A few weeks ago, American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham got a little more than he expected from Twitter—and, to be fair, I had a lot to do with it. His band’s van had been stolen and destroyed in Indianapolis; in an online eulogy, the band shared that the van was jokingly called “Rape Van Winkle,” language that I and several others admonished.
After the online standoff settled, Barham and I caught up and cleared the air one recent afternoon at Joule in Raleigh. We talked about some of the other hurdles the band’s had to deal with—the van theft, the gear loss, navigating unexpected success. Tonight, Barham plays a solo set at Slim’s, and the band will finish up its next LP, Wolves, later this summer. Barham estimates it’s about 57% done, and the band is hoping to release it early next year after working on it a little more at Echo Mountain Recording Studios in Asheville.
INDY: You were thinking of doing solo stuff on your own before Burn. Flicker. Die. picked up the way it did. What made you want to do that?
BJ BARHAM: Before Burn. Flicker. Die. came out, we were all just talking about hanging it up. We’d been touring at that point for six years, seven years, making zero progress—spinning the wheels, basically. Everybody was just tired of making no money. I was living in a storage unit on Capital Boulevard for three years during that process. It sucked. The band was like, yeah, we’re done, so I had to start really thinking, if I’m going to keep doing this, I have to do it solo. I started writing a lot of songs, and a lot of songs ended up being Burn. Flicker. Die. It brought us to this national level of being able to do it. We’re full-time musicians now. Back then, we were all kind of busting hump just to pay any kind of rent, to get by.
I’m getting ready to do a solo tour, starting at Slim’s. I do it once a year just because I love it. I love going out, playing small rooms in front of people that really give a shit about the songs. The American Aquarium shows are about the experience—it’s a really full band, it’s a fun time. My acoustic shows are not fun. They’re depressingly sad. At the root of all the American Aquarium songs, they’re still pretty depressing songs. They’re just really upbeat. So people are like, “Oh, it’s a happy song!” And I’m just like, “No, it’s not! Listen to what you’re dancing to!” Solo shows really give me a chance to play the songs the way I wrote them, and tell the stories behind them without people going “Play another song!”
How has the reception of your solo stuff been different from full-band American Aquarium?
On first listen, a lot of people get put off by the American Aquarium stuff. It’s loud. It’s boisterous. There’s no “cool” about it. Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill is really, really cool, and a lot of their bands sound really cool. We do not sound cool. We’re just a good bar band. This new record changes everything. Brad Cook produced our new record, and it’s a little bit cooler. But for the most part, when you see us live, we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. We’re straight ahead.
A lot of people are really put off by that, but I’ve had some of the hipster elite come to the acoustic show and they’re like, “Oh, man, you’re a really great songwriter.” And I’m like, “These are the same songs I play with the band!” And they’re like “Oh!” It’s been funny, over the last couple of years, when I’m playing the acoustic shows, to see some of the indie rock royalty around here kind of at least tip their hat in respect. They may not like what I do, but at least they respect me. If only I could get the other one-percenters of the indie music scene to actually just give it a listen, I think some of them might actually like it. But that’s another fight.
What happened with your van?
We had an amazing show in Indianapolis, Ind., a packed house at the Old National Centre. It’s this gorgeous theater in downtown Indianapolis. So then we go this Wyndham—it’s not a Motel Six, it’s not a Travelodge, it’s a nice hotel—and we park our van outside. The next morning, we get up, and the van’s not there. We walk around the building to make sure one of the guys didn’t move it. The van’s still not there. After eight years, the worst possible thing you can imagine happened.
So we called the cops, and they were like, “Oh, we found your trailer on the side of the road already.” We go to look at the trailer—shit’s missing. They have our van, and they have a bunch of gear. The Indianapolis PD was amazing. They tracked down the van, but they totaled our van. They cut the brake lines, they put water in the gas tank, they took all the lugs off the wheels. They ripped up the interior. They went through every possible bag and just dumped it out. They took the weirdest things—they took our dreamcatcher off of our rearview, they took a teddy bear we had sitting up in the window. They took a picture of me and my girlfriend—creepiest things ever. They took some really cheap guitars, but then they left some extremely expensive guitars.
There was really no rhyme or reason. I think they were looking for money or tools, and they realized they didn’t rip off a work truck. They actually ripped off a musician truck and they were just mad. We got the van back, and it was declared totaled. Luckily one of our fans stood up and was like, “I rented you a pick-up truck and a car to get the trailer and everything back home.” We still had six days—and we didn’t miss one day of tour. We had people offer to come to Indianapolis and pick us up and drive us to Louisville, our next show. It was insane. I guess now, still, six guitars are out on the loose. Hopefully they get returned. If not, thank God for insurance.
And in the aftermath of this came the Twitter beef.
We got a lot of flack. We called our van Rape Van Winkle, and we got flack from six or seven people in the Raleigh-Durham area. The easiest thing to say, to answer one person’s cruel e-mail, no, I do not condone or support rape. I do not think it’s a laughing matter. I do not think it’s funny. I don’t think saying our van was creepy as a rape van was making fun. Was it slightly insensitive? Yes. But I think half the things I say on Twitter are kind of insensitive to somebody. To anyone who was offended by it, I truly apologize. Two of my girlfriends have been the victim of sexual assault. It’s not funny, it’s not a laughing matter. It wasn’t even a joke. It was just a name that someone called our van when I was picking up my girlfriend one night from work. I pulled up and someone said, “Who’s driving the rape van outside?” We walked in, and some guy was like, “Oh, what’s up, Rape Van Winkle?” It stuck.
Anybody that knows me personally knows that I would never make a joke about that stuff. I’m a pretty twisted human being, and I joke about a lot of stupid shit. But anybody that knows me personally knows my work with the Love Army and knows everything I’ve tried to do for the progression of North Carolina and its stereotypes. We’re a country band that is 100% Democrat. We are the anomaly. Our crowd is very much a mixed bag. We’re playing songs every single night in front of people that hate what I believe in. But I still try to talk to them after the show and let them know that there’s two sides to an argument. Keep your guns. I don’t want to talk about that sort of stuff. Let’s talk about social stuff. I feel that everybody who attacked me on Twitter has no idea who I am, doesn’t know me as a person. I’m not a bad guy. I’m not George Carlin, just spouting off rape jokes. It was an insensitive pun, and to the folks that were offended by it, I truly apologize.
What did you learn from that whole experience?
I post a lot of stuff that the band says, because a lot of people really like to see what goes on day-to-day. I posted it as kind of an insider thing, and then I realized that people who don’t know us might take it the wrong way. You definitely have to worry about that. You have to worry about offending people, especially when you have 20,000 people reading something. There’s going to be somebody that might be offended by it. You just have to be ready for it. I can at least say that I understand why; it was insensitive. That word in general is a very polarizing word. The things you say can affect people, even if you don’t think it’s offensive. That’s what I take away from it. Try to watch it, and try not to offend anybody. That’s the ultimate goal, at the end of the day: to get through the day and not make anybody mad at you, not hurt anyone’s feelings, not to bring up anything that might ruin their day.
BJ Barham’s solo tour starts tonight at Slim’s in Raleigh. Tickets for the 9 p.m. show are $10–$12.