by: Thomas D. Mooney
American Aquarium is one month into the Wolves era. They couldn’t be in a better spot either. A decade into their career, they’re finally seeing the recognition and critical success they’ve been trying to run down all these years.
Things have finally come together. American Aquarium has hit their stride after years of near misses, mishaps, and ups and downs. Despite having a die-hard core of fans, it must have felt like they were continuously losing their footing on a treadmill gaining speed.
The light at the end of the tunnel was maybe fading, but it’s finally in focus now for the Raleigh, North Carolina-based band. Still, the band isn’t taking success for granted. They’re still going for that “Hardest Working Band” label. They’re still working as hard ever.
We caught up with lead vocalist and chief lyricist BJ Barham, of American Aquarium this past week. They’re once again, performing at The Blue Light tonight (Wednesday, March 11) with singer-songwriter Jonny Burke (Read our interview with Burke here). You can purchase presale tickets here.
New Slang: Wolves just came out about a month back, but you guys have been getting a bunch of press as of late. Lots of interviews and reviews. It’s probably been like a circus. There’s been a lot of publicity that you guys didn’t have on previous records. Has the success of this album changed the day-to-day for you? I’m assuming you’re more busy.
BJ Barham: Oh for sure. The album has been out for a month now and it’s still kind of a whirlwind. I do about two or three interviews a day. The record has been getting some really great press. I’ll never complain about it because I went about 9 years without doing an interview. I say, keep them coming [laughs].
NS: Yeah. This album, I think one of the bigger differences between it and Burn. Flicker. Die. and previous albums, is sonically. This album is sharp. It has some slick moments–in a good way. It’s really a tight album. It’s not as rough and raw as previous albums.
BB: What’s funny is that this was recorded live in the studio. That just speaks to what happens to a band who plays a couple thousand shows together sounds like. It’s funny. You’re not the first person to say it has some clean guitars, that it’s polished, or super tight. It’s funny to us because when I think of clean guitars, polished, and super tight, I think over thought out production on Nashville country or pop records–where every guitar note is meticulously planned out and autotuned to sheer perfection. And this was just me and five of my friends going and recording. It just so happens to be that me and those five friends have been playing songs together for almost a decade. It’s nice to know you can get that polished sound without having to fake it.
NS: Yeah. A natural polish. Describing anything like that, you’re sort of hesitant because there is that connotation and you don’t want to mislead or have a misunderstanding.
BB: Yeah. Whenever I hear slick, I automatically think of something like the newest Luke Bryan record or something. They get whoever the latest hotshot guitar player is in town to come in. Don’t get me wrong, the guitar playing is immaculate, but it’s because it was chopped and pasted and moved around. It’s nice to know I have a group of guys who can play that well every single night [laughs].
NS: I can’t imagine you guys planned to have the album sound a certain way before recording. I feel it had to have been a little more organic than that, right?
BB: When you make another record, I think every band wants that change. You don’t want to make the same record over and over again. If you do the same thing over and over again, you’re just pandering to your fanbase. It’s an injustice as an artist. I really think a true fan wants you to push your limits and watch you grow. They want to be there as you grow. Yeah, this isn’t Burn. Flicker. Die. It’s not Dances for the Lonely. It’s been the band’s natural progression. It’s us wanting to do something different and thinking outside the box. Who knows, our next record could be a straight ahead ’70s country album. But it’s one of those things. We want to do something different every time.
NS: Yeah. I’ve been a fan for a while and I really think Wolves is the best thing you guys have done. One of my favorite aspects is that there are things you can pick out of songs after a few listens that you didn’t hear the first few times. Obviously an impact has been having two guitar players. There’s some organ and horns and other things on the album. There’s a bunch of great layers to pick through when hearing the album. It’s just phenomenal from that standpoint.
BB: Oh yeah. The addition of another guitar player, a lot of people ask me what he brings to the table, and single-handedly, I can describe exactly what it is. That lick in “Losing Side of Twenty-Five.” That song was kind of like this laid back folk song and Colin [Dimeo] came in to practice one day with [imitates guitar lick]. It gets stuck in your head. After you hear the record one time, you’re humming that.
NS: Yeah. I was going to bring up that specific guitar part actually.
BB: It’s all about bringing a different perspective to the band. He heard something in that song that none of us would have heard. It’s super cool. It’s nice to have one other person who we trust to come in and add something to the mix.
NS: You’ve always been a real first person songwriter throughout your career. This album, one of the major themes that carries throughout is your sobriety. Was it more difficult to write about that than other subjects you’ve tackled in the past?
BB: Well this record is a hopeful record. There’s no songs where you feel sorry for me at the end of it. Even the downer songs, I wrap them up with a positive note. Every other record has been really dismal and depressing. There’s a reoccurring light at the end of the tunnel on this album. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just a sad bastard songwriter [laughs]. I definitely like to tackle the darker stuff, but this record–hell, there are love songs on here. I’ve never done that before. You listen to “Man I’m Supposed to Be” and that’s a love song. That’s me talking to my wife and saying, “I’m a fuck-up, but I’m your fuck-up.” I’ve never had the balls to write something like that. I’ve never had the balls to put myself in a vulnerable position and write about being happy. I don’t have too much to complain about right now. I’m married, sober, the band is doing well after 10 years. What else could I want? We’re all getting along. We’re making a little bit of money. It’s a good feeling.
NS: Vulnerable. I think there’s some vulnerable moments on the album. Listening to the album, that really comes across better than it did on previous albums.
BB: Oh yeah. This record makes me look like a human being. The other records, it was very much the rock n’roll persona and lifestyle. Girls, drugs, booze, Saturday nights. I lived up to that for a very long time. It was definitely autobiographical, but this is more of who I am when nobody else is around. Who I am when I’m sitting alone at my apartment thinking about what the fuck I’m doing with my life. I think this is the first where I’ve let people in on that. Listen guys, I’m not just a drunk cowboy, but a person who feels the same as you. A lot of people have criticized me for writing only about being on the road and being on tour. But that’s what I know. I think I write in a way where other people can relate to it. People have been coming up at shows saying that. Anyone who’s let down their parents can relate to it.
NS: Yeah. You know, I think you mention your parents and family on this album more than any other album. Their concern for you. That’s a really humanizing element.
BB: Yeah, it’s something nobody wants to admit, that your parents aren’t proud of you. You might have been a failure in life. They might think of you that way because you didn’t choose what they wanted you to choose. That’s not rock n’roll [laughs]. Rock n’roll is “Fuck everybody; I’m doing what I want.” This record is the most introspective thing I’ve ever done. I’m willing to say, “Yeah, I might have let my parents down and it sucks.” That’s the worst feeling for a kid to feel. Obviously things have changed. My parents are extremely proud of me these days. My parents came to the Raleigh sold out shows. I don’t think I’ve seen them more proud. They were up there sitting in the VIP seats in a giant theater seeing all these kids sing their sons’ songs. That let me know, that even though I didn’t it a different way, they’re still proud of me.
NS: So you guys are in the middle of that 52 shows in 80 days. You’ve got like nine South By Southwest shows in like three days. You guys do realize just how crazy all that is, right [laughs]?
BB: Oh yeah. We definitely understand how stupid it is, but it’s one of those things. We’ve always worked really hard even when we weren’t successful, so why stop those ways now [laughs]?
NS: Yeah. One of the best things about that is pretty much knowing as a fan, you’re going to you guys play at least a couple of times a year. I know you’re coming to Lubbock maybe three or four times.
BB: That’s the goal. We try and go to those places that took care of us. Lubbock’s always been one of those places that’s taken extremely great care of us. Lubbock was the first place in Texas that got what we were doing. Lubbock was the first to place us on the radio. We don’t forget that.
NS: Guys like Turnpike Troubadours and Jason Isbell are getting albums out this year. They’re working on them. You’re friends with all those guys. Have you ever hinted at wanting to sing back-up vocals or anything [laughs]?
BB: Oh no [laughs]. I’d never have the balls to do that. If they asked, I’d jump at the opportunity though.
NS: Yeah. I think it’d be cool–especially when it’s never really talked about. But then you’re reading the liner notes, you see it.
BB: Yeah, that’s how it is for me anytime I hear something from Burn. Flicker. Die. All those back-up vocals are Jason Isbell. A lot of people miss it, but for me, especially on the song “Burn.flicker.die,” his back-up vocals are just as up in the mix as mine are [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. Getting back to Wolves, the song “End Over End,” that’s probably my favorite from the album. I think it’s great. Also, I think it should be covered by a female folk or pop singer for Record Day or some shit.
BB: Oh definitely.
NS: I don’t know, but that’s one of the first things I thought while listening to it. What was it like writing that song?
BB: I wrote that song about how I’d been the bad guy in a lot of relationships. I ruined a bunch of relationships. I wrote that song from the standpoint of someone who wants to love somebody even though they’re a fuck-up. I basically wrote that from the point of view of some of my ex-girlfriends. They’d be like, “Tell me what I need to do so you don’t do the stupid shit you do.” At the end of the day, you’re saying, “Don’t do this to me anymore” knowing that they are. It’s almost an apology to the girls who’s lives I’ve ruined.