The rumble and roar of the road. The dangers of addiction. The pack mentality that comes with crisscrossing the country alongside your best friends.
Also, the skill of former North Carolina State University basketball star Julius Hodge.
All four were on BJ Barham's mind when he wrote "Wolves," the title track to American Aquarium's newest album. Rooted in the brawny, barroom country-rock of fellow road warriors like Lucero and Drive-By Truckers — whose most famous alum, Jason Isbell, produced American Aquarium's Burn.Flicker.Die. in 2012 — Wolves is a rallying cry from a band that's spent the bulk of the past nine years onstage, hunting for their big break. It's music for dive bars and pools halls, for late-night drives and early morning hangovers. Barham, who played with more than 20 different bandmates before nailing down American Aquarium's current lineup, calls it "the sound of a band that's firing on all cylinders."
The "band" part is important. Since 2006, Barham has been the only consistent member in American Aquarium, a group whose heavy touring — and, if the singer's lyrics are to believed, heavier partying — isn't for the faint of heart (or the weak of liver). Burn.Flicker.Die. marked a turning point, though, a place where American Aquarium became not just a group of hired guns backing up Barham, but a genuine band firing twin barrels of punky country and Southern rock. The group played nearly 500 shows in support of that critically-acclaimed album, then returned to their native North Carolina to record Wolves, with Megafaun's Brad Cook serving as producer.
"It took me a few years to find a group of guys that believed in this band, and these songs, as much as I did," Barham tells Rolling Stone Country. "For years, we lived only on the faith that we were doing something that mattered — something that would be remembered — because we weren't making any money, we were sleeping on floors, ruining relationships back home and barely getting from one show to the next. The only reason to stay was because they believed that we were on to something. That kind of blind trust in what we were doing made me want to write better songs, made me want to work harder. We knew that constant touring was the only way to succeed. Building this thing one fan at a time, one show at a time, was the only way to move forward. Once I found a band that saw what I saw, everything else just fell into place."
Although Barham views Wolves as a coming-of-age record, he hasn't forgotten about the temptations that steered his younger, wilder days on the road. He sings about addiction during the title track, likening his vices to a pack of snarling, predatory animals. The chorus — "When the wolves are hungry/The wolves, they'll eat/I just wish these wolves would get their claws out of me"— was partially inspired by Julius Hodge, former shooting guard for the basketball team at Barham's alma mater, NC State, who famously told a reporter, "When we hungry, we eat!" after leading his team to a surprise victory over Duke University in February 2004. [Watch the music video for "Wolves" above.]
True to its title, the song's music video focuses not only on lead wolf Barham, but on the entire pack. The clip feels like a travelogue, bouncing between shots of American Aquarium's full ranks — Barham, Ryan Johnson, Bill Corbin, Whit Wright, Kevin McClain and Colin Dimeo — recording the song in Echo Mountain Studio, performing an outdoor gig in downtown Asheville and hitting the road, bound for the stage of the hunt.