We caught up with the singer of American Aquarium to talk about going solo (but not really) getting sober, and exactly why he thinks the American dream is bullshit. Plus, we premiere his first record, 'Rockingham'.
Photos by Jillian Clark
BJ Barham doesn’t believe in the American dream. He grew up in Rockingham, North Carolina, a town of only a few thousand people and watched his father and grandfather work their fingers to the bone to try and eke out a living. When he was a kid he loved to argue, so he set his sights on becoming a lawyer and took advantage of every opportunity his small town gave him right up until he went to college. But like so many small town kids who find themselves suddenly uprooted from their home and dropped somewhere with more people in one square mile than in their entire town, his original plan didn’t pan out. Not that he didn’t try his darnedest, but when the music calls, a person like BJ Barham isn’t going to ignore it.
You might know Barham as the lead vocalist of American Aquarium, a country rock band out of Raleigh, North Carolina, where Barham went to school. He still is the vocalist, and the band is still together, but after the Bataclan shootings in November of last year, Barham found himself with an eight-song solo record and a desire to tell a wholly different story: his own.
Rockingham is country storytelling at its finest. Where artists like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson have left off—heir albums tend to focus on the hyper-personal, on themselves, and their own personal failures—Barham picks up. He writes songs about the hardships people face and the fake hope you’re served when you grow up in a small American town where people die in the same place they’re born. In those towns there’s no real sense of a future—or if there is, it rarely delivers. While the narratives on Rockingham hide behind the characters Barham created, every song comes directly from personal experience. What he’s created is a haunting, beautiful ode to the everyday man, the woman who loves him, and the power of love in a small town.
Noisey: How has the music changed since you’ve been sober?
BJ Barham: I like to think it’s gotten better, but I’m a bit partial. Clarity is a beautiful thing, and I’m able to look at things through a different light. A lot of the band’s early records were very much about a guy in his early 20s traveling the road, drinking, pretty girls. As I’ve grown up and gotten sober it becomes a lot more reflective, like, “Did I make the right choice?” “What am I doing?” “Are we ever going to make it?” As I’ve grown up you can look at the records almost like a chronological yearbook of this tragic art of a 20-year-old kid trying to take over the world who has fun. Then you hit a point where that’s the peak, and then I’m coming to a point where you can’t do that forever. So it’s becoming more mature but definitely more of a reflective look.
What’s more clear for you than it was five years ago?
I was drunk all the time, so I couldn’t really take in all the experiences we were afforded every day. So every time we play in front of a sold-out crowd I appreciate it more, I’m completely in the moment instead of just going through the motions in front of people. It’s the little things. It’s eating a really great dinner before a show. It’s about seeing people sing along to your songs, hearing the stories after the show of how your songs relate to people. It’s things like that I remember every detail now rather than a blurred memory. So believe it or not it makes me more appreciative of the job I get to do everyday, write songs, sing songs that clarity kind of really makes me be able to appreciate being able to do it.
Why do you think you drank so much during that time?
I don’t know. It was there, it was boredom. Being in your 20s and growing up, if you listen to the Rolling Stones, that’s rock ‘n’ roll and the one thing, even as a struggling band, you get for free every night on the road is booze. So you get to a club at four or five o’clock to load in, you don’t have a hotel room to go to so you pony up at the bar and start drinking beer and liquor. Ten or eleven o’clock rolls around, you're wasted playing a show having fun. Like I said in my 20s I wouldn’t give that up for anything, it was a blast. I made a lot of stupid decisions, but they were fun stupid decisions. But, after a decade of doing that—everyday was a Saturday night which when you’re 21 is what you want your life to be—when you’re 30 you start becoming the laughing stock and it’s that self examination period. Like do I really want to be the 35, 40-year-old cliché washed up rock ‘n’ roll guy? And the answer was no. So I just made the conscious decision that I didn’t want that to be me.
What was the decision to go out and do solo music?
I don’t know if it was a conscious decision, I never really sat down and went “I’m going to write a solo record.” It was one of those things: We were over in Europe last November when the terrorist attacks happened. We were in Belgium that night, and there was that immediate shock of “Holy shit this happened at a music venue.” In my head a music venue is a safe place, music venues are where people go to escape the bullshit of everyday. Republican, Democrat, Christian, Atheist—you can go to a show and you’re just the same for an hour and a half. It’s the great equalizer. Nobody asks those questions, you can just go and be a part of something bigger than you and the fact that a terrorist attack happened somewhere that safe blew my mind. So we had two days off in Holland, and I just sat in a room in wrote songs that fell out of me. So when we got done with that trip I had eight songs that followed this thematic consistency, and it was a record about where I’m from, who I grew up with, and almost this broken America record questioning the American dream.
Does it exist? A lot of these songs are about people who work hard do what they’re supposed to do everyday and still can’t get ahead. "American Tobacco Company" is a song I wrote for my grandfather and it’s about a guy who comes back from serving his country in World War II and realizes “What did I fight the last four years for?” And literally my grandfather fought those four years to sit at a machine at a factory for 42 years. That’s not the American dream, working 12 hours a day five days a week to watch cigarettesmachine. It’s like he’s proof that no matter how hard you work sometimes you just still don’t get ahead. We’re kind of sold the dream at an early age that if you work hard and do the right things you can be successful, and my hometown is proof that that’s not true. It’s a record about being from a small town, working hard and appreciating what you have and still wanting more and realizing for better or for worse you’ll probably never get to that point.
That’s a pretty depressing, and sobering, realization.
Yeah I’ve never been one to write happy songs [laughs] and usually my sad songs have to do with relationships. Like I said, it was a stark look being away from America. I didn’t grow up rich. I didn’t grow up with a lot of opportunity and I just got lucky, I moved to a big city, started a band and that’s all that comes down to but there’s a lot of people who spend their life working really hard and have nothing to show for it. So I wanted to write this song romanticizing this idea of the American dream and some of these characters coming to realization that it doesn’t exist. Like "American Tobacco Company" is my grandfather having the realization and "Rockingham" is my father coming to that realization, then you got songs like "Old Lover" which is like five people I went to high school with all crammed into one character that are all in prison for doing something stupid to get ahead whether it’s robbing a store, killing a guy, doing whatever. There are people that get to this point where it’s like okay, working a 40-hour week keeping my head down is not working, what else can I do? And it’s a real fucked up look at the American dream and the current America we live in. For me the reason why it became a solo record was because it’s about a very specific time and a specific place which is my hometown. It’s where I spent the first 18 years of my life so I wanted to tell this story through the eyes of the characters I grew up with.
Do any of them know they have songs written about them?
I’m sure some of them are going to hear it in the songs but a this is very much a fictional narrative record. I didn’t rob a bank or work at a factory but the characters come from a very real place. On the song "Unfortunate Kind" I took a bunch from my parent's marriage and I put it into that song. So the story about the pecan pie line about how the guy’s wife the first week they were married she made him a pie and it was terrible but he still ate it because he didn’t want to see her upset that’s a story my parents still tell except it was turnips. My dad’s favorite dish is turnips and so my mom the first week they got married called my grandmother and said she wanted to cook him a dinner, what’s his favorite food? My grandmother tells her the recipe and my mom cooks it, and it’s absolutely atrocious. Almost inedible. And my dad sits down for dinner and eats it, my mom can tell it’s terrible, my dad knows it’s terrible, but he still eats it and goes back for seconds and thirds just so she can feel like she did a good job. I always thought that was the best story, like my parent's love for each other. My dad would rather stomach terrible food than tell my mom it was terrible. So to be able to put real pieces into these fictional narratives to make them feel more lived-in was a really fun exercise in writing. I think those are the details that make it more believable listening to this record to relate to because it comes from a real human place which I think is kind of neat.
I love that juxtaposition in your album at this anger at the american dream but this awe about the good love and connection that people can have.
For sure. It’s a record one part hope and one part questioning if hope even exists, like why do I have to believe in this thing that doesn't exist, that keeps letting me down every time? And that’s kind of what small town life is about, there’s good and there's bad. I grew up in a tiny town with a couple thousand people where we were pretty poor and it was very conservative, close minded not a lot of culture but what we did have we found pride in it, there was morals, there was family there was community there was this sense of we’re all in the same boat. So every Sunday morning at church there was a great feeling of everybody chipping in cooking lunch for everybody and it was a really cool way to grew up but when I went to college I realized there was a much bigger world out here a much different world. I grew up andI didn’t know a lot of things existed until I went to a city and went to college and started realizing there are people that are a lot different than me that are the same as me so this record is about realizing the good and the bad of growing up in a small town.
There’s a lot more small towns in America then there are big cities so just because this record is about a specific small town not people from just North carolina but I think people from Indiana, Kansas, from Wyoming I think they’ll all be able to relate to this because it tackles common themes in America.
I’m pretty sure I know you don’t have kids, but is "Madeline" written for your daughter?
I don’t have a daughter. I wrote that for my future child and me and my wife when we first started dating you go through the where are you from, what do you want to do, etc. and as our relationship grew we started talking about getting married and having a family and the first thing that came up was what would you name our kid and that was the one name we had in common. I always wanted to name my daughter that she always wanted to name her daughter that so it’s kind of like if we do have a daughter that will be her name but besides that it was my father’s kind of plea for a daughter I wrote it from a place of what happens if I have a kid and something unfortunate happens to me and I was never able to tell her what I learned in life so it’s like an open letter to a child saying this is what I’ve picked up in 30 years on Earth hopefully it helps you out. There’s some big value things and then there’s some detailed person experiences. I’m basically telling her not to date her father [laughs] but what it boils down to is you’re going to make your own mistakes these are the mistakes I’ve made these are the lessons I’ve learned from mistakes so if just writing that song helps my kid not do one of the dumb things I did then it’s a total success.
You can preorder Rockingham here.