It's a miracle that American Aquarium has survived these past seven years. The band's five members carry a reputation for fast living, playing more than 250 shows a year. And lead singer B.J. Barham certainly sounds weathered.
Barham's rough, whiskey-stung vocals push against twangy guitar notes and rowdy drums on 2012's Burn.Flicker.Die. Despite the bleak title, Burn gave American Aquarium a new beginning. The confessional honesty and hopelessness of the album's 12 tracks connect with listeners in the way sad songs always seem to do.
Ahead of American Aquarium's Thursday show at Knuckleheads Saloon, we dialed up Barham at his home in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The Pitch: I heard that Burn was supposed to be the band's last album. What has kept you going?
Barham: It [the album] almost rejuvenated the band, really, putting out a record that we were so proud of — that, in turn, other people really dug as well. This was the first time where everything that needed to happen happened. We put out a record that we were super-pumped about, and we put everything we had into it because we really thought it was gonna be our last record. And then our fans got ahold of it, and it turned out to be their favorite record. It just really reinstilled in us that this is really what we're supposed to do.
Why do you think people respond so positively to the stuff that really breaks your heart?
Nobody wants to hear about country bands being happy. That's what pop music is for. If you're listening to this genre of music, then you're listening for sad-bastard songs. You want to hear about the heartache.
Our past four records have all been about girls, breaking up with girls, and this record was our breakup record with the road. It's still very much a breakup record. I wrote the record, the standpoint of it being the road we were breaking up with. It [the road] was the longest-lasting relationship I'd ever had, and we were parting ways.
On "Cape Fear River," you talk specifically about your dad and about getting out of town and trying to make him proud. What's your relationship with your dad like now?
We have a really wonderful relationship. I come from a really small town in North Carolina called Reidsville, and it's just like any other small farm town in America: It's poverty-stricken, and every parent wants their kid to do better than they did. I'm the first guy in my family that went to college, and I was supposed to be the guy that got a real job, you know? And I became a musician. So for the first couple years, needless to say, my parents weren't the most supportive.
I think over the past couple years, my parents have finally gotten it. They've been to a couple sold-out shows, where a thousand kids are screaming the words to the songs. After one of those shows, my dad just said, "I get it."
You've been in this business for a long time. What's the most valuable thing you've gotten out of all the years?
Music's been my way to kind of find who I am. I've gotten to travel. I've gotten to see three continents. Music's allowed me to see as much of the world as I can, and for a redneck from Reidsville, North Carolina, that's pretty good. I've found out who I am because of traveling. I've found that just because you're born a certain way, just because you're born in a certain family, that doesn't mean you have to do exactly what they do or think exactly the way they think.
Do you still love what you do?
Passionately. There's a lot of times in this business where you don't get paid, or if you do get paid, it's just PBR. The first five or six years this band was together, we made zero money. I lived in a storage unit for a few years here in Raleigh. It's one of those things where you give up a lot of stuff just to appease the muse, to prove to her that you want to put in the work. I've done this professionally for eight years and, hopefully, I've got 20 or 30 left in me.
I heard you guys are working on a new album.
I'm currently over halfway done writing the new record. Hopefully, I'll be done with it in January or February, and we can start recording it in April or May. I think this is the first happy record I've written, and by "happy," I mean the subject matter is a bit more upbeat. The songs still sound depressing. When I've described it to people, I say that I'm writing happy songs for people that love sad songs. For the first time in my entire life, I'm in an extremely happy place.