American Aquarium comes to Birmingham on the heels of their eighth studio release, Wolves. Raised on Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown and the sounds emerging from Raleigh, North Carolina, the band’s story of survival includes a period when they had considered hanging it up, but soldiered through to complete their biggest and most revealing record, Burn.Flicker.Die.
BJ Barham is the lead singer, and he spoke with Weld about that period of time and how his band survived it. He also gloated about N.C. State basketball a little.
Raleigh isn’t really known for rock and roll. Are we just not paying attention?
[Laughs] For what we’re doing, there hasn’t been a scene for it since the late ’90s, when Whiskeytown and the Backsliders and Six String Drag were the kings of Hillsborough Street. Our biggest production, obviously, is Ryan Adams.
If Whiskeytown didn’t exist, I’d be in a [expletive] punk rock band right now. Whiskeytown was the first band I ever heard that played with the tenacity of a rock and roll band, but was still twangy as [expletive]. I dug it. It was the first — I was 17 years old the first time I heard Stranger’s Almanac and absolutely lost my mind. This kind of music was out there and nobody was listening to it. By nobody, I mean, this is coming from a kid that was raised on mainstream country music. I could not fathom how a band like this slipped through the radar.
And once I got into them, I got into Chip Robinson and the Backsliders, Kenny Roby and Six String Drag — I started really becoming what some people would call “stalkerish,” but I’d call it more of a historian of Raleigh music. I was just trying to take it all in. The scene today is absolutely vibrant. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill scene today is — some really great stuff is happening. Not just in the rock and roll world, but in the indie rock world, the country world, the hip-hop world. It’s a hotbed for really creative people, which is nice.
Do you feel like you helped pave some of that path for the younger acts emerging now?
No. If I have, awesome. I personally just don’t feel that way, because I feel like we are still very much in the neophyte stage of musicdom. We’ve just tried to make a very, very clear definition of what we’re doing, and that’s hard work, hard touring. And you’ll be able to — maybe not find huge success, but you’ll be able to play music for the rest of your life. Cultivating a fan base. And hopefully, if we pass anything down to any future generation of Raleigh band, it’s that nothing is free. Nothing is going to come to you. A&R people don’t just show up at coffee houses anymore and discover you. You have to go out and work your ass off. And if you want it bad enough, you have to be willing to give up everything you love for a minimum of 10 years. If you’re willing to do that, then you might actually be able to make it.
I think we’re up to seven records now, so I don’t know if you guys are the new kids on the block anymore.
Man, don’t make me feel old. I turned 30 this year, and we’ve put out eight releases in nine years. I don’t like to think that we’re old, I like to just think that we’re busy. February of next year will be the 10-year anniversary of the first record coming out, and that’s slowly starting to take its toll on me, that I’ve spent a third of my life doing this.
You recorded Burn.Flicker.Die in Muscle Shoals. Was the historical context important to you, or was it simply the best facility to meet your needs?
Our buddy Jason Isbell produced that. Basically, that was his condition. “Yeah, I’ll produce the record, but you guys have to come to Muscle Shoals.” Nobody really argues with going to Muscle Shoals and making a record. Muscle Shoals is a really struggling town, economically speaking. It’s a really small town. A lot of shops are sitting empty these days. But you can’t walk into that city without feeling a little bit of that mojo. That’s the only way I can describe it. There’s something in the air there that just makes people want to play music. It was a special, special thing to record down there and it didn’t hurt that Jason was producing the record. So he’d just call up — he’d just call him Spooner, but he was really talking about Spooner Oldham. And Spooner would come in and play keys on the record and you’d just be like, “Oh, you’re on tour with Neil Young. Glad you’re not on the road now!”
So many talented musicians are just hanging around at the restaurants or the bars — guys that played on some of the most legendary, historic recordings of all time might serve you a beer. It’s one of those towns, and it’s a really cool place to make a record and luckily, Jason gave us the opportunity to do that.
Muscle Shoals has met the fate that so many small towns have met, my hometown included. I grew up in a place called Reidsville, North Carolina and it used to be a really booming center for tobacco. We had American Tobacco Company, so if you’ve ever smoked a Pall Mall cigarette or a Lucky Strike cigarette, it came out of Reidsville, North Carolina. The plant closed in 2000 and moved to Greensboro. Financially, it’s a struggling town, much like Muscle Shoals. You drive through historic downtown Muscle Shoals, Reidsville, any small town U.S.A. and there’s nothing there. Just paper over the windows. “For Lease” signs over the windows. There’s still that one or two mom-and-pop restaurants and a couple of bars, and that’s about it. It’s really weird to see that kind of stuff on a national scale. In Muscle Shoals, luckily they have the music scene, because there’s such a rich history there, and I think they’ll always be able to market that for tourism.
How much did those bands — Drive-By Truckers and company — influence what you were doing?
Oh the Truckers were a huge example. When I first started putting a band together, there was another band out of Memphis called Lucero that I modeled our band after. “These bands played 250-plus shows a year and nobody has ever heard of them. They put out really good music and they put on a hell of a show. I want to do that. I want to tell stories and I want to write songs like that and I want to tour like that.”
Very early on, the Truckers, right when they put out Southern Rock Opera, Dirty South, Decoration Day, those early records, they were definitely an influence on what we were doing. They kind of set the bar of “go out and bust your ass for it. Go out every night and put on a show and get fans. Make every show count.”
You had hinted at retirement after that record. What changed?
We were tired, man. Seven years of sleeping on floors and not paying your rent, it’ll humble you. It’ll take any kind of cocksure attitude you have and it’ll wipe it away. For us, we spent the better part of a decade playing 300 shows a year in front of nobody that gave a [expletive] and one day the bell tolled. We looked at each other and said, “Maybe we’re not good enough. Maybe this isn’t what we’re supposed to do.”
So we all decided we were going to put out one record. We were going to leave it on the table. And if anybody ever questions, “What ever happened to that band American Aquarium?” you’d be able to listen to that record start to finish and say, “Oh, that’s why they broke up.” And it’s kind of ironic that the record about us completely imploding is the record that gained us a lot of success.
I’ve read that you were living out of a storage unit. What was the moment of clarity? When did you see that music was still in the future and that you didn’t have to give it up?
Burn.Flicker.Die. But before Burn.Flicker.Die., I had been in a storage unit for almost three years. Showering at people’s houses, friend’s houses. It was sacrificing. I knew this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I was good enough to do it yet, but I thought I was writing pretty good songs. I knew that I wasn’t going to have an excuse at the end of the day. If I turned 30 and I was bartending, still, and I wasn’t playing music — I didn’t want to have an excuse. I wanted to be able to say, “I did everything. I sold every possession I had and I lived in absolute squalor just to try to make it. And I still didn’t make it. So it was no fault of mine. I did everything I could.”
Luckily, when Burn.Flicker.Die. came out, we started paying our bills on time. The last two-and-a-half years of touring on Burn.Flicker.Die. really solidified this band as, “Hey, we’re pretty [expletive] good. I think we can continue to do this for the rest of our lives.”
Is Wolves as heartbreaking as the rest of your records?
Wolves is actually an upnote. It’s positive. In the last year, I’ve gotten sober. I’ve gotten married. Things are definitely on an upswing. So this record is about me falling in love with my wife and it’s kind of an open letter to her saying, “I’m not the best human being in the world, but I’m going to try my best to be for you.”
I tackle a lot of things that I haven’t had the balls to tackle on other records. Like alcoholism, like, “Hey, I have a problem.” So there’s a couple of songs on there talking about my family’s bout with alcoholism. I’ve had some uncles pass away from the drugs and the drinks. It’s a growing up record for me. We left everything on the table with Burn.Flicker.Die. as far as being the party band, the bar band, the ones that were there at 3 a.m. trying to take your girlfriend home. This is us making a record that we wanted to make. This is us making a statement. We’re way more than a song about Friday nights and we’re super proud of it. It’s a huge step forward for us, it’s a huge step forward forward in our sound, sonically, lyrically, musically. It’s us growing up. It’s us taking a big step forward into that realm of, “Hey, we can do this for the rest of our lives.”
How do you feel about the job that Mark Gottfried is doing at N.C. State?
I love it, man! I absolutely love it. I appreciate you Alabama boys letting go of him. Not to rub any salt in the wound, but I also love what Trevor Lacey is doing for the team right now [Laughs].
All my boys from Alabama give me a hard time, “How’s it feel to have our leftovers?”
Well, we’ve been to the dance every single year since he came, so I’m okay with it. Every year we have a top 10 recruiting class. If we were in the SEC, we’d kill it. We have to go up against Carolina and Duke every year, so there’s always that little brother complex of, “No matter how good we are, we still have to play Carolina and Duke.”
In the SEC, you have the Kentucky powerhouse, which has come back since Calipari, but imagine the Carolina/Duke powerhouse that’s been around since the [expletive] ’70s. It’s every year, no matter how good we are, we’re just not quite good enough. And Gottfried is putting us up there. I’m loving everything out of the state of Alabama that comes up here. Ralston Turner, our starting guard, he’s from Huntsville. Trevor Lacey, we’ve got him for another year. Gottfried, he may not be the best coach in the world, but he’s the best recruiter this school has ever seen. As long as he keeps bringing talent to Raleigh, that’s all I care about.
Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
1. Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. There’s no arguing that, so you can go ahead and put it in cement.
The second band is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They’re very close to Springsteen, as far as I’m concerned.
Number three — by the way, this isn’t just my list, this is the permanent list, because it’s the right list. Number three is a band out of Minneapolis called The Replacements. The Replacements epitomize what The Rolling Stones are, but they’re the American version of it. They’re one of my favorite bands of all time.
Number four is Wilco, out of Chicago. They are absolutely brilliant. Really, really, really great band.
And I’ll give number five to your hometown boys, I’ll give it to Drive-By Truckers.
That’s not a bad list. If someone can find something to argue with on that list, I’ll listen to them, but those bands should all be in everyone’s top 10. But that’s my top five.
American Aquarium comes to BottleTree Cafe on Thursday, February 19. Andrew Duhon Trio will open. The show begins at 9 p.m. and tickets are $10.