With all of the beautiful music at this year's Rhythm N' Blooms festival, Raleigh, N.C., based American Aquarium's gritty, hard rock 'n' roll stands out from the more acoustic-based folksy acts. Frontman, B.J. Barham is proud of this fact.
Counting among his friends Shovels & Rope, Luke Jacobs and Langhorne Slim, to name a few, Barham found himself at home this past weekend for what he called a big "family reunion."
During the festival, The Daily Beacon staff writer Jenna Butz sat down with Barham to talk about the band's unique live shows, his self-proclaimed "not pretty" voice, and how American Aquarium fit into the Americana vibe of the weekend as a whole.
Jenna Butz: Why did you guys pick the name American Aquarium?
B.J. Barham: It comes from a Wilco song. They have a song called "I'm Trying to Break Your Heart" and the first line is, "I am an American aquarium drinker. I assassin down the avenue." And when I was 18 I thought that was the coolest name in the world for a band.
JB: Have you guys played in Knoxville before?
BJB: A couple times. We've played Barley's probably four or five times, and we did the Rhythm N' Blooms festival the first year they had it. The last time we were through we played a little place called The Tap, a tiny little room. Knoxville's like the last part of Tennessee that's building for us. Like, we do really well in Nashville and Chattanooga, Tri-Cities and Memphis. Knoxville is that last missing piece. So we keep coming here. The crowds have been nothing to brag about, but we keep coming here, we keep having fun. The people that do come out have a great time.
JB: How would you guys describe your sound?
BJB: We describe it as like a rock 'n' roll band from the South. But not southern rock. I'm from Raleigh – I'm actually from Reedsville, North Carolina, so I'm always gonna have an accent; I'm always gonna sound southern. It's like a rock 'n' roll band with a southern dude fronting it. It's not country music; we're not a country band; we're not a full-blown rock 'n' roll band; we're not a folk band. I guess Americana is the closest thing to it that would kind of fall under all the categories. Americana. That broad spectrum.
JB: Do you have a favorite song to play?
BJB: I like playing anything off our new record, "Burn.Flicker.Die." I think my favorite song to play is the newest song we have – it's called "Wolves." "St. Mary's" is one of my favorite songs we play off previous records. You know, every song I play every night, you play the same songs for six years – it's still fun to play, but it's not like as fun to play. Always the new stuff is more fun, more challenging, just because it's new.
JB: Do you guys play a lot of festivals?
BJB: Yeah, this is like the start of festival season. Springtime is where they kick in. We've probably got four in the next two months. It's always fun; it's a great atmosphere. We love it because a lot of bands that we know play them, so it's like a family reunion among bands. We all tour separately so much, and festivals are the time where we can get together for at least a day or two and just drink craft beer and listen to other bands play for once. It's really fun.
JB: What do you think makes you guys different from other bands playing Rhythm N' Blooms this year?
BJB: I don't know. I've noticed a lot of the bands playing are definitely more rootsy, folky, quiet acoustic, pretty. Like really pretty. Every band I've seen – they sound really pretty. And their voices are like pretty. And you can't get mad at it – it's extremely talented people. I don't have a pretty voice, we're a ragged rock 'n' roll band. Most of the stuff we've seen is very well-executed, pretty folk music. Tonight we're gonna get up there and play loud. And my voice is not pretty. It's my voice, so I'm happy about it. But we're not pretty. That's the one thing that separates us at any festival where there's acoustic-based folk music. I'm definitely more gritty. I've had a couple more whiskey drinks than I think most of these people have had.
JB: Who have you guys seen so far?
BJB: I saw Matthew Perryman Jones at The Standard. This is my good friend Luke Jacobs and his girlfriend Carrie Rodriguez. They're great. Elenowen was so great; they were really, really pretty. They did a Springsteen song and it was so pretty. I don't know, I can only listen to so much pretty before I want something else -- I can't relate to pretty; I relate to hard, lived-in stuff. I'm not saying they aren't lived-in, I'm just saying it's really f---ing pretty and I can only do that for so long.
JB: When does your new album come out?
BJB: We start recording in Asheville, North Carolina, in June. It should be out by the end of the year or early 2015. That's the goal.
JB: Describe to me what an American Aquarium show is like.
BJB: Rowdy. Usually a bunch of drunk a--holes, but I love everyone of them. I call them that in the most loving way possible. Tonight's going to be more laid back. We're going to try to play some pretty stuff, because it's very rare that you get to play early 1900 train stations that have been turned into music venues. We try to take advantage of these very nice venues where the crowd is sitting down. Because if they're not sitting down, they're usually up front pouring shots down their throat. We're excited for a change in venue. We're gonna be that one girl at the mall who comes in, in a torn dress and tries to be pretty. But it'll be fun. In that sense, we are kind of a country band; we want people to let loose. You don't have to sit back and sip wine. Get up and chug a beer or something.
JB: Do you like, dislike, don't care if it's a seated venue?
BJB: It's two different kinds of shows for us. If it's seated, I love it because I'm a songwriter, and at the base of everything I write songs on acoustic guitar. When people are sitting down, they're forced to listen. It's something that clicks in their head, like "Hey, I should pay attention to what's going on on stage." If we're standing, we feel like we can talk and be an a--hole.
JB: Besides the audience being seated, do you think there is a difference between the audience here versus your other shows?
BJB: For sure. Anytime you play a festival like this, the people coming are music fans at first. It's not like when you play at bars and maybe there's people who are just there to drink and cut loose. When you play music festivals, everyone is really into music, so you're always going to have a much more attentive crowd. I like both of them: the drunk a--holes and the music snobs.