It’s safe to say the last few years have been a pretty turbulent time for American Aquarium.
Originally from North Carolina, the blues-rock band released their debut album in 2006 and found critical and commercial success with 2013’s Burn.Flicker.Die, produced by Jason Isbell. Following their 2015 record Wolves and a solo release from frontman BJ Barham, the band dissolved in 2017. Nevertheless, Barham chose to continue and recruited a whole new lineup.
Following the release of their latest album Things Change earlier this month, I spoke to BJ about the new record, the band’s upcoming UK tour dates and what he’s learnt from touring.
You’re out on the Things Change tour in the US at the moment – how’s that going?
It’s going great. We’re currently on tour here in the States and we’re pretty much on tour all summer here.
What’s the audience response to hearing the new songs been like so far?
It’s been overwhelmingly great. A lot of our fans have really called this record our best record yet. A lot of people are really excited about it, and certainly that spurs you on when you can physically see what people are saying about your record, and a lot of folks seem to really like it. This is the biggest tour we’ve ever done – we’ve got more people coming out to the shows than ever before and they already know the words to the new songs. So we’re astounded.
You’re coming over to the UK in the autumn for three dates as well – what can fans coming to those expect?
We love coming over to the UK. It’s always a real treat for us. We didn’t start coming there until summer of 2017, so it’s kind of a new place, but I think we’re going to play a lot of full band shows. They’re my favourite. I wish we had more than three dates. Fingers crossed we’ll be able to come back soon.
Were there any songs on the new album that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?
A lot of the songs kind of just fell out. When I wrote this record I was in a really weird creative place. Most of the songs I wrote in one sitting, which is rare for me – usually I have to sit and kind of take a lot of time on songs. The flow of creativity on this record was unlike anything I’ve ever had before.
The album’s got quite a strong social and political slant to it but also feels like a very reasoned response to the current situation in the US. Was that something you were conscious of when you were putting it together?
Yeah, one of my jobs as a songwriter is to kind of observe what’s going on in the world right now. And I’m not gonna change anybody’s mind just telling them that they’re wrong. The only way you’re gonna change anyone’s mind about what they think is by having a discussion. I didn’t want this record to be condescending or a finger-pointing record. If anything I wanted this record to start a dialogue.
You’re also quite open about the toll of being on the road and the changes within the band on the record – why did you feel it was important to talk about that?
I’ve always been kind of an open writer. I write very autobiographical songs, and I write from a very true-hearted point of view. So when I’m talking about my sobriety, when I’m talking about the band and the changes within the band, when I’m talking about the election, when I’m talking about relationships and the road – I think you have to be as honest as possible.
You worked with John Fulbright on this record – what was that like?
It’s been amazing. John’s been an old friend for a very long time, so it’s always really, really great to get to make records not just with people you respect, but with people you actually like hanging out with. It feels like you’re making a record with a friend.
How did you meet your new bandmates?
Well, my drummer approached me at a solo show in Austin and said, ‘hey, I heard you had a band quite, can I put together a band for you?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I’d love some help’. So all the credit goes to Joey, our drummer, for realising this band in the shape we have.
You made a solo record in between the last American Aquarium album and this one. Was it a strange experience going from being in a band to a solo artist and back again?
The solo album was a departure for me. American Aquarium’s always been my main thing but the solo record was a collection of songs that weren’t really about me. It’s all fictional characters. It takes place in a real city which is my home town in North Carolina, but the songs were fictional. But with American Aquarium it’s extremely autobiographical. American Aquarium I’m writing about me as a person, so it’s not really hard to separate. I know when I’m writing truth and when I’m writing fiction. And with the solo record it was very much a fictional thing.
What’s the one thing you’ve learnt from touring?
That there are still good people in the world. You’re taught every day to be afraid of people and that there’s so much bad in the world. If touring has taught me one thing it’s taught me that. And not to quit.
If there was one song you wish you’d written, what would that be?
Oh, man! Anything Bruce Springsteen ever wrote [laughs]. I’m a really big Springsteen fan so I would have to say anything he wrote. He kind of set the bar for me as far as songwriting goes.
What does the rest of 2018 look like for you and the band?
We’re pretty much touring the rest of the year, and then I’m sure within a year, year and a half we’ll have to think about going back and making the next record.
American Aquarium’s album Things Change is available now. See the band on tour in the UK this autumn:
Tuesday 30 October – Bristol, Louisiana
Wednesday 31 October – Manchester, Night And Day
Thursday 1 November – London, Borderline