It’s five o’clock on a Thursday in December. Bradley Justin Barham turns his back to his band to face a virtually empty room. He strums his cherry red Gibson J-45 as he slowly steps across a sticky black floor. This wouldn’t be the first time he’s played to no one.
But American Aquarium’s founder and frontman seems at peace as he studies a charred guitar hanging on a wall inside the Dallas music venue Trees (the instrument was set ablaze by the Flaming Lips at the end of their set here in 1999). It’s only sound check, and he’s seen the presale numbers. The venue holds more than five hundred; the show is nearly sold out.
“Crazy, right?” he says. “After years of getting punched in the face, we’re headlining at fucking Trees. I used to play directly across the street at the LaGrange Theatre for years. They were shitty little gigstwenty, maybe thirty peopleand we would literally be loading our shit out in the street and see tour buses. It was like, ‘That’s what it’s like to make it.’ In those moments, you want to believe.”
For the majority of Barham’s career, nobody did, save the singer-songwriter himself. And why would they? During the band’s lean years, from its first six-show tour in 2006 until the 2012 release of Burn. Flicker. Die., the band lived in vans, coffee shops, and truck stops, driving nearly all day, every day, to play for a handful of people that night. They slept on the living room floors of random fans they’d met only a few hours before. Living off a cut of cover charges and ticket sales only works when hundreds turn out night after night.
So when Barham points to the stage and notes the spot from which Kurt Cobain stage-dived, he allows himself to enjoy the moment. He’s pulled it off, detractorsand he’s had a lot of thembe damned.
Barham got here by keeping “blind faith.” He cut expenses where he could and took on thousands of dollars in debt. His band used its earnings to eat and put enough gas in the tank to make it to the next gig. There would be no hotel stays or equipment upgrades, no fancy dinners or label-sponsored VIP outings. They stayed hydrated with open bar tabs.
The band survived those years on its frontman’s ability to sell himselfon his gift of gab and the promise of early-morning drunken debauchery with whichever fan would open his or her home to Barham’s crew on any given night.
It worked. American Aquarium always had a place to crash. And Barham found that with every floor he slept on, he made a fan for lifeno matter how bizarre the situation he had to put himself in to earn it.
“Every night, we found a place. And those people still come to shows every single time we come to their town,” Barham says.
And when those fans came, they brought a few friends. On the next tour, those friends brought their friends. By 2012, when Barham wrote Burn. Flicker. Die. as the dying breath of his dream, they had thousands of followers on social mediapeople who’d opened their lives to Barham’s band and considered the struggling musicians family.
But life on the road had taken its toll. Barham was losing the faith that, despite playing hundreds of shows a year and recording several albums, his break was coming. Music critics characterized Barham as a hack and a misogynist. In 2009, then-INDY music editor Grayson Haver Currin wrote about American Aquarium’s new release, Dances for the Lonely, that Barham was the “sleazy rock ‘n’ roll huckster about which parents warn their children.” Others labeled his music cheap and his lyricswhich tended to focus on drinking, drugs, heartbreak, and sexas clichés. Barham’s in-state fan base was limited mostly to kids from his hometown and former college classmates. So, in 2012, the band made a pact. If Burn. Flicker. Die. failed, it was over.
“We were just spinning in circles, playing the same shithole bars every month. Everybody kind of came to the conclusion that, ‘Hey. We tried.’ There is no shame in stepping out and trying something and failing,” Barham says.
As I wade through the sea of people who have converged on Trees, I can’t believe he’s pulled it off. I knew Barham when we were both enrolled at North Carolina State University. We were friends. We even lived together for a while.
I was one of many who watched himhis shoes propped up on a rickety desk he’d bought from Target, learning to play a handful of guitar chords via the Internetand urged him to take the safe bet and earn a degree. We would see bumper stickers promoting the American Aquarium website on fast-food windows and gas pumps, and laugh at Barham’s audacity. We attended his first live show at The Brewery in Raleigh and joked with his mother (who was working the merchandise table) about his flippant lyrics and the notion that he might put college on hold. We were on the receiving end of the demos he would slide under dorm-room doors.
We thought he was, at the very least, naïve about his chances at real success, but there was something impressive about his ability to spin his dream into an attainable reality. He had charisma. He made you want to believe him. In his mind, he was already there. He was going to be a touring musician. He was at Point Z, and getting there from Point A could be thrown together later.
“I believed in it. And the shit I was sliding under [those dorm-room doors] was god-awful. It was one part ignorance, one part confidence. Looking back, that was dumb,” Barham says. “Who does that? If somebody slid a demo tape under my door, I’d be like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ I might listen to it though. And maybe something connects.”
His strategy was never to write a single hit that would make him a breakout sensation, but to pick up one fan at a time by talking about a breakup the way they wish they could or singing about a drunken, cocaine-fueled night at a bar that ended in a stranger’s bed. He sold them his wildest dreams. And with every new song or album he released, with every two-dozen people he performed for at venues across more than thirty states, those connections started adding up.
When he dropped out of N.C. State in 2006 and hit the road, it raised the question aspiring musicians have been asking themselves for decades. Can an artist with a limited catalog who characterizes himself as “not the best singer or songwriter” make it without a push from a major label?
He’d find his answer in his roots, in the small-town mentality fathers in his hometown ingrained in their sons.
The oldest of two boys, Barham grew up in Reidsville, North Carolina, a small tobacco town that might have swallowed him had he not taken his parents’ advice.
“Reidsville is still the kind of place where you do exactly what your parents do,” Barham says. “If your dad was a mechanic, you went to school and learned the trade. Then you came back home and took over for your dad. You didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, Dad, I want to go off and become an artist.’ My dad sold auto parts, a very blue-collar upbringing. I knew that if I didn’t get out of Reidsville early on, that was my future.”
He moved to Raleigh in 2002 and attended N.C. State, not knowing that taking a job at The Record Exchangea move that, for him, was about his hometown tradition of earning an honest wage to support himselfwould inspire his path. Growing up, he was restricted to “shitty nineties music” playing on the radio and his parents’ outlaw-country favorites like Willie Nelson. There were no music nerds in Reidsville, no mentors to expose him to the obscure albums he would later count among the most important records in his collection. But when he moved to “the big city,” cut loose among The Record Exchange’s near-endless supply of music, he quickly fell in love with independent artists like Ryan Adams and Wilco.
“I had no idea that there was a gap between being a guy playing the guitar at your house and Tim McGraw. I thought if you were a musician, you were super famous,” Barham says. “Moving to Raleigh, I realized there was this in-between. There were independent musicians who play a bar gig and get paid a hundred dollars and a beer tab. I thought, I can do this. I can write songs.”
And while his earliest attempts were a far cry from the tracks that have now been streamed more than a million times on Spotify, with every day spent inside The Record Exchange, Barham refined the kind of artist he wanted to be. He would hold his guitar like Johnny Cash. He’d throw a Ryan Adams-esque “aw man” into a song after the chorus. On a more local level, he was finding his musical identity by studying the likes of the Backsliders, Six String Drag, and Whiskeytown. Barham, engrossed with these Southern storytellers, decided to make stories the foundation of his songs.
“I grew up listening to people talk, to my grandparents telling stories. So, why not me?” he says.
But even in those days, years before the existence of an extensive American Aquarium catalog, he did what he has always done: he faked it, fueled by the blue-collar belief that he could attain anything through hard work. So he booked a show at The Brewery when he didn’t even have a demo.
“Hell, I booked the show two months in advance and I didn’t even have a band,” Barham says. And he took a page out of one of his hero’s books and told people that, come hell or high water, he was going to succeed.
“I’ve heard all sorts of things about Ryan Adams, but no matter who you talk to, it’s, ‘That motherfucker believed in himself.’ He told every single person, ‘I’m gonna get out of here and date Winona Ryder.’ Then, three years later, he’s living in New York City, dating Winona Ryder,” Barham says. “You’ve got to have that cockiness. You have to be confident and believe in what you’re doing. I think that’s something Ryan and I have in common. We were both kids with everybody else saying, ‘You can’t do this.’ We said, ‘Fuck you. Watch me.’”
It’s 2009 and Bradley Thompson sits inside a coffee shop at a nameless exit off a Louisiana highway. He hasn’t slept much in days. His eyes are heavy from driving hundreds of miles since dawn, and he’s still hungover from the night before. He opens his laptop and spends several hours frantically emailing owners of small-town honky-tonks and dive bars across the nation. He knows how to route a tour and keep his clients on the road long enough that they don’t have time to dwell on years of being broke. He understands that the only way to keep the band together is to make sure it has a stage to play on and an open bar tab tonight and tomorrow.
By the time he packs up and heads to that night’s venue, he’s got his artist booked for the next two months. There’s just one catch. Bradley Thompson doesn’t exist. He was a creation of Barhama Trojan horse used by the aspiring musician to get his foot in the door. If they could just hear the music, he told himself, they would understand.
“I set up a fake name for our booking agency. I set up fake names for our management. I would email people as management. I would book entire tours that way,” Barham says. “I believed. And when the boys got on board, they believed, too.”
Back home, despite having gone from nothing to releasing records and touring, his critics still weren’t coming around.
Even now, eight years after Dances for the Lonely, and despite being armed with two albums that gained acclaim (Burn. Flicker. Die. broke into Billboard‘s top forty; 2015’s Wolves was among the top sellers on iTunes the week it was released and was favorably reviewed by Rolling Stone), he still isn’t convinced that if his gigs Friday and Saturday night at the Lincoln Theatre were intended for Raleigh residents only, he would sell out his hometown venue. He doesn’t have many fans here, but he sells out the Lincoln to out-of-town fans, who flock to Raleigh like it’s Graceland.
Barham would tell you it doesn’t really bother him, but when he slowly wrings his hands after he says so, you can tell he carries it with him.”We’re proud of where we’re from. We take up for this city and this state every single day, good or bad. But the bands that feel like the big Raleigh bands are the bands that never leave Raleigh,” Barham says. “It’s not like the Avett Brothers, where, when they come back home to play, they play the fucking coliseums. We don’t have that kind of connection. But I get to wake up every day and play music. I don’t care how. I don’t care where. I’m not going to be bitter. The childish part of me is like, ‘Why can’t I be big in Raleigh? Why can’t I be on the cover of the INDY?’ But if it wasn’t for people in Raleigh not believing in what I was doing, I would have never gone on tour. I would have played Raleigh every night and failed and I’d be working at Wells Fargo right now.”
At the Trees show, many fans are singing along with Barham word for word, drinks in hand. But Jocelyn Matthews stands alone, her head down as she leans against the wall just inside the venue’s front door. Asked why she came, she looks up, her eyes swollen, and, without lowering her eyes, rolls up her flannel sleeve.
“I’m here because of this,” the twenty-two-year-old says, looking down at three long scars on her left wrist. “The night I tried to kill myself, I was listening to Wolves. I went through a real bad breakup and was stupid, but at that moment, I was ready for it to be over, and then I heard ‘Losing Side of Twenty Five.’ A little more than halfway through the song, I called 911.”
The words: “There are different roads to happiness/I took a different path, I guess/Came out on the other side just fine. The losing side of twenty five.”
“I don’t know what it was about hearing BJ sing those words, but those lyrics saved my life,” Matthews says. “So I show up at every Texas show I can afford. You won’t understand this, but reliving that pain keeps me focused on what a blessing life is.”
Those connections mean something to Barham, and that is how he rewrote the playbook for success in the age of digital music. From that very first tour, his gift has been his ability to listen as the brokenhearted share their demons: to make each fan feel like he or she matters.
It’s happened with fans like Chris Keen, a North Carolinian with cystic fibrosis, who says the band “motivates me to want to get stronger and live as long as I can.” Or countless couples who danced at their wedding to an American Aquarium track. Like Kendra Bragg Harding, who realized, as Barham performed “Man I’m Supposed to Be,” that she loved her now-husband back.
Barham, they feel, speaks to them, without hiding behind a wall of pretension. They can, quite literally, reach out and touch him. In that sense, he’s something of a populistand an anomaly.
“When I have fans tell me, ‘I was about to kill myself until I heard this record of yours,’ I know that sounds extremely over the top, but I hear stories like those every night. People talking about our songs saving thememotionally or physically,” he says. “It’s hard to wrap your head around it sometimes, how much your songs matter to people. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I might never be the hip kid in the obscure music scene, but I can go to bed every night knowing that my songs matter to thousands of people.”
The crowd is chanting for one more song, so Barham pays homage to the band’s breaking point. They were broke and spinning their wheels. Success, despite his effort to manufacture it, one listener at a time, wasn’t coming. And then, thanks, in part, to the sudden rise of Jason Isbell, Burn. Flicker. Die.‘s producer, in 2013, it happened. So Barham gives the Trees audience one for the road, the title track from what was almost the last album he ever conceived.
“It’s the ultimate, ‘We’re still here,’” Barham says, wearing his signature smirk. “This may be the last song, but it’s not the last you’ve heard of us.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The Hardest Working Hack in Show Business.”