Interview: BJ Barham of American Aquarium

BJ Barham is over in the UK for a short tour, with his band American Aquarium, showcasing tunes from his latest and greatest album, ‘Things Change.’ Mark Underwood of AUK sat down to talk to him before their Borderline show in London earlier this month, where they discussed – among other things – his experiences of working with Jason Isbell and John Fullbright, the songwriting process, BJ’s upbringing and his love of Tom Petty.

During our opening introductions BJ Barham tells me about the reception American Aquarium have been getting on this tour so far. Apparently, fans in Manchester described the live experience as “smashing,” whereas in Bristol everyone thought the show was “brilliant.” He asks what the equivalent expression in London for having a good time is, and I’m momentarily stumped. Somehow this leads off at a tangent into a conversation about Cockney rhyming slang and my faltering attempts to teach BJ some of it. If anyone in his town of Raleigh, North Carolina, comes across him talking about going up “the apples and pears,” or any issues BJ’s  having with “the trouble and strife,” then I’m entirely to blame.

You’ve already said a little bit about how the tour’s gone so far. Do you find the audiences and their reactions differ much to those you get back at home?
A lot more respectful. There’s a certain respect that you get in the UK and all of Europe. People are coming to the show. They’re not going to the bar to have a beer and talk with their friends. In America a lot of the time those can get blurred. You’ll play at a venue and there will be people who are there who are just hammered. Smashed. They’re not really there for the music and it ruins it for everyone else. But here you can tell there’s this kind of universal reverence for songs. Whereas when we start playing it gets really quiet and last night in Manchester there was a young lady who obviously didn’t realise there was going to be a band. And she was a bit chatty and I called her out after the third song and said “Ma’am, if you want to talk please go to the back of the room or else just leave. You’re ruining it for people.” And she got up and left.

Even in London it’s often far from perfect. 
Well, I’ve got 12 years experience dealing with the crowds and the hecklers and all that jazz.

When people think of American Aquarium inevitably they think of BJ Barham first and foremost. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Mark E. Smith, who fronted a post-punk band, the Fall, who’s now sadly deceased, but he was also someone renowned for his group’s numerous line up changes. And he once famously said: “If it’s me and yer granny on the bongos, it’s the Fall.” Because he had about 20 different line up changes.
(Laughs). “I’m taking that – it’s so good.” (To Ben Hussey, bass guitar player) – “You sticking around for a bit? (Laughs).
Ben Hussey: I don’t really have anywhere else to go!

Given the entirely new line up for American Aquarium, does this feel more to you like a collaboration than previous line ups of the band? 
This band – we’ve been together almost 2 years. So it’s starting to feel less like the new band and more like “the band.” It really helped that we quieted a lot of the critics. We went into the studio and made the best record of our career. I think that was all people needed to know. There were a lot of rumours; there were a lot of questions like “is it going to be the same? Can BJ pull it off without anybody from the old band?” I think collectively we went into the studio and answered that question. If anyone’s seen us live in the last year and a half, we’ve answered that question.

So it feels like a bit of a fresh start?
Yeah, I always joke with the guys in the band, and told them that I felt like I was 21 again. I felt like I was starting the band all over. That feeling of getting on stage and being nervous – it’s like a first date. It’s like being with a girl for the first time. It’s still exciting; and you don’t know each other’s flaws yet or the things you love about her. You’re on stage and you’re playing music together. And It’s raw and visceral, and it’s fun and it’s still that way a year and a half in -I can’t stop smiling on stage. That’s the sign of a good band. Everybody who’s seen me, that knows me, has come up after the show and said “you look so happy.” And that’s all a testament to this band.

Perseverance – particularly in the face of adversity, and resilience, seem to be prevailing themes of the album?
The two themes that really started coming together for me when I was putting the record together were perseverance and hope. A lot of these songs take a dark look at some of the negative things in life but I think that either in the bridge or the last verse there’s always kind of like this nod to “it’s going to get better; things can get better; it has to get better.” So I don’t think it’s a dreary record. I like to think that any bad situation I talk about in the record that the prevailing theme is no matter how bad it is you can work your way out of it. You can stick it out long enough to make it better.

At the same time it also feels like an intensely personal document of changes in your own life – such as fatherhood, sobriety – particularly on songs such as ‘One Day At A Time’ and the title track on the album.
Our last record was ‘Wolves’ and it came out in 2015. And since then I got married, I got sober, I had a kid, I had a band quit, I had a band join, and we had a Presidential election that split our country in half. It’s a bunch of new topics that I’d never written about. So here I am: new band, new record – it was a chance for me to say something I’d never said before. And so I took it. And the name of the record – a lot of people were like “ah its too real of a title,” but it’s exactly what happened to me in the last 2 years – it’s “change.” And it’s documenting two years of change in my life.

Apart from songs of a purely autobiographical nature do you have a general approach to the way you go about writing songs and lyrics?
It usually starts off with a line. I’ll come up with one line, whether it be the chorus or whether it be the first lyric and from there it’s always lyrics first, and it’s usually a lyric with a melody. They usually come hand in hand. And then I sit down on a guitar and I figure out what that melody is on the guitar. And then I hash out a verse or hash out that chorus and then build the song that way. Once I get a very skeletal version of the song I bring it to the band. And everything I bring to the band are these acoustic folk ramblings and then what they do is the magic. Without the band I’m fucking Billy Bragg. I’m up there with a guitar singing songs – I’m a folk singer. But with a band that’s where you get these arrangements and that’s where you get kind of this instrumentation that takes it from being just a BJ Barham thing to American Aquarium. That sense of collaboration. It doesn’t happen until after the song’s written. But it’s still  such a very integral part of the songwriting.

You’re on something of a hot streak where working with great singer-songwriters is concerned – what with Jason Isbell producing ‘Burn. Flicker. Die” and more recently John Fullbright on ‘Things Change.’ Tell us a bit more about how you came to work with both of them.
I’m lucky to have very talented friends. They’re friends, that’s all it is. I’ve known Jason for 11 or 12 years and I’ve known Fullbright for at least 5 or 6. And it just comes down to being comfortable with someone you respect enough to let them into your world. Songwriting is an extremely vulnerable process. You’re ripping away layers until you get to this kind of pristine, raw thing. And you’re basically giving someone else control over that. You’re naked. You’re stripping it down to being like “OK, this is a very emotional thing for me. What do you think?” And then letting them kind of mould that, and add this, and take this away. You have to trust someone immensely to be able to let go of that kind of stuff. But at the end of the day I’ve found that of the last 4 records I’ve made, 2 of which were with Brad Cook on ‘Rockingham’ and ‘Wolves’ – and then bookended with Isbell and Fullbright – it’s about working with songwriters, working with people that understand how important lyrics are, how important music is – and finding a way for those to be copacetic. Because we all know plenty of great bands that don’t have shit to say, and we know plenty of poets that have god awful bands. So it’s about trying to find that magical sweet spot i.e. Springsteen and the E-Street band, Petty and the Heartbreakers. It’s about finding these songwriters that can also front rock bands. That’s where I think – at least for me – that’s what I’m trying to aim for: to be a rocking band that you can go and see live and think, “Wow, they are just smoking.” But then when you listen to them through your headphones you’re like “oh he’s saying something.” That’s what moves me as a listener and what inspires me as a writer. 

The 400 Unit really stood out for me last year.
They’re flawless. That band is almost too good. They’ve done it so long together and on such a high level that every night they go out – and even if I guarantee they turn in a 75% show – it’s still better than anybody else you’re going to see this year. We opened up for them a month ago. And it was just reaffirming that “yes, you can do it this way.” You can just write good songs and play them with a good band. You don’t need the frills; you don’t need dress up; you don’t need any of that stuff. You don’t need costume changes. It’s not about looking cool; it’s about songs – and a rocking band.

Is there anyone else you’d  like to collaborate with – production or otherwise?
Who knows? I have found that working with songwriters is my favourite. Just because sometimes when you work with musicians that are producers they’re worried more about adding music to make up for something – and when you work with songwriters they’re worried about taking music away to let the song shine more. And I think that the approach for me is “Let’s see how much we can take away and the song still stand on its own two feet.” But who knows? I’ve got a lot of talented friends. I’m sure I’ve got like a wish list of people. If you’d have told me 10 years ago that Isbell would have done a record I’d have been like: “no way.”  Or if you’d have told me 2 years ago that Fullbright was going to do this record I’d have been like “no way.” We always have a list of folks we hope to work with one day, but I don’t want to say them out loud because I think it might jinx them. It’s always about surrounding yourself with people that make you want to be better, or at least make you strive to be better. When you surround yourself with talent it only makes you want to be better. So when you’re making records with Jason Isbell or John Fullbright you have to bring your ‘A’ game or else you just feel stupid. If I was to come to Isbell with mediocre songs…I had to bring at that point the best thing I could do. And with this record, with Fullbright, I was cautious of it when I was writing it, knowing who was going to produce the record. It was: “You can’t cut a corner here. Every line has to matter.”

I know you’re a Tom Petty fan. I particularly love the construction of ‘When We Were Younger Men,’ on the new album and how you’ve used Petty songs like ‘I Won’t Back Down,’ ‘Running Down A Dream,’ and ‘Learning How To Fly’ as a way not only to frame the song, but also to narrate the relationship of the band. Are there any of his songs and lyrics that particularly resonate with you?
Southern Accentsfor me is absolutely brilliant. It’s my favourite Petty song. Anything – the bombastic rock stuff is great: ‘Running Down A Dream’ is up there. We do a cover of ‘Listen To her Heart.’ But as a songwriter I think he really flexes like on ‘Southern Accents.’ That song just every time I hear it – it just punches me in the face every time.

From the naming of the band, you’re obviously a Wilco fan. Is there anyone else, either currently or in the past, who has particularly inspired you?
Man, I am fortunate enough to be at a point in my career where a lot of the people that inspire me are my friends. I get to be friends with some really talented songwriters. Hayes Carll is one of my favourites; Joe Pug, David Ramirez – he is one of those next level guys that just writes really great songs. Jason Isbell is up there; Fullbright is absolutely brilliant; Courtney Marie Andrews – that new record of hers is jaw dropping. There’s a band out of Charlestown, South Carolina called ‘Susto’ whose lead singer, Justin Osborne, I think he’s writing some really, really great stuff. Scott Miller is another one of my favourites. Jamie Lin Wilson, out of Texas, just put out a record – she’s another one of those really, really great songwriters.

Going further back, what sort of music was playing in your home when you were growing up? Were your parents into music?
My parents aren’t musically inclined at all. They listen to music – they don’t play. So a lot of people have these really great stories of growing up with guitars and banjos and fiddles in the house and that wasn’t my house. But my parents listened to music – they were consumers of music. My Dad was really into country music which is where I got it from. I have vivid memories of Saturday nights in his office listening to records. It was a lot of outlaw stuff: it was Willie, Waylon, Merle, Johnny Paycheck, David Allen Coe, Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn. When I think of country music those are the records I think of. And then my mother was really into soul music. She was into Motown and Stax. So any given night you would hear Merle, followed by the Temptations, followed by Willie Nelson, followed by Sam ‘n’ Dave. The one thing any of those have in common is anytime you listen to any of those people sing songs you can hear that they mean it, that you can hear that they’ve lived it. Honesty is the one thing I take away from the music I was raised on. Whether it be soul music, whether it be country music. Both styles of those tunes are very much based in “If you’re going to say it, you’d better mean it.”

That sounds like a pretty good platform to me.
Yeah, I was very, very fortunate.

And how do you relate to your parents now. They must be very proud?
Well it took a while to get to the proud. I was the first kid in my family that went to University – I was supposed to be a lawyer. They were extremely excited about that. And any time your kid who’s going to college for the first time calls you and says, “I’m dropping out of school to become a musician,” I don’t think any parent wants to hear that. They’re not like “Yes, he finally found his way.” And I think that’s just good parenting to be afraid for your child. If they’d have just came out and blindly supported it I would have thought they’d have lost it. They were cautious. They told me this might be the only business that has a 90% fail rate. And people are lining up every day to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band. The reality of it is when you start playing a guitar you’re not going to become successful at it; you’re not going to make a living doing it. Over the years they’ve grown a lot more accepting of what I’ve decided to do with my life. And it doesn’t hurt that shows are selling out and records are being reviewed positively. I think every parent just wants to see their kid succeed – live a better life than they lived.

Do they ever get along to see you perform?
Once a year. We have a big hometown show in Raleigh. And they usually come up for that. And that’s a pretty good show to see us. Two nights in an old theatre in downtown Raleigh. Sold out both nights. A thousand kids screaming the words to the songs. That’s a good jump off point.

That’s been absolutely fantastic BJ. Thank you so much.
You’re very welcome.

With thanks to John Morgan for the photo.

BJ Barham talks about his experiences of working with Jason Isbell and John Fullbright - also, his early influences and his favourite Tom Petty songs.

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