North Carolina's American Aquarium are having a very good year. Their latest album, Wolves, was released in February and has found the band - BJ Barham (Vocals/Rhythm Guitar), Ryan Johnson (Lead Guitar), Whit Wright (Pedal Steel), Bill Corbin (Bass), Kevin McClain (Drums), and Colin Dimeo (Lead Guitar) - with an ever growing popularity among critics and the masses alike. After a tour of Texas and ahead of their show in NYC at the Gramercy Theatre, front man Barham took the time to speak about success, sobriety and more.
Congrats on an incredible year and the release of Wolves, which had an incredible reception. Have your expectations been met?
Oh yeah. The goal with any record is to put it out and have it do better than the previous and for us this record kind of surpassed anything we ever thought would happen. Burn.Flicker.Die took it to certain level on the musical food chain and Wolves skipped us up a couple more notches on the ladder.
It was a very pleasant surprise that folks dug the record. It’s the first record we can say was critically acclaimed because everybody had very nice things to say about it. When publications that my mother has heard of like Rolling Stone and the Wall Street Journal are saying great things about your record and that I did good…. I think that’s when she started believing that I was doing okay. It passed my mom’s test and I think it’s definitely our best record to date.
It will definitely be on many “Best Of” lists at year’s end.
Going back a bit, what was it do you think it was about Burn.Flicker.Die that resonated with people?
Everybody has been at that point where they question whether they are good enough. No matter what your job is, no matter what occupation you chose, there always comes this moment ‘Yeah that’s what I’m supposed to do, but am I cut out for it?’ Being a musician is the same exact way. We hit a wall where we weren’t seeing any growth or seeing more people at our shows. We were literally playing for twenty people every night and after seven and a half years of that we started asking questions and wondering if maybe this isn’t what we’re supposed to do. We thought we were pretty good, but obviously nobody else did. Luckily, Burn.Flicker.Die changed everything for us.
Your songs are quite personal, autobiographical. Is there anything that is off limits to write about?
No, when it comes to writing pretty much everything is in bounds whether it’s from stories the guys are telling in the van to some deep, personal, dark secret I have myself. If it makes sense to go in a song, feels honest and will make you connect with human beings, then I kind of try and let the muse take me where it wants to go.
One area of your life where you have been open is your sobriety. Congratulations on over a year sober. How has sobriety shaped your live shows as well as what happens after the shows?
I’ve been almost fourteen months sober and you know, it’s nice to remember everything, nice to truly get lost in those moments because for the longest time I didn’t remember the good shows. The good shows and the bad shows were all the same because they all ended with me passing out. Now it’s nice to ride high on that natural adrenaline. We had a sold out show in Dallas and it was nice to just bask in that afterglow and come off of a natural high instead of not remembering the second half of the show because I was doing shots on stage. I don’t miss the drunkenness, the partying, any of the dumb stuff I did when I was drinking.
Being sober has done nothing but help our lives shows. When I got sober the boys also stopped drinking at shows. We were a pretty good band when we were hammered, but we are a much, much better band with all six people focused on delivering the best product we possibly can every single night. Who would have thought that six people who are in complete control in every aspect of their lives could play better than six drunk assholes you know? A lot of folks used tell us that we were pretty good for being as drunk as we were and we kind of got tired of being that band. We wanted people to just say ‘You’re a really good band’ period, not ‘You are a really good band’ with a disclaimer.
Now, they most certainly don’t need that disclaimer.
Switching gears a bit, the video for Southern Sadness was released about a month ago. It is incredibly creative with plenty of symbolism. Did you guys come up with the concept for the video?
No, a friend who went to school with Colin in New Jersey, then moved to North Carolina, contacted us saying how much the song meant to her. She asked if it was okay for her to make a video for it. We were like ’Yeah, sure whatever’ and then we saw it and were like, ‘Holy shit this is crazy!’ She is a super talented artist.
There’s a lot of North Carolina in that video and you guys give your hometown a lot of love. Roots seem to be incredibly important to the band.
For sure. We kind of wear where we're from on our sleeve, I think the local paper even referred to us as hometown heroes. We’re the band who saw something we wanted, went out and took it. We weren’t the band that moved to Nashville or NYC and did it. We were the band who stayed in North Carolina, toured our asses off and repped where we were from. I’m not knocking anyone who moves to Nashville, Austin or L.A. in hopes of making it, we were very fortunate enough to stay in our own backyard and make it.
One hears a lot about the music scene in Asheville. Does Raleigh have a vibrant music scene as well?
Raleigh and the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area are hands down the best music scenes. I’m a little biased obviously, but so many amazing, amazing bands are coming out of that area. The triangle is what I consider kind of the life blood the NC music scene. It has everything from bluegrass to electronic music to hip hop; the folk scene is amazing and the alt-country scene, which started with Ryan Adams, is flooded. Any genre, you name, I can give you a current band touring and successfully touring. It’s an amazing little thirty mile stretch of North Carolina that often gets overlooked.
Last year you were named Bandintown’s hardest working band, did you do as many dates this year?
We did more. We did almost sixty more dates this year. We’re going for the back to back title.
Incredible! Did you get to play any “firsts” that you have always wanted to do?
Yeah, we just did it last week when we played Austin City Limits. We’ve always wanted to play that festival and this year was a pretty epic line up with Foo Fighters and Drake. It’s one of those festival lineups that you post and your friends say ‘Holy shit that’s my iPod’ and you’re like ‘Yeah we’re actually playing there.’ It’s kind of neat to be a part of that.
Very neat and not bad company to be included in at all. Well in about a week you’ll be back in NYC headlining the Gramercy where you played with Turnpike Troubadours last year. Over the past few years the crowds in the city seem to be consistently getting larger.
That’s always been the goal. I remember nights we played Arlene’s Grocery for five people and we would all look at each other and say ‘We’re never going to make it in New York City.’ When the Mercury Lounge sold out last time we were like ‘Whoa, people are actually paying attention to what we’re doing in this city!’ The fact that we get to play the Gramercy this time and headline is kind of mind blowing to me. We’re really excited to keep making those steps in the city and in major markets like Boston and Philly; anywhere north of DC we’re always just blown away that people have even heard of us.
I think what a lot of southern bands tend to forget is that there are so many kids from the South who get jobs in city after college and who still want to hear the music they love. Just because the zip code you’re going to is a northern zip code there are still a lot of transplants who want a piece of home on a Friday night, so we try to come back once or twice a year to make sure people up there who like us get their fix of us.
After this Northeast run, you are off to Europe. Would you say touring is still the lifeblood of the band?
Touring is definitely the heart and soul of this band. When we started this ten years ago we knew that if we were ever going to make a dent or carve any piece of the music industry for ourselves that we were going to have to tour - it’s the only way to make it these days. When we started we knew there were a lot of local bands that were really good, but there was nobody willing to put it all on the line and go tour. We were and ten years later those people aren’t bands anymore and we’re lucky enough to still be doing this and excited to see that hard work pays off.
Wolves has a lot to say about the push and pull of the music business, the toll on self and family. It concludes with “Who Needs A Song.” What is the story behind that song?
Actually, I wrote that song in the studio while we were recording. It’s kind of love letter to the road just about a guy saying I have seen a lot, gotten to do a lot, but at the end of the day no matter what I want to be home and see her. I got married this year and we’re ready to buy our first home, so there are a lot more reasons to be back in Raleigh now than five years ago Back then, I was the king of ‘We don’t need to ever be home; work, work, work’ and now my tune has drastically changed to ‘This year we should be home a lot more.’
You seem to be in a pretty good place, this side of 25 doesn’t such a bad place to be.
Not at all. When I wrote that song, I was reading some article where the title was something like “The Winning Side of Twenty-Five” where these people became millionaires before they were thirty. I kind of made a joke in the van that if there’s a winning side, we were definitely on the losing side and I wrote song about it. It’s been one of most successful songs off record because people can relate to it. Everyone has been at that point where you finish college and have no idea what you want to do with your life; being in that constant state of letting your parents down, finishing school and getting that dream job. At first people think it’s a negative song, but that third verse brings it all back to positivity.
In that song, I listed a lot of the negative things I went through being a musician in my 20’s but then there’s the reality of turning 30 and going ‘Wait a minute, I wake up every day getting to do something I love doing. I won.’ There’s been a big transition from 25yo BJ who went to the bar every night and got hammered to 30yo BJ who follows Home Depot on Instagram. Honestly, for the first time in a long time, I am extremely content where I’m at.
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American Aquarium will be at the Gramercy Theatre THIS Thursday, October 22nd