BJ BARHAM just can't keep away from the road.
The American Aquarium frontman and his band of Carolina boys have, over their nine years together, grown into a shining example of what smart DIY ethics and constant face-to-face time with fans can achieve.
And they’ve earned their widespread praise: the Raleigh group has gone from the band you happen upon in your favorite dive bar to the darlings of alt-country tastemakers.
After the unexpected success of the Jason Isbell-produced Burn. Flicker. Die.—a 2012 release the band thought would be their last—American Aquarium decided to keep going, releasing its highly anticipated follow-up, Wolves, this year to critical acclaim.
They’ve been hitting Savannah on tours for years—and though time off is valued, Barham has spent the last half-decade embarking on solo excursions during American Aquarium downtime.
He brings his one-man show to The Jinx on Wednesday, July 8.
For Barham, solo gigs are a chance to dig into material he doesn’t typically get to play with American Aquarium’s full lineup.
“I’ll be playing a lot of older stuff,” he says. “Mostly just like, B-side stuff, deep cuts that we don’t get to play as a band. It’s a lot more singer-songwriter stuff that the band can’t play in a live setting, when we’re in a bar or something like that.”
It’s a welcome change-up for American Aquarium’s rabid fan base and, while the crowd can certainly get riled up at a full-band show, there’s a kind of hush that falls over the room when Barham plays by himself.
“When we do acoustic tours, it’s literally just me and an acoustic guitar,” Barham explains.
“Folks that come out to these shows, they want to hear the stories behind the songs—they want to hear their favorite songs in this super stripped-down version. I get to play songs the way I wrote them, which his always exciting.”
Solo tours have become a summer tradition for Barham; while his bandmates put their feet up at home, the restless frontman packs up his guitar, his pup, and his wife, and treks around America.
“For the boys to have three weeks off, you can’t put a price on that,” Barham says.
This time, his little family will head south, cutting through Florida, then west to Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee. Barham looks forward to showing his wife parts of the country she’s never seen before.
“Really and truly, it’s one part vacation, one part work,” he says.
“And,” he adds, “the work is really fun!”
In the studio, the band has a tendency to gut songs and build them back up in layers; alone, Barham can take it all back to the beginning and capture the initial spark of the songwriting process.
“There’s no embellishment,” he says. “It’s how I wrote them in my living room: verse, chorus, verse, no fancy guitar solos, just the bare-boned songwriting.”
Barham prefers to write at home, piled on the couch with his two cats and dog, computer and TV turned off. Now that band finances have opened up and the whole troupe isn’t cramming into one hotel room, he gets some writing done on the road, too.
Right now, though, American Aquarium is taking it easy, enjoying the fruits of their most recent labor with murmurings of what to put out next.
“We forget this sometimes: Wolves has only been out for four and a half months,” Barham notes. “It’s still super-young.”
In those few months, things changed quickly—glowing press, including being numero uno on Rolling Stone’s “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know” list, aforementioned private hotel rooms. After all these years, American Aquarium may have hit the “big break” they’ve been chasing.
It’s worth noting that Wolves is the band’s first release since Barham confronted his struggles with addiction.
He’s long been very open about his relationship with alcohol; there’s a new kind of peace on Wolves that speaks of a man confronting that struggle head-on and not letting it define him as a human or artist.
“I spent the first eight years writing about one-night stands in different towns—drinking, drugs, the Saturday night party atmosphere,” Barham says.
“This was a more introspective look; I took a stance and wrote about family, hometown, my wife. I wrote a love song for the first time in my entire life!”
While the band is savoring the moment, they’re still looking toward the future: Barham says they’ll continue to push themselves and step out of their comfort zone with new material.
“This has been the most successful thing we’ve ever done,” Barham says of Wolves. “But putting that out hasn’t changed the trajectory of this band.”
“I’m so excited to get back to Savannah,” he adds with an audible grin. “The Jinx is one of my favorite bars in the country.”
'SAVANNAH ALMOST KILLED ME'
Did you know that BJ wrote a song inspired by our fair city? "Savannah Almost Killed Me," off Burn. Flicker. Die., is a boot-stompin' house rocker about a gorgeous girl "with diamonds on her knuckles" who knows every word to "Born to Run."
"That was one of the first songs I wrote about my wife!" Barham told Connect. "She lived in Jacksonville, and I lived in Raleigh. When we first started dating, Savannah and Charleston were a halfway point."
"So 'Savannah Almost Killed Me' is about a random Wednesday, Thursday night. We met up in Savannah, came to The Jinx, and The Jinx boys took way too good of care of us," he chuckles. "We stumbled across the square, back to the hotel—the song is a romanticized version about that time together."