American Aquarium’s New Era: A Conversation with BJ Barham

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Cal Quinn 

BJ Barham is a master storyteller, but sometimes – as the saying goes – truth is stranger than fiction. The singer/songwriter built a loyal following as frontman of American Aquarium, but literally found himself without a band in 2017. Doubting himself, his craft and his future, it’s unlikely that Barham could have foreseen himself in the creative and inspired state that defines him these days. Armed with a revamped lineup of Barham, Shane Boeker, Joey Bybee, Ben Hussey and Adam Kurtz, American Aquarium released Things Change [New West Records] earlier this month. Recorded in Tulsa, Okla. and produced by singer/songwriter John Fulbright, the 10-track collection includes cameos from John Moreland and Jamie Lin Wilson. On Friday, June 29, American Aquarium will perform at Saturn. Recently, Barham spoke with us by phone about Things Change, set lists and escaping negativity.

Birmingham Stages: BJ, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to the Saturn show later this month.

BJ Barham: It’s one of my favorite rooms in the country – it’s a special place.

Birmingham Stages: We are really enjoying Things Change.

Barham: Thanks, man. It’s my favorite record we’ve done so far, but that’s coming from the egotistical artist side of me that thinks everything I’ve created is the best thing I’ve created and everything I’ve made before that is an effort to get to where I am now. It means a lot more coming from you than from me [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about the evolution of the album. Are these all new songs or had some been around for a while?

Barham: All of these songs are brand new. In the last couple of years of the band, I didn’t write any songs. I was kind of in a creative wasteland and I wasn’t inspired to write anything. Most of that was being surrounded by so much negativity – nobody really wanted to be in the band in anymore. Everybody was showing up to collect paychecks – we weren’t inspired anymore and we weren’t best friends anymore. At a certain point you stop faking it and get onstage and deliver the songs enough to where people don’t complain. But, looking back, they were lackluster performances. The last songs that I wrote were for my [solo] record Rockingham, which I wrote in the fall of 2015. So from 2015 to February 2017, when the band quit, I hadn’t written a song at all. For somebody who calls himself a songwriter, that was kind of intimidating. Should I keep doing this? Am I really a songwriter? Then I get this band together in August 2017 and it was like someone walked over to a water spigot and turned it on. I wrote the record in a couple of months; We were in the studio for eight days and we made a record. In my opinion, it’s a record I’m going to be able to stand on for a real long time.

Birmingham Stages: How did you put the new lineup together?

Barham: I didn’t know these guys. I knew a few of them in passing, but my drummer came to an Austin show on my solo tour and waited in line and said, “You think I can put a band together for you?” So he put together a shit-hot band of Texas guys and my pedal steel player lives in Nashville. We got together and practiced twice and went on the road for two months. That was a trial period of a getting-to-know-each-other phase. Can we tour together and get along? Can the songs stand up still? We took those songs to a bunch of our main markets to see if our crowd would accept a new band. The resounding answer was, “Yes.” This band is the best lineup I’ve had the opportunity to play with and that’s not knocking anybody in the past. It’s just a true statement and anybody that’s seen this band live will agree.

Birmingham Stages:¬†When you’re surrounded by negativity – as you were in the previous lineup – I assume you start to see the world through that lens.

Barham: I learned very quickly that if you surround yourself with negativity, you can’t help but look at the world through a negative filter. We weren’t always negative – when we started the band, we were on the same page. We were a bunch of kids in a van traveling around the country and playing songs that we all believed in. But – just like any marriage – when you’re with the same people for eight or nine years and you grow as people, you grown in different directions than the other people in the band. With the culmination of five or six [people] growing in different directions, there had to be a breaking point. That breaking point came in February 2017.

Birmingham Stages: With several albums in the American Aquarium catalog, how do you go about comprising your set lists these days? How have the new band members approached the older material?

Barham: Man, these guys are so open-minded about going back into the back catalog and trying to find some of the gems that have been forgotten. I’ll bring a song from the past that I like and my pedal still player will say, “That’s a terrible song – we’re not going to play it anymore.” We’re eight studio records deep right now and that’s 111 songs that we have to choose from any night and most nights we play 24 songs. Realistically, we should be able to mine a lot of the back catalog and get a pretty revolving set list every night to keep fans on their feet.

American Aquarium will perform at Saturn on Friday, June 29. Travis Meadows will open the 9 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $15 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.