BJ Barham is having a bad day. The gravelly voice of the country-leaning Raleigh rock band American Aquarium is stranded somewhere in New Mexico. The front axle on the outfit's van is shot, and the band has spent the previous three hours killing time at a Denny's — which Barham quips is the maximum time one can safely spend at the roadside diner chain. The repairs will likely cost about $1,000, and the group may have to cancel the night's tour stop in Colorado, meaning it could lose even more precious cash.
Despite all this, Barham is remarkably upbeat. "No worries," he says. "This shit happens."
The members of American Aquarium know that last fact all too well. Burn. Flicker. Die., the band's recently released fifth LP, details the trials and travails of road warriors beaten down by their hard-touring life. Aquarium plays about 300 dates a year, a pace that caught up with its members following 2010's Small Town Hymns. Barham's bandmates announced they were quitting on him, but he tempted them back with a plan to make another record. If they felt it was a failure, they'd give it up for good.
"It seemed like we were doing all the right things, but nothing was really taking off for us," Barham explains. "We were building a fan base slow and steady, but nothing monumental. So we had kind of a 'come to Jesus' talk. Pretty much, I told 'em, 'Hey, stick around. Let's make one more record, a make-or-break kind of record. If it keeps us at the same fucking level, then we're done. Let's just make sure to make a record that we're super proud of.'"
Burn is a reflection of a band whose lifestyle has resulted in concrete losses. Bassist Bill Corbin divorced his wife leading up to the album, a split Barham attributes to the overwhelming amount of time the band spends away from home. "Lonely Ain't Easy" was inspired by the separation. Broad-stroke strums and tearful peals of pedal steel and fiddle back Barham as he moans, "I was always gone/She was all alone/What chance did we have?"
Though it occurred after the album was recorded, another breakup left its fingerprints all over Burn. In April, Barham split with the fiancee he'd dated for about five years. The two were to be married this past July. With his band and relationship disintegrating around him, Barham was inspired to pen his most harrowing and honest songs to date, a collection that treats the band's anticipated end as a foregone conclusion.
"Some of it's a little too honest," Barham says. "Some of it's shit that I wrote and gasped at: 'Wow, I actually said that out loud.'
"When you're on the road 300 days a year, there's somebody sitting at home 300 days a year wishing you were there and wondering what you're doing," he continues. "A lot of times, I hate to admit it, but I wasn't the best of people on the road. The road's a very funny mistress. It takes its toll on your relationship and you as a person. It's super hard; it's nothing I'd ever wish on anybody, but it's something that everybody in our band goes through."
No song puts the band's hemorrhaging motivation in sharper focus than "Casualties." Written by Barham while Aquarium was in the studio with ex-Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, it was the last tune recorded during the session. Building from resilient acoustic guitar, the track explodes into a pedal steel-propelled rocker graced by mournful organ and scarred by one of Barham's most guttural vocal performances.
"We ain't ever gonna to make it/The way I thought we would/So why can't we just pack up/And say we did the best we could?" Barham cries out. The band suspends its clamor, allowing his heartbreak to sink in. "I should have been a doctor or a lawyer," he continues, "or a policeman on patrol/Instead, I'm a casualty of rock 'n' roll."
In a strange twist of fate, "Casualties" and the rest of the brazenly bitter material on Burn have provided Aquarium with a reason to push forward. The album is on pace to become the band's most successful yet, an affirmation that the honesty and hard work haven't gone unnoticed.
"I think that we're at a really good point right now as a band," Barham says. "Morale is really high. It's been quite awhile since anybody struggled to pay their rent. It's almost like we're at a point right now as a band where we've weathered the storm. There's not much else that's going to surprise us. Tours are actually fairly lucrative — you know, minus your fucking front axle breaking."