Interviews: BJ Barham of American Aquarium


BJ Barham of American Aquarium. Photos by Landan Luna/New Slang.

BJ Barham of American Aquarium. Photos by Landan Luna/New Slang.

by: Thomas D. Mooney

American Aquarium nearly called it a career. Maybe individually, they’d all be doing something else musically, but as a band, they were going to call it after putting one last record out called Burn. Flicker. Die. The last hoorah.

You shouldn’t ever be surprised when a band disbands, but even suggesting that AA would be doing so the last couple of years would surely get you a few bewildered looks from people.

But that’s what a successful album can do.

You can’t really say that American Aquarium has always been “Burn. Flicker. Die. American Aquarium” wouldn’t be honest. It’s not as though they’ve always been this band.

The talent has always been there, but as they’d admit, maybe not the maturity or proper dedication. Maybe a few uneven records. A few rough stretches. Some fading into the middle of the pack.

Sometimes a band needs a good 10 years or so to really find who out and what they could and should be. Some growing pains.

Course, American Aquarium isn’t even the Burn. Flicker. Die. version of themselves that people gravitated towards. They’ve gone Wolves.

Regardless, it’s good to see a band like American Aquarium getting their due. They’ve carved their own spot after taking nods and cues from other Americana/Alt. Country acts and songwriters like Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell, The Boss, Ryan Adams, and Lucero.

We recently ranked Burn. Flicker. Die. as the 18th best Americana/Country album since 2010. You’re not just hearing a loose collection of songs; you’re hearing a place and experience that’s all their own, yet, strangely familiar. And in a weird way–even though they’re not about the best of times–it’s a relief and reassuring.

When I spoke with BJ Barham last week, you can’t help but feel the sense of confidence when he begins speaking about Wolves. That’s probably the most redeeming quality for B.F.D. when it comes down to it too. It’s given an already great songwriter and band the assurance that they’re doing something right.

Wolves will be released in February of next year. The year of the sheep. wolf.

American Aquarium will be playing The Blue Light tonight, Tuesday August 26. Kolton Moore & The Clever Few will be opening.

Watch/Listen to “Wichita Falls,” a track from Wolves from this past SXSW.

New Slang: So you guys have this new record that you’ve been working on called Wolves. I’m just assuming that’s an NC State reference since you’re a big fan.

BJ Barham: Yeah. The root of everything kind of worked out that way. The chorus of the title is definitely an obscure NC State reference.

NS: What’s been the mindset going into record this record–especially since you guys have spoken about how Burn. Flicker. Die. (their previous album) was originally supposed to be your “swan song” record. The final American Aquarium album. Turns out it wasn’t. What kind of impact did that have on how you guys approached this?

BB: For sure. Burn. Flicker. Die. was going to be the last record so going into this, we kind of went at it with the same approach. Let’s just leave it all on the table. Don’t half-ass anything. In reality, you never really do know when your last record could be. So we went in with the same mindset–only things are a lot better. I think that shows. A lot of the songs are a little bit more positive. Some of the songs start out extremely depressing, but the overall message of the record is really hopeful. You know, we did Burn. Flicker. Die. in eight days. We’ve spent about 20 days in the studio doing Wolves. We’ve dissected the songs a lot more. We made a record for us that we could be super proud of. Not that we aren’t proud of Burn. Flicker. Die., but we took extra time and really made sure that every single song on the record was up to par. That’s something everybody’s been asking us: How do you top Burn. Flicker. Die.? How do you make something that’s as successful? Well, the answer is just to try your best. The band on this record, unlike any other, has just completely set this record on fire. It’s truly a different kind of record than we’ve ever made. I’m really excited to see what people think. 

NS: You’ve said the record is 10 songs long. Did you end up recording more?

BB: No. We recorded 10 songs and the 10 we recorded, we feel were the best 10 songs. We feel like there’s not any filler on the record. If there was eight songs, it’d have been eight songs. But luckily, 10 songs surfaced and fit together thematically. We couldn’t be more proud of this record.

NS: What’s the oldest song on the album?

BB: The oldest is this song called “Rambling Ways.” I wrote that in March of 2013. I went about a year, a year and a half of not writing a single song. I started writing that in March, probably didn’t finish it until July or August. Then for another six months, that was the only song I had. Then I started really focusing on the record and songs like “Man I’m Supposed to Be,” “Wichita Falls,” and “Wolves” all started surfacing. Once we started getting those songs down, it started feeling like a real record. I think a pivotal point for this band, when we knew we had something really to work with was when all sat down and played “Wolves” for the first time through.

NS: When there’s a break in between songwriting like that, a huge space of time, is it really refreshing when you start working on something new or is just intimidating? I’m sure a little bit of both.

BB: Yeah, definitely a little bit of both. Like with Burn. Flicker. Die., that was the first kind of real success this band has ever seen. So people don’t realize they’re putting pressure on you, but after the show, people come up to you asking how are you going to write something better than Burn. Flicker. Die. Then you start thinking, “Well, can I write anything better than that really?” But where that starts creating some doubt, I’m an extremely competitive person–even with myself–it kind of challenged me. “Can you write something better?” Fuck yeah, I can. I feel like this is the best batch of songs I’ve ever written for a whole record. Like I said earlier, the band just set this on fire. So that mixing with these songs, I really feel it sets this apart from anything else we’ve ever done. 

NS: What were you most excited about recording? Was there some things you guys had never done before that show up on here?

BB: Putting an extreme string section on two songs was something. It took the songs in a completely different direction, in a positive way. There are strings on here. Horns. We just hired a new guitar player back in March/April, so this is definitely a more beefy record as far as guitar goes. In the past, we just had pedal steel and electric guitar. This now has these two dueling electric guitars along with pedal steel and acoustic. There’s some songs that have four different guitar parts. It’s a really cool thing. 

NS: Yeah, I was going to mention adding another electric guitar player (Colin Dimeo) and ask about how much adding that one person can just open up many more things you all are able to do. 

BB: Yeah. Definitely. When you have another guitar player, it takes the pressure off Whit [Wright] playing pedal steel. So what we found out once we hired another guitar player, Whit started playing keys so now this album is loaded up on piano, organ, and Wurlitzer. So it’s a kind of different dynamic we’ve been able to add. We don’t just have to be a rocking country band. Just gives us another piece in the arsenal. 

NS: What was the most difficult thing to do on the album?

BB: I don’t want to sound cocky saying this, but there really wasn’t. We still have a little bit to go so I might hit it, and if I do, I’ll give you a call back and let you know [laughs]. But so far, this has been the easiest way to make a record. We gave ourselves so much time. So much space to work at it. When we did Burn. Flicker. Die., we said, “We have to have this record in eight days.” When you do that to yourself, you really do limit yourself artistically because at some point, you have to say stop. You can’t push yourself for a better tone or part. You can’t push yourself to sing a song better. With this, we originally booked 13 days and did as much quality work as we could and then we walked away from it. We waited about three weeks and then we went back for another six days. We still have a few more days left, but it’s really been the most effortless project. We didn’t hang ourselves. We gave ourselves enough rope. This record is coming out in February of 2015. We’ve got plenty of time. We’ve never done that before. Usually we have the record release party booked before we even go into the studio [laughs]. There’s never been a time where we’ve really had the time to cut loose and try new things. 

NS: Yeah. What was the shortest time spent recording?

BB: Antique Hearts was done in two days. We recorded that on a weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Bible and The Bottle was done over three weekends. Dances For The Lonely was recorded over maybe five or six days. Small Town Hymns, we spent an entire month on it, but we went in the studio with zero songs so that was a writing and recording in a month’s time. This has been about 20 days and it’s been such a relief. 

NS: Yeah. It’s always great hearing about this band going in and recording an album in a short amount of time and it being amazing and all, but it happens so often, there’s regrets on things due to time constraints. It may end up being a longer wait, but it’s typically a more rewarding product when a band is able to really sit on songs and figure out what they truly want. 

BB: Oh for sure. We’ve never had the luxury of making a record and then sitting back for two or three weeks and coming back to them. There’s inevitably something that’s going to pop up that you want to change. We really get to be nit-picky. We’re not 17-year-old kids anymore. 


One response to “Interviews: BJ Barham of American Aquarium

  1. Pingback: Field Report: American Aquarium & The O’s | New Slang·

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