Interview: BJ Barham Gets Candid About ‘Rockingham’, Sobriety and American Aquarium’s Past and Future
On Nov. 13, 2015, terrorists attacked Le Bataclan, a music venue in Paris that was, at the time, hosting an Eagles of Death Metal concert. At the time, BJ Barham and his band American Aquarium, were on tour in Europe, and found themselves only a couple hours away from Le Bataclan. Being so far away from home during such a turbulent time triggered something inside Barham, and in just a matter of days, the singer-songwriter wrote what would be Rockingham, the solo album that he released in August.
Releasing his solo project (which is available for download via iTunes) was a first for Barham: Not only was he without his bandmates, he also, for the first time, recorded the project quite quickly and simply. And while Barham has spent plenty of time playing solo shows in 2016, he’s also been out on the road with American Aquarium — and he plans to keep it that way. As Barham will tell you, whether he’s working with American Aquarium, playing a solo show or (though it rarely happens) spending some time off at home with his wife, he’s in a good place — more mature than when his alt-country band started 10 years ago, happy and sober.
During the 2016 Americana Music Festival in September, The Boot sat down with Barham to discuss Rockingham, how his sobriety has changed so many aspects of his life and how he now views both the past and the future of American Aquarium.
You wrote most of Rockingham while stuck in Belgium after the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris. How did it feel to be there, and what made you want to start writing it down in this way?
Well, I had two days off, and idle hands for me is — when I’m not doing something, when I’m literally sitting in a room by myself, the only thing I think to do is write songs; that’s what I do. If there’s a guitar, I write songs. So, I started writing out of the chaos, out of the insanity, whatever came to mind. And what was coming to my mind was home — the idea of home, my parents, my grandparents, people I love, my wife, my friends. Looking back, that’s how I dealt with it. A lot of people, when they get in trouble, they cry for mom, but when you’re in Europe, you can’t cry for mom, so you write about mom.
It’s one of those things where, in a matter of two days in Holland, I had eight songs. I took them to the boys, and we started fleshing it out as a full band record; [but] we started playing, and they weren’t translating with a full band. It was an extremely personal record … I’m the only person that knew what half these references meant, these tiny little references. Finally, I was talking to the boys, and I was just like, “How would you all feel about me doing a solo record? Just putting these songs out, not a lot of touring behind it? I think these songs are important for people to hear, but I don’t want the band to go anywhere,” and they were like, “Dude, do it.”
We play 250 shows a year, [so] for me to give them a two-week break, they were so excited about it. It was good; they supported it … They’ve been extremely supportive because they understand that I can have both: I can write serious personal songs, and I can also write band songs, and we can all exist in the same plane. I’m really lucky to have a supportive band like that.
With Rockingham, you wrote it quickly, you recorded it quickly, you recorded it with new people. That doesn’t seem to be your normal process, so when you listen to the record, do you feel like all of that contributes to the way it sounds, the way it feels and the very personal nature of it?
I took myself out of it because me and the band — anybody who records music — are usually perfectionists. You want to get it perfect, you don’t want to get it right. With this record, everything was cut live very quickly. We did the whole record in less than two days — that’s unheard of; I’ve never done a record that way. I always spend weeks, and then months during the mixing process, nitpicking every tiny thing, because a record is this everlasting documentation of songs. Live, it can change every night, but on this record, this is the one thing that people, when I’m dead and people look back on me, they’re going to hear this one thing, and you want to make sure it’s perfect.
With this record, I wanted a completely different feel. I just wanted it to be honest, I wanted it to feel right. So we went in and didn’t second-guess ourselves. The most we played any song was three times. “Unfortunate Kind,” that’s the first take of that song you hear, we didn’t record it again. I got done playing it, and I looked in the tracking room: The producer was crying, the engineer was crying, the guitar player was crying, and I was like, “So, I guess we got it?” and they were like “Yeah, yeah, we got that one. We’re good.”
It was a really eye-opening experience tapping into that emotion, playing a song and walking away from it and being happy with it, not nitpicking. There’s parts when my voice cracks and it’s a little off-key and my guitar player might have hit this weird note or there’s this weird “speed up, slow down,” but what makes that record so cool for me is, you listen to it and there’s no pretension. It’s an honest record; it’s a real record. I think that’s always something I’m going to go back to and point to people when they ask what they should listen to. I’m really proud of this.
"When you’re literally putting these pieces of yourself, these stories and things that actually got said, into these songs, yeah, you might be giving away a little too much, but I think it’s that little too much that makes people relate to songs."
Now that you’ve done a project quickly and you’ve seen “Okay, this is still a great product even though we didn’t try to make it perfect,” is that going to inform how you make future records, whether solo or with a band?
I don’t know. With the solo record, luckily, only one person had a say: I had a say, and if I was happy with it, we moved on — it didn’t matter what anybody else felt. The ultimate thing was “Did I like it?” Yes? Move on. With the band, there’s six people, so it has to go through six filters before it’s pushed out into the world. I don’t know if I can talk all six people into trusting each other enough and trusting themselves enough to be like, “We’re going to do this quick.”
But there’s something to be said for being in a studio for a couple of weeks and really fleshing a song out and doing four or five arrangements of it and finding what feels the best for everybody. What I have to think of when we’re making a record is, yeah, I wrote the songs for the band, but the six of us are going to have to play them for the rest of our lives. So it’s making sure that every single person’s happy with what they’re putting down, because they’re the ones that have to live with it.
Do you still find yourself nitpicking American Aquarium’s older recordings?
I’ve learned to accept it, because I can’t change it, and I’ve learned to be happy with it. When I listen back to American Aquarium records, of course I’m like, “What the f–k were we thinking?” But, for me, it’s like looking back at an old yearbook picture and being like, “Why did I cut my hair like that?” or, “What kind of shirt was I wearing?” But, in the moment, I thought it was coolest thing in the world. It’s that feeling, but it’s also like, you have to be able to smile and say, “You know, I’ve come a long way since that time.”
I listened back to our first record we did — that was 10 years ago. I was child — never been on tour, never had any life experience except for what I had growing up, which was a very small, close-minded, you know … I look back on those records, and I can still find good — I can see a lot of bad — but I still find the positive in it. I still say, you know, “It might sound like garbage, but I think this song was really good,” or, “I still stand by what I said in this verse.” That’s always kind of neat to go back, and I’ve learned not to go back and dwell and be negative and feel bad about it, because you can’t change it.
The songs can all change and grow as you play live, so as long as the music or the lyrics or something still stands up, then clearly you were doing something right even if you still find a lot of bad in it.
For sure. I can find a good enough reason to make another record, every record. I listen back to the first one, and it’s like, “Okay, I understand what I saw in this that made me want to make a second record and a third record and a fourth record and a fifth record.”
It’s about not being negative for me. I spent a lot of my 20s being extremely negative about myself and trying to put myself under a microscope and comparing myself to other people that I respected and said, “What are they doing that I’m not?” And I’m at a point where I have people that I respect and look up to, and I realize that I’m not them, they’re not better than me, but we’re just different, and we have different paths to get where we want to go. I’ve learned that I have a very special way of staying stuff, and that’s what makes me me, and that’s what makes my fans really dig me, and that’s what makes some people not get it. It’s learning to accept that and realize that you’re not going to make everybody happy, not everybody’s going to be a fan of what you do, no matter how much you’re a fan of it. That’s where I’m at.
It’s really interesting that Rockingham started up as a full-band record. Other American Aquarium stuff is still super-personal, but in a way that seems different.
This is a closed-room, me-and-an-acoustic-guitar kind of personal; the band is like me-drunkenly-yelling-my-secrets-in-public kind of personal.
There’s a lot of the band records that I listen back to and I’m like, “Man, I can’t believe I said that.” It gets really intense and personal, and I think that’s what draws people to that. People relate to it because you’re putting in a piece of yourself. Anybody can write this standard “Ooooh, I love you, your eyes are blue, you’re so pretty, blah, blah, blah,” but when you’re literally putting these pieces of yourself, these stories and things that actually got said, into these songs, yeah, you might be giving away a little too much, but I think it’s that little too much that makes people relate to songs.
"For a long time, I thought that I was a good songwriter in the realm of being in a bar band, and now I’m learning that I’m a good songwriter, period."
When you do go to write for another band record, what do you think it’s going to be like having gone through the different process of creating a solo project?
American Aquarium, for me, is like a chronological snapshot, two years at a time, with the records. My entire 20s were documented on tape, and it’s kind of neat to watch that arc of a young, wide-eyed kid going on the road drinking — girls — and then hitting this wall of like, “What the f–k am I doing with my life? All my friends are growing up, they’re adults, they’re having kids, they’re buying houses, and I’m sleeping on people’s floors,” and then with [2015’s] Wolves, it was kind of like acceptance. Burn.Flicker.Die, [released in 2012], was the breakup, questioning “What the hell am I doing?” record. Wolves is being comfortable in my own skin, realizing that, yeah, I’m a f–kup, but everybody is, and I can deal with this.
I think the next record is going to be what the last two years of my life have been: finding a good place, being married, being happy, being sober, gaining this new-found confidence, not just in writing, but in life. I think that’s what the next American Aquarium record will be, unless something tragic happens. It’s nice to finally know that I can write and be taken seriously and not just be that guy in a bar band or “pretty good for a drunk guy.” I like the fact that, when I write songs, people don’t feel the need to tag it with something else. So, I think the next American Aquarium record is just going to pick up where Rockingham left off and where Wolves left off; it’s going to be kind of a mix of the two — like, this confident songwriter who’s also confident enough in a lot of his life decisions, too.
When American Aquarium first started, it was a raucous, drunken atmosphere on the road. How has that changed for you and the band as you’ve all matured?
The fun thing about starting in our early 20s is, we were playing to a bunch of early-20-year-olds, and as we’ve grown up, we’ve watched a lot of our fan base grow up. We’ve watched kids that used to come and just show their a– at a show and get hammered, but now, it’s like, if they make it to a show, it’s because they found a babysitter, and it’s got to be an early show, and they can’t come to weeknight shows. It’s fun to watch everybody grow up with us.
What I’ve learned is, you can’t do this forever the way we were doing it. I’ve had friends try, and either the band breaks up, or somebody goes into rehab, or somebody dies — something tragic happens. The way we were living was just — in your early 20s, it’s fun, it’s what people expect from you in a rock ‘n’ roll band, but in your 30s, it just gets sad. The 21-year-old kid who gets drunk, yelling at the bar — you’re just like, “Oh, that kid is young, a dumb kid,” but when you’re a 30-year-old man hitting on 18-year-old girls, you’re the creepy old drunk guy. Very quickly, I started seeing my friends being the creepy old drunk guy, and I was like, “Is that what I’m going to be?” It’s kind of like seeing into the future and thinking, “That is not what I want at all out of my life,” and just deciding to make some changes.
In terms of the content of the show and how you pace things and setlists and interacting onstage — have you noticed yourself grow and progress over time?
I like to think that I’ve gotten a little wiser in my age; I like to think that my writing’s gotten better. You know, I’ve been playing with the same band for almost nine years now — I’d like to think we’re a pretty good band at this point. If not, we need to reconsider our job choice.
I like to think that I’ve grown up, and the fun thing is, growing up in front of people watching how the subject matter of my material went from getting drunk on a Friday night and flirting with a pretty girl at the bar to a little bit more introspective stuff, like challenging what the hell I’m going with my life — you know, the same questions everyone should ask themselves in their mid- to late 20s.
The ultimate goal at the end of the day is to be a good songwriter, and for a long time, I thought that I was a good songwriter in the realm of being in a bar band, and now I’m learning that I’m a good songwriter, period. It doesn’t have to be, “He’s pretty good for as drunk as he gets;” it’s like “Oh, he’s a good songwriter. He writes good songs.” That’s the ultimate goal for me, is to make everyone say that, because there’s still some people that saw the band eight years ago and still think I’m that guy. It’s hard — first impressions are a b—h, and I was a dumb, young kid, and if somebody came to my show and was going to review my show and I was wasted, I would yell, and I would scream, and I’d throw temper tantrums, [but] that was eight years ago.
You were able to get sober without going to rehab or treatment — you just decided and quit.
There’s a lot of folks that can’t do it by themselves, and treatment and rehab is a great thing. It was something that I wanted to be a last resort — I wanted to at least try it [on my own] and challenge myself. I’ve always been a pretty confident guy, and when I set my mind to something, I try to do it. I’m stubborn enough to be a musician, for Christ’s sake; for 10 years, you know, I’ve been told “no” a lot, and I’m stubborn enough to stick with it. Sobriety was kind of that same thing: I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it; I didn’t do it for anybody else.
It originally started out that I was only going to do it for 30 days; I just wanted to prove to myself, “You don’t have to drink for a month; that’s all you have to do.” And then I got done with a month, and I’d lost almost 20 pounds, and I was feeling better, and I was running and doing stuff that felt amazing, so it was like, “What the hell? Let’s try it another 30 days.” After 60 days, it was almost a challenge like, “I’ve already got this far, why would I want to go back? I don’t want to let anybody down.”
Nobody’s ever said, “I got sober, and everything went to s–t.” Everything started getting better in my personal life — my relationships with my friends, my relationship with my wife — everything just started getting so much better, and I don’t think that was coincidental. I don’t think it was like, “Oh, I’m at that time in my life where everything starts smooth sailing.” I think anybody, but especially an addict, once you start seeing that you can live a fuller life sober, it becomes a lot easier to stay sober, because you don’t want to go back to the bad times.
Don’t get me wrong: Summertime is the one time I’m challenged. After I mow the grass, a cold beer is the only thing I’m thinking about, but thank God for sparkling water. I go in, grab a bottle of sparkling water, and it’s like, “You know what? As good as that beer might be, it’s not worth me being happy and me being proud of myself.” That’s what a lot of it is, us singer-songwriters, we’re self-conscious, egotistical maniacs, which is a weird combination of two things. It’s nice to feel confidence, and it’s nice to know that I did something and know that me doing something not only helps me, but helps the people around me. My relationship with the band is better because I don’t get drunk and go into a prima donna mode … so me and the boys are in a better place. Everybody wins when I’m in a good spot.
"Us singer-songwriters, we’re self-conscious, egotistical maniacs, which is a weird combination of two things."
You guys are playing, as you said, 250 shows a year, and now you have these solo dates in there, too. How do you make a marriage work with a schedule like that?
A lot of people think that what we do for a living is a vacation — you know, movies and pop culture make it look like being in a rock band is so cool, and, don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty cool, but it’s a job. We [just] have different struggles than the guy that works the nine-to-five. When I first started dating my wife, before we moved in together, she used to always joke, because I would complain about going out for another month; she’s like, “Oh, rough life. You have to travel to all these really great cities.” I post all the good things — the really great meals we get and the people we get to meet; you don’t post the negative stuff online. So I was like, “Before we take this to the next level, I want you to come on the road with me.”
So she came on the road with me and the band for two months straight — living in a van, sleeping in s–tty hotel rooms, and at the end of it, she looked at me, and she was like, “I’ll never say that you don’t work. I could never do this — you guys are insane.” And she came along at a good spot in the band — we were, like, in hotel rooms.
So that’s kind of neat: She has respect for what I do, and I think that’s the biggest thing. She met me while I was doing this; it wasn’t like she met me in high school, and then I made this decision, and she fell for something previous and I changed. She met me on the road — I met her at a show in Jacksonville, Fla. — so she had an understanding of what I do, and once she went on the road with me, she had respect for what I did.
I think having an understanding and having a respect for what your spouse does is how you make it work. Obviously, trust is a huge thing. Thank God for technological advances — I get to FaceTime a couple times a day, and we talk on the phone probably five or six times a day — just, “How are you? What are you doing? Is your day going good? Just wanted to say hey,” that kind of stuff. It’s about keeping a constant line of communication. I was in a couple relationships where, when I was drinking, I might go off the grid starting at 7PM, and I’d surface at 4AM when I got back from the bar, and I’d call hammered, and that’s not how you build trust …
Me getting sober helped my relationship more than anything, because 24 hours a day, I’m clear-headed, and I can answer the phone 24 hours a day. If you’re gone for two weeks, there’s always kind of this worry; there’s this, “I want you home, I miss you,” and anytime you can just be there to answer and settle any kind of fears or doubts anybody in a relationship has, that’s how you make it work.
As you all think about starting families or growing families, do you see yourself slowing down at all?
Back in January, we told our agent we wanted no more than 120 [days on the road]. Me being the idiot that I am, I said “Well, if I’m off that much, I can put out a solo record and tour another 100 dates on that!”
My wife always gets on me because I work too hard. If I had it my way, I’d play 360 nights a year; I’d play shows every night. This is what I love doing. I’ve never been good at anything else — I’m a s–tty waiter, I’m a really bad bartender, but I’m really good at being on the road and having a schedule and having a regimen to stick to. I would do it more, but I understand that I need to be home more, too.
So this year [was] 120, and I think next year, we’ll probably try to keep it around the same — 100-120, without a solo record coming out. The goal is to hit all the major cities at least once a year, and that’s what we do. We might not be getting to some of the tertiary markets like we used to, but we’re always going to hit Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, Raleigh, D.C.; we’re going to hit all those places at least once a year to keep our fans happy. We’re never going to be a band that goes off the grid for a couple of years to find ourselves; we’re always going to be a pretty heavy-touring band, just doing it to where we can actually have family and kids and watch our career grow into the next level.
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