American Aquarium’s BJ Barham Talks Alt-Country Divide With Chris Shiflett
American Aquarium’s BJ Barham returns to Walking the Floor for the second time in three years, talking once again with host Chris Shiflett about the endurance, drive and resilience needed to sustain a career in today’s alt-country scene.
“You have to realize you’re catching a vibe — you’re not gonna catch perfection,” Barham says of the band’s studio albums, which highlight the ragged vocals and sharp, detailed songwriting of a native North Carolinian struggling to make sense of the modern world. On Things Change, that world includes a corrupt president, a divided country, a new band and the paradigm-shifting experience of becoming a father. Barham and company tackle it all. The result is their highest-charting album to date, thanks in part to a newly inked deal with New West Records.
Below, we’ve rounded up several highlights from the pair’s hour-long conversation, followed by the premiere of the episode in full.
Conversations with American Aquarium’s audience helped inspire the politically-minded songs on Things Change.
While touring America during a recent solo run, Barham found himself spending time in the small towns and second-tier markets whose residents have always supported his band. There, he found a group of fans whose political leanings differed from his own. “Every day, I was interacting with people, talking with people, and casually bringing up, ‘Hey, crazy election, huh?'” he remembers. Those conversations helped him gain some understanding of the mindsets of Trump supporters. “Once I started talking to people and asking, ‘Why’d you do it?’…things got real,” he says. Back home in North Carolina, he began writing an album about “a guy trying to make sense of a world he doesn’t understand.” While songs like “The World Is on Fire” make it clear that Barham doesn’t support President Trump, Things Change never points a finger at those who disagree with the singer’s own views. “I’m not coming out and being like, ‘Fuck Trump’s America,'” Barham explains. “I’m asking questions and I’m trying to get a dialog started. A lot of times when I go to these small towns and I play these songs, it does get dialog started. It lets people talk to me.”
Barham expects his audience to be politically divided, given the nature of the alt-country community in general.
“Anything Americana — anything based in acoustic guitar — is gonna have 50/50,” he says of his audience’s political split. “You’re gonna have the left that loves the songwriting and loves that you’re an articulate songwriter [who’s] coming through and saying things about life, but you’re also gonna have good ol’ boys that relate to everything I’m talking about. When I’m singing these songs, I’m literally singing to half the crowd that voted left and half the album that voted for Trump. When I was writing this record, it was all about, ‘How do I make these observations and ask these questions without just downright insulting people?'”
American Aquarium weathered a massive lineup change in 2017, with every member but Barham leaving the group.
“I’ve had 36 members since 2006,” explains Barham, who remains the only consistent member of American Aquarium’s evolving lineup. “Don’t get me wrong —[the members who recently left] were what people consider the definitive version of the band, but they were replacing somebody else.” After those members informed Barham they were leaving the lineup, he sat down with his wife for a pep talk. “She said, ‘This has always been your band,'” he remembers. “‘This has always been a mouthpiece for what you have to say. As long as you’re willing to get up and sing these songs, I really think your fanbase is gonna follow it.'”
Things Change also marks the end of the band’s DIY album releases — for now, at least.
“This is the first record we’ve ever put out on a label,” the frontman says. “Everything else has been do-it-yourself up until then.” Wooed by A&R executive Kim Buie, the band partnered with New West Records for 2018’s Things Change. “It was the first time we’d ever seen any commercial success. It debuted at Number One on the Billboard Heatseeker charts, Number Three on the Americana/Folk chart, Number Six on the Billboard country chart and Number Seven on the Billboard rock chart. It was the first time we’d put out a record and it debuted in the Top 10 of all four of those major charts. It shows the muscle that a label can flex.”
The track “I Gave Up the Drinking (Before She Gave Up on Me)” marks American Aquarium’s most country-inspired song to date.
“I grew up listening to all those old Waylon records,” recalls Barham, who channeled old-school country icons like Jennings and John Prine on “I Gave Up the Drinking (Before She Gave Up on Me).” “It’s where funk meets country. It’s just dirty.” Although thematically at odds with countless classic country songs, “I Gave Up the Drinking (Before She Gave Up on Me)” still nods to the liquored-up music that inspired its twangy attack. “I wanted to write this kind of classic, stereotypical honky-tonk song about sobriety,” he says, “because so many are based in going to drink at a honky-tonk. I wanted to write the antithesis of those songs, but still have the playfulness that those songs have.”