Music Notes: Keeping the Dream Alive

by Steve Houk

Talented band American Aquarium postpones the end to find a new beginning.

American Aquarium plays The Hamilton in DC on October 23rd (photo courtesy Alysse Gafkjen)

American Aquarium plays The Hamilton in DC on October 23 (Photo Courtesy Alysse Gafkjen)

If you’re a budding songwriter like American Aquarium‘s B.J. Barham was 10 years ago, you take the passion you have for those who influence you and begin to craft a style, a sound of music of your own that is based on the impression they have left on you. And that devotion is at the heart of where Barham has been coming from for ten years as the band’s front man and principal songwriter, keeping the legacy of songwriting as art moving forward.

“People that made me start writing songs were Bruce Springsteen and Ryan Adams,” Barham told me while in the midst of a long July-October tour. “People that can paint pictures with words have always been something I was drawn to. And as far as me wanting to start a band and tour and be like an independent musician, it’s the Drive By Truckers and Lucero. So it was write good songs, have a good live show, and just take it to the people 300 days a year.”

And it looks like Barham’s North Carolina-born band is succeeding at doing just that. The first time I heard American Aquarium (a name taken from a Wilco song, another one of Barham’s faves), which was a few songs into their excellent new record “Wolves,” I thought, hey, that sounds like Ryan, like Whiskeytown, a little Patterson Hood thrown in, and yeah, there’e even some shades of Bruce. And lo and behold, along with their own original sound, those are all conscious vibes that Barham and his talented band bring to the table and that’s not a bad thing at all, because it all amounts to powerful and moving tapestries of words woven amidst hard driving alt country rock and roll power. And as part of those “300 days a year,” American Aquarium hits DC’s Hamilton on Friday, October 23.

AA started their road in 2006, and it was a blur of hundreds of shows every year, just trying to keep the train rolling. But Barham just wanted his band’s assurance they’d hang in there as long as things kept moving forward.

“I’m surprised I’ve kept a band together this long. On paper, we shouldn’t still be a band. Imagine me, walking up to a bunch of extremely talented players that could make a living just sitting at home playing studio stuff, and saying hey, I got this idea, let’s hit the road for three hundred days a year, for ten years, and not get paid the first seven of ’em, what do you say? I’ve been pretty fortunate to keep together a pretty shit-hot band for a decade now and I don’t think anybody’s walking away anytime soon. I said to ’em as long as you can see a little bit of growth every year, we need to stick with it. And we have.”

After a half dozen solid records and a pretty decent run, the band was totally whipped, and it looked like their pinnacle, their parting shot, would be 2012’s Jason Isbell-produced and appropriately titled “Burn. Flicker. Die.” The mindset was, well, we made it to here, exhausted, crawling, partied out, but intact, so this is why it’s over, and thanks. It was a happy surprise to everyone that the album was a critical and fan base success, pulling them off the ledge and pointing them towards a new dawn.

And cutting back on the excesses seemed like the right thing to do too, an always hard undertaking given a hard touring band’s lifestyle.

“We were given a new chance and we wanted to preserve it,” Barham said. “We realized that if we continued to put a bunch of f—ing drugs up our nose and drink a bunch of booze that we weren’t gonna make it to see 40, we weren’t gonna make it to buy houses, we weren’t gonna make it to have kids, to see the dream realized. Nobody loves the burnout story.”

And so far, they’ve kept on that fast track upward, filling halls and playing their memorable music, in addition to releasing the wonderful “Wolves” this year to positive reviews. It’s a record that seems to be clearly celebrating American Aquarium’s survival and rejuvenation, a good rock and roll success story, at least so far.

“We’re very fortunate to be where we are musically right now,” Barham continued. “Ten years of extremely hard work proves that the American dream is still alive and well. If you’re willing to work for something, and you’re willing to go out and risk everything, you can make it. We’ve carved out our own little piece of this thing and we’re able to make a living doing something we love every day. I don’t think it could be much better. Everything’s firing pretty good. Shows are better. Crowds are better. We’re all making a living these days. I don’t have anything to complain about.”


American Aquarium performs Friday, October 23 at The Hamilton, 600 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here.  

Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for and his own blog at He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover bands  Second Wind  and Heywoodja plus a Rolling Stones cover band and other local rock ensembles.

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