The city of Raleigh is starting to book a little more of its own music scene.
Just yesterday, Artsplosure announced that See Gulls and T0W3Rs
, two of the capital city’s most exciting upstarts, will play First Night Raleigh’s inaugural “indie rock venue.” (Pardon the name or the location in a church.
) And today, Winterfest has announced that American Aquarium will headline its big shindig on December 5.
If you’ve never been, Winterfest is the annual downtown launch party for the little skating rink that sits just beside City Plaza.
(Workers are building the rink today, in fact, if you need a chance to daydream of snow.) In the past, headliners have strangely included bluegrass demigod Peter Rowan and pop-country dude Jaron Lowenstein; American Aquarium—or any significant local headliner at all, really—is a deliberate and good move.
As you might recall, American Aquarium first emerged as a rambunctious and coltish alt-country outfit,
very much clinging to the molds established by area predecessors Whiskeytown and The Backsliders. But as the band has tempered its partying ways in recent years, they’ve also come into their own musically, writing and recording the best records of their career while beginning to fill larger halls across the world. By the end of this year alone, the band will have sold out two nights at the Lincoln Theatre and played top spots at Artsplosure, Hopscotch, Winterfest and North Hills’ popular series.
I spoke to American Aquarium founder B.J. Barham, on tour with his band in Europe, about the change in attitude and outlaw status, ice-skating and not becoming the Embers. Winterfest runs from 3–11 p.m. Other opening acts will be announced soon, and they will accompany the mayor's Christmas tree lighting and several DJs.
INDY: American Aquarium used to be a party band, and I suppose you still are to an extent. But in recent years, you all have eased off the accelerator enough to do events like Winterfest or Artsplosure. When did you realize the change would allow for more versatility in shows?
It was just part of growing up. When we first started, we weren't thinking about sustainability. It was just something to get us out of facing the reality of adulthood for a few more years. We lived on the road for 300 days a year and did exactly what you think a bunch of 23-year-olds with unchecked access to drugs and alcohol would do. We abused it, and that abuse ruined every relationship I had with people until just recently. Something clicked in our late 20s.
We've been a band for almost a decade now and we all had the realization that if we truly wanted to play music for the rest of our life, we had to slow down. We take our career a lot more seriously these days. It’s not a hobby anymore. Once people started realizing how serious we were about pumping the brakes, they started taking more chances on us in family-friendly social environments. 2008 American Aquarium would never be asked to play a holiday event for the city of Raleigh or play City Plaza. Thankfully, we aren't that band anymore.
Despite the change, how much does a Winterfest set like this differ from a normal set?
Photo by Justin Cook
Any given night on tour, we usually play a 90–120 minute set for an audience that is very familiar with our music. That's about 18–22 songs a night. For Winterfest, we have a 30–45 minute set which is a much different show than what we are used to. With shows like this, you have to understand that a large portion of the crowd aren't fans. They are there for the Christmas tree, the ice-skating, the food trucks. We try to take the best parts of our longer live show and condense it down to the best 6–8 songs. The ultimate goal is that 10 percent of the people at the event become fans of your band. To most folks, you are going to be background noise for a night out with the family, but for a certain group of people, they are going to pay attention to what you are doing.
I imagine these events help pay the bills, but it seems that if you play too many, you cut into your own show's sales and run the risk of becoming The Embers. How do you keep that balance?
We play 250–300 shows a year around the world and try to limit playing each city to once a year. You don't want to oversaturate markets or burn out your fan base. Raleigh is no exception. We limit the Raleigh club shows to once a year.
That being said, Raleigh is our home base, and it has a lot of great events, festivals and causes that we want to be a part of. It’s not about paying the bills anymore. We can go anywhere in the country and play shows to pay our bills. We choose Raleigh plays on things we actually want to do. Do you want to open for Dwight Yoakam on the Hopscotch main stage? Yes. Do you want to play this bar's anniversary on the back of a flatbed? No. Do you want to play a holiday show for the city that you have called home for 14 years? We are very fortunate to be in a spot in our career where we can pick and choose the local events that we want
to be a part of and still be able to sell out our yearly hometown club shows.
What's American Aquarium's most winter-appropriate song? And what's your favorite music to listen to during winter? How about the rest of the band?
Let’s just say we don't have a Christmas record coming out anytime soon. We have a lot of sad bastard heartbreak songs, so I'm sure the winter time is a great (or not-so-great?) time of year for those.
Have you ever been to Winterfest, and do you like ice-skating?
I have lived downtown at Wilmington and Hargett streets for the last seven years and always make it a point to make it down to all the events the city does in City Plaza when I'm in town. But I'm not much of an ice skater. I was always the kid that went to birthday parties at the skating rink and stayed pretty close to the wall. I never could fully embrace the art of stopping. That is something that has haunted me through my adult life.
Two City Plaza plays in a year: Is it surprising to you to see Raleigh be able to support so many events with local bands in the city's center?
It's great that the city is embracing its local scene. We have been unofficial ambassadors for Raleigh for quite some time. Our last Raleigh club shows had fans come in from 31 states and three countries to see what was so special about Raleigh. We tell everyone on the road how great of a place Raleigh is and we are just happy that the love affair is mutual. I'm really happy to see the city going the local route when it comes to these bigger events.2005 Raleigh would have just booked Smash Mouth and called it a day.
The city can justify keeping it local when there is such an abundance of local talent getting national praise. When you’re selling American Aquarium to a city planning committee, its a lot easier to do so when a publication like Rolling Stone is writing kind things about the band.
Speaking of which: You just moved to Wendell. What's the best part of life in Wendell so far?
It's still Wake County, so we aren't too far away from the action. We live in the historic downtown neighborhood, and I finally have a backyard. Yesterday my wife had to tell our neighbor that we were going to cut down a tree that was on our property line. Instead of getting upset and arguing, she just sent over a homemade bundt cake and a “welcome to the neighborhood” note. Things are slow and quiet. I like the fact that it’s in the country, but we’re still 15 miles from Clyde Cooper's BBQ.