Interview: BJ Barham Discusses American Aquarium’s Next Album, ‘Things Change’
That’s the message BJ Barham has for fans of American Aquarium. Though 2017 has been a tough year for the frontman — it was announced in April that the entire band, except for Barham, had decided to part ways, putting a freeze on plans to record a new album earlier this year — he’s looking forward with nothing but confidence and optimism in his plans.
“We start touring Aug. 31,” Barham tells The Boot backstage at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn ahead of a solo performance. “We’ll be back on the road again. Luckily, American Aquarium has been doing this for 12 years, and we’ve always been traveling the country. I’ve always had a lot of different people touring with me, and our fans keep supporting us. Now, I’ve found a group of guys who are hungry, who want to be on the road, who want to be doing this for a living. I’m still that 20-year-old guy who got in the van his very first day, and I’m so excited to still get to do this. I’m excited to get back out on the road.”
When Barham was faced with the reality that all of his bandmates wanted to pursue other passions, he was left in a somewhat familiar situation: “This isn’t my first experience with turnover,” he says. “I’ve never made a record with the same band that was on the record before it. Every record has either added a member or gotten rid of a member, or multiple members.
“I’ve had 26 members in the band, and now I’ve hired five new guys — that’ll be 31 members in 12 years,” Barham adds. “Turnover is not foreign to me.”
"I’ve had 26 members in the band, and now I’ve hired five new guys — that’ll be 31 members in 12 years. Turnover is not foreign to me."
Though this territory is not new for Barham, it doesn’t make it any less tough to deal with the change.
“I’ve never had this much turnover, though. Some of those guys were with me for seven years,” he explains. “I can’t act like nothing is different. I’ve never had an entire band make this decision.”
It was far from easy to deal with the news because those in American Aquarium were more than just members of the band. Barham frequently refers to them as his brothers, and is quite supportive of the new moves they’ve made in their lives.
“Everyone is pursuing a different passion,” Barham says, “and it’s time for them to do their own thing. Those boys gave me a good chunk of their 20s to let me pursue my passion, and I’ll forever be grateful for it. I’d be a s–tty friend if I stood in the way of that.”
As far as band splits go, this one couldn’t have been more amicable; Barham laughs as he assures us that this wasn’t some nasty VH1 breakup.
“There was no betrayal,” he says. “These guys are my brothers. We all sat down and decided that their hearts just weren’t in it. Ten years from now, I want to sit down with them over dinner and look back on this time fondly.”
Maintaining those friendships for years to come shouldn’t be hard for Barham and company. He expresses excitement over their new journeys, and continues lifting the relationship he has with each guy high above the simple term of “friend.”
“The closest thing I can relate it to is the camaraderie you get when you serve in the military,” Barham tells The Boot. “It goes beyond friendship. I mean, we’ve seen some s–t, man. I’ve seen those boys at their worst, and I’ve seen them at their best. They’re my best friends and they always will be.”
As Barham reflects on his time with his best friends, he’s also preparing to start new relationships with a whole new crew.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to play with new people who are energized,” he says with an obvious tone of gratitude. “That’s how American Aquarium’s sound has evolved … I’m still here, I’m still writing the songs, but the people on the record have always changed. This is American Aquarium 13.0.”
This latest version of American Aquarium will hit the studio in the fall, following a run of live shows that begin at the end of August. Then, “after the studio, hopefully we’ll release the record in early 2018,” Barham says, with just the slightest hint of hesitation and laughter. “But you know, that’s the plan. Sometimes plans change.”
Regardless of the plans, Barham already knows what fans can expect from American Aquarium’s time in the studio: “This is going to be a proper rock ‘n’ roll album. That’s the goal,” he declares. “But, it wouldn’t be an American Aquarium record without some super-emotional songs.
“The record is named Things Change, and it’s a record about where Wolves left off,” Barham continues. “I made Wolves right before I got sober. Since Wolves came out, I’ve gotten sober, I’ve gotten married, I have a new band, and our country is headed in a completely different direction.”
Everything that has changed in Barham’s life will find its way onto the new album — he’s writing about being married and being sober, and he’s even throwing in a little bit of the political stuff, too.
"I’ve gotten sober, I’ve gotten married, I have a new band, and our country is headed in a completely different direction."
“I’m tired of being the Southern guy who people assume I feel a certain way,” Barham laments. “I have a platform to say something, and I want to say something. I mean, I’m not Woody Guthrie, but I want people to know where I stand. I don’t want anyone wondering about that … I need to come out and say something, because it’s a pretty f–ked-up time we’re living in right now. If you have the ability to say something that has the chance of changing one person’s mind, you need to take advantage of it.”
In the realm of speaking up and saying something, Barham looks to his friend — and the producer of Burn. Flicker. Die., American Aquarium’s sixth studio album — Jason Isbell for guidance.
“Isbell said recently that he’s not an entertainer, he’s an artist,” Barham recalls. “I think it’s an artist’s responsibility to talk about how they feel, openly. If you talk to me at the merch table, I’m pretty open about where I stand. I don’t think people are too surprised about where I stand. I believe human beings are human beings. Let’s talk about that for a second. Anything you say that doesn’t agree with that, I’m probably not going to see eye to eye with you.”
As the title of the new LP suggests, Barham is focusing on a lot of change: “Everything that’s changed over the last two years, this album is an amalgamation of that,” he says. “The overall theme is change, but each song will dive into a different aspect of that. Most of the stuff was written right before my solo tour, and I also wrote some on that tour.”
When he mentions his solo tour, he’s quick to also mention that American Aquarium is his No. 1 priority.
“This band is my yearbook that I put out every two years,” Barham explains. “It’s a chronological snapshot of where my life is at that moment. It’s always been a vessel of my songwriting. The Wilcos of the world, the Bright Eyes of the world, you can simplify those bands down to one guy, but they’re still putting out records with those names because they still feel like they have something to say in that voice.”
For Barham, American Aquarium is where he is at his most honest and personal. As he tells The Boot, “It’s funny, I decided to put out a fictional narrative record as my solo debut [Rockingham]. The really personal stuff is American Aquarium. I write about my life. All of the American Aquarium stuff is autobiographical. The one record I put my name on, the one that took me 12 years to make, is fictional. American Aquarium has always been a snapshot of me. Nobody else has ever written a song for American Aquarium; it’s always been me writing. It’s a vessel for the songwriting of BJ Barham.”
"The faces might change, the licks might change, but I’ll be there every single night. American Aquarium is always my priority."
Though things change — and they seem to always be changing for Barham and American Aquarium — there is one stable force driving things, and that’s the frontman himself.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Barham confirms. “The faces might change, but the songs won’t. I’m always going to play my favorite songs, and I’m always going to be screaming them and feeling things with the fans. I can ensure everyone that will never change.
“The faces might change, the licks might change, but I’ll be there every single night,” he says. “American Aquarium is always my priority, and it will remain my priority as long as people keep coming out to the shows and supporting the songs.”