American Aquarium Frontman Talks About the Tracks on the Alt-Country Band's New Album

Since singer-songwriter BJ Barham released his 2016 solo album, Rockingham, he’s completely retooled his band American Aquarium, which he helped found in 2006.

He took a new lineup on the road last fall on a “trial run” to fine tune the songs he’d then record for his new album, the just-released Things Change. “That was beyond anything I could have ever imagined,” he says of that trial run.

During this recent phone interview, Barham talks about each track on the album. He brings American Aquarium to the Beachland Ballroom at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 7. Corey Branan opens.

“The World is on Fire”

“The title is pretty self-explanatory. It’s my commentary on the current state of things in our country. I wrote that song the day after the recent presidential election. You can see the progress in that song. The first verse has a lot of anger and fear and questions. I didn’t want to fight hate and anger with hate and anger, so I put it off to the side. I didn’t know what that song would be. When I did my nationwide tour last year, I got to talk to people in Nebraska and Washington and South Dakota and Cleveland about who they voted for and why they voted for them. I was trying to wrap my head around it and just listen to people. People don’t want to be told they’re wrong. They just want people to know why they feel the way they feel. The second verse is about packing up my car and looking for answers. I couldn’t write a hook because I was still in a negative mind frame. But As soon as I got back from that tour, I found out that my wife and I were expecting our first child. The third verse ends on a hopeful note. It’s about no matter what my generation does to fuck things up, we still have hope in the next generation and we’re teaching them to be good people. The chorus came after the third verse and I wrote a chorus that’s very hopeful. It’s a pretty triumphant opening number. We come out of the gates swinging with this. We don’t warm you up. There’s no first or second gear. We start out in overdrive.”

“Crooked + Straight”

“This whole record is about my life changing. Since we made the last record, I’ve gotten married and gotten sober and I bought a house. I had an entire band quit. I had an entire band join. We had a presidential election that split our country in half. I had a daughter. Every song touches on that. This song shows the evolution of me coming from a small town and a strict Southern Baptist upbringing to questioning things. It’s like I want to know if this is right or what I was taught. I question my religion and then I question if I should rebuild the band. The song is a play on that adage about when life gives you lemons, and I think it’s an anthem people can get behind no matter what side of the aisle they’re on. I don’t think anyone can argue with hard work and perseverance."

“Tough Folks”

“It’s the single off the record. It touches on some political views, but it’s about how we need to stop bitching about the current situation and do something to change it. It’s about how if you don’t like the lot you’ve been given in life, you need to change it. If anyone listens to the first couple of songs and thinks they’re just political songs, it’s selective hearing at that point. They’re just hearing a couple of lines. These songs are about making things better for yourself because no one else is going to go out of their way to make your life better. It’s getting hell yeahs and fist bumps when we play it live. It’s that kind of song.”

“When We Were Younger Men”

“It’s full-blown about the band. In February of 2017, I had my band of eight years quit at the same time. This whole record was about trying to stay positive and make things better. This record is about trying to stay positive and making things better. I didn’t want to write a hateful vindictive song. I wanted to write about the good times. Hopefully, one day they can look at the good times they spent in the band instead of focusing on the last couple of months, which were pretty venomous. Hopefully, they can look past that.”

“One Day at a Time”

“It’s about my sobriety. That’s always an exercise in self-analysis. It’s about how did I go from a teenager who liked to drink a few beers on the weekends with his friends to someone with a full-blown problem. That song follows how it escalated into heavy drinking and drug use to hitting rock bottom and coming out the other side a little wiser about the situation. It’s from a bird’s eye view hovering above it all and trying to figure out it all went wrong.

“Things Change”

“It’s being in my mid-30s and looking back and thinking it’s my fault. The hardest thing is to accept blame. It’s something my 20-year-old self would never do. As I get older, I try to break down the relationship between the listener and myself and make things as raw and honest as possible. They can apply that sheer honesty to their personal lives. It’s me raising my hand and saying that I did as much as anyone to fuck this thing up.”

“Work Conquers All”

“It’s the state motto of Oklahoma. It’s such a rad motto. It’s one I can get behind and that’s the work ethic of this band and what we’ve built this thing on for the past 12 years. When we started recording in Oklahoma, I realized I had to include that on the album in some capacity. If you don’t like where you’re at, go out and find your place in the world. No harm has ever been done from working hard. That song echoes that sentiment. I was taken aback by how cool a motto that is.”

“I Gave Up Drinking”

“I don’t write too many playful songs. I write extremely serious songs and upbeat rockers. I don’t write many smirkish, playful songs. I took a card out of the John Prine playbook. I want the listener to listen to the narrator who’s singing with a little bit of a smirk on his face. I wanted to write a Waylon honky-tonk drinking anthem about not drinking. That’s what that is. It’s a hat tip to the ‘70s cosmic country stuff that I fell in love with as a kid. It’s about singing about a theme in country music but in the opposite way we’re used to hearing about it. Country music is all about the whiskey and the late nights and the road. This song is about walking away from that stuff for another theme in country music, which is true love."

“Shadows of You”

“It wouldn’t be an American Aquarium record without a sad bastard break up song. That’s a song that analyzes having something and then losing something and then realizing what you lost. The first side is a super rock record. The second side is an homage to the country music i was brought up. It’s almost like a classic country waltz in the vein of Willie Nelson. It’s about having that person no matter where you go.”

“Til the Final Curtain Falls”

“The name alone would have warned you this song is the closer. This record is about things that change. I wanted to leave the record with something that doesn’t change, which is me and my wife’s relationship. This is an eternal love song. The first verse is a show business-based thing. It’s ‘I’m going to love you until the show’s over.’ The third verse is that no matter where we go after this, I’ll be right there with you. I wanted to end on something constant. The one thing that doesn’t change for me is the thing that I can invest my faith in. That’s my wife. She’s the one person who hasn’t left. She watched the election with me and brought my daughter into the world. It ends on the one thing that can’t change, which is the love for my wife.”

American Aquarium, Corey Branan, 8 p.m. Thursday, June 7, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15,

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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