“It seems like every time I go abroad,” American Aquarium’s BJ Barham tells CMT.com, “a terrorist attack happens.”
And he ain’t lyin’.
Most of his latest album Rockingham was written in a hotel room in Amsterdam in the days following the Paris terrorist attacks on Nov. 13, 2015. That night, the band was onstage headlining a concert in Belgium and after the show they had to leave the country immediately before the border closed.
In July 2016, he was traveling with his wife in France when a terrorist drove a cargo truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France. That attack took the lives of 87 people.
Before an American Aquarium show in March at London’s Borderline, Barham was jogging through Westminster when another terrorist drove a car into pedestrians along the south side of the Westminster Bridge before he crashed into a fence surrounding the British Parliament, abandoned his vehicle and fatally stabbed an unarmed police officer. That attack lasted less than two minutes, injured 50 people and killed five.
“It was a terrible thing that happened,” Barham said of the London attack. “But luckily, the police there handled it as efficiently as humanly possible. They kept the crowd calm, and three hours later, we were playing a packed rock ‘n’ roll show. It was scary for a moment, but then you realized they were prepared and that was a good thing.”
Cancelling the gig that night wasn’t an option either.
“I had this talk with Chris Shifflett from the Foo Fighters,” Barham said. “They were in Europe at the same time we were in November 2015 when the Paris attacks happened. They canceled the entire tour and flew back home the next morning. For us, it’s never a question of, ‘We should cancel this tour and go back home and be safe.’
“We’re still at a point where we’re working musicians. We make a living, but we make a very modest living. Those tours are booked very specifically to make sure we cover all of our expenses. And to cover all our expenses, we have to play all those shows.”
In a social media post in April, Barham announced that the spring European tour was the last for American Aquarium’s current lineup of musicians. But it’s not the end of the band. Barham will tour with a new lineup starting in September.
“Calling us brothers is a severe understatement,” Barham said. “But those guys are my best friends, and it will stay that way I hope. They gave me their entire 20s to travel the country and take my songs to people. Some of these guys, we were playing up to 300 shows a year. I’m a lifer. I don’t think anybody runs as hard as I do, and I don’t give myself time off. If the band takes a break, I’ll go on a solo tour for a month.”
Barham says his new Great 48 Tour is his most ambitious one to date. The acoustic run will hit 53 shows in 59 days starting Sunday (May 7) in Charleston, West Virginia.
“Me, my wife and my dog have a rental gigantic van and, yeah, every day is about a six-hour drive. Some of the days — I think there are three or four doozies — which are over 10 hours. It’s going to be pretty intense. This is our fifth summer that me and her have went out with the dog. Usually, we just stick in the South. This year, we decided to do a full-blown, nationwide tour.”
CMT: I guess you’ll sleep when you’re dead?
Barham: Exactly. Call me back on July 8 the day after this thing ends and ask me if I’m still as excited about it. I’ve had a couple of weeks off the road, which is funny for me to say. I’ve been off the road for almost a month, which is the most time I’m had off in 11 years. So I’m pretty stoked to get back on the road, needless to say.
Do you have an idea what your set list will be?
The good thing is, since I’m not playing with the band, I can pretty much play anything I’ve ever recorded. So, every night on these acoustic shows, it’s really fun for me because I get to gauge the audience. If they’re a little more of a rowdier crowd, I’ll have a little bit more of a rowdier set.
American Aquarium has recorded 92 songs in the last 10 years. There’s a lot that gets left off the cutting room floor. This acoustic tour allows me to pick some of those scraps up and kind of rework them and see if they still work after all these years.
One of my favorite parts about your shows is that you’re very candid with your audience and there’s a real connection there.
My fans are family. I cut my teeth in a situation a bunch of people probably wouldn’t want to be in. So I kind of spent eight years of my life fine-tuning the art of banter, because if my songs aren’t going to get the people, at least I can try and make them laugh or tell them a story they can relate to. Also, I tell a few jokes every show just to lighten the mood because my solo sets get real heavy. Some of the lyrical matter is just … I have to tell a joke here and there. Nobody wants 90 minutes of sadness. And I try to find a happy medium so that everybody leaves feeling a range of emotions without sounding too artsy.
I’m sure American Aquarium fans have been curious about the new lineup.
I’m totally open about it. Me and pretty much all the guys in the current iteration of the band decided to part ways. It wasn’t anything ill-willed. Our priorities when we were in our early 20s change by the time we were in our mid-30s. We all sat down, we had dinner together and it just made sense for everybody to step away. None of these guys were original members. I’ve had 26 members in American Aquarium since 2006. Turnover is something I’m used to. Turnover is part of the game when you’re a musician for over 10 years. Talk to Son Volt or Wilco. Hardly any of those people are original members.
Talk about some of the material that you’re looking forward to recording.
I’m working on a record called Things Change. It’s kind of obvious about what it’s about. It’s about life happening. For me, my best writing comes from conflict. It comes from chaos. It comes from sudden and abrupt changes in my day-to-day activities that make me reflect.
The past couple of years, I’ll be completely honest, other than writing Rockingham, I haven’t had a lot to bitch about. I’m married, I have a house, I’m in a successful band. The shows are great. Fans are great. I really don’t have a lot to bitch about. So as soon as all this transpired, it really re-clicked that creative energy that I’ve kind of been missing for a while.
I wrote six or seven songs the first week everybody left, and it’s been an exercise in sitting down every day and trying to focus on what I want out of life and what I see the next 10 years being. This is definitely a reflective breakup record. But instead of it being a romantic breakup, it’s a breakup with a best friend. And it’s a neat thing. It’s about not holding animosity or a lot of negative feelings. It’s about accepting the fact that no matter how good it is, things are going to change. Either it’s going to get better, or it’s going to get worse. That’s life, and it’s about dealing with that.
Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. If you deal with both of them in a positive way, I think you’re going to get through it. I think a lot of people need that record right now, especially with what we’re going through. It’s slightly politically charged. But it’s going to be a neat record. I’m excited to see what people think about it. It’s still in the infant stages right now. I can’t wait to record it in the fall.
Is there a particular direction in sound you’re going for?
It’s still going to be the same kind of honesty that they’ve come to expect from American Aquarium records — just a different sound. Every record that we’ve ever made has a different sound, partially because every record we’ve ever made has had a different band on it. We’ve never made a record with the same band consecutively — either a member left or a new member got added. I think that’s where the evolution of our sound came from. I was just playing a bunch of different musicians every time. And it’s just going to be the same thing this time. It’s going to be me and five new guys getting into a room and seeing what we can cook up. And luckily, I’ve got some pretty talented friends.