Forgive American Aquarium if they have been hard to track: In 2008, the band released The Bible & The Bottle LP and the Bones EP while playing more than 270 shows across the country. This year, American Aquarium plans to record another full-length and play even more shows.
During a rare break in their touring schedule, we recently sat down with frontman B.J. Barham, lead guitarist Ryan Johnson and bassist Bill Corbin to dissect a handful of the songwriters that soundtrack their cross-country treks.
American Aquarium plays Friday, March 13 at Lincoln Theatre. Tickets are $8-$10 with Cary Ann Hearst and Bain Mattox & Shot From Guns opening the 9:30 p.m. show.
"Hate It Here"
(from Sky Blue Sky, 2007)
B.J. Barham: Personally, this record was weird for me. It went back to that '70s FM kind of stuff. Some of the lyrical choices kinda weirded me out, like here when he's talking about doing the dishes and using the washing machine. This was not my favorite Wilco record. I really thought they were taking a lot of steps back from being "that band," you know. With Being There and Summerteeth, they were kinda still an Americana band, then with Yankee Hotel [Foxtrot] and A Ghost is Born, it was just so cool how people were still considering it Americana, but it was so out there.
But this one, I don't give it as many spins as the other ones. That Yankee Hotel record gets a couple spin though. What do you guys think?
Ryan Johnson: I love the guitar work on this album, especially on the first song. Nels Cline is ridiculous.
Bill Corbin: I actually just got the record not too long ago and haven't had much of a chance to listen to it.
BB: It's still Wilco, so I'm still going to buy the records when they come out. They could be fuckin' fartin' into a microphone and I'm still going to buy it.
"Another Travelin' Song"
(from I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, 2005)
BB: [imitates pedal steel guitar] I was working at The Record Exchange when these two records [I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn] came out, and I had always thought that Bright Eyes was this lo-fi hipster. Then I put this record in and thought "Holy God! This is so awesome!"
Mike Mogis does the pedal steel work on this, and I'm so glad that he started bringing pedal steel and that country sound into Conor [Oberst]'s work. I think this marked the turn where he really started going away from that bedroom folk-type stuff, because after this Cassadaga came out and then Conor's solo stuff. That solo record is just a really clean and polished Americana record and I like it a lot.
But I really like this song. That first line, "I'm changing all my strings, I'm gonna write another travelin' song," he's just full of those one-liners that are so good. Though when this album came out and he was on the cover of every fuckin' magazine with "Is he the new Dylan?"—that was kind of overkill.
Independent Weekly: What'd you think about Digital Ash coming out at the same time?
BB: I think it was kind of like the whole Ryan Adams thing where he needed an editor. Don't put that much shit out. Completely different records, though, so I guess ...
BC: Someone should have stepped in and filtered him, probably. Like the three albums Ryan Adams put out in one year—if he had taken the best songs from all three of those and put them on one record, it would have been the most amazing record he ever put out, but instead you have to sift through so much filler. Though even the filler, I like listening to.
THE ROLLING STONES
(from Sticky Fingers, 1971)
[Barham imitates Mick Jagger's drawl]
BC: We tried to cover this song once.
BB: Oh God. Sticky Fingers is a great record, but it is not a great record for American Aquarium to play songs off.
BC: Well, we knew the chords, but none of us really sat down and really listened to what was going on, so it was just a complete and total train wreck, because we are the most disorganized band.
BB: We all love the Stones, but our old guitar player brought it to the band and was like "Oh, we'll cover it this weekend, it's three chords. Real easy." No. All of us forgot to learn it. We just didn't learn it and then got on stage and tried to play it. Never again.
BC: It's one of those songs that's really easy and simple, but it's equally as easy and simple to fuck up.
BB: The Stones were very good at some of these three-chord songs because you can't really play them like the Stones did.
BC: Their pocket's just so loose and you listen to it and you know it's the Stones.
BB: I listened to Exile [on Main St.] today. "Ventilator Blues" is gonna be our theme song.
RJ: Exile on Main St. and Sticky Fingers, they just changed my life. I love those records.
THE HOLD STEADY
"Sequestered in Memphis"
(from Stay Positive, 2008)
RC: I think we listen to The Hold Steady more than any other band when we're on the road, other than maybe Springsteen.
BB: At 3 o'clock in the morning, if I'm driving through the middle of Tulsa, Oklahoma, I put Stay Positive or Boys and Girls in America on, turn it up, everyone's sleeping and I'm just rocking through the Midwest.
RC: This song has [Lucero frontman] Ben Nichols doing backup vocals. Jason Isbell said they initially asked him to sing the background vocals but they just couldn't schedule anything and get it done, but I would have loved to have heard that.
BB: Ben told us this story about how The Hold Steady used to send Lucero demos and ask Lucero to take them on tour, and Ben said "Whatever" and put them in the pile. Two years later, he's like "We missed the bus on that one!" But I saw these guys with the Drive-By Truckers at the Lincoln and I thought these guys blew the Truckers out of the water, and I love the Truckers.
BC: When I saw them live, I didn't think they were going to sound this tight and polished and big, but they were unbelievable.
BB: Their keys player [Franz Nicolay] is nasty. He's the only one who's classically trained and during that show he'd do the one hand thing and start going off. He's so badass.
BC: Have you seen his mustache? I would pay for the concert ticket just to see his mustache. It played a solo, I saw it.
BB: I remember iTunes offered this record three weeks before it physically came out, and the first day we saw it on iTunes, we were in Little Rock, Arkansas and we made our drummer download. And then we bought it again because it had three more tracks on the actual physical release.
BC: This whole album's good. I was worried because I liked Boys and Girls in America so much, but this came out and I love every song.
BB: I love these Memphis horns though, and this breakdown too. I just picked up a Lifter Puller record on eBay. It's a lot dirtier and unpolished, but [Craig Finn's] still such a great storyteller in the same vein as The Boss. He's got such a cool way of talking about being in high school and doing lots of drugs at shows.
"Don't Think Twice All Right"
(from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963)
BB: I know it's super cliché, but there's nobody like Dylan. There's nobody that writes this good. I just went back and listened to [The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3] and those are songs he never put out that blow most good songwriters out of the water. It's fuckin' amazing.
BC: I missed the boat early on with Dylan. I didn't get him until the past couple years. As a teenager, I don't think I could ever get past his voice and really listen to what he was saying and what was going on.
BB: See, you were in seventh grade, you were listening to punk rock and I was listening into Biggie and Nas.
BC: So it was all lyrical?
BB: I will argue that hip-hop is where some of the most creative lyrics I've heard in the past five years have come from. Little Brother..."I don't have to worry about my girl in a club getting her eagle on cause she's in bed getting her Kegel on," that's on Minstrel Show and I remember hearing that and flipping my shit. I really think that the lineage is gonna be Guthrie, Dylan, hip-hop.
IW: Bill, which album was the one that finally got you into Dylan?
BC: It was his Greatest Hits actually. I've raided BJ's hard drive and my fiancée's father is a big Dylan fan and gave me a lot of stuff to listen to.
RJ: The album that really got me listening to Dylan was The Times They Are a-Changin'. I love that album.
BB: I was in 11th grade, when I was first trying to sit down and write songs, and this guy handed me Born to Run, Blonde on Blonde, and Heartbreaker. He said "Go home and listen to these records on repeat." I remember Blonde on Blonde just punching me in the face. Like any kid's just trained to love that shit on the radio, and when you hear a voice that's not friendly to your ears, you're like "Ah fuck, fast forward," but when you sit down and listen to what he's saying, I don't care if he had a fuckin' trachea operation if you're saying the shit he's saying. Everybody sets the bar at Dylan. Any of your great songwriters now, if Dylan's not in their top five, they're just trying to be indie and hip, cause if Dylan's not in your top five, you're a fuckin' shmuck.
(from Rural Free Delivery, 1997)
BB: I actually saw Ryan Adams last night. He didn't freak out. The band fucked up on one song, like dropped the beat, and he didn't say anything, didn't storm off stage, didn't throw his guitar down. He just kept playing.
I'm so glad Chris Stamey got a hold of his voice, cause here, it's very monotone. When I first got Rural Free Delivery, I paid like 25 bucks for it and thought it was going to be a gem. I put it in and went "Fuck! I wasted money on this!" But still I will argue that this is some of the best stuff Ryan Adams has ever done. I love Whiskeytown stuff. Caitlin [Cary], over the past couple years, has become a real good friend of the band, and I think she's so talented.
(from Cardinology, 2008)
BB: I think he's trying to be Oasis on this song. He talks about zombies in this. That's the best fuckin' thing!
IW: What are your thoughts on the album as a whole?
BB: When he put out Easy Tiger, I thought he was kinda getting back on track. Start-to-finish, I didn't think there was too much misdirection.
BC: It was real consistent. That's what I liked about it.
BB: I like this record ... some of it. But this right here, it sounds like an Oasis song, though last night when they played it as a closer, it was a huge rock song and everybody was dancing around.
RJ: I think it's fun. I don't think it's horrible.
BB: I think that "Cobweb" song is really cool. But I'm waiting for him to, you know, fuck Mandy Moore for a couple years, and then her leave him and he puts out Heartbreaker 2. He's one of those people that, every time he puts out a record, I'll pick it up just to see what it is. Fartin' in microphones ... you got me again, Ryan!