We’ve all read about guys like B.J. Barham, energetic and inspired young guys who live for the music, for whom everything else is a distant second. Guys who live it, love it, breathe it … and well, drink it.
To be sure, singer/guitarist Barham and his buddies in American Aquarium are on friendly terms with Jack Daniels and the speakeasy crowd. But if you played 300 sweaty rock ‘n’ roll shows each and every year, you’d probably take to knocking back a few yourself.
Here’s the thing about American Aquarium, booked for show at the Jinx Saturday: This is not just a good band, it’s a great band, and whisky-soaked alt/country is just part of the package.
Hailing from Raleigh, N.C., the five-member American Aquarium blends the sort of Whiskeytown/Jayhawks swagger we all hold dear with the pulse-pounding, cinematic sweep of venerated rock ensembles like the Heartbreakers and the E Street Band.
One of my favorite quotes, from some scribe somewhere or other: “American Aquarium takes Jay Farrar’s tooth-and-nail toughness and smears it on a Springsteen-sized canvas.”
Indeed. And take note: There’s no “Rosalita,” “Refugee” or even a “16 Days,” for that matter: Barham, 25, writes all the songs. They don’t do covers.
We spoke with him as the band was heading into Fort Smith, Ark. to play a show. Seven people – the band and the crew – travel from Raleigh in a black, 15-seat van, with all the gear and instruments crammed into the last two seats. The van has no air conditioning.
But hey, that’s the rock ‘n’ roll life, right?
You play a little over 300 dates per year. Why?
B.J. Barham: We really believe that doing the whole touring thing is the only way to make it these days. Being a good band isn’t enough any more. Nobody’s going to give you anything – so we figure if they’re not going to come to us, we’ll come to them. So far, it’s been an amazing business plan. Our livers might disagree.
Is this what you always wanted?
B.J. Barham: This is exactly everything I hoped and dreamed that being in a band would be. Everybody’s got to pay their dues. Some people are lucky enough to have parents that buy them a van, and keep their instruments repaired. But as the old adage goes, the more you work for something, the more you appreciate it. It’s been hard the last couple of years, but we’ve definitely seen the fruits of our labor pay off tenfold.
Does that help you as a writer? They say you write better stuff when you’re struggling or unhappy.
B.J. Barham: Of course! Nobody wants to hear a fuckin’ happy song, nobody wants to hear how much you’re in love with your wife, and how your kids are great, and how your life is just swell! Tell me how those records sell?
People want to hear about the bad stuff, and so being on the road definitely lets me see a lot more stuff than most people – a lot of writers, especially if they’re stuck in their hometown, have a very limited range of what they can write about. They can only write about what they see. I get to see a bunch of crazy stuff and hear a bunch of crazy stories, and of course that seeps into my writing. It’s impossible for it not to.
Is there a goal for you? Like, to buy a better van?
B.J. Barham: You know, we just got to the point where none of us work jobs any more. We’re all able to sustain life playing music. But the ultimate goal is, instead of playing 300 shows a year, playing 200 shows a year and making the same amount of money.
There’s a Springsteen-like anthemic quality to your music. Was he a big influence?
B.J. Barham: Springsteen’s a huge influence for us. When you hear those pianos, that’s the most obvious thing. The only thing we’re missing is a 6-foot black guy playing sax. We love American songwriters – Dylan, Tom Petty, all that stuff. And a lot of your newer artists. We love the Hold Steady, out of Brooklyn; we love Lucero, from Memphis. And a lot of those guys are doing a similar thing; they’re making it more like the epic stadium rock and taking it to the smaller clubs. Which is really what we like.
What do people say about you that pisses you off? Most of the stuff I’ve read focuses on your ‘angry at women’ lyrics.
B.J. Barham: I’m not that angry, I don’t think. Those ‘go fuck yourself’ songs just come out in my writing a little bit. I haven’t had the best of luck with females in the past couple of years, and that’s mainly my fault. And partially theirs. But it’s what I know and what I write about …
I don’t think of our songs as being pissed off, chauvinistic or women-hating. Some of the music critics really enjoy our music, and some of ‘em think it’s been done before. But in my opinion, it’s all been done before. These new little indie-rock hipster kids just wish they were part of the new wave movement.
Isn’t it a tad unwieldy – if not expensive – to haul seven people around the country?
B.J. Barham: We’ve always been at least a five-piece. And when we first started, people were going ‘Why aren’t you just going out as a three or four piece?’ Economically, that would be the greatest; we could’ve definitely lived a little bit more comfortably. But in my opinion, that definitely sacrifices the sound. I like having a really big band sound. We joke around about it, but hell, if I had the money I’d probably have a 10-piece band with a full horn section. I’m sure one day it’ll get to where we can all eat more than one meal a day.
Tell me about the name of the band. I know it comes from Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” but it’s also a reference to heavy drinking.
B.J. Barham: When I first started the band I was really into Wilco, and the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot record. It’s the opening line to one of my favorite records; that’s the significance it has to me. It goes through all that feedback and noise, then out of nowhere comes this really pretty part: I am an American aquarium drinker, I assassin down the avenue…
The drinking reference is just something that came along. People would say ‘Wow, you boys drink a lot. Is that where the name came from?’ And we ran with that.
Even though we sound nothing like Wilco on that record, I definitely think we sound like earlier Wilco, more than anything. That’s where I fell in love with music, and that’s where I was when I first started the band: ‘Wow, this is perfect.’
Where: The Jinx, 127 W. Congress St.
When: At 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3
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