Interview: For American Aquarium, the More ‘Things Change’, the More They Stay the Same
BJ Barham doesn't want to be cliche, dropping his band's new album's title into conversation to describe his life recently -- but, yeah, things have changed. Personally, professionally and politically, the world is a heck of a lot different than when American Aquarium released their last album, Wolves, in 2015.
Since early 2017 alone, Barham has seen all of his previous bandmates quit, assembled a new version of American Aquarium, toured solo (57 shows in 59 days in 48 states) and welcomed a baby girl with his wife Rachael. Add all of that to the many massive world events of 2017, and Barham had quite a bit to write about for Things Change, American Aquarium's new album, out Friday (June 1).
"Since I’ve been in my 30s, the two albums I’ve written, I’ve had a lot to write about: sobriety, marriage, a kid, an election and now an entire departure of a band," Barham tells The Boot. "So, with this record, the well was pretty deep … I think I touched on just about every aspect of things that have changed in my life.”
The 10 tracks on Things Change, Barham says, focus "a little more on the bigger picture: me as a person, me as a human being and kind of how I'm viewing the current state of our country." He "couldn't be any more proud" of the finished product, he adds.
"I think my writing has evolved a lot," Barham reflects. "I like to think that I took a step with this record."
Things Change is intensely personal, but also wholly universal. For example, while Barham is clearly talking about his former bandmates in "When We Were Younger Men," the song will resonate with anyone who's ever found themselves drifting from a once-close friend.
"Those relationships, they fade, they fracture, but in the long run, I think it’s human nature to want to look back on things positively," Barham reflects. "That song was written almost as an open love letter to six guys that I spent most of my 20s with ... saying, 'Yeah, I know we had our differences, and I know we didn’t see eye to eye all the time, but we did have some good moments, and I hope that, one day, you can look back on that and think about the good moments.'"
Since forming American Aquarium in 2006, Barham has seen his share of bandmates come and go (more than his share, really; the band has featured more than 30 different members). He's never made an album with the exact same iteration of the band as the last album -- but the changeover prior to Things Change is the first time American Aquarium's entire lineup has left at once. Barham admits that, while he's supportive of his former bandmates' decisions to leave, and the breakup was an amicable one, the mood within American Aquarium before the split wasn't positive, and wasn't conducive to creativity.
"[There was] a lot of negatively, a lot of hostility, and I adapted to that. I completely shut myself off creatively," Barham shares. "I surrounded myself with a new band that is positive, and they want to be here and they love the songs, and that made a huge difference to me.”
Barham calls American Aquarium's newest lineup "arguably the best band I’ve ever had the opportunity to play with." It's not a jab at his former bandmates; it's just that, with this lineup change, Barham actively sought out professional musicians for the first time, rather than asking friends or friends of friends. Everyone has "youthful positivity" -- a quality Barham says everyone he's made music with possesses at the start.
"[But] you watch that positivity fade: People get jaded; negatively starts to feed," he says. "A band like us, we’ve never been a buzz band … This has been a gradual growth ... and I think, a lot of those guys, the slow growth just took their toll on them."
I surrounded myself with a new band that is positive, and they want to be here and they love the songs, and that made a huge difference to me.
Barham refuses to let himself be one of those done in by the biz, though. Re-forming American Aquarium was a no-brainer, and he was going to do it right: "I didn't want to put together a makeshift band and go out and half-ass play these songs," he says.
"I had more to say ... Why would I break up a band that I feel like still has life in it?" Barham reflects. "American Aquarium is my outlet to write autobiographical songs about my life and myself and my experience, so I wasn't going to let a group of guys make that call for me."
Still ... things have changed: Barham's 34 years old, and a dad. His bandmates are all married; one of them also has kids. The road-warrior mentality of American Aquariums past -- the feeling of needing to play live and be working pretty much constantly -- is still there, but it's tempered now. The new rule is, for however long the band stays on the road, they have to then spend that much time at home.
"Being on the road will always kind of be the life force of this band," Barham says, "we just have to do it smarter. We have to tour smarter and more strategically."
It helps that, these days, Barham is less worried about American Aquarium losing momentum without constant touring ... but only a little less worried. He's still constantly proving to himself that he can balance music and his personal life -- and that, he says, will probably never change.
"I don’t think my mind works like that," he admits. "The one thing that I’ve made an entire career out of is work ethic … It was something about growing up in a blue-collar town; it's just something that doesn’t cross our minds, slowing down and stopping working."
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