Spotlight: American Aquarium

1,600 people + 31 states + 3 countries + 1 city +1 record = 1 Raleigh weekend


by Tracy Davis

photograph by Joshua Black Wilkins

Roots-rock band American Aquarium loves its Raleigh hometown, but the band is forever leaving it behind, bound by rock ‘n’ roll’s O. Henry-like decree that the comforts of hearth and home are available only to those who trade them away for life on the road.

But for one epic weekend in January, all roads led to Raleigh instead of away: American Aquarium stayed right here, and the band’s fans – from all over the country – came to them.

Those familiar with AA’s brand of whiskey-soaked, hard-driving Americana know that the band’s 2012’s breakout Burn.Flicker.Die., the record it released before Wolves, was supposed to be its swan song.

Instead, the album took the band to a reinvigorated, higher level. In 2014, armed with new songs, new perspective, and an exponentially growing fan base, AA set out to create Wolves. To get it made, frontman BJ Barham and the band turned to fans for financial backing. “Without your support over the last eight years,” Barham wrote for the band’s PledgeMusic project, “we would be nothing more than a local bar band. It’s because of you that every year has gotten better and better.” AA offered music for pledges, and it worked.

Wolves in hand, the band announced a January record release show at downtown’s Lincoln Theatre. It’s a big place, but advance tickets sold out in days. When another show was added, those tickets sailed out too – to people from everywhere. “I started a list,” Barham recalls, “and kept adding places as they showed up.” At the end of the day, they included 31 states and three foreign countries: Holland, Australia, and Canada.

Barham and the band had big plans for all these people. The release shows would celebrate not only Wolves, but the people and the place that shaped the band. “This is my town, my roots,” Barham says. “It was time to share it.”

So the band posted “American Aquarium’s Guide to Raleigh” – a map of the band’s favorite bars and restaurants – on social media. Response to it was “phenomenal,” says Chris Powers, an owner of the Busy Bee and Trophy Brewing Company. People came in for AA-inspired beers and pizza, but also to be part of the fun. “They didn’t mind waiting while we tried our best to keep up with all the orders for BJ’s favorite burger.” Powers says it was equally rewarding to see his friends’ success. “They’re the hardest-working band in the country,” Powers says, “but they’re humble. They appreciate where they’re coming from, as well as the ride they’re on.”

For the true-believer fans who bought tickets for both nights, Barham played a secret, solo acoustic set at Slim’s bar – the band’s ground zero – that Saturday afternoon. And the shows themselves were epic: AA played more than 30 songs each night to a packed audience, including N.C. State basketball legend Julius Hodge. The title track of Wolves owes its chorus to Hodge, who famously said in a 2004 interview: “When we hungry, we eat!”

Would they do it all again? Barham’s already thinking on it. He wanted to have N.C. State’s guitar-playing football coach Dave Doeren sit in for a song, but the shows fell on busy football days, so he’d like another try. And, he and chef Ashley Christensen brainstormed a few ideas when she stepped away from her next-door venues to catch the show at Slim’s. “It would be so cool to do music with, say, a three course dinner.” Barham nods to himself; he can already see it. “What do you think – sounds good?”