I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue
I’m hiding out in the big city blinking
What was I thinking when I let go of you?
— Wilco, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”
After 10 years in the trenches together, hard-clubbing it around the country with a crappy van and a trailer, the six guys in American Aquarium finally caught a break in 2012 with Burn.Flicker.Die, their seventh independent album.
Funny thing is, says singer, songwriter and frontman B.J. Barham, they were all planning to hang it up after they’d finished touring that one. Go back to their day jobs in Raleigh. Grow the hell up and make some real money.
Critics had always said good things about American Aquarium, a Carolina band that took swaggering Southern rock cues from the likes of the Drive-By Truckers and Lucero, but added an extra later of Jeff Tweedy’s wit and Bruce Springsteen’s anthemic sweep to Barham’s well-crafted songs. But after a decade of blood, sweat and Budweiser, American Aquarium still hadn’t “broken out” in any sort of tangible way.
Something about Burn.Flicker.Die., which was produced at Alabama’s NuttHouse Studio by none other than ascending Americana star (and ex-Trucker) Jason Isbell, struck a chord. Suddenly Barham’s brooding, boozy yowls about hateful women and the desperation of small-town life were getting through.
“There’s nothing new about what American Aquarium do; it’s the way that they do it that makes Burn.Flicker.Die so damn good,” raved No Depression. And Saving Country Music spoke for many when it said “American Aquarium is one of these bands that you sit back and listen to and shake your head about why they aren’t bigger.”
Suffice it to say, American Aquarium ain’t going anywhere. Just last month the band finished work on album number eight, to be titled Wolves.
They’ll play the Jinx Friday, July 25, after which Barham will embark on a short solo club tour. And then ... aw hell, just read the interview.
Last time you checked in with us, about half a year ago, you were an unusually happy guy, in a solid relationship. How does that affect your songwriting?
B.J. Barham: My songwriting has just evolved. It's still depressing and sad. But it's just happier songs now. I got engaged last weekend, so my happiness is maturing as much as happiness can. So yeah, I'm still in a really good spot. My career's going good, my personal life's going good ... I can't really complain!
I feel really strong about the new record. Most of the songs are extremely happy, and I’m still just as proud of these as I am about the really heartbreaking, depressing songs.
You’ve been really open about your alcohol and substance abuse, for years. Are you an alcoholic? Can you say that?
B.J. Barham: I can say that I'm a functioning alcoholic. I'm not in pain if I don't have a drink every day, but I couldn't tell you the last time I went a day without having a beer. I've had a drink at least once a day for probably the last decade.
How has that affected the work you do?
B.J. Barham: I couldn't put on proper shows gettin' hammered every night. Not just me but everybody in the band, the drinking got in the way of any progress we were going to make. Any big chance the band had. And finally you just have to say "Listen, my career's more important than fuckin' doing a bag of blow in the bathroom every night," or "it's more important than seeing how much whiskey I can humanly drink." There comes a point where you're like "I'm going to have a beer. I'm going to play a show worth seeing. And then after the show, if I decide I want to get intoxicated, yeah, we can go up to the bar and get hammered." But for that time I'm onstage every night, I have a job to do. I have to deliver it to somebody.
How long did it take you to learn that?
B.J. Barham: About two years ago, when Burn.Flicker.Die came out, we all sat back and said "You know what? If this is going to do anything, we need to give it a fuckin' fair shake sober." And for us, sober is one or two drinks a night. I still think that for anybody in the arts—be it a writer or a painter—having one or two beers puts you in a good spot. There comes a time where it starts being detrimental to your art. Where you start forgetting words, where you start slurring, where you stop being able to stand up onstage. That's when you have to evaluate yourself and say "A person paid $15 to see this."
I guess it's a matter of control— knowing when to stop yourself?
B.J. Barham: Exactly. I think anything's good as long as you're not going to excess. And for a very long time, this band was Olympic-style, triple-jumping across excess.
Burn.Flicker.Die. was going to be your last record, your "breakup album." There are are lyrics on there about road burnout. What happened?
B.J. Barham: Well, we had this batch of songs that we were really proud of. We said we're going to put the album out, tour around a little bit, and it's going to run the same cycle we always have, then we'll be done with it.
We put it out, and we noticed that our crowds were tripling every night, in markets that we never did well in. We were selling out Atlanta, we were selling out Nashville. We were selling out D.C. We were doing really, really well across the country. And we said “Let’s keep giving it a run. We’ll keep doing it until it’s not fun any more. We’ll do it till we’re not making any money.”
Do you think that was because Jason Isbell’s name was on it?
B.J. Barham: I think it was a perfect storm. I think it was a batch of songs that could stand up. I'm not going to be ignorant, and lie, and say that Jason's name on it didn't help. God knows it did. Especially the career path that Jason's taken since his new record came out. But I truly believe that the songs were good, and it was just our time.
With that in mind, do you have high hopes for Wolves? Will that take you to the next step?
B.J. Barham: I really think Wolves IS the next step. I'd hate to be the guy who counts the chickens, but I really feel good about this record. It's the best songs I've ever written, hands down. It's the best sounds we've ever got on a record.
We’re spending all of September and October on the road with Justin Townes Earle. When we get back from that, we go to Europe. We do a headlining tour real quick in November, I get married in December, and then the record comes out in 2015!