American Aquarium headline Nashville festival, record in famed Ala. studio

by Ryan Snyder

Though they were born in Reidsville. and live in Raleigh, American Aquarium have grown up on the road. With nearly 700 shows under their collective belt by the end of this year, it’s clear the country-rock septet bleeds the blue-collar ethic of antecedents the Drive-By Truckers and Uncle Tupelo, but it takes a careful listen to their catalog to truly understand the extent to which the band has matured. Frontman BJ Barham not only made his living writing songs about booze and women, it was his living through three albums and an EP. With their most successful record to date, May’s Small Town Hymns, in the rearview mirror, Barham and the band brace for the next record that could potentially redefine them, as well as one of their most important weekends as performers to date.

Y!W: You were accepted to perform at the Americana Music Association’s music festival recently. Put that into context.

Barham: We’re one of 50 bands that got accepted and we’re real honored. There were a couple thousand bands that went through the application process and we got the headlining set at the Basement that Saturday night, 45 minutes at midnight and we really couldn’t have asked for a better situation.

Y!W: It’s clearly not just another show for you, so what kind of expectations do you have going in?

Barham: You know, everybody wants to say, “Aw, this is gonna be our big break, we’re gonna get famous.” But that never happens. The goal is to meet people who can help you out along the way. It’s all about networking. The ultimate goal is possibly meet a lawyer, maybe a publisher. Meet somebody who can help us take what we’re doing to the next level.

Y!W: That’s not your only big show that weekend, is it?

Barham: We’re playing the Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh the Thursday before and down in Athens. Ga. on Friday. I’m so happy that Hopscotch has come together, though. When they first started talking about it I was like, “Bulls**t, there’s no way this is gonna happen.” It did, and we’re really excited about it. We’re at the Lincoln Theatre with Max Indian and Lucero and it’s gonna be a straight rock-and-roll show.

Y!W: Now that the dust has settled on the release of Small Town Hymns, what’s in store for the band?

Barham: Another record. We’re going into the studio with Jason Isbell [formerly] of the Drive-By Truckers. We’re moving to Muscle Shoals, Ala. to record it, but we’re doing it a little bit different for this one. We moved to Oxford, Miss. to make this last one. We lived in the studio last November and wrote the whole thing down there in two weeks. We already have most of this one written, so we’re just going down there to record it.

Y!W: Isbell did a lot of interesting things on his own solo record, bringing in the horns and harmonies. What do you think he brings to the studio for American Aquarium?

Barham: Jason is really good at capturing what Muscle Shoals is famous for and that’s its soul and honesty. I’m really hoping that he brings something like that to our record. It’ll be interesting to see what he has in mind. He already told me he’ll be singing and playing guitar on it. I’ve got most of the songs written already and we all have our own ideas as to how it’s going to sound, but you never know. That might all completely change with Jason.

Y!W: Where do you intend to go with your next record thematically?

Barham: It’s about Raleigh. It’s a very, very dark look at Raleigh. How I view it only being there a couple months out of the year, how I view it from the road, how my view of the road has changed. On Dances With the Lonely, it was all about young, fun, get drunk every night, there’s a girl in every town. I wrote it about our first couple years touring and it was fun. It was about getting as intoxicated as we possibly could and playing a show and then finding some young lady to write that next song about. We were just being stupid and young.

Y!W: Is this going to be your “growing up” record?

Barham: I think that was really our last one. It was all about Reidsville and small-town America, and getting out of them to try and do something better. It was a good segue into this next record, realizing that being in the big town can eat you alive.

American Aquarium will perform Thursday, Sept. 9 at the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh as a part of the Hopscotch Music Festival.