American Aquarium’s B.J. Barham: ‘I don’t feel like I have to drink to be a happy person’

Courtesy of Joshua Black Wilkins

American Aquarium's B.J. Barham: 'I don't feel like I have to drink to be a happy person'

When B.J. Barham announced he was giving up booze, he didn’t plan on making it permanent.

Aug. 31, 2014: He walked into the Magnolia Motor Lounge in Fort Worth, Texas, ordered a triple shot of Jameson, then stood up on a bar stool and declared to everyone assembled: “I’m never drinking again!”

At first, no one took him serious, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently. In fact, he wasn’t even sure that he was serious.

“I didn’t think it was going to be full-blown sobriety,” says Barham, frontman of the Southern rock outfit American Aquarium, which released a new album, “Things Change,” this month. “I really thought, ‘I have to give myself a break to prove it doesn’t control me.’ For so long, people said, ‘You can’t quit!,’ but I’m a competitive person. I’m not the guy you tell he can’t do something, because I’m going to do it, or I’m going to die trying to prove you wrong. My entire life, people have been saying, ‘You can’t do this.’ When I started playing songs, people said, ‘You can’t do this; you’re not good enough,’ and I told them I was going to keep trying until I was good enough.

“And for a long time, I had people telling me, ‘You can’t get sober; it’s in your blood. It’s your identity.’ So when I spoke it into existence, in some small way, it was making other people hold me accountable. I said that, and the next day, the band said, ‘You told everybody you’re going to get sober!’ I told them, ‘I’m serious. I’m going to do this for 30 days.’ And after 30 days, I had dropped 15 pounds and felt better; I was running again, I was writing songs, and I felt good. So I thought, ‘Maybe I can do another 30 days.’ So I did, and I lost more weight, and my relationship with my wife was getting better. I was performing better. All of the cool things that happened from ‘Wolves’ (the band’s 2015 album) on, I was there for.”

A ramshackle rock 'n' roll story

The Ties That Bind Us

Such an attitude is a drastic about-face for a guy who probably wouldn’t have cared a decade ago if he died on stage, as long as there was a pretty girl screaming his name in the front row, a bottle of whiskey at his feet, some amphetamines in his veins and am amplifier at his back cranked up as loud as it can go. American Aquarium got its start in 2006 when Barham and some friends at North Carolina State University in Raleigh decided to start a band. It began as a weekend outlet for drinking, girls and rock ‘n’ roll; with time, the fans increased, and the guys decided to hit the road. They kept writing songs and playing them, hitting towns all across the Southeast and not looking back ... but it came with a price.

By the time 2012 arrived, the guys were road-worn and weary and burnt out and ready to hang it up. They decided to make one more record — “Burn.Flicker.Die.,” produced by acclaimed singer-songwriter Jason Isbell — before parting ways, and the end result was a masterpiece. “Burn.Flicker.Die.” is a Southern garage-rock version of some of Springsteen’s classic themes, and it’s the first time Barham has dared to strip the varnish off his soul with such intensity that what’s exposed is the undiluted cauldron of anger and fear and angst and regret that’s as raw and real as it gets. It was a turning point, and the band decided to keep going, pushing itself at a punishing pace and playing 206 shows in 2014 alone.

Sobriety, however, brought things into focus that had long weighed heavy on his heart. He’d alluded to them before, on songs like “Harmless Sparks” on “Burn.Flicker.Die” (“a telephone full of women with cities beside their names”) and “Family Problems,” included on “Wolves” (“Just like my mother’s brother, I’ve got the family problem / she still calls me sobbing, Lord, begging me to quit / and every time I see her, she says I’ve got his eyes / and constantly reminds me he was dead by 45 ...”). Rather than running from those things, however, he confronted them head on after he got sober.

“I never could have admitted (those things) when I was drinking; I never could have admitted them when I was putting a bag of blow up my nose every night. I could never admit that I was the problem,” he says. “You never hear anybody say, ‘I got sober, and my life went to (hell)!’ When you get sober, you take away all of the things that cause your problems. Before, fidelity was my biggest problem, and drinking made it a lot easier to give in to those temptations. When I got sober, I stopped relying on things to feel better about myself.

“My wife will tell you right now that she saw an immediate change. We’ve been together seven years now, but as strong of a woman as she is, we wouldn’t be together if I hadn’t stopped. I would have pushed her to a certain point.”

'Things Change,' indeed

Courtesy of Joshua Black Wilkins

Prior to recording “Things Change,” the rest of American Aquarium walked away from the project. Barham points to slowly eroding divides caused by the exacting demands of a touring rock ‘n’ roll band, but he doesn’t shy away from owning up to his part in the split, either.

“They watched me put a lot of my personal relationships on hold for a very, very temporary satisfaction, and it caused a fracture in in our band that couldn’t be repaired,” he says. “When I was drinking, I was extremely selfish: ‘F--- you, you’re just a drummer. F--- you, I’m the talent.’ And that’s never a way to build any relationship. Nobody wants to be around a guy who’s just a (jerk) when he drinks. I can look back and say I was a terrible friend, a terrible bandleader and a terrible boyfriend when I was drinking.”

On the other side of that, he cops to the character defects with which he still wrestles. He can still be a jerk, he adds with a chuckle — he just doesn’t hide behind alcohol as an excuse any longer. While he didn't go to rehab, and he’s not active in any 12 Step program, he’s familiar with the principles, and he supports them as one of a number of paths to recovery. In fact, the title one song on the band’s new record is lifted directly from a popular sobriety cliché: “One Day At a Time.”

“I agree with a lot of the stuff that the program preaches,” he says. “Maybe it was the religious aspect of it that turned me off at first, but I’ve watched the program work for people, and I’m never going to put it down. Over the years, I’ve had people bring me chips and give them to me and tell me they were praying for me — that at the end of the day, there’s hope for me. I believe in what they’re telling me — ‘I love you, I want to see you do better.’”

'Nothing but positive changes have happened'

Courtesy of Alysse Gafkjen

And he has. “Things Change” marks the beginning of a new era for American Aquarium, one he never thought possible before “Burn.Flicker.Die” helped the band turn a corner, and one that wasn’t even a consideration when every morning started with a bleary-eyed recollection of the night before and a haphazard inventory of the chemicals he had on hand to make it through another day. He’s present — for his family (including an infant daughter, born in April), for his new bandmates and for fans who never stopped believing in Barham, even when he didn’t believe so much in himself. In those early days, that belief sustained him until he rediscovered his self-worth, and with the booze and drugs in his rearview, he’s been able to enjoy the fruits of his labors — personally and professionally.

“After I stopped drinking, I was 100 percent focused, 100 percent there, and I could appreciate it,” he says. “It made me want to be a better musician, to be a better writer … to play more shows and to play better shows. It was like a shot in the arm, and after 60 days, there was a part of me that said, ‘I’ve already invested 60 days in this thing, and I don’t want to be a quitter!’

“Nothing but positive changes have happened. People have told me that if I can get sober, there’s no reason they can’t, and that’s another reason for me to stay this way: What if they really need me to stay sober so they can stay sober?”

In the end, however, he’s doing it for himself — just as everyone in recovery has to do, when their backs are to the wall and it’s all on the line, a familiar situation for anyone who’s been an American Aquarium fan for the past 12 years.

“At the end of the day, the best choice for me is not to drink anymore,” he says. “I’m coming up on my fourth anniversary, and I’d like to think I’m a better person. Some people will tell you different, but I can sleep at night. I like myself now, I really do, and I don’t feel like I have to drink to be a happy person.”

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