By Jeff O’Brien
American Aquarium is Americana with a hearty respect for the old school. It’s apparent in the way they carry themselves, the way they tour, the way they drink, and the subject matter their music delves into.
Self-described by front man BJ Barham as “straightforward… the classic ‘three chords and the truth,’” American Aquarium touches on the musical undercurrents that ran through the travelling, blues-singing, Jim Beam drinking musicians of old. Like the call of the open road, the dream-suffocating nature of small towns, and the pain that comes with too much pleasure.
Like these old musicians, there’s seldom a night where American Aquarium isn’t performing. Their live show is “what brings everybody in,” Barham tells Country Weekly.
“We’re a band that is learning how to do the studio thing, but our natural environment is the stage. We do it every night, 200 shows a year. That’s what we’re really good at and that’s what we’re strong at. Our worst show, our show that we beat ourselves up about is better than a lot of bands I’ve seen live.”
However, at the turn of 2012, American Aquarium found itself in a place of stagnation. They had been touring and releasing material for six years with little progress, and they were ready to call it quits. They recruited the help of Jason Isbell of Drive-By Truckers for production and booked some recording time at Muscle Shoals in Sheffield, Ala. to say their goodbyes.
Acclaimed session musician Spooner Oldham (Neil Young, Wilson Pickett) helped record the keys, and violinist Amanda Shires (Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Justin Townes Earle) contributed the strings.
The result, Burn.Flicker.Die. was both a unique take on punctuation and a unique turn in the band’s direction. What began as a fond and genuine farewell turned into a warm return anthem. Aloha turned into aloha, and American Aquarium found the will to stay in the game.
However, it isn’t the studio time or production value that makes Burn.Flicker.Die. the LP that put American Aquarium back on the circuit. It’s authenticity.
“The road, the excess of fun, one crazy night in South Carolina, one time I drank too much – that’s what was in my songwriting [before]. For Burn.Flicker.Die, I tried not to write about that, because I’ve [already] done it,” Barham tells American Songwriter.
During its recording, Barham, who has written all of the band’s music over their eight year history, was able to reach past the tropes of drinking and partying to access a deeper emotional plane, the one shared by those American folk artists of old.
It goes to show that even in today’s single-driven industry, where record sales are in steady decline and the typical artist’s primary income stream is the live performance, the power of the album is not to be disregarded. There are plenty of bands that can perform and tour and sing about performing and touring, but the great ones have great records to bring with them.
In many ways, the plight of the touring band is similar to that of the battle rapper: you can win as many battles as you like, but if you don’t have a good record, if you aren’t a good songwriter, it’s all for naught. Eminem lost the 1997 Rap Olympics to a kid named Otherwize, but Dr. Dre signed him to Aftermath because he had a phenomenal EP. The rest is history, and who’s ever heard of Otherwize?
What’s important for success in the industry is balance. Unless you’re Phish or Widespread Panic, jam bands known for their improvisational sets that can’t really be captured in a studio setting, it’s important to have something that people can bump while you’re not around.
For years, American Aquarium rejected this ideal, instead focusing on their live show almost exclusively. They released an average of one album every nine months. Never spending too long to refine or change their studio presence, and content to sell their records at shows and tour incessantly.
Burn.Flicker.Die., their seventh and most recent release, was their first record they took time to shine, bringing songs Barham had written two years in advance to the sessions in Muscle Shoals.
Since their new record is in such a different lane, their live show has changed too. “The cool thing about this [new] show,” Burham tells The Thread, “is we’re playing a lot of the back catalog that we don’t get to play live because they’re such quiet songs. I’d say at least half the set is songs that aren’t usually in our set-list. So especially for American Aquarium fans, it’s going to be a really different experience, to hear songs that they’ve never gotten to hear live.”
It’s safe to expect a more intimate showing at the Varsity this Friday, but be warned: these are still the same North Carolina boys that have been rocking shows for nearly a decade, and you don’t get to do that unless you’re good at it.