B.J. Barham used to drink too much.
At his worst, he says, he was pouring through amounts that would make most people too drunk to stand, and that was just a Tuesday. He would show up at family functions with a flask of Jameson in hand. Gaps plagued his memory.
The onstage antics were worse. American Aquarium, the blue-collar, alt-country outfit he’s fronted for a decade, earned a reputation of extreme insobriety. Barham would drink anything you gave him; night after night, fans lined up shots onstage, and he would down them. American Aquarium averaged between 250 or 300 annual showsthat’s gallons of free liquor, tubs of it even.
But Barham knew he wasn’t strong enough to sustain such games of self-destruction. He realized he could die; he’d seen it happen in his own family. So, on Aug. 31, 2014, during an end-of-tour bender in Forth Worth, Texas, he took his last drinkmost likely a shot of Irish whiskey, he thinks.
The next morning, he was done.
“Nobody sat him down and was like, ‘Dude, you’re out of control,’” says Bill Corbin, the band’s bassist and most long-term member, except for Barham. “It was just something he wanted to do because he didn’t feel well. We had a tendency to get caught up in the party. Things have been pretty mellow for a long time now.”
Four months later, Barham married Rachael, his sweetheart of more than three years. The two are talking about leaving downtown Raleigh apartment life and buying a home. Having lost weight and found energy, he says he’s never felt better.
“On a Tuesday night, instead of walking down to Slim’s, we stay in and watch a movie and drink Pellegrino,” he says with a chuckle. “Exactly what you’re supposed to do at 30.”
The sobriety means that Barham no longer remembers shows in chunksgood timing, since the gigs are now bigger than they’ve ever been. American Aquarium’s sixth album, Wolves, has raked in rave reviews since its release last month. Rolling Stone‘s country wing named the band a must-watch act of 2015; The Wall Street Journal streamed the record in full. Wolves debuted fourth on the iTunes rock charts and sixth among Billboard‘s “Heat Seekers.” The band self-issued Wolves with the help of a professional management team in Nashville and a New York publicity firm that has represented Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Zac Brownnot bad for an act that intended its last album, 2012’s Burn. Flicker. Die., to be its farewell. Legitimate, sustainable success doesn’t seem so distant.
To get there, Barham knows, he has to watch his habits. He doesn’t think he’s done drinking forever, but he’s at least done drinking for sport.
“I’m 30 years old,” he says. “If I want to live to see 40, I need to quit.”
On the evening of May 3, 1984, B.J. Barham was born in Greensboro’s Wesley Long Hospital; his only sibling, Brandon, followed 15 months later. They were raised due north in the tobacco town of Reidsville, in the kind of middle-class home his songs later documented.
“I grew up in a farm town. My dad sold auto parts,” he says. “You don’t know you’re poor growing up. I didn’t realize my parents were struggling to make the mortgage payment.”
Barham was smart and confident, loud and argumentative, driven and fearless. He wanted to know everyone, and he wanted everyone to know him, too. As a teenager, he had his whole life planned: He would be a lawyer, capable of providing for his family.
“I knew early on that I never wanted to worry about anything,” Barham says. “I knew I was smart enough to not worry about anything.”
And how else could he get paid to argue?
He passed summers at church and leadership camps, including Boys State, an organization that builds a faux government, and Duke’s Talent Identification Program, which assesses the strengths of the academically gifted. In high school, he joined clubs, played four sports and filled his time with the extracurricular activities that college admission offices favored. He became student body president and graduated in the top five of his class.
Barham earned a scholarship to N.C. State University and set his sights on a double major in political science and history. He was the first in his family to go to college, so he wanted to make it count.
Soon after he got to State in 2002, though, he realized his heart wasn’t in it. Physically, he’d be in class, but he was thinking of getting home and playing guitar. He worked at a record store near campus and studied bands like his peers studied textbooks. His calling involved a bar room, not a courtroom.
“After that, I wanted to be a singer-songwriter,” he says. “To this day, I want to be a singer-songwriter.”
In quick order, Barham had gone from being at the top of his high school class to being one of thousands of capable, intelligent kids at a giant school. He now understood he’d grown up poor and sheltered in a small town. He decided to put those feelings into autobiographical songs, set to the kind of country and rock fare on which he’d been raised. Barham became the son “trying” to be a musician.
“I was supposed to be the kid that went to college,” he recalls. “When you call and you say, ‘Hey, mom, I’m going to drop out of college to be a rock star,’ parents don’t want to hear that.”
He formed American Aquarium in 2005 and hit the road the next year. The band quickly burned through several iterations, going through 26 members by 2009.
“All the musicians he had playing with him were college kids who owned instruments,” remembers Corbin, who joined in 2007. “They were all, ‘Oh, I’m going to go on and be a doctor or whatever.’”
But Corbin shared Barham’s dream: He wanted to make music for the rest of his life. When he graduated from N.C. State the next year, he took to the road, too. Six of them piled into a five-seat Chevy Trailblazer and headed to the West Coast for nine weeks. One person had to ride in the back, clutching a pillow and a blanket.
“We would come to your town, and we were the lovable drunks,” Corbin remembers. “People would buy us shots. We weren’t barfighters or brawlers; we’d just hang out and be goofy.”
Locally, their boisterous alt-country proved an uneasy fit. A decade before American Aquarium formed, Raleigh had been infatuated with the genre and a cradle for its stars, like Whiskeytown, The Backsliders, 6 String Drag. By the time Barham arrived, though, The Brewerya longstanding Raleigh hotbed for the stuffbooked more screamo than twang.
“All my friends in bands were like, ‘Why the fuck are you playing country music?’ Nobody’s going to listen to this stuff,’” Barham remembers.
He stuck with it, though, pushing to do more than imitate his idols. The band lived on the road, and their relentless touring engendered a respectable fanbase in places other acts called “secondary markets.” While attendance lagged in Atlanta or New York City, American Aquarium started selling out rooms in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The parties kept growing, and the antics they required fit the band’s attitude. Barham, remember, was a brash, cocky, working-class socialitea 21-year-old college dropout with a rock band behind him and an endless supply of free Jameson in front of him.
“It’s funny, the culture of when you start a band,” Barham says. “You get all the drinks for free. You get to a certain point where the drugs are free.”
Once they’d graduated from weeknight bar shows with three-buck covers, American Aquarium became self-conscious. Who wanted to pay $15 to see someone stumble through a set? John Massengill, a Raleigh songwriter who toured with the group for a year to manage their merchandise, saw that the booze was hindering their reputation, at home if not on the road.
“You get a reputation for drinking too much onstage, being a little sloppy. People don’t take you seriously,” he says. “They got dismissed. A lot of people missed out on a band they would’ve liked.”
Still, American Aquarium raged on.
“For a long time,” Barham admits, “my mom was worried. She said, ‘You’re going to drink yourself to death.’”
Wolves opens with “Family Problems,” a somber number that rises across its five minutes into a saxophone-and-guitar roar. “Just like my mother’s brother/I’ve got the family problem,” Barham sings. His voice works to push past a mumble. “She still calls me sobbing, lord, begging me to quit.”
Barham is relaying the story of his uncle, Benny, of his mother and of himself. Back in Reidsville, Benny would show up to family reunions drunk, then high on cocaine, then on heroin. Finally, he stopped showing up.
“He was always the fun uncle,” the singer says. “As a kid, you don’t know that he’s lit the whole time. It’s just, ‘Oh, Benny’s fun.’”
Barham was a teenager, having dinner with his folks, when the Greensboro police called. His mom picked up.
“‘We found your brother dead in his car in a Ramada Inn parking lot; needle in his arm, bottle in the floorboard,’” Barham says quickly. “That’s what happensyou keep going down that rabbit hole, you’re not coming out.”
Benny was 45. When his nephew started developing the same habitsheavy alcohol use, followed by cocainehis mother started making the comparisons out loud. He shrugged it off. She was just being a mom, and he wasn’t an addict; an addict is a person who empties a bank account for drugs or booze, he told himself, and he was getting his for free. Eventually, though, it stuck.
“You get to a certain point as a son, you’re tired of letting your mom down,” he says.
He had some help: Three years ago, Rachael Elicona went to an American Aquarium show in Jacksonville, Florida. She was on a date to see some buddies play in the opening act. The date was a bust, so she found herself at the same bar as Barham after the show. They reconnected through Facebook, and he started texting her from the road.
He’d been engaged twice before, and he wasn’t looking for a third try. He and Rachael weren’t trying to impress each other.
“When that is your mindset, you tell people things you would never tell somebody you’re trying to dateall the terrible things you’ve done, the ways you’ve mistreated people. Shitty things you’d tell your friends, you would never tell a potential boyfriend or girlfriend,” Rachael says. “Before you know it, you have someone who knows everything about you but doesn’t judge you.”
In February 2013, Rachael moved from Florida to Raleigh to live with Barham. Less than a week later, American Aquarium launched another tour. She jumped in the van for two months. She and Barham now work to maintain the relationship, though he’s on the road hundreds of days a year. Having ruined so many previous commitments by being gone for long periods of time or by being unfaithful, Barham says he knows what not to do very well, especially now that they’re married. They don’t go two weeks without seeing each other, for instance; if he’s on the road any longer than that, she flies out and rides along.
Rachael quit drinking, too; she’ll have an occasional beer, but not when they’re together. She’s a bartender at Slim’s, the downtown dive bar where Barham and American Aquarium essentially grew up. But he’s learned to avoid the temptation, describing his sobriety and self-control with pride.
“It’s like someone who needs glasses and finally gets glasses,” he says. “I shouldn’t have to drink 10 shots if people put them onstage. I didn’t ask for those. I don’t have to drink those.”
A slight edge creeps into his voice, as if he’s angry for what he’s done. It passes. If he had it to do over again, Barham says he’d do it the same, down to the last ruined relationship or emptied bag of cocaine.
“I grew up in a band. I’ve made every terrible decision I’ve made in my adult life while I was on the road,” he says. “It was the dumb shit that made me who I am, the dumb shit that taught me to appreciate the things I have.”
On a chilly Saturday night in Raleigh, fans file into the Lincoln Theatre by the hundreds. They’ve come from 31 states and three countries, including Australia, to see American Aquarium play a sold-out, two-night stand in their hometown. In the 800-capacity club, after two opening acts, fans chant for the band to get on stage already.
To the side of the stairs that lead to the stage, Barham and his bandmates idle and chat. Legendary N.C. State basketball player Julius Hodge, a hero to Barham, and several friends linger nearby. There’s no ceremony or huddle. The six members simply turn off their phones, turn to each other, climb the stairs and go to work.
They play for three hours without pause. Each night’s set surpasses 30 songs. Some fans belt out every word. One, front and center, stares starry-eyed at Barham; another throws his clothes onstage and manages to hook his pants to the headstock of Barham’s guitar. The frontman laughs and assures the crowd that “Stripper Jake” is indeed in attendance. The room moves and sways, sweats and sings, drinks and cheers.
But the cocky, loudmouthed kid from Reidsville, the one who had everything figured out in high school, doesn’t let it get to him. Barham understands this is a high-failure occupation. He can be out of a job with one bad record or disastrous tour.
At 30, he’s come to accept a degree of powerlessness.
“Tomorrow, people could stop coming to shows, and I’m fucked,” he says. “But I love my life, and not many people can say they go to work every day and love it.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The winning side of 25.”