Every summer over the past five years, BJ Barham, frontman for Raleigh’s own American Aquarium, has toured parts of the United States as a solo performer. He hits the road with his wife, dog and guitar as companions, to take a break from the band—sightseeing during the day and playing gigs at night. Despite traveling the states, his favorite gigs still come back to home.
“The number one is Raleigh,” Barham says. “Our hometown. Outside of North Carolina, I really enjoy Austin, Seattle, San Francisco, New York—a lot of bigger towns. You get to explore a lot and eat good food and go into a lot of little weird shops, then the shows are great, too.”
The lead singer was raised in Reidsville, a small farm town 30 minutes north of Greensboro. Barham grew up listening to country and soul music on vinyl, like Waylon Jennings and Otis Redding. He developed a deep appreciation for music at a young age, particularly a love for vinyl. “Every Saturday night we would put on records as a family,” he says. “It’s how I discovered music.”
As a young boy, Barham desired to be a lawyer, thanks to his interest in history and politics. In fact, he attended NC State in the early 2000s and majored in political science. Yet, Barham also first learned to play guitar in college. Self-taught, he forced himself to pick and learn the instrument. When he reached his junior year of college, his ambitions changed. He dropped out of school and decided to pursue music full time.
In 2005 American Aquarium formed in Raleigh. In the 15 years since, they’ve gone through over 20 members. Today, six make up the band, including Barham, Bill Corbin, Colin DiMeo, Ryan Johnson, Kevin McClain, and Whit Wright. They also released their sixth studio album, “Wolves,” in February. It gained them the most recognition of any of their albums to date, with positive reviews from publications like Rolling Stone, Billboard and the Wall Street Journal. However, it almost didn’t happen. They planned for their fifth studio album, “Burn. Flicker. Die.”, to be their last.
“Success—that’s what changed,” Barham says. “Being able to pay our bills on time; that was a huge part of it. That was part of us wanting to quit in the first place, but we started making more money and were able to make another record.”
Financial strain wasn’t the only struggle for the band. Excess in drugs and alcohol during and after shows earned them a reputation as constant partiers. In an interview with Indy Weekly, bassist for American Aquarium Bill Corbin explained their habits:
“We would come to your town, and we were the lovable drunks,” he notes. “People would buy us shots. We weren’t barfighters or brawlers; we’d just hang out and be goofy.”
The band’s name—derived from the Wilco song “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”—even was based off a quote about alcohol: “I’ll drink when I’m down/I’ll drink when no one else is around/I’ll drink every dime of my check/I’ll drink cause I got so much to forget.”
On August 31, 2014, Barham decided to make a major life change. “I was drinking more and more and more, so, finally, I just kind of had to stop and focus on what I wanted to do with my life,” he explains. “Did I want to be a drunk asshole all the time? It impacted the rest of the band. We all drink very little at shows now and are trying to just focus on the music.”
Barham’s songwriting changed upon his life’s trajectory, too. In comparing the themes of their last two albums, he admits “Burn. Flicker. Die” delivers lyrics about Saturday night drinking, partying and one-night stands. “‘Wolves’ is the Sunday morning record where you look back with a little clarity,” he notes. “You can look back and take something positive from it.”
During his solo gig, Barham says the music goes deeper into the original songwriting process. Stripped down without a band, audiences will bear witness the original arrangements American Aquarium recorded and released.
“Most of what I wrote started off as folk songs,” he tells, “as one-person songs, and the band adds meat to the bone. The songs I will be playing kind of look at the original versions of what we created.”
Barham’s upcoming show in Wilmington, at downtown’s Bourgie Nights, will showcase jams the band typically keeps away from while touring together, like “Water in the Well” and “Road to Nowhere.” Both are fairly simple arrangements that work for the style of show Barham is creating on his summer solo tour. Barham won’t only play American Aquarium songs; he’ll do several covers, too.
In an interview with Diffuser, Barham spoke about his current stance, both musically and non-musically. “I’m finally at a point in my life where I’m happy,” he told the magazine. “I’m sober. I’m married. I’m able to make a living off of just writing songs and playing them with my best friends. So that is what I wrote about. I’ve always written about what I know,and American Aquarium records very much serve as a retrospective of where I was in life when I wrote them.”