It's five o'clock on a Thursday in December. Bradley Justin Barham turns his back to his band to face a virtually empty room. He strums his cherry red Gibson J-45 as he slowly steps across a sticky black floor. This wouldn't be the first time he's played to no one.
But American Aquarium's founder and frontman seems at peace as he studies a charred guitar hanging on a wall inside the Dallas music venue Trees (the instrument was set ablaze by the Flaming Lips at the end of their set here in 1999). It's only sound check, and he's seen the presale numbers. The venue holds more than five hundred; the show is nearly sold out.
"Crazy, right?" he says. "After years of getting punched in the face, we're headlining at fucking Trees. I used to play directly across the street at the LaGrange Theatre for years. They were shitty little gigs—twenty, maybe thirty people—and we would literally be loading our shit out in the street and see tour buses. It was like, 'That's what it's like to make it.' In those moments, you want to believe."
For the majority of Barham's career, nobody did, save the singer-songwriter himself. And why would they? During the band's lean years, from its first six-show tour in 2006 until the 2012 release of Burn. Flicker. Die., the band lived in vans, coffee shops, and truck stops, driving nearly all day, every day, to play for a handful of people that night. They slept on the living room floors of random fans they'd met only a few hours before. Living off a cut of cover charges and ticket sales only works when hundreds turn out night after night.
So when Barham points to the stage and notes the spot from which Kurt Cobain stage-dived, he allows himself to enjoy the moment. He's pulled it off, detractors—and he's had a lot of them—be damned.
Barham got here by keeping "blind faith." He cut expenses where he could and took on thousands of dollars in debt. His band used its earnings to eat and put enough gas in the tank to make it to the next gig. There would be no hotel stays or equipment upgrades, no fancy dinners or label-sponsored VIP outings. They stayed hydrated with open bar tabs.
The band survived those years on its frontman's ability to sell himself—on his gift of gab and the promise of early-morning drunken debauchery with whichever fan would open his or her home to Barham's crew on any given night.
It worked. American Aquarium always had a place to crash. And Barham found that with every floor he slept on, he made a fan for life—no matter how bizarre the situation he had to put himself in to earn it.
"Every night, we found a place. And those people still come to shows every single time we come to their town," Barham says.
And when those fans came, they brought a few friends. On the next tour, those friends brought their friends. By 2012, when Barham wrote Burn. Flicker. Die. as the dying breath of his dream, they had thousands of followers on social media—people who'd opened their lives to Barham's band and considered the struggling musicians family.
But life on the road had taken its toll. Barham was losing the faith that, despite playing hundreds of shows a year and recording several albums, his break was coming. Music critics characterized Barham as a hack and a misogynist. In 2009, then-INDY music editor Grayson Haver Currin wrote about American Aquarium's new release, Dances for the Lonely, that Barham was the "sleazy rock 'n' roll huckster about which parents warn their children." Others labeled his music cheap and his lyrics—which tended to focus on drinking, drugs, heartbreak, and sex—as clichés. Barham's in-state fan base was limited mostly to kids from his hometown and former college classmates. So, in 2012, the band made a pact. If Burn. Flicker. Die. failed, it was over.
"We were just spinning in circles, playing the same shithole bars every month. Everybody kind of came to the conclusion that, 'Hey. We tried.' There is no shame in stepping out and trying something and failing," Barham says.
As I wade through the sea of people who have converged on Trees, I can't believe he's pulled it off. I knew Barham when we were both enrolled at North Carolina State University. We were friends. We even lived together for a while.
I was one of many who watched him—his shoes propped up on a rickety desk he'd bought from Target, learning to play a handful of guitar chords via the Internet—and urged him to take the safe bet and earn a degree. We would see bumper stickers promoting the American Aquarium website on fast-food windows and gas pumps, and laugh at Barham's audacity. We attended his first live show at The Brewery in Raleigh and joked with his mother (who was working the merchandise table) about his flippant lyrics and the notion that he might put college on hold. We were on the receiving end of the demos he would slide under dorm-room doors.
We thought he was, at the very least, naïve about his chances at real success, but there was something impressive about his ability to spin his dream into an attainable reality. He had charisma. He made you want to believe him. In his mind, he was already there. He was going to be a touring musician. He was at Point Z, and getting there from Point A could be thrown together later.
"I believed in it. And the shit I was sliding under [those dorm-room doors] was god-awful. It was one part ignorance, one part confidence. Looking back, that was dumb," Barham says. "Who does that? If somebody slid a demo tape under my door, I'd be like, 'Who the fuck is this guy?' I might listen to it though. And maybe something connects."
- Photo by Cal Quinn
- Barham performs with his signature Gibson J-45
His strategy was never to write a single hit that would make him a breakout sensation, but to pick up one fan at a time by talking about a breakup the way they wish they could or singing about a drunken, cocaine-fueled night at a bar that ended in a stranger's bed. He sold them his wildest dreams. And with every new song or album he released, with every two-dozen people he performed for at venues across more than thirty states, those connections started adding up.
When he dropped out of N.C. State in 2006 and hit the road, it raised the question aspiring musicians have been asking themselves for decades. Can an artist with a limited catalog who characterizes himself as "not the best singer or songwriter" make it without a push from a major label?
He'd find his answer in his roots, in the small-town mentality fathers in his hometown ingrained in their sons.