BJ Barham of American Aquarium takes us behind the scenes of Chicamacomico, the band’s latest offering, which he describes as a record of loss. “This record kind of encapsulates what I’ve been dealing with – the loss of my mother, the loss of my grandmother, the loss of a friend… it’s the loss of time, the loss of opportunity.” Learn about the making of the album, his new label Losing Side Records, and more in this 5 Questions feature.
5 Questions with BJ Barham by Sam Shansky
1) Where does the word “Chicamacomico” come from, what does it mean to you, and how does it effectively represent the current state of American Aquarium or the songs on the record?
Chicamacomico is actually the place where the record was written. It’s a coastal town. Modern-day, it’s called Rodanthe, NC, but it’s on the Northern tip of Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The name comes from the Algonquin word for “sinking sands.”
I wrote this record over a two-week period in February of 2021. In the summertime, this town is a bustling beach town, but in the wintertime, it’s kind of a desolate ghost town. I knew going into this writing process that it was gonna be a dark record. It was gonna be a record about loss. It was gonna be a record about me dealing with a lot of trauma from the last couple years. It kind of served as the perfect backdrop for this record because this town… over the course of about two weeks, I saw maybe three people. It was just empty. Most of the homes are boarded up. There’s no cars. It was a really great place to kind of disappear for a few weeks and write this record.
I think it does effectively represent the current state of the band. This band has always been kind of a chronological snapshot of where I am in life. I can go back through our 16 record discography and kind of pinpoint exactly where I was when each record was written. This record kind of encapsulates what I’ve been dealing with – the loss of my mother, the loss of my grandmother, the loss of a friend… it’s the loss of time, the loss of opportunity. It was very clear early on that the theme of this record was gonna be about loss. And so, you know, five years, 10 years, 20 years from now, when I look back on this record, I’ll be able to immediately know where I was when I wrote this record. And that’s kind of the goal of writing records, to kind of serve as a snapshot of where you are currently in life.
2) As writers reflect on their work, they sometimes see patterns or unforeseen links between new and old compositions. Are there any such patterns or links that recently surfaced in your mind when taking in this new collection of songs?
I think there is a pattern that kind of shows up in songwriters’ new and old compositions. I can see the direct line between my early writing and where I am now. It’s still the same voice. It’s still the same person. It’s just growth. And I think that’s kind of what you’re shooting for as an artist is to constantly see growth in your work. I can go back to… the record that I think that I really started developing a voice on was 2008’s Dances For The Lonely. Looking at that guy that wrote that record compared to the guy that wrote Chicamacomico, I could never have written a record like Chicamacomico in 2008, just like I can’t write a record like Dances For The Lonely now. I mean, I’m in completely different stages of my life.
But it’s really neat to kind of see there’s the same guy running through all of these records. I can still hear that voice. There’s still ways that I would phrase things in 2008 that I still phrase things in 2022. So it’s kind of neat. You know, we’re 16 years into our career, 16 records into our career. It’s really kind of neat to see the nuance changes or the nuance similarities, you know, of the same guy that wrote those early records is the same guy writing these records, but just kind of being able to sonically hear the growth is a really kind of cool thing.
3) You chose acclaimed producer Brad Cook for this project and recorded it at Sonic Ranch Studio in Tornillo, TX. What attributes of Brad’s and Sonic Ranch made it feel like the right pairing, and what are your thoughts after the fact?
We decided to work with Brad Cook for this record and he’s the one that suggested recording it at Sonic Ranch down in Texas. Sonic Ranch is kind of, you know, becoming one of the most state of the art facilities to make a record here in the states. This is our third time working with Brad. Brad actually produced our 2015 record Wolves, and he also produced my 2016 solo record Rockingham. So we were very familiar with Brad. I think that’s what led to us working with him on this record. This is an extremely personal record. This is an extremely introspective record, so my thought process was not bringing a stranger in, but bringing somebody I was comfortable with, somebody that I knew, somebody that I trusted to bring these songs to life in the way that I wanted to bring them to life. This isn’t a bombastic band record. Hopefully, this feels like a conversation with a friend. That’s what this record should be. That’s what Brad is to me. Brad’s a dear friend of mine. I couldn’t be happier with how he presented these songs.
You can’t have a really big band presentation of some of these songs when you’re talking about losing your mother and losing a best friend or losing a child. These aren’t things that you want to cover up with a six-piece rock and roll band. And the band did a great job. The band did a really great job of serving these songs on this record. Sometimes there are no guitar solos. On certain songs, there’s no… it’s just an acoustic guitar, voice, drums, and kind of this ambient backing, which is sometimes all the song really needed. And so hats off to the band for being that adaptable, for being that incredible to where, live, we can pull off the really big bar band sound, but we can also get quiet and get dynamic. And I think that really shows off how versatile this band is.
Bonus: Outside of American Aquarium, what are some of your favorite works that Cook has worked on or produced?
Some of my favorite things that Brad has worked on… I loved his work with Bon Iver. I loved his Hurray for the Riff Raff record. Tré Burt. The Snail Mail record he just did is really fantastic. Houndmouth. I’m a big fan of most of this stuff.
Brad doesn’t work with anybody that he doesn’t, you know, he doesn’t work with artists or music that he doesn’t like and/or get. So, it’s nice. He’s kind of uncompromised in that way. Brad only works with the things he believes in, which is very rare these days. A lot of people take the paycheck, especially when you’re at a place where Brad is where, um, you don’t really have much left to prove anymore. Like, you know, he’s Grammy-nominated, a critically acclaimed producer. He could easily just work with the highest bidder, but he sticks to his guns and he works with the people he believes in and works with the people that he wants to, whether that’s two records a year or 10 records a year. I think that’s a really noble trait about Brad. One of the reasons I look up to him is he’s kind of unwavering in that regard. I love just about everything Brad’s put his name on. It’s a real honor that he’s done three of our records.
4) Could you name both the easiest and the most emotionally challenging song on the record for you to hear back and explain why?
One of the easiest songs on the record to write for me was a song called “Little Things.” It was a song about the challenges of adapting from being a touring musician to being a full-time stay-at-home dad for the last two years. It was easy because it was extremely honest. It was first person. There wasn’t a lot of narrative. There wasn’t a lot of character-building. It was me. I was writing a song about the time that I got to spend with my daughter for the last two years, the kind of time that maybe if I was still touring and there was no pandemic, I might have been on the road for half of it. But, because of the pandemic, I was home 24/7, getting to watch my daughter grow up. When the pandemic started, she was one. She’s four now! So being able to have a firsthand view of her saying her first words, the first I love yous, the first steps… being there for that instead of having to watch it through a phone was extremely important. That song came very easy.
One of the harder songs to write for the record was “The First Year.” It’s a song about my mom. It’s a song about losing my mom. It’s a song about dealing with the pitfalls that come in that first year of losing a loved one. When that first holiday comes that you associate with them, how hard that can be when it finally hits that they’re not here – when the reality sinks in that they’re not here and that all you have left is memories. That was a hard song to write, but again, like most of my career, the hardest songs to write have turned out to be some of my favorite songs down the road because it was really a kind of a cathartic release to get those songs out. And so I’ve learned that what takes the most work emotionally to get out tends to be the most rewarding in the long run.
5) You’re on a four-month-long tour spanning the U.S. coast to coast. How has touring and the act of live performance altered in your mind since 2020 (the pandemic), and what’s now the most complicated part?
Touring has changed a lot. You know, we got back on the road in June of 2021, so we had a full year and two or three months off of the road. When we started touring back last summer, it was a much different landscape than it is today. I feel like we’re getting back to the most comfortable it’s been in a very long time. But in 2021, it was still very cautious. We had a lot of people who were buying tickets to the shows and not coming to the shows because they either didn’t want to put themselves at risk or they didn’t wanna follow the guidelines. We called it a drop count. If 500 people buy tickets to the show and then only 300 people show up, it’s kind of misleading when you’re trying to plan.
But now, fast forward to summer 2022 and it feels like it’s back to normal. We’re having a lot more people at the shows. We’re having a lot more people letting us know they feel comfortable being at the shows. So, it was complicated just because there were a lot of moving parts. Anyone could get sick at any given time. You have to cancel shows, you have to send people home, you have to quarantine. But, now, in 2022, it feels like there’s a lot more breathing room. It feels like it’s getting slowly back. I don’t know if it’ll ever get back to fully normal, but it’s slowly getting back to normal. As a touring musician, that’s a really positive thing.
Bonus: Did the supply chain issues in record pressing affect you, and where did you get yours pressed?
We’re very fortunate. We did not experience too many supply chain issues for the record pressings. We pressed four records during the pandemic and all four records were delivered on time. We are very fortunate. We work with Hand Drawn outta Dallas, Texas. They are amazing to work with, a small mom-and-pop company. They put their bands as a priority. We like to pride ourselves on working with people that consider us a priority. You know, there are a lot of big box vinyl presses that we would just be another cog in the wheel. We’ll get to you when we get to you is their mentality. With Hand Drawn, lines of communication are always open. If they set a deadline, they do everything in their power to meet that deadline and those are the type of people that I take pride in working with. Those are the kind of people that it may cost a little more, it may take a little more time, but when they tell me that I’m gonna get a record at a certain time, they deliver. So we were very, very fortunate that we didn’t really have to deal with a lot of the supply chain issues for record presses.
Bonus: Talk to us about the development of Losing Side Records.
One of the big fruits of the pandemic was starting my own record label. We put out the last two records with New West Records. My deal ran out and it became very visible that it was time for me to start a record label. Nothing but love for the folks at New West Records, but when I had the opportunity to start my own with the folks over at Thirty Tigers… when I was able to start my own record label, I couldn’t pass that up. That was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. So, we took that jump. We felt like we were ready. Like I said, we’ve had 16 releases in 16 years, 14 of those were completely independent, so I feel like we had a pretty good grasp of how to do it. We’ve made a lot of mistakes over the last 16 years. So we’ve kinda learned from those and we’ve developed into a pretty efficient label, you know.
Considering we’ve only had four or five releases now as Losing Side Records, I feel like we’re pretty efficient. As far as manufacturing and distributing our own records. It’s something I’ve always wanted. I think everybody that starts a band or starts putting out music one day hopes to have their own label, have their own imprint, have their own umbrella that houses their music. And I’m very fortunate, 16 years in, to own a hundred percent of my music. From now on until, you know, I’m not doing this anymore, all of my music gets to reside under that umbrella of Losing Side Records. So at this point, Losing Side is only a year old, but 16 American Aquarium releases are underneath the title Losing Side Records. As an artist, that feels really good to know that. Not only do I own all of my music, but it’s all operating under one much bigger thing that, hopefully, one day will grow into something that signs other artists and develops other artists and turns into not just an avenue for me to put music out, but for me to find new music and put that out into the world.