American Aquarium rises from its death bed with new album 

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Burn. Flicker. Die. was supposed to be the end for American Aquarium. It was all right there in the title, even as the clock struck zero and time for this hardworking, alt-country band’s flame to be extinguished finally came. The record — made with lauded songwriter Jason Isbell — wasn’t a last grasp at fame but a fond farewell to all those who had stuck along since American Aquarium’s 2006 formation.

But it wasn’t. In fact, quite the opposite happened when the album broke out further than anything they had done before. All of a sudden, the fire under their asses started burning harder than ever with album sales spiking and shows suddenly selling out.

The irony isn’t lost on the guys.

“How funny is it that the record about us not making it is the one that allowed us to make it?” frontman and songwriter BJ Barham said. “Go figure.”

It theoretically could have been anything — maybe the ceaseless touring schedule finally paying off, luck or some other factor not even on the band’s collective radar. The most likely culprit, though, was the hard-to-swallow subject at the album’s very core.

“Your biggest fear is being a failure,” Barham said of Burn. Flicker. Die.’s fixation on defeat. “Getting out of college and having to stare the real world down smack-dab in the eyes, it’s like ‘Shit. I was never prepared for this.’”

The band’s fifth studio album was all about that disillusionment and disappointment with reality. They wanted nothing more than to spend every day for the rest of their existence playing music for a living, and after years of touring the country to play to as few as handfuls of people, that dream was destined for death. So Barham shared all those frustrations of working toward what felt like nothing and found a crowd of listeners who identified deeply with those same feelings.

“It resonated with people,” Barham said. “It’s a record about failure and working hard, not getting anywhere and having to give up on it. It hit our fans, and hit them hard.”

Roots in North Carolina means hard work runs in Barham’s veins, and he has witnessed his fair share of friends and family struggle hard for something and fail all the same … a fate he was prepared to accept.

“I come from a super blue-collar family,” Barham said. “Needless to say, I was taught from an early age that if you want something, you’ve got to work hard for it. No one’s going to hand it to you.” That’s what pushed him in even those darkest of times, when success in music felt furthest out of reach.

“There are plenty of bands that make great records who just wait for something to come to them,” Barham said. “I don’t think that happens anymore. You’ve got to earn it.”

That’s a feeling that bonds all the artists that hail from the alt-country wellspring that is Raleigh, North Carolina, the town responsible for Ryan Adams, Whiskeytown and Tift Merrit with The Avett Brothers coming from just down the road a ways (Concord).

“It’s the hotbed for that music,” Barham said. “It’s these punk rock kids who play country music. It’s the idea of working for what you got. It’s the music of the working man.”

And boy is Barham glad that all the blood, sweat, tears and miles out on the road have given him the future he has now. The freshly married frontman is on top of the world and living a dream, and it made the previously impossible seventh studio album Wolves a breeze to create.

“I’ve never been able to write about happy,” he said. “I’ve only ever been able to write about sad, about breaking up, about girls walking away. I’m 100 days sober, and it’s about getting away from all those things that had really held me down for all those years.”

The album also broadens the horizons from American Aquarium’s previous few “earthy” records to include a more heavily alt-rock indebted sound, tipping the scales in the direction of Dawes or Shovels & Rope.

“You can’t make the same record over and over again,” Barham said. “That gets boring. We made several more traditionally country-sounding records, so we wanted to go with a slightly different style of music. It’s still in that realm, but it’s pushing where that realm could be.”

Where Flicker. Burn. Die. centered on failure, Wolves is centered on success and happiness, and Barham won’t soon forget that its his loyal bandmates that kept him and American Aquarium — playing New Year’s Eve at Wormy Dog Saloon — moving even at the weakest points.

“That’s who we are. It’s about being a pack,” Barham said of the album’s title. “We eat together, we stay together, we travel together … and we look out for each other. This record is the culmination of that.”

Print headline: Working men, American Aquarium rises from its death bed with a new album and newfound success.

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