly. He’s one of the best alliteration writers I’ve ever witnessed. They’re half tongue twister, half Shakespeare. They’re Barroom chatter. Saturday nights and Sunday mornings.
We caught up with Barham last week to discuss “Burn.Flicker.Die.” in full detail. American Aquarium plays The Blue Light tonight (Oct. 5) along with alt. country rockers Sam Sliva & The Good.
New Slang: First off, I’ve got to say, this new record is one of my favorite records of the year. Actually, one of my favorites of recent years.
BJ Barham: Thank you so much.
NS: No problem. This record sounds so great. And I think–not that your other records aren’t good–but I think this is easily a cut above the rest.
BJB: We feel the same way. We knew we kind of had to up the ante on this record. We really feel like we succeeded. We feel like we put out our best record to date. Musically, the arrangements are a lot better and a lot more rehearsed. It’s not the simple verse, chorus, verse, chorus. We’re extremely excited about this record.
NS: Yeah. I was going to mention that. I don’t just think the lyrics on this record are better, like you were saying, the arrangements and the music aspect have grown a lot as well. Overall, it’s a mature record. It’s developed more. You feel like that’s because you guys have just been in a band together so long?
BJB: Yeah. Well, it’s been two and a half years since our last record. We feel in the last two and a half years we’ve grown as a band. We’re a lot closer as a band. We went through a lot of dumb stuff. We went through a couple of members leaving. It’s a sound that comes with time. We’ve all been together for about four or five years now. We’re starting to sound like music versus five different people playing on the record.
NS: Yeah. Something I’ve got to mention–which, it’s part of the album, but not in the sense that it’s a song or something–but the artwork is just straight badass.
BJB: Oh yeah. I think the artwork is great. They sent us the artwork while we were in Europe. Skillet Gilmore from Whiskeytown did the artwork for the record. Like I said, we were in Europe and he over a rough of it and asked, “What do you think about this direction?” and we said it was just perfect. I just love the simplicity of it. There’s a lot of record covers that are super intricate and amazing art pieces and this is just a really simple statement. It’s great and it works. It’s immediately identifiable. People see that flame and go, “Oh, that’s American Aquarium artwork.” We’re really proud of how something so simple could resonate so well.
NS: Definitely. Now the record starts off with “Cape Fear River.” It really sets the record up well with that groove. Can you talk about that song?
BJB: Yeah. It’s a song about the place I grew up. A little place called Reidsville, North Carolina. It’s very much a song about what happens when you get stuck in a small town. Maybe I’ve not done the best. I’m sure my parents never thought I’d make the choices I made, being a musician. But hopefully they’re proud that I’m out living and enjoying my life. It’s about that worry every kid has. “Are my parents really proud of me?” It’s the realization that I’m pretty sure they’re proud just because I’m not stuck in the same place that I was. Maybe I’m not, you know, monetarily successful like some people, I’ve lived my life. I’ve gone all over the country–all over the world. I’ve got to see stuff through music. I think they’re proud of that.
NS: Yeah. It’s certainly a subject that so many people can identify with.
BJB: It’s a fear all of us have. Over the years, I’ve learned that my parents are extremely proud of me for what I’ve done. Not just because of the success that I’ve had from what I’m doing, but also the resilience. A lot of kids when they’re told no, they’ll just give up on that. I was told four years and kept doing it.
NS: Now “St. Mary’s,” that’s probably my favorite song on the record.
BJB: It’s probably one of my favorites too.
NS: It has that great line it: “You’re just a two pack habit with a southern accent. I’m just a pearl snap poet with bad tattoos.” That line is just so damn great. Where were you when you came up with that? Did you think it was a great line right then?
BJB: As soon as I wrote it down, I knew it was a really good line. It’s a really funny, just really self-aware line. Any girl I’ve ever met at a bar. It was how can I reduce this to just simple truths and still be funny and witty? Those were the first two lines I had written of the songs. I had those written even before I started the song. You’re just a two pack habit with a southern accent. I’m just a pearl snap poet with bad tattoos. That’s just what got the song started. It’s one of my favorite lines off the record. This record, it’s definitely a self-analytical record for me. Introspective. I don’t want people to take that the wrong way thinking that we think we’re just a bunch of failures. It’s about coming to a point in your career–where more than anything–you start to question if you made the right decision. We all believe what we’re doing is correct. We made the right decision. We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. This is our life. But this record is just about that questioning and that doubting. Goes back to that “are your parents proud of you?” If it never gets bigger, am I going to be happy doing this? It’s about self-awareness. And I think that line just epitomizes the whole idea of introspect on this record.
NS: Also on this record, you’re still singing about bars and tour life like a lot of the earlier albums, but it’s without that rose-colored film on it. It feels darker.
BJB: Oh yeah. I put out two or three records where is it was the road’s fun, the road’s drugs, the road’s women, the road’s a lot of booze. It’s all fun and games. It’s the greatest lifestyle ever. This record is definitely goes after some of the darker topics. They definitely come at a cost. With any amount of fun, it becomes the addiction. With any amount of all those girls, it becomes the loneliness. There’s never such a thing that’s a good thing forever. When I was 22, yeah it was fun. One night stands and getting drunk. Doing drugs is a lot of fun. But it gets to a point when you’re pushing 30 and you realize you’ve fucked up every relationship you’ve ever had in your life. You may or may not have a substance abuse problem. This is definitely the darker side of those Saturday nights. This is those Sunday mornings waking up going “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” I’d say that “Dances For the Lonely” was definitely a Saturday night record. “Burn.Flicker.Die.” is definitely a Sunday morning record.
NS: Yeah. I can definitely see that. Now on the song “Burn.flicker.die.” you say the line “Every girl in the bar looked like 1965.” Now what’s the connection to 1965? Is there a direct connection to that year? I’ve been trying to find one. Is there one or did it just sound good?
BJB: That’s about a bar. One of the bars we go to. You know, one of the big things now is tattooed up girls who look like pin-up girls. Which, I’m dating a girl who looks exactly like that. My girlfriend now, she’s extremely tatted up and she looks like a pin-up girl. I had the line written already “Every now and then she crosses my mind. Every now and then, all of the time.” It was just going to be a ’60s reference there. The only reason it ended up being 1965 is that it rhymes [laughs]. It’s just making that statement about girls from that era. Girls that look like 1965 with their sailor tattoos and drawn out eyes. I could have easily put 1969 in there [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. Yeah. That line stuck with me the first I heard it and I’d been thinking about it for a while now. I knew I was going to ask you about it, but while getting my questions ready, I’ve been looking on different sites looking for important things that happened in 1965 that could be relevant to that line or the record. What records came out that year.
BJB: [Laughs]. Yeah. It was just a reference to the pin-up girl looks.
NS: Now, you mentioned a little earlier that one of your favorite moments on the album was that line in “St. Mary’s.” But, what’s another moment–not necessarily a song–but just a moment or a line on the record?
BJB: I love “Harmless Sparks.” It was the last song we recorded. I originally had it written for a solo record. And we were sitting there and had some extra time and Jason (Jason Isbell produced the album) was like, “Is there anything else you want to put on the record?” I said, “There’s this one song that I really love.” So we cut it. And everything you hear on that is pretty much the first take. And I didn’t have a lot of music put together for it. I played the organ on the song. And there’s a moment on there where you can hear the chair squeak twice. I was playing an old organ. On the second verse, the line “Well the engine keeps turning,” the organ does this weird type of stall. It’s moments like that, I couldn’t plan. They just happen and they turn out to be super cool.