American Aquarium: The Art of Flickering
In a random hotel room not too long ago, six guys in a band, while in the midst of a tour, were thinking seriously about quitting.
On the road since 2006, they had five albums to their name – albums slippery with booze, lush with the memory of different women in every town and buoyant with youthful recklessness. They toured with good friend Jason Isbell and Southern rock bellwethers Drive-By Truckers. They logged at least 1,500 shows from Europe to their native Raleigh, NC, gaining more fans with each because of the convivial-type intimacy of their live performances.
American Aquarium did everything right.
But success for musicians in the industry today is like reaching the top of a parking garage. Once you’ve reached the highest level, there’s nowhere to go but in circles – or start winding back down. And sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you are.
Despite relentless touring, an album release every year and accumulating fans in each town, American Aquarium couldn’t get out of the garage, which drove them to a serious conversation one night in a hotel. Maybe they’d taken American Aquarium – named after a lyric in the Wilco song “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” – as far as it could go.
And they almost had. After permanently losing a keyboard player, the remaining five had to make a new plan, which turned out to be a trip to Sheffield, AL, in early 2012 and recruiting Jason Isbell to produce their proudest effort – the saddest, sorriest record of their careers.
It took songwriter/vocalist/rhythm guitarist BJ Barham a long time to get there.
“I tell people a lot about what we do and how we do it, and it’s not easy,” Barham says from somewhere in the mountains of Virginia in the middle of another tour. “I understand why some people can’t do it. They aren’t made for it. I’m not bragging that I’m made for driving long distances, not sleeping and abusing substances. That’s nothing to be proud of, but it’s what we’re all good at.”
American Aquarium honed their craft messily but determinedly right up to the night when they gave themselves an ultimatum – if they were going to stay a band, they had to make a different kind of record, and not just for the sake of making a record. Prior to that, studio albums for American Aquarium were almost like an afterthought for a band that built its reputation on live shows.
But Burn.Flicker.Die, released August 28, had to be huge. That meant writing about the place no one wants to go – the end of the party and the end of the night, with eyes wide open to some cold revelations about your age and what you’ve been doing with your time.
Barham writes what he knows, and what he’s known as long as he’s been in American Aquarium are more nights spent in hotel rooms than his own bed at home and payment in the form of a bar tab. Always pressed for time in the studio, albums past are as rushed as the lifestyle American Aquarium were living – and the band were never fully satisfied with the outcome.
“The road, the excess of fun, one crazy night in South Carolina, one time I drank too much – that’s what was in my songwriting. For Burn.Flicker.Die, I tried not to write about that, because I’ve done it before,” Barham says. “I wanted to make a record I was proud of and write something that really meant something to me. What if we do this for another six years and don’t get any recognition? It’s funny how the record about us not making it is the record that’s getting the most attention.”
Burn.Flicker.Die is making its impression, both on fans and media, maybe because it’s the first collection of American Aquarium songs that didn’t happen in a flash. Some of the songs were in the works for two years and road-tested for six months before they came into the studio.
Barham, whose friendship with Isbell goes far back and sprouted from a mutual love of shooting pool, had proposed the idea of Isbell producing an American Aquarium record long before the band was ready to record in January.
“We got a call saying that Jason needed to hear the demos before he signed off on it. We were like, ‘Fuck. This has to be really good.’ I sent him acoustic guitar demos I recorded on an iPhone in a hotel room. Hopefully they were good enough. Then we got a call back a week later, and he was completely on board,” Barham says.
They traveled to the Muscle Shoals area to record in The Nutt House with engineer Jimmy Nutt. Unlike with previous records, the band afforded themselves the time to experiment with arrangements and flesh out Barham’s bare acoustic songs. Barham says those eight days were the easiest American Aquarium ever spent cutting an album.
Like any small Southern town, a wealth of musicians was hanging around, dropping in during the sessions for impromptu recording. Acclaimed session musician Spooner Oldham (Neil Young, Wilson Pickett) was among them, as well as violinist Amanda Shires (Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Justin Townes Earle).
Barham is a true artist’s artist. Burn.Flicker.Die. is a record for musicians, painters, writers, anyone who’s been told, probably more than once, that what they do is not a real job. It’s a record for anyone who creates art, even if recognition and a stable living may never come of it.
On the subject of flickering and dying, Barham knows it often happens to all the wrong artists, which is where some of the album’s bitterness originates.
“Every day we have to sit back and watch good musicians play shitty songs. The songs are terrible. They’re god-awful. They’re devoid of any emotion. It’s disheartening sometimes. A lot of this record was written wondering how come some of this shitty music can get out to the masses, and then there are bands like Drive-By Truckers. I saw them play at a 150-person bar once, thinking, ‘Why is this band not huge?’ After being a band for 17 years, they got big,” Barham says.
American Aquarium take a cue from their big brothers audibly on Burn.Flicker.Die. The instrumentation is alive in Southern rock fashion with wrenching pedal steel and uplifting guitars even while Barham explores the perfectly miserable. “Casualties” is a wreck of old hotel keys, a cracked windshield and not knowing when to quit with guitars that escalate and sympathize with Barham’s drawling, “We ain’t ever gonna make it like I thought we would/So why can’t we just pack it up and say we did the best we could/Give my heart to the highway/She returned it full of holes/We’re just casualties of rock ‘n’ roll.”
“‘Casualties’ is probably my favorite song off the record. It was one of the last I wrote. I think my drummer inspired that. I wrote that chorus before anything else, because we’d all joke around about never making it. In that ‘Walk Hard’ movie, his wife calls and says, ‘Love you! You’re never going to make it!’ For a while our drummer used to say that all the time,” Barham says.
The album alternates between broken-down gems (“Harmless Sparks”) and bristling romps (“Abe Lincoln”) like an unresolved conflict on which American Aquarium go back and forth. “Saint Mary’s” is the medial theme of Burn.Flicker.Die, a blue-collar party anthem with a sinister lining that carries the immense weight of the record. Underneath a stage set with beer and bad tattoos during a saltwater summer, Barham has a dark and lucid moment: “Failure, it runs through the veins of this city/Fitting in means never fighting back/We’re all just dreamers chasing disasters/Reaching for the skyline/Falling through the cracks.”
“There’s a bar in Raleigh called Slim’s, my favorite bar in the entire world. I left Slim’s one night, walking out with the bartenders, walking home by myself and realizing this is what I do every night. If I’m not on the road, I’m at a bar. What am I doing here? I was dating someone at the time, and I came home. The song was based on the idea of what it must be like to look down at us. Is that what I’m going to do every single night?”
The very idea that other musicians often try to shake and write in spite of is what American Aquarium have pushed to the forefront in Burn.Flicker.Die.
“I’m really excited that to be such a downer record, people are really into it. Our fans are really embracing this like no other record. But my favorite records are downer records. I don’t care about how happy someone is, I only want to hear them when they’re sad,” Barham says.
As a songwriter, Barham is no cryptic. He’s a snapshot writer, describing brief moments – standing on train tracks with a bottle of wine, someone stealing all your records – that only take as long to play out in real life as the length of the song. He brings up one of his favorite songwriters, from whom American Aquarium get their name.
“I’m very bad at writing abstractly. Jeff Tweedy is someone who’s great at writing really amazing songs, though I have no idea what he’s talking about. My writing is very directly trying to tell some kind of narrative. It’s a very simple way of writing. It’s just being honest and not trying to paint too big of a picture.”
Barham paints with small brushstrokes with the Springsteen-like spirit of the average guy facing a long road, which is where Barham found his well of inspiration – on tour, getting to know people too well. Six years of life in American Aquarium has been a lot of turning to the person beside him and asking if that really just happened.
“I’ve seen the best and worst in people, including everyone in our band, and they’ve got the same amount of stuff on me. I’ve seen character tested, and I’ve seen people pass with flying colors, and I’ve seen people fail miserably. But it’s not a bad thing. It’s funny to see. With this job, we’re very lucky to have seen stuff nobody believes when we tell them.”
Without the unbelievable, there would be little to write about. Had they not reached the verge of disbanding, the album, as Barham says, would have been another subpar effort. Burn.Flicker.Die. is the first American Aquarium record that has come close to the dynamic of their live performances. It’s also the first record the entire band is happy with, including Barham.
“It’s been eight months since we recorded, and I still don’t cringe when I listen to the record when it’s played. I don’t get upset.”
Since finishing the album, American Aquarium have kept with their typical incessant tour schedule, and their dedication persists to an almost crazy degree (on the day of their hometown release show at Lincoln Theatre August 25, bassist Bill Corbin made an emergency trip to the ER to have his appendix removed, and still made it onstage that night).
If American Aquarium have been engaged in a drinking contest with the music industry for six years, Burn.Flicker.Die. may be what finally puts the industry under the table. The record has put Barham in a place he’s happy to be, and at 28, he’s looking to enjoying some success in his thirties – possibly. With six years of hard touring and never quite breaking through, the bottom-falling-out-at-any-second mentality is well ingrained. Any band knows that story; American Aquarium just wrote a record about the complexities of it, and they grew up. Not just as musicians or songwriters, but as people who realized what it is to be in a band that didn’t shoot straight to the top.
“I decided early to do this if it worked or didn’t work, and I would crash and burn with it. But I wish someone had warned me up front how much work it is. How many shitty shows you have to play before you play one good show. How you’ll spend years wondering why no one wants to listen to your fucking songs. I wish someone had told me upfront that no matter how good a song you write, it’s going to be years before anyone gives a shit about you,” Barham says evenly, without bitterness.
“I would probably still be dumb enough to do it.”