They say it's darkest before the dawn, which puts American Aquarium's 2012 release Burn. Flicker. Die. at 15 minutes to sunrise. It's a dark, disconsolate album. As opposed to the romantic heartbreak that keyed the Raleigh sextet's prior four Americana albums, the band's latest is about the death of a dream.
"We joke around about it every time it comes up in conversation, that the record about us breaking up is the record that kept us together," chuckles singer/guitarist BJ Barham. "It's amazing what you can create in those moments of desperation."
After seven years of playing 250 shows a year, the hard work paid off with Burn. Flicker. Die., the band's most successful album to date. Positive reviews and accolades rolled in comparing them to country-inflected bar bands such as Drive-By Truckers and Lucero, the latter of which is reflective of Barham's gruff, whiskey-scarred vocals.
The band raised over $20,000 through the crowdfunding site PledgeMusic to fund eight days in the studio. They poured themselves into the album, believing it would be their last creative endeavor together.
That passionate surrender comes through from the impotent "Harmless Sparks" to the pedal-steel road ballad "Lonely Ain't Easy," while the Hold Steady-ish barroom rocker "Savannah Almost Killed Me" seeks to "waste away tonight, drink it down so fast."
However, it's not that American Aquarium weren't trying before, but something clicked on Burn. Flicker. Die. That album set off a chain reaction, which propelled them into the top 50 on Billboard's Heatseekers charts — a fine score for an act that has always self-released their music.
"One thing I can say is we had a business plan and we stuck to it," says Barham. "It's like do or die. We're going to be a very fan-interactive band that tours their ass off. For six years, it was like we weren't even eating. Then when Burn. Flicker. Die. came out, it was almost like the Rock God flipped the switch of mercy and said, 'They went hungry long enough. At least we're going to give them apartments now and let them eat at Olive Garden instead of McDonald's.'"
Their success begat even more support when they returned to PledgeMusic to fund their forthcoming sixth album Wolves. They raised almost 150 percent of their goal, enough to spend almost three weeks at Asheville's swanky Echo Mountain Studios.
Barham credits the band's supporters. "Our fans gave us the chance to go into one of the high-end studios in the country, sit down, and say, 'You know what? We're going to do it until we're done,'" he says. "It teaches you a level of appreciation ... I know these people's names when they come to shows. They made this record as much as I made this record. They were a part of it."
Wolves is a departure from American Aquarium's last five albums, led in part by the addition of new guitarist Colin DiMeo. He helped pick up some slack and made it easier for Whit Wright to put down the pedal steel a bit in favor of keyboards.
"Whit is a freak of nature and one of the most talented dudes I ever met," Barham says. "He's playing the pedal steel — which is a big fucking math problem and enigma in itself — instead of being happy that he's mastered that, he went, 'I'm going to teach myself piano.' Bought the piano and six months later, he's playing on the record."
Barham continues a moment later, "He's the tightrope walker that juggles and then shoots himself out of the cannon."
Many songs feature both keyboard parts and pedal steel solos as Wright bounces from one instrument to the other within the same song. But not only does the band explore an keys-driven sound on Wolves, American Aquarium incorporates strings and horns. Luckily, they don't fashion themselves junior Burt Bacharachs.
"When you tell people there are strings and horns, they think we've lost our fucking minds and mapped out this opus," Barham laughs. "The different elements we've never really had on the record before are just really small. There will be some fans that don't hear any of that. It's a horn line here or there. We didn't come out with the Saturday Night Live horn section and do a complete breakdown. It's really these tasteful, subtle little embellishments."
For Barham, who is about to turn 30, Wolves signals a new, lower-key chapter for American Aquarium. "This is a hard left turn for the band," he says. "That era of the band making the kind of loud bar rock is kinda over for us. That is the one thing that has ended in this band."
The band just returned from a trip to Germany and is a tight, well-oiled machine at the moment. Barham can't wait to play these songs in advance of the Jan. 30 record release back home in Raleigh. "I'm chomping at the bit waiting for people to hear this record, because for the first time this band is focused on recording from a songwriting aspect. They made the music. On this record, every single person is represented, especially in the arrangements of the songs."
In a sense, it's an answer to the desolation of the last disc. You might even call it a happy ending.
"It's the first record that's not about a one-night stand or a girl in a hotel. It's about me being happy," Barham says. "I get married in December. It's about me being happy and being in a band that's doing well. It's about me accepting the fact that I might have to live on the road the rest of my life, but that's not a bad way to live."
Barham feels focused for the first time. "Happiness eluded me for quite a while," he says. "I pretty much had to put it in a stranglehold, and I think we're good now."