Chancellor Woodson Talks Wolfpack Fandom, Jams Out With American Aquarium
In episode three of Red Chair Chats, Chancellor Woodson interviews BJ Barham, an NC State alum and lead singer of the band American Aquarium.
In Red Chair Chats, Chancellor Randy Woodson interviews alumni, faculty, staff and friends of the university to showcase all that we Think and Do as a Wolfpack. The chancellor is joined by BJ Barham in the third episode of the series. Barham, who studied political science and history at NC State, is the lead singer of American Aquarium, a band that Chancellor Woodson says “def[ies] categorization.” They talk musical influences, Wolfpack fandom and even play a song together (appropriately titled “Wolves”) in this episode of Red Chair Chats.
Chancellor Randy Woodson: Hello, Wolfpack Nation. It’s Randy Woodson for another session of Red Chair Chats. This is where we have great conversations with amazing Wolfpackers, people that have one thing in common and that’s that they love this university and love the Pack. Today, we’re really excited to have BJ Barham with us. The founder, lead singer, amazing songwriter for the alt-country Americana, they defy categorization, American Aquarium. Hey, BJ.
BJ Barham: Hey, how are you?
Chancellor Woodson: I’m living the dream, I’m with you.
BJ: Nonsense, nonsense. Thanks for having me.
Chancellor Woodson: Oh, we’re thrilled to have you. Tell me, you’ve always been connected to NC State, always been connected to Raleigh, but you’ve been around the world with this band. So, tell me about your NC State journey. How did you get here?
BJ: I grew up in a little place called Reidsville, North Carolina. It’s about an hour and a half west of here, right above Greensboro. And I came to Raleigh to attend NC State University. I came here in 2002. I was a CHASS kid. I was a political science and history major.
And when I moved to Raleigh, that is when my eyes shifted to music. Started playing guitar, started playing open mics and started playing in some of the bars in Raleigh. And quickly, my goal of being an attorney slowly shifted to being a singer, songwriter.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, the world is better off for it.
BJ: I think the world is much better off.
Chancellor Woodson: You know, nothing against attorneys, but I think we have a fair number of—
BJ: I think we have enough of those.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah. Well, you can always use more music.
BJ: For sure. For sure.
Chancellor Woodson: So, you started — you’re a phenomenal songwriter — and everything I’ve read about the creation of the band and about your start on this journey was really to give you a venue to play the music that you were creating. And, so often, people get into music by playing other people’s material. But you’ve been a songwriter from the beginning.
BJ: Yeah. The reason I started a band was to give this life to the songs that I was creating.
It’s just me and an acoustic guitar. I write all the songs. These skeletal, folk ruminations, and then the band turns them into something much bigger. And so, I was really lucky while I was at NC State to meet the band that originally started as the first version of this band was just friends of mine from college.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah.
BJ: We lovingly refer to them as owner-operators, the guys that moved to Raleigh and had a bass, or had a drum set. And we started playing shows at The Brewery on Hillsborough Street, R.I.P. I think it’s a CVS or something, a Walgreens, at this point. But it used to be like the one place that would book a lot of local bands. And growing up in Reidsville, there were two kinds of musicians. There were big, top 40 stuff you hear on the radio and there was people who played, like, at your family reunion. Like, just fun. I never knew there was an in-between. And when I moved to Raleigh, I realized there was this thing, independent music. People that weren’t signed to a label, weren’t getting played on the radio, but they were making a living playing music. And it took me hook, line and sinker.
Chancellor Woodson: You know, one of the things that I’ve been fascinated in learning about and listening to your music is how much you’ve always involved the fans in the launch of a new project. If I’m not mistaken, almost all of your studio albums have started with kickstarter campaigns and been funded by your fans.
BJ: For sure. We have always been a heavy touring, but we knew we weren’t going to get radio famous. So when we started this band, it was very much, how are we going to fund this? And so, we realized that the way to success was one, playing as many shows as we could. So, very early on, starting in 2006, we started touring about 300 shows a year.
Chancellor Woodson: Wow.
BJ: Which is not really–
Chancellor Woodson: Turns out there’s only 365 days in a year.
BJ: Exactly. So, we broke every relationship apart that we had back home. We just ruined everything. And we lived on the road for almost a decade.
Chancellor Woodson: Wow.
BJ: But after a decade of playing 300 shows a year all across the world, you realize that you’ve picked up a lot of fans along the way. And I’d say half of them, at some point in our career, uttered the words, “Man, I wish there was something else I could do to help you out, than buying just one T-shirt or buying a ticket to your show.” And so we finally turned it over to them and said, “You want to help us out? Buy every one of our records nine months in advance, before it ever comes out. And help us make this thing.” And so, by them doing that, we’ve never had to sign to a record label, we’ve never had to give away any of our creative processes. We’re one of the few bands that I know of, 15 years into their career, that own 100% of their material. I own every single thing I’ve ever recorded and nobody gets to touch it.
Chancellor Woodson: Wow.
BJ: Which is—
Chancellor Woodson: A lot of artists can’t say that.
BJ: There are not a lot of artists that can say that. Like, the folks on the radio, your big artists, they have so many hands in the cookie jar at the end of the day. They have to make their living touring, they get nothing off the recorded side. And so, I’m very fortunate that after 15 years to look up and not only do I get to tour and make a living, I also get to make a living off the art that I created.
Chancellor Woodson: Well Pack, that’s Think and Do. That’s amazing. Let’s get back to the Pack for a second.
BJ: Yeah, sure.
Chancellor Woodson: I’ve seen you down on the sidelines. I’m guessing that you’re more than a casual fan of the Pack.
BJ: That is a solid guess.
Chancellor Woodson: Is it a solid guess?
BJ: It is a solid guess.
Chancellor Woodson: All right.
BJ: I’m a fanatic. I am a true fan of the Pack. It started going to school here, dance with the one that brought you. Growing up in North Carolina, when you’re a kid in elementary school, you tend to pull for one of the blue teams because they won a lot. It was hard being a Pack fan in elementary school. But once I started attending NC State, there was no looking back. This was my team, win or lose. I was a Pack fan. And so, I’ve carried that over into my adult life. I’m at every — If I’m home, I’m at a game. I’ve taken that into my music as well. I’ve written songs about Raleigh, I’ve written songs about the Wolfpack. I’ve made a couple obscure NC State references in songs that Pack alumni tend to get. But it’s been fun to watch my fan base associate NC State with me. Because I’m the only link to that. There’s not many people in Nebraska or Wisconsin or Texas that care.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, a few in Nebraska now.
BJ: For sure, there are. But there’s a lot of those folks that didn’t really pay attention to NC State football or NC State basketball or baseball or wrestling. And because of me and because of them following us on Twitter, they’ve had to keep a side eye on what NC State did this week.
Chancellor Woodson: Absolutely.
BJ: And it’s always nice when fans come to the merch table when they’re wearing a Wisconsin hat or a University of Washington hat or a Longhorns hat. And instead of talking about their alma mater, they’re talking to me about NC State. Like, did you see what NC State did in the last week? And I’m like, let’s chat it up.
Chancellor Woodson: BJ, talk about what you’re most excited about now in your music. I know your last album — It’s not every artist that can give Old Testament references in their music, but “Lamentations,” lamenting on, you know, the Fall of Jerusalem.
BJ: Yeah. Well, I saw a lot. So, I wrote the new record “Lamentations” is really about, you know, it’s kind of the Biblical stance and it’s kind of the Webster stance. I wrote a record based around—I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church.
Chancellor Woodson: Of course you were.
BJ: My dad was a deacon. I grew up singing in the church. I think that anybody worth their weight in songwriting had to grow up with that religious tension pulling at them. But the book of lamentations always struck me as this kind of wild thing because it’s Jeremiah standing back and watching the Fall of Jerusalem. Watching Babylon take over Jerusalem, and questioning God, asking, “Where are you now? We’ve given you everything. Why are you letting this happen to our country? Why is it so divided right now?” And I saw a lot of correlations between that and 2019 America. So, I started writing songs in that vein. And then I realized if I wrote 10 songs like that, it would be a very polarizing record. So, then I went to Webster’s, which the word “lamentation” just means an extreme expression of sorrow or grief. And I was like, I can definitely write 10 songs that touch on that. So, I wrote from, basically the theme of the record went from just this Old Testament, kind of, audiology to the things that test us as human beings, the things that break us as human beings. So, there’s watching your country become divided. There’s a loss of a child. There’s a dissolution of a marriage. There’s financial ruin, there’s addiction, there’s recovery. It really touched on a lot of these cornerstones of the human experience. And so, that’s why I’m so proud of that record because it encompassed so much of what we all have to go through. It wasn’t just a record about me, and my travels and my journey. It was a record that I think a lot of people could tap into and find a piece of themselves in.
Chancellor Woodson: I definitely agree. It’s a phenomenal piece of art.
BJ: Thank you.
Chancellor Woodson: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the things that you just mentioned, particularly addiction and recovery. I lead a big university, a university you love. And one of the things we spend so much time on is trying to help young people deal with health and wellness and take care of themselves. You’ve been very public about sobriety and about some of your challenges and what it means to you now. Talk a little bit about that and the context of everything we’re all trying to do to get through this pandemic, to take care of one another and just reflect a bit on that.
BJ: Yeah, I just celebrated my seventh year of sobriety. Aug. 31 was my seventh year of sobriety. I don’t think you can tell an 18-year-old kid about the pitfalls of addiction. It’s something you have to experience for yourself. Nobody could have told me. When I was at NC State, when I was 18, wide-eyed and thinking I knew everything about the world. I wasn’t going to listen to some middle-aged guy tell me about the—
Chancellor Woodson: I’m advanced for my age, but I get it.
BJ: I wasn’t going to let someone tell me about sobriety. In my experience, you have to go through the loss. You have to go through the pitfalls. You have to watch how bad it can be to even try to imagine how good it could be. And for me, it didn’t take long. It took about a month of sobriety. I started feeling better. I started sounding better as a singer, as a performer. My relationships began to heal after 2, 3, 6 months, a year. I started becoming a better person. I started becoming reliable. I started becoming someone that people wanted to be around. And then once I got married — I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I got sober and then everything changed for me. My career took off, I got married, I started a family. I became successful in my career. I wasn’t just some singer-songwriter trying to make it. I was a local singer-songwriter that had made it. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence that it happened. It directly coincided with my sobriety. So I tell kids, I am a living proof that you can still be a rock and roller, you can still travel the world and have fun and not rely on something else to be the fun, to be the catalyst for the fun. You can be the catalyst for the fun.
Chancellor Woodson: So one of the things that I’ve noticed about a lot of prominent artists during the pandemic when tours were shut down. They really reverted back to, really thinking deeply about their music, writing great material. And, that’s been true for you, I know. But one of the things I noticed is that you’ve recorded a cover album.
Chancellor Woodson: And by the way, I love the cover on the album.
BJ: Thank you.
Chancellor Woodson: I don’t know if I can say this, Levi Strauss, but if you look carefully, I think you’ll see a couple of beautiful wolves pulling apart.
BJ: We replaced, on the cover of that record, we replaced some of the horses with wolves and made that label on our own. We changed it just enough to where I don’t think Levi can sue us. Which is a good thing. It’s 20% you’ve got to change. And then it’s a completely new thing. But yeah, we decided in the middle of the pandemic, we couldn’t do anything else. So we decided to record this record of songs that influenced us as kids. Every kid wants to pretend they were influenced by Fugazi and Townes Van Zandt growing up. But they weren’t. If you grew up in the mid-‘80s like me, you were influenced by radio country, F.M., ‘90s country. And so, we got together and recorded some of our favorite ‘90s country songs. It’s kind of a tip of the hat to pay homage to the stuff that gave us our musical foundation. We had zero idea if the fans were going to enjoy it. We made it for us. We made it to give us something to look forward to, something to do and keep our hands occupied. And as soon as we put it out, we realized that we weren’t the only people that had that experience with ‘90s country. There were a lot of people that it really resonated with. And so, I want to say, we pressed up a couple thousand
vinyl copies of the record and they sold out in less than 24 hours.
Chancellor Woodson: Wow!
BJ: And we were like, oh! We severely underestimated the want, the demand here. And so it’s been a lot of fun. Especially on tour this summer, we’ve been throwing one or two of the songs in the set every night. And just to watch the crowd spark up and come alive. It’s been a lot of fun.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, I noticed you referred to it as Volume 1.
Chancellor Woodson: So, who knows?
BJ: There is a Volume 2. I won’t be leaking too much information here, but I’ve promised people that before the end of 2021, Volume 2 comes out.
Chancellor Woodson: Wow!
BJ: I’m not giving dates but it’s already recorded. It’s done. But the thing I think I’m most excited about is Nov. 1, we go back in the studio to record our next studio record, getting away from the cover stuff. Like you said, focusing back on the songs, the serious songs that we wrote during the pandemic. And we’re doing that out in El Paso, Texas. And so, another North Carolina reference the name of the record is Chicken Mokomoko.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah, say that a hundred times.
BJ: Yeah. Trust me I had to, to learn how to say it properly. Chicken Mokomoko is what the Northern tip of Hatteras Island used to be called back before when it was Rodanthe and Waves, before the United States Postal Service moved in and changed it all. But I wrote this record. Me and my wife went out there for about a month, February of last year. I guess February of this year, February, 2021, and holed up on the beach. I don’t know if anybody’s ever been to the Outer Banks in February. It’s empty. It’s desolate. There’s nobody there. So it was really fun to walk up and down the beach every day for miles and not see a single person. It was a really desolate place to write this kind of record about loneliness and solitude and loss, which is what I equate 2020 to. And so, I’m really excited for folks to hear that. That’ll be out in the summer of 2022. But we get to record it in November.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, BJ, I have a weakness for guitars.
Chancellor Woodson: And—
Chancellor Woodson: Actually my wife thinks it’s a problem, but I hide them. They’re in different rooms.
Chancellor Woodson: You don’t keep them all together or they start counting.
Chancellor Woodson: But, you’ve got a guitar that I bet a lot of people, particularly in Wolfpack Nation lust over. And that’s a red, J-45 Gibson.
Chancellor Woodson: You can’t find those. I mean, they didn’t make a lot of them. Is that mid-‘60s?
BJ: It’s ‘68.
Chancellor Woodson: OK.
BJ: ‘68 is the only year they made them. And the only way you could get one was ordering it from the catalog. So they didn’t sell them in stores. You had to order them straight from Gibson, which brings the quantity down quite a bit. But it’s a red 1968 J-45 with the white binding. I always told myself if I ever found a Wolfpack guitar, a quality Gibson Wolfpack guitar, I was going to buy it. And I found it in Houston, Texas. And immediately bought it. Put it on three credit cards.
Chancellor Woodson: Man’s got to do what he’s got to do.
BJ: Yeah, and this is back before. I knew how I was going to pay those credit cards off. This was taking a shot and I am like, I’m never going to find this guitar again. And I’ve only seen one or two since I bought it.
Chancellor Woodson: I’ve never seen one.
BJ: Yeah. They’re extremely rare. And it’s become synonymous with me as a musician. When people see that red guitar, they know what band is playing, just because of how rare the guitar is. But it’s always fun when I play in Raleigh because people know that it’s not just a coincidence that I have a red and white guitar. Especially a mid-‘60s Gibson.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, how often do you get back to the campus?
BJ: I come to campus once a week.
Chancellor Woodson: I know for football you—
BJ: For, once a week, I come to campus. My daughter is a huge fan of the Belltower. It’s like her favorite thing ever. Elmo takes a back seat when it comes to the Belltower. So, we come once a week and we have lunch at the Belltower. And my kid goes crazy. She’s 3. She’s only been in trouble once at her preschool and we got called in for a parent conference. And we thought it was going to be something terrible. We were like, what’d she do? And it’s like, she keeps yelling, “Go Wolfpack!” And she won’t stop doing it. And the teacher’s a Carolina fan. So, she’s obviously upset about it. And my wife was like, we’ll take care of it. And I know we won’t. I was like, I am proud of my kid. But, she apparently was leading the rest of the class in a “Go Wolfpack!” chant. And it warms my soul knowing that. Because my wife said, “Why are you submitting her to this? It’s such an early age.” I’m like, she chose it.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah.
BJ: So, she’s got all of her NC State stuff. She’s got a little pewter Belltower right beside of her bed. She’s growing up as part of the Pack.
Chancellor Woodson: And she’s already exhibiting tremendous leadership.
BJ: Extremely. Yeah. That’s what I thought. And so after coming out of that parent-teacher conference, it was like, this is wonderful. I was glowing. I was literally glowing. But it’s fun. So, we bring her to campus, she’s met Mr. and Ms. Wuf. We bring her to Talley and we take her to see Reynolds and she’s learning her way. She’s going to be one of those kids that, you know about the teenage years, when she comes to State, which she inevitably will, she’ll be the kid that already knows where everything is.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah. We’re saving a spot.
BJ: Yeah. Good. I’ll let her know. Because my wife was like, the first thing I need you to do is secure her spot. And I was like, yeah. So what is that, 15 years from now? Admissions? We’re looking at you.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah. Keep the pressure on. Keep the pressure on. All right. So, talk about Coach Doeren. I know y’all have a great relationship. You’re down on the sidelines a lot. He’s not NC State, but boy, is he NC State.
BJ: He’s NC State. Nine years in, I think you earn your spot. That’s the longest coach we’ve had tenure here since I’ve — I came here in ‘02, so he is definitely the coach. He’s been here almost half my time. Doeren, he has impeccable musical taste.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah. That’s true.
BJ: That’s the thing that we bonded over. He listened to a lot of the music that we love. And so, we see him at shows. We’ve seen him at a few music festivals.
Chancellor Woodson: You need to help him with his guitar skills.
BJ: He’s got the open chords.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah. All right.
BJ: He can hold his own.
Chancellor Woodson: All right
BJ: But he’s been really great. The coaching staff has always been really great to me, letting me come and really be a part of that experience. Because as a student, I would have done a lot to be able to be that close to the players. And it’s been really nice to get to know some of the players and get to know most of the coaching staff and just be able to be that close to the action. It’s something I do not take for granted.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah.
BJ: Any Saturday, I’m able to stand down there. It’s a real honor. And coach Doeren has been great, really supportive of the band online and Twitter and Instagram and all that good stuff. He’s doing a bang-up job.
Chancellor Woodson: Talk a little bit about what you said earlier, Coach Doeren has impeccable music taste. Where’s your music taste go? Who are the stars or the music — stars isn’t the right word — but the artists and musicians, the people that you admire, that you listened to, that you would love to record with or have recorded with.
BJ: Like I said earlier, my musical taste was very limited. My scope was extremely limited. Growing up in Reidsville, we didn’t have record stores, we didn’t have, you know — it was what was on the radio and what you bought at Walmart. That was your musical taste.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah.
BJ: So moving to Raleigh, the first job I got when I moved to Raleigh was at the Record Exchange on Hillsborough Street. I worked there for five years and walked into work every day and I got to listen to music. I got to just jump into whatever was standing on the aisles. You get to open everything up and listen to it. And so, I fell in love with a lot of really big generational songwriters, so Springsteen, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Dylan, Paul Simon, kind of these really huge voices by themselves. But then they had these amazing backing bands, especially Petty and Springsteen. That was who I wanted to model my stuff after. I wanted the songs to be great just on an acoustic guitar. But I wanted all the muscle to come from a really big rock and roll band. And so that’s kind of the classical influence, the contemporary influence, the Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, Whiskeytown. Those are some bands that had kind of more of like a punk rock edge to country music, which I totally resonated with. And they weren’t famous.
It was bands that I could go see at the Cat’s Cradle, bands I could go see at the Lincoln Theater and there’d only be 200 people there. But songs that made me want to write better songs. Seeing those guys in Raleigh and Chapel Hill let me know that I didn’t have to be the prettiest guy in the room. I didn’t have to have the best voice. I just had to write good songs and had to tour.
And it really set up the blueprint for what I was doing. I was going and seeing all of those shows in the Triangle freshman year, sophomore year in college. I was probably going to five or six shows a week. Just, I fell in love with music. And so, I tended to skew more on the indie rock side of stuff, WKNC 88.1, it was always on in the car.
Chancellor Woodson: You know, I was a guest DJ.
Chancellor Woodson: Last week.
BJ: See, I’ve never had the honor. I’ve been interviewed a few times, but I’ve never been the DJ.
Chancellor Woodson: Oh, it’s huge. I had a Muscle Shoals history lesson.
BJ: I recorded a record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Chancellor Woodson: I know you have.
BJ: And that is, for those watching, Muscle Shoals is one of the magical places of the world. So you had a whole hour?
Chancellor Woodson: I had a whole hour and I started back with Percy Sledge, moved over. Oh, it was a big time.
BJ: Oh, you’re speaking my language. This is great.
Chancellor Woodson: So, we were talking earlier about an amazing run for our baseball team and how tragically it ended. But I was at Arkansas when we won that series, and you mentioned you were playing a show in Arkansas after we had won the series. You know, Arkansas is my home state. You have a big fan base there. In fact, when I was coming to NC State in 2010, my sister wrote me and said, “You know American Aquarium from Raleigh?”
Chancellor Woodson: No, I’m serious.
Chancellor Woodson: Yeah. So, you do have a big fan base.
BJ: Yeah. Fayetteville is a great spot for us. We played in Fayetteville the day after we won that series. So, it was still very much an open wound and I just danced around and poured salt in it, which is—
Chancellor Woodson: Just a nod to George’s Majestic Lounge, for all the Razorback fans out there, if there are any.
BJ: George’s is our home in Fayetteville. We love those guys.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, it’s been great to catch up with you.
BJ: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Chancellor Woodson: We’re proud of what you do. We’re proud of how you represent NC state and excited for your future as you are producing some amazing music.
BJ: Thank you so much. I’ll always rep the Pack in everything I do. And it’s always nice to be included in stuff like this because the university holds such a special place in my life, and so, anything I can do to help give back to it is great.
Chancellor Woodson: All right. Go Pack!