Every American Aquarium record is a snapshot of a few years of bandleader B.J. Barham’s life. So when the Raleigh songwriter calls the band’s upcoming record “Things Change,” he means it.
“Since (the previous record), I got married, I got sober, I had an entire band quit on me, I had an entire band join me,” he said. “We had a presidential election that split our country in half, and I found out a few months back that I’m going to be having a baby girl in April.”
American Aquarium plays its annual Roadtrip to Raleigh Jan. 26 and 27 at Lincoln Theatre. The country-rock band keeps a busy touring schedule, playing hundreds of shows nationwide annually. Yet Barham wants to keep hometown shows special, so the two Roadtrip to Raleigh dates usually are it. (They did headline the Groove in the Garden music festival this summer.)
“We do it as a way to invite all of our friends from around the country to come see how cool Raleigh is for a weekend,” the 33-year-old songwriter says
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These draw fans from all over who want to see American Aquarium on their home turf. Last year’s Roadtrip to Raleigh, for instance, brought people from 34 states and three countries to Raleigh specifically for these shows.
With all these changes, this Roadtrip to Raleigh will be a different scene indeed – new band, new daughter on the way and a whole new batch of songs, courtesy of the new album due out in May.
After Roadtrip to Raleigh, Barham will be changing his own approach to meet the new shape of his life.
“I got two babies coming out, basically, within a month of each other,” he jokes.
With a daughter on the way, Barham knows he can’t be gone 250-plus days a year, not like he used to. So he’s talked with songwriter friends of his, including Jason Isbell and Joe Pug, about how they balance touring with parenting. Going forward, Barham wants to be a working musician and also a good dad, so his plan isn’t to stop touring, but to tour smarter.
“It’s about doing three or four weeks (on the road), and then taking two or three months off and enjoying the life that this music thing has afforded me,” he says.
For starters, Barham will be off the last few months of his wife, Rachael’s, pregnancy, and then another month off after his daughter is born. Then there’s a six-week American Aquarium tour to promote “Things Change,” after which Barham plans to stay home for most of the year.
“It’s not worth it to work as hard as I do if I can’t enjoy it,” he says. “I’ve put 12 years of extremely hard touring in. 2018 is about me taking some time off and focusing on my family.”
New band members
Barham recently lost a family, too. With American Aquarium’s tour schedule, he was around his bandmates more than his wife. It’s like seeing family over the holidays, he ventures. On tour, you see your fellow musicians at their best and their worst.
“After eight years, sometimes those small negative things that really eat at you, they become this cancer,” Barham says. “Toward the end of the band, it was tumultuous, it was toxic, it was not fun for anybody. It was not conducive to creativity at all.”
In 2017, every member of the last lineup of American Aquarium quit in short succession. Barham has since formed a new lineup, but he misses his friends in the old band. The bandleader volunteers he was in the wrong and that he was part of the reason they left. So one of the songs on “Things Change” is an open letter to his former bandmates in which Barham simply expresses his hope that they can one day look back fondly on the time they spent together.
“It might be a year, it might be 10 years, but hopefully one day we can look back on the time we had together and say, ‘Hey, we did something cool. We had fun,’” Barham says.
Yet “Things Change” is an American Aquarium album. Accordingly, Barham says to expect a bombastic, electrified set of songs.
“It’s a big rock and roll record,” he says. Sure, there’s give and take between acoustic ballads and rock tunes, he says, but it’s mostly his version of an anthemic rock record. Yet, per his songwriting style, it’s still an introspective, intimate album.
“I write extremely chronologically and I write extremely autobiographically,” Barham says. “Records for me kind of serve as a 2 1/2 year snapshot of my life since the last record. A lot has changed since the last record, ‘Wolves,’ was recorded in 2014.”
But in addition to assembling a new band, Barham is branching out musically.
“I’ve always been extremely outspoken with my politics in my personal life,” says Barham. Yet he really hasn’t touched on it musically – not until “Things Change,” at least.
“This is a completely different time that we live in. I felt like I needed to say something. Especially in this administration, I never wanted my silence to be complacency,” Barham says. “I wanted to take a very clear stand on this current administration ... and how I think we’re taking steps back and how I think that we can do a lot better as a people, especially as a Southern people.”
The rural North Carolina-raised Barham has an ideologically diverse fan base, courtesy of steady touring through secondary markets – that is, small towns and rural areas – and he’s sure many in his audience don’t agree with him politically. A lot of musicians in this position are cautious about being politically vocal because they don’t want to alienate their fans.
“But I am also an artist. I have a voice,” says Barham. “ I feel like me saying something, even if it changes one or two people’s minds, I feel like that’s my responsibility.”
Corbie Hill is a Pittsboro-based freelance writer. Contact him at email@example.com or follow on Twitter at @afraidofthebear.
What: American Aquarium’s Roadtrip to Raleigh
When: 9 p.m., Jan. 26 and 27
Where: The Lincoln Theatre. 126 E. Cabarrus St., Raleigh
Info: lincolntheatre.com. americanaquarium.com. 919-821-4111