At 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 31 (with Niche)
The Jinx, 127 W. Congress St.
At the corner of Whiskeytown and Stones, American Aquarium has been hard at work for almost a decade crafting hardscrabble, Southern-edged rock ‘n' roll. For singer, songwriter and band frontguy B.J. Barham, the Raleigh quintet has always been as transparent as a pane of fish-tank glass.
"People may not like our music, people may not like me as a human being, but nobody's ever said I'm not a genuine person," he says. "That's something I've always taken pride in. I write what I know. And for a while there, what I knew was hooking up with girls in bars and drinking a lot."
American Aquarium (the moniker comes from a classic Wilco tune about drinking) fuses scrappy electric Americana and broad, Springsteen-esque declarations with Barham's fine-tuned lyrical expositions of love, lust, victory, heartbreak and an unquenchable thirst for unfettered personal freedom.
All that came before has led to Burn.Flicker.Die, the band's sixth studio album. Produced by former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, the record (celebrated with Friday night's Jinx show) deals almost entirely with a rapidly-maturing Barham's examination of a nearly 10-year career.
"Now, as I push 30, I still have fun but my life's become a lot centered," Barham explains. "I'm dating someone now. I just got out of a really, really long relationship. When 30 hits there's still the heartbreak, but it's not the heartbreak of aw man, I couldn't hook up with that girl tonight, so I got wasted and passed out. It's a little bit more focused.
"This record's about that realization coming down the pipe that ‘What if you continue to do this for 10 years and you never get any more successful? What if you never get bigger?' What if you're still scraping by?'"
That's not to say that Barham and his bandmates no longer enjoy a good old-fashioned pub crawl now and again. Take the punchy new song "Savannah Almost Killed Me."
"The theme of that song can be put in almost any night I've ever spent on the road," says Barham. "It's the classic guy plays a show, sees a pretty girl at the bar, pretty girl comes around after the show ... things happen that her dad would not be proud of. But it's definitely centered in the Jinx. One of those bars with character. Not a first-date bar.
"I definitely wrote that song about one night, and then some of the details are very general. Some are very accurate. I have stumbled through that park across the street trying to get to a hotel room a hundred yards away."
Inspiration, Barham adds, can come at any time. Thank God for the iPhone.
"With ‘Northern Lights,' I was walking into my apartment and the whole first verse hit me, melody and everything," he explains. "I sang it into my phone, and I still have it: At the end, I say ‘That's good - you need to finish that.' Like a pep talk to myself."
With up to 300 live dates per year, American Aquarium is one of, if not the, hardest-working bands in the South.
Burn.Flicker.Die - which has been getting exemplary reviews - is the sound of a supremely road-tested B.J. Barham wondering what's it all about, Alfie.
"The theme is running yourself to the bone with no payoff," he says. "It's rock ‘n' roll - it's excess, excess, excess, done. It's kind of funny that the record about not making it is the record that's helped us out the most.
"When I wrote the first record, I thought that was gonna be the one that launched us into superstardom. Just a naÏve kid who wrote a record he thought was good. Then you realize, aw man, there's a lot of other people writing really good stuff, too. That have been doing it way longer than me. That have a better jawline. That look better in Coca-Cola ads.
"But we've paid our dues. I don't think anybody who's aware of us can say anything otherwise."