On the Edge: American Aquarium

(Seated) B.J. Barham; (standing, from left) Bill Corbin, Ryan Johnson, Whit Wright and Kevin McClain

photo by Michael Livingston

Not every act sets out to be a country singer or a rock star or even a bluegrass band. Some just want to make music, and sometimes that falls beyond the boundaries of definable formats. Enter American Aquarium. 

“The most generic thing to do is call it Americana or alt-country,” says Aquarium frontman B.J. Barham. “That can encompass everything from folk music to pop-country. But we’re definitely not a pop-country band, we’re definitely not anything I think Nashville would ever touch with a 20-foot pole. I don’t think we’re straight-edged enough.” He’s neither apologizing nor boasting with that comment, but merely understating the eclectic and energetic nature of their music. 

In fact, “energetic” is an understatement in itself. American Aquarium has released seven projects in six years, including an EP and a live album, with B.J. writing all of the music. “I write what I know, I write about what’s currently in my life,” he says. “The first four records are each relationships I had when I was writing the record. This record is more about my relationship between the road and the band I’m in.” 

“This record” is their seventh album, Burn.Flicker.Die. And first-timers dipping into the Aquarium will find it pretty representative of what the band does. Even B.J. says, “It’s the best record that this band has put out as far as a cohesive record that we can all be proud of. This is going to be a record that five years from now we’re going to say, ‘Man, that was really fun to make.’ And the songs are going to stand up.” 

And while they don’t stake claims in contemporary country music, the album’s first single, “Lonely Ain’t Easy,” is a fiddle-and-steel-driven waltz lamenting lost love. “It’s the closest thing to a country song that I think we have,” B.J. says. “We’re definitely a rock ’n’ roll band . . . a twangy rock ’n’ roll band, but we’ve got a pedal steel, so we at least get some credibility points there.” It’s true. Burn.Flicker.Die. is loaded with tracks that frame B.J.’s gritty, raw vocals with booming guitars and thumping drums. It also provides a good tease for what their live show is like. 

“That’s what brings everybody in,” he says with a proud smile. “We’re a band that is learning how to do the studio thing, but our natural environment is the stage. We do it every night, 200 shows a year. That’s what we’re really good at and that’s what we’re strong at. Our worst show, our show that we beat ourselves up about is better than a lot of bands I’ve seen live.” (The proof is when they break into crowd favorite “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart.”) 

With a calendar full of shows and a new record about every nine months, American Aquarium is showing no signs of slowing down, but B.J. won’t commit to a new album yet. “I’m very much a snapshot writer. Who knows what the next one is going to be about? I just hope I don’t get too happy,” he says. “I hope I don’t start writing cheesy love songs.” 

Burn. Flicker. Die. from Mikey Livingston on Vimeo.

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