Several months ago, an old friend texted me a fake Facebook status—not meant for his own account, but for that of American Aquarium frontman and spirited raconteur B.J. Barham.
The exact phrasing escapes me now, but the text was mimetic of Barham's check-ins from the road, where, for most of the last five years, American Aquarium has pretty much lived. It said something about whiskey, a statue of Robert E. Lee and totally rocking the house; for the most part, it was spot-on.
It seems that the Raleigh band—always Barham, surrounded by an unsteady host of hired hands—has offered its alt-country revivals in most every dive and pub with a stage in the Southeast during the last five years. The morning after many shows, the 27-year-old Barham has hopped online to recount the crazy night, the river of booze and the insanely good times. It was entertaining, but you sometimes wondered just how long Barham and his boys could maintain that lifestyle.
If you live long enough, you might eventually grow up; in the last year or so, that's exactly what American Aquarium has done. They still drink, admits Barham, but now they try to do it a little less before they hit the stage. They've signed a record deal overseas, and their new Kickstarter campaign has raised nearly $10,000 in a little more than 10 days. Those funds will go toward a new LP they're recording next year in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with former Drive-By Trucker and genre star Jason Isbell. American Aquarium has a manager, a booking agent and, for this next album, plans to hire a big-time publicist. What's more, over the last five years, Barham has grown from a North Carolina boy aping the alt-country idols of his own state into a bright, descriptive writer, perfectly capable of capturing a rough scene in a few weathered lines.
And for the first time, Barham feels that the band is actually good enough to immortalize a performance. On Saturday, they'll bring a team of technicians into The Pour House to record their headlining set for a forthcoming live record. I spoke to Barham about the best and worst nights on tour and the reluctant process of maturing.
Independent: There are those memorable nights you have on tour that confirm why you're out there, even if you're not making much money. But what about those other nights that make you question your decision?
B.J. Barham: Anytime during the first two years. When we first started the band, we realized that a lot of bands will sit at home for a year, make these amazing soundscapes and then take them on the road for a few weeks of the year. They'll go to all these big markets and play these amazing records for people. But we're one of those bands that writes on the road and plays them live. The only reason we put out a record is to facilitate people knowing the songs.
We knew that the first couple of years would be a lot of touring, and I think most people aren't ready for that when you don't have a product. You go out there to throw a million darts at a dartboard and hope that something sticks. Even up to a year and a half ago, it was like, "What the fuck are we doing on the road? We're not making money. We're sleeping on floors." At the end of a show, we'd all break off and go find somebody, a girl or a guy, and try to find a place to stay. We'd all reconvene 20 minutes later and say, "OK, I have two couches and a guest room, and they offered breakfast. What do you have?" We'd go with the best one. It was a bad way of living.
You've gone through 26 band members in American Aquarium in less than a decade, which is quite a bit of attrition. When you started the band, did you think that original group would be your band forever?
Oh, of course. I was naïve. I thought, "Everybody wants to quit their job, go on the road, not make any money and hopefully build something. They're all going to be on board, and nobody is going to get mad." Then you start realizing that some people want to have a family, get a degree, have a relationship at home that's normal. I feel like now—and it might just be that now I'm being completely naïve again—everybody's been through the bad times, and now we're in some good times. Our biggest influences are bands like the Drive-by Truckers and Lucero, who just started touring. You see bands like that, and you realize that we can do this. Then, of course, you realize that the Truckers have been doing this since the '80s. You realize that it's a lifelong commitment to hit the road that hard and make your fans that way.
So what do you sacrifice through that lifestyle? In what ways does your home life suffer?
This has been a big question recently: What's home life? The best thing I can say is that home life is what it would be like for most people to go out on the road. When I'm home, I'm so happy to be home the first couple of days. It's me and the Mrs., and I get to eat at my favorite restaurants, drink at my favorite bars and see people I haven't seen in months. But after the first couple of days, we're just waiting for that next tour. I pretty much sit at home. Everyone has a home now, which is nice; I was living out of a storage unit for about a year.
So it's nice to be home, but everybody in the band just starts fiending after the first three or four days. I operate much better when I have a schedule, and on the road I know I have to be up by this time, on the road by this time, check-in by this time. It's the only time in my life when I have order, which I guess is what most people have when they're home. They have a job, they get up, they do this.
American Aquarium seems to do best in mid-sized cities, or the secondary markets that form an array on the major markets. When did you realize that the band might make it by making it in these smaller areas, or did that just happen?
We joke about it, how there are the Spin markets—Chicago, New York, D.C., Atlanta, Nashville, LA, those markets where mostly Spin magazine tells you who's the hot band. The only reason we do well there is because of transplants, but we have definitely never found a "hipster market." We're a straight-ahead band that writes straight-ahead songs about straight-ahead topics. Our major markets are most people's secondary markets. We would tour through Georgia and play Atlanta. Maybe 50 people would come. We'd play Savannah, and 200 kids would come. In Macon, 250 would come. But Atlanta's supposed to be the place where everybody comes, right? I think it's the other places that relate to what we write songs about. In Tennessee, Nashville is not our best market, but we kill it in Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Franklin. We do Chicago and New York once a year, West Coast once a year. We realize that we're a Southern band—south of D.C., over to Arkansas, down to Texas and over.
Most live albums are meant to mark some new era or put a cap on an old one. You've mentioned several times that you finally seem to feel comfortable with the band—as a group of musicians, as a way to live, as an entity finding an audience. Does making a live record now feel like a line in the sand, the demarcation of an era at all?
I feel like the band's finally at a place where we can be proud of what we put on tape. A year ago, we were more about the party than the job. We would show up at a venue, and if somebody brought us a bottle of Jameson, we would drink the whole damn thing before we went on stage. Now, we're looking at it a little more grown-up-like. We realize that people are paying $10 or $15 to see us. If we put on a shit show, they're not going to pay $10 or $15 the next time. We still drink heavy, have fun with the audience and talk a lot of shit, but we're a better performing band than we were a year ago. We've been asked to do a live record for so long, but we've heard some of the bootleg live records. It's like, "God, we were wasted. I almost fell down right there."
So how drunk have you been onstage?
Probably the time I fell down three times. I saw pictures of me laying on the floor. On my 26th birthday in Savannah, the owner of The Jinx came up and said, "For your birthday, we're buying you a shot after every song." We played 28 songs. Before every song, "I'd say, "3, cheers. 4, so on." There's a video of the 28th song, and I'm just holding the microphone for dear life, just swaying. It got to the point where we didn't know if people were coming to the show to hear the songs or to see how fucked up we would get playing those songs. For years, I guess we had this really big sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll thing on the road. Everybody looked at us as, "Those kids party." In the last year, we've started to face the consequences when you try to make your life by living up to a stereotype. Bill [Corbin, American Aquarium guitarist] got a divorce. This band might never make it. Then what are we going to do? In the last year, this band grew up. I never really wanted to do that, but it just happened. Now that we're there, I think it's better for us. But after the show is just as bad. When we walk offstage and go to the bar, it's the same old American Aquarium you remember.