On Saturday, New Raleigh will be co-sponsoring (with Jameson Irish Whiskey) the American Aquarium album release party for their excellent new album, Burn.Flicker.Die. Our writer Marc Lewis talks with American Aquarium front man, BJ Barham, about the album.
American Aquarium is ready to be heard and Burn.Flicker.Die. is the band’s demand. After years of pouring his guts into his writing, B.J. Barham, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, has told his story through songs and with the forthcoming release of the band’s sixth album he has constructed a narrative worthy of attention.
After a number of albums about the trials of a kid trying to escape small town life, Burn.Flicker.Die. is a more mature effort — a gritty take on bigger issues like addiction, failure and regret.
We sit down at the Busy Bee Café in Raleigh and Barham’s southern drawl, a piece of Reidsville he wears like a badge, is a suitable companion to his Western-style gingham shirt. AMOR FATI is tattooed on his fingers between the first and second knuckles. Love on the right hand and fate on the left, two words much bigger than the sum of their letters. The saying, “love of fate,” means all the good and the bad that comes is in the end good.
American Aquarium formed six years ago in Raleigh. Barham dropped out of North Carolina State University to pursue a career as a musician, a choice that found him living temporarily out of a storage unit off Capital Boulevard when things began. Now, as he talks about his band and his writing, he mentions his apartment and his car as if to remind himself he’s made it somewhere, but contentment with the band’s current stature is not a thing he claims. And, was American Aquarium not producing a quality product, it is here that the article would digress into a quilt of eloquent clichés about the struggling artist.
“When we first started in 2006 we set out to be the only band in Raleigh that plays 300 shows a year. Raleigh was going to be a namesake only. I see us still touring a lot but I see this record as being the step that gives us legitimacy among the people who have never taken us seriously,“ he says.
American Aquarium held true to its mission to keep moving. The band recently returned from a tour leg that took them through Spain, France and Germany where unpredictable crowds numbered 25 in places and up to 250 at some sold out venues.
Burn.Flicker.Die. is in a sense a question any band whose clawed for long enough must ask: Why are we doing this and when will it begin to pay off?
The album opens with a song familiar to American Aquarium fans. “Cape Fear River” is about Reidsville and getting out, escaping a place that seems to suck the ambition out of its residents. Followed by “St. Mary’s” and “Lonely Ain’t Easy,” the album remains in a known vein but takes a turn around its middle after “Harmless Sparks,” an ode to fleeting relationships and “a telephone full of women with the city by their names.”
“It’s kind of evolving from just the girls, the bars, the small town stuff. This is the most grown up album I think we’ve ever done. We built a fan base off broken hearts and late nights but this is the first record where we start facing failure and divorce and addiction and things like that and just look them in in the face and write about them.”
“Casualties” is about a group of musicians lingering on the edge of throwing in the towel. “Now I’m just a casualty of rock ‘n’ roll,” he sings. “We ain’t ever gonna make it like I thought we would.” “Burn.Flicker.Die.” follows, and the song compares the band to a neon light left on too long surviving on “dollar bill prescriptions in the bathroom stall.”
Barham’s songwriting has been compared to Bruce Springsteen because the songs are about the struggles of an average kid trying to make it in a grey-hued world. There are no flowery smells or sunrise smiles in his writing. The songs are about a life the common man can understand.
“There are people who can write love songs and about things that make them happy and I will never, ever have that talent,” he says.
If you listen to American Aquarium’s earlier songs it is easy to draw comparisons, be them to the Drive-by-Truckers or Springsteen. On Burn.Flicker.Die. Barham has achieved a more consistent voice, whether from a confidence gained on the road or a frustration with trying it anyone else’s way.
“Any artist in any field has to try to find a voice. Your voice when you start off is an amalgamation of all your favorite voices. So on one song I’d want to sound like Springsteen and then Ryan Adams,” he says. “I think this is the best record we’ve cut. It sounds like the same band is playing the songs and the same guy wrote the record.”
Asked if he’s achieved a comfort level that has allowed him to step away from the familiar riddles of small town life he says, “Of course. It’s one of those things where no one wants to make their first record a failure record,” he says. “But you reach a point where everyone my age has jobs and kids and families and here I am wondering what the hell I’m gonna do with my life. “
With his songwriting chops he could move in a more financially stable direction, possibly to Nashville. And this is where the conversation turns to the inevitable subject of “selling out,” a vague and often overused pairing of words that often justifies not selling enough. But, when a talented writer honestly discusses the phrase it becomes more a statement of being true to one’s self and less a passing excuse for not being bought. Nashville, the factory for pretty little tunes with predictable endings, Nicholas Sparksian-tunes, if you will, in a storytelling sense, fraught with love and amnesia and second chances, is not where he wants to go. Barham’s writing and American Aquarium’s songs lack the hopeful flare and circular nature of most country music. To access the albums one must listen throughout to fully hear the narrative unfold.
“I’ve had opportunities to write for country radio. I could write ‘chicken fried.’ I could write a song about a dirt road. There’s a reason I haven’t moved to Nashville and written a song for Tim McGraw,” he says. “I can’t do it. I would not be able to sleep. I’d have a really nice bed to sleep in but I wouldn’t be able to sleep.”
“As long as I can write a record and feel like I was completely honest and I didn’t write a single word accept for myself, I’m okay.”
As he talks about his writing, I return to his hands. While the tattoos they bear are meant to say something together, for a songwriter the two words can live in distinct realms. Writing songs is Barham’s love, the tattoo on the right hand, the one he offers to a stranger upon meeting, but it is the other more complicated word that serves as a backdrop for Burn.Flicker.Die. The album is about fate, the thing written on his ringless left hand, a thing a songwriter entrusts to the public.
“It’s one of those things where, especially from Raleigh/Durham, being from here there’s a lot of buzz bands. There’s a lot of indie rock, and God bless it there’s a market for it but it seems the bands that were really big two years ago are gone. Sometimes you wonder, it’s like, ‘Hey guys, we’ve been doing this six years, we tour everywhere,’ and it starts to get to a point where you become jaded. I’m not mad at anybody else for trying to play music but it gets to a point where you start wondering if you’re doing something wrong.”
Burn.Flicker.Die. is another test as to whether or not honest writing can sell.
Jason Isbell, formerly of the Drive-by-Truckers and a songwriter Barham mentions as an influence, produced the album. Isbell and Barham met after a show at Lincoln Theater a few years back and bonded over pool at Slim’s. The two play whenever they cross paths on the road.
““Outfit,” “Goddamn Lonely Love” — that was Songwriting 101 for me when I was 21 years old. Not only to befriend him but to have him produce the record was great. And there are four or five songs where he sings backup vocals and his fiancé Amanda Shires plays fiddle on a few. He treated us like family and we made a really cool sounding record.”
The album was produced at the Nutt House Recording Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, near Muscle Shoals, and the southern rock ‘n’ roll heritage of the area comes through clearest on “Saturday Nights,” which pokes fun of the crowd at Slim’s. Spoon Oldham, a member of the Swampers, a band who played with anyone who is anyone in Muscle Shoals and was mentioned in “Sweet Home Alabama,” played keys on the record. The keys and the Southern rock influence give “Saturday Nights” and much of the faster-paced pieces of the album a “loose bluesy, almost drunk feeling” as Barham describes it.
“I realize I’m never going to be on a major label and I’m never going to be on the radio and I’m never going to be VH1’s artist to watch. I’ve accepted that. What I do is try to be an honest songwriter,” Barham says.
Burn.Flicker.Die. is a good, honest album from a talented songwriter and a seasoned band ready to be heard. The tracks take a listener from the depressed streets of small town America where kids are trying to be something, through heartache and loss and growing up, to a place of road-weariness hard earned over the last half decade. Burn.Flicker.Die. is about those words on Barham’s hands — love and fate — the second of which is yet to be written.
American Aquarium will perform tracks from Burn.Flicker.Die. at its album release part on August 25 at Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh.