American Aquarium celebrate newfound fame with a stop at Wormy Dog Saloon 

click to enlarge ALYSSE GAFKJEN
  • ALYSSE GAFKJEN

After nearly a decade’s worth of earnest work and handshaking — and more than a touch of booze — frontman and songwriter BJ Barham can finally say he’s seen his band reach a triumph that can only be called American.

After years of relentless touring, Raleigh, North Carolina, alt-country act American Aquarium found a level of critical recognition and financial success that it had given up on.

“When I started doing it [American Aquarium], I said I was going to give myself like two years to make it,” Barham said. “And then two years came and went, and I said I was going to give myself another two, and another two.”

In 2012, the group released its sixth studio album, Burn. Flicker. Die., as a collection of swan songs. Instead, it became its most well-received and profitable record to date.

Concerts sold out and people paid attention. Fans and critics recognized the record as a culmination of pure grit and a seemingly endless string of road gigs.

Dedication

“Our fanbase was built one-at-a-time, and it’s not because some giant record label put a bunch of money behind us,” Barham said during a recent (and rare) phone interview from his home. He estimated the sextet spends 250 to 300 days a year on tour.

click to enlarge ALYSSE GAFKJEN
  • ALYSSE GAFKJEN

“There’s no band, in my opinion, that wants to play the way that we do,” he said. “We go out there every single day, and we work our asses off to make sure that tomorrow we get to do it again.”

That ethos earned these “six assholes from North Carolina” a unique relationship with its Oklahoma and Texas fans, he said, which helped make this region the act’s “second home.”

“We’re singing honest songs about everyday people, and I think that’s why they take hold of it,” he said.

Barham remembers early tours in which bandmates relied on fans at shows to find places to crash for a night or two. Only once, he proudly said, did they have to sleep in their van.

It’s a kindness Barham reciprocates at every bar and merch table.

American Aquarium’s latest release, Wolves, was 100 percent crowdfunded, as was Burn. Flicker. Die. Getting fans to essentially buy albums before they’re recorded is a strategy that likely would not have been realistic half a decade ago, he said. But these days, the act does things on its own terms.

Acceptance

For example, Wolves itself marked a stylistic leap for the band.

In addition to adapting a more thorough and nuanced sound, thematically, Barham considers it his most serious and reflective work.

A lot has happened to him since the release of his previous album: The band’s popularity exploded, he found sobriety and he got married.

Early in the writing and recording process, he worried that fans would reject his personal growth and newfound lack of recklessness. But yet again, the band’s pluck and perseverance were rewarded.

Barham said fan response has been great, and in many ways, is more meaningful than ever before.

It can’t be too surprising, though, that American Aquarium faithful connect with the record.

“I’ve had a lot of guys come up to me and say, ‘I got sober because of you,’” Barham said. “That’s a really, really powerful thing. Like, words that I wrote on a piece of paper, I’m literally watching [them] change someone’s life for the better.”

At each show, Barham said he’s reminded of the goodness in humanity and that goals can be reached only if he refuses to quit.

“If you want something hard enough and you’re willing to work at it, you can have it,” he said. “That’s the American dream.”

Print headline: American spirit, This North Carolina six-piece finds its home in Oklahoma.

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James Benjamin

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