American Aquarium almost called it quits but not before they were able to record a landmark album produced by the infamous, Jason Isbell. That album, Burn.Flicker.Die. ignited a fire in the group that would lead them across the country and back into the studio.
HYPE editor, Phil Sunkel, got the chance to speak with front man BJ Barham about almost calling it quits, their new album “Wolves” and tour.
HYPE (Phil Sunkel): Lets just kick it off by talking a little bit about Burn. Flicker. Die. And then from there I’ll move it into the new album … But let’s start with Burn. Flicker. Die. And working on it with Jason Isbell and stuff like that.
BJ Barham: Sounds good.
HYPE: So tell me about making that album.
BJ: We recorded it down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We were down there for eight days. Luckily, by then Jason had been working on Southeastern, so he, he’s been a buddy of ours for a couple years and we were kinda sitting at the bar one night, he made the comment he’d like to produce one of our records. And then we just joked around about it for years, and then finally we called him up and said “hey, uh were you serious about that?”
BJ: And so he said yes. He brought us down to Muscle Shoals and when we went down there it was just a batch of songs … it was supposed to be our last record. We were kinda all at our wits end. We weren’t making any money. And so we knew we needed to get these songs down to tape because, you know, we thought they were good songs and we wanted to get it done before we decided to call it quits.
HYPE: And so why the decision to go onto another album now?
BJ: Because Burn. Flicker. Die. completely changed the trajectory of the band. When that album came out we had right about 5,000 Facebook fans. Now we’re at 12,000 in just two years. So it doubled our fan base. It took us seven years, I mean six years, to get those first 5,000 and then just two years to double it. That really just kind of changed our national graph on a fan base. By changing it, it basically allowed us to play better music for more people while actually making a living playing music. Who would of thought that we could actually get to a point where everyone in the band made a decent wage, that everybody could have an apartment to come home to, because of that, everyone was a lot more willing to get on the road and to contine being apart of the band.
HYPE: I wanted to ask you about one of the songs in the album, Jacksonville. Can you tell me a little bit about that song? Did you grow up in that area?
BJ: Yeah, I didn’t grow up in Jacksonville but my fiance is from there.
HYPE: Oh, cool.
BJ: Um, and before that, her … Jacksonville is kind of a, uh … I didn’t have as many good memories about Jacksonville.
HYPE: Haha (laughs)
BJ: So that’s what that song’s about. That song’s about all Jacksonville’s really good for is going and getting pretty fucked up. Unless you’re from Jacksonville, that’s all Jacksonville is good for. But now that we’ve spent a lot more time in Jacksonville and really got a lot better acquainted with the fine folks of Duval County, um, it’s a little bit better place to go nowadays.
HYPE: And I mean now that the music scene has kind of built up again, it’s kind of right up your guys’ alley. You know?
BJ: Yeah the music scene is just getting better and better every year in Jacksonville.
HYPE: Yeah, I actually went to Flagler College and my brother went to UNF so I’m very familiar with Jacksonville.
HYPE: Oh, nice.
BJ: Yeah, uh, my gal went to UNF, too.
HYPE: It’s a great school. So, did you guys just get done playing the MagFest?
BJ: Tonight, we actually play MagFest tonight at 8:45.
HYPE: Cool, I bet you guys are pretty pumped right?
BJ: Yeah, we’re pretty pumped. It’s really a huge MagFest this year, we actually get to play the big amphitheater stage. That’ll be nice.
HYPE: Yep, and are you guys staying all weekend before you head out for Europe?
BJ: Sadly, no. We actually have a music video to shoot tomorrow and then Saturday is my old lady’s birthday.
BJ: And, uh, this Sunday we leave for Europe.
HYPE: That’s awesome, man. And now let’s, let’s talk a little bit about Wolves. Could you describe to me how this record’s going to be different from Burn. Flicker. Die.? Who do you have producing it and all those things.
BJ: Well, Brad Phillips is producing it. He used to be in a band called Megafaun. Now he plays with Sharon Van Etten. Um, just as Burn. Flicker. Die. was a growth for the band, Wolves is a triple jump for the band. This is the first record where I really think our lyrics really make the music. A lot of times we’ve struggled in arrangements that a lot of times the guys in the band haven’t been as happy with pushing the boundaries of, “oh we can’t do musically.” I think this record is the ultimate compromise for us, because we spent a lot more time worrying about our music backing up the lyrics instead of just lyrics.
HYPE: So it’s a big step up than, kind of a new combination with the lyrics. That’s pretty cool.
BJ: Yeah for sure. This is the first record where everybody’s walked away from it feeling pretty happy and I’m not saying I wasn’t happy about Burn. Flicker. Die. But as we look back at the last two years, there was definitely things that could’ve done better. As far as the arrangements, as far as the musicianship, really all the parts that were played. With Wolves, we feel a lot better walking away from it.
HYPE: Sounds like it’s getting to be more of a culmination of what you guys have been striving towards.
BJ: Oh, for sure. That’s the ultimate goal. Especially since the band has been around for almost nine years now. So if you’re a band for nine years, the ultimate goal is to keep pushing yourselves. To do something different, to do something better, to become a better band, write better songs, and I think that we’ve definitely done that. This is the best batch of songs that I have written personally and I definitely think it’s the best representation of what the band can do musically.
HYPE: Awesome, and how would you describe the sound on the new album?
BJ: Um, the new record leans away from the bar sound. For a long time, our biggest crutch was kind of the bar and the bar sound. All the songs were about one night stands, drinking, and doing drugs. Then we hit 30 and we grew up. You know, my nights don’t revolve around what time the bar closes anymore. My night revolves around what time I can talk to my gal and how soon I can get home from the road. Priorities change and as they change, what I write about changes. So instead of writing about the pretty girl that I want to go home with, you know, I write about the pretty girl that’s at home waiting for me. I think this record is definitely the most grown up thing we’ve done. I think Burn. Flicker. Die. was kind of the death of songs about drinking and wasting our lives. We’re a band that’s completely focused again. When you’ve teetered on the edge of calling it quits, it puts everything into perspective. And you know it can go either two ways; it can make a band realize that being a musicians not what you’re cut out for, or it can do what it did for us. It completely rejuvenated the band and what we’re trying to do. We realize our potential now, it’s just about living up to that potential now.
BJ: Oh, Ok good. Yeah this is our fourth or fifth trip over to Europe. We do it once a year. It’s kind of like our vacation. We still have to work and we still have to play shows every night, but it’s always fun to experience. Like we’ve seen the most of what the U.S. has to offer, Multiple times, We go to a lot of the same cities. On this European tour there’s only one, two cities that we’ve even ever played before. So it’ll be a lot of fun to travel around and then kind of have that feeling of getting to experience something new.
HYPE: Awesome man. That’s what I like to hear. Anything else you’d like to add, that maybe I didn’t touch on?
BJ: Just, uh, really excited for folks to hear Wolves. It comes out February 3rd. I don’t think anybody in this band has been more proud of anything we’ve ever put out. So, I can’t wait to see what the fans think about it.
For more information and music from American Aquarium visit AmericanAquairum.net
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen