BJ Barham has spent most of the decade in a passenger van, bound to the American highway system by a touring schedule that typically tops out around 300 shows a year.
“We’re really good at being on the road,” he says of American Aquarium, whose mix of barroom rock & roll, Piedmont twang and Southern singer-songwriter perspective has earned Barham’s band a spot in the same road-warrior circle as Drive-By Truckers. To some, the guy is a hero. To others, a stranger. Most importantly, though, Barham is busy, hand-building his business on the road without outsourcing the band’s operations to a record label.
On the newest episode of Chris Shiflett’s weekly Walking the Floor podcast, Barham shines a light on what it means to be a successful, independent, blue-collar band in the 2010s. Along the way, the two talk about the devolution of the music industry, the similarity between Jason Isbell and Olympic athletes, the revitalization of American downtowns, the Paris attacks of November 2015 and the new solo album, Rockingham, that finds Barham looking backward instead of ahead.
Here are our highlights from one of the most articulate Walking the Floor interviews of the year. (Listen to the episode below.)
1. Although technically based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Barham doesn’t spend many days at home.
“For me, this year’s been pretty busy and hectic, because any time the band’s not touring, I squeeze a solo run in,” says Barham, who released Rockingham in August. While the rest of American Aquarium enjoyed a comparatively “light” schedule of 200 shows, Barham kept himself road-ready through 2016, hitting the highway as the opening act for groups like the Old 97’s whenever his own band took a week off.
2. For years, Barham booked all of American Aquarium’s tours … usually while on tour.
“I realized very early on that I didn’t have the jawline to be a country singer,” he tells Shiflett. “I wasn’t pretty enough. It was one of those things where I watched some of the bands I was listening to at the time – Drive-By Truckers, Lucero – and bands like that were playing 300 shows a year, and just touring their asses off. They were still playing in front of 20 people every night, but that was the only way I [knew] a bunch of kids from North Carolina, who didn’t have a chance at a major label deal, could make it.”
Inspired, American Aquarium bought a van and hit the road, seeking out wifi connections every day so Barham could continue landing shows.
“Every day, [we] would stop at a coffee shop, and I would get out, and I’d book two months in advance,” Barham remembers. “We stayed on the road, playing coffeehouses and crappy punk rock venues. No crew. Sleeping on floors. No hotel rooms. Really and truly, it was amazing. The coolest thing in the world. Here’s a kid from a tiny place in North Carolina. I’d never traveled much, so for me, it was a chance to see the country.”
3. Now one of the more celebrated songwriters in the Americana underground, Barham grew up ignorant of the fact that musicians could exist anywhere outside of the mainstream.
“I’m from a tiny town in North Carolina called Reidsville, and we didn’t have music venues,” he explains. “For me, if you were a musician, you were Tim McGraw. There was no in-between. You either worked a job, or you were a monolithic musician. I didn’t know rock clubs existed.” It wasn’t until college, when he booked a local bar gig, that Barham caught his first glimpse of the world he’s occupied for the past decade.
4. Oddly enough, Barham’s Rockingham – a solo album about his childhood in small-town North Carolina – was largely written in a hotel room overseas.
Last November, American Aquarium wrapped up a European show in Brussels, only to hear about the terrorist attacks that had occurred at a similar gig in Paris. The band members were shocked. Only three days into a long overseas tour, they made a collective decision to stay the course, after taking a two-day break to regroup and relax. During that period, Barham stayed in his hotel room, where he wrote an entire album’s worth of material about his American roots.
“I physically couldn’t go home, but mentally, I checked out for a couple of days and went home,” he says of Rockingham, named after the county in which he was raised. “In all the chaos, your mind has to go somewhere, and mine went to the place I’m most familiar with.”
5. Rockingham took as long to record as it took to write – which means it didn’t take very long at all.
“I wrote it in two days,” explains Barham. “I went home and sat on it for two months. And then I met the band that played on the record. I met them one day, we rehearsed for two days, [then] we recorded in two days.”
Less than a week after meeting his session musicians, Barham handed over a mixed, mastered copy of Rockingham to his manager. The songs were tracked live, without any studio trickery or cut-and-paste vocal comping.
“We wanted to catch this real thing, and we gave up some of the shine, some of the polish, some of the perfection, for something that sounded real,” he says of the album’s raw, in-the-moment feel.
6. Jason Isbell, who produced American Aquarium’s burn.flicker.die, is just as nice as we all think he is.
Longtime friends, Barham and Isbell began working together in 2012, when Isbell agreed to produce American Aquarium’s burn.flicker.die. Held in Isbell’s hometown of Muscle Shoals, the recording sessions were inspired – if not entirely sober.
Years later, both frontmen have kicked their alcohol habits. When asked by Shiflett to share some thoughts about Isbell, who appeared in his own Walking the Floor episode earlier this year, Barham has nothing but kind words.
“Right after [our] record came out,” he says, “he got sober. He got married. I was at his wedding, and it’s really, really great to watch a friend make a life decision that immediately alters everything. He was literally giving the world a handicap. Him drinking was letting everybody else keep up with him. When he stopped drinking, it was like an Olympic runner actually trying. Like, ‘Why am I back here? I can be up at the front!’ When he got sober, a switch flipped. The first time I heard Southeastern, I told the guys, ‘Jason is getting ready to be a household name.'”