Sometimes, if you knock long and loud enough, the door will open.
North Carolina’s American Aquarium dug in the bar-band trenches for years, playing 250 shows a year. Baton Rouge was among the band’s early road stops and one of the first towns to appreciate it.
It took longer for American Aquarium to make an impression in New Orleans. The band played in the tiny Circle Bar and opened up for headlining acts at the House of Blues. In Baton Rouge, American Aquarium slowly built an audience at Chelsea’s Café.
Recently, American Aquarium moved from Chelsea’s to the larger Baton Rouge venue the Varsity Theatre. The band’s playing the Varsity again Wednesday.
“We’ve been playing at the Varsity for about a year now,” singer-guitarist B.J. Barham said. “It’s a cool market that keeps growing and keeps being really kind to us.”
Things started turning around for American Aquarium following the release of its 2012 album, “Burn.Flicker.Die.” Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, a good friend of American Aquarium, produced the sessions at The Nut House studio in one of the South’s great music cities, Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Many dozens of soulful, classic hits were recorded in Muscle Shoals in the 1960s and ’70s.
“ ‘Burn. Flicker. Die’ was a record made in a state of desperation,” Barham recalled from his home in Raleigh during a rare day off the road. “It was going to be our last record. We laid it on the table. Burn, flicker, die.
“We were 7½ years in but we weren’t seeing any kind of success. It’s discouraging when you do it that long, when your heart’s in it and you think you’re doing the right thing, but people just aren’t getting it. We had accepted the fact that we tried our best, we did everything we could. Maybe we just weren’t good enough.”
But “Burn.Flicker.Die” — the album that was supposed to be the band’s last — gave the drowning American Aquarium a second chance.
“The record about us breaking up became our most successful record,” Barham said. “We got to hit the restart button, have a resurgence, like we were in our early 20s again. Shows got bigger, shows got better. Everybody was able to pay their cellphone bill on time. It was a good thing.”
About working with the much-acclaimed Isbell in the producer’s chair, Barham said, “he’s somebody we all look up to, especially now. He’s at the top of his game. His songwriting is amazing. He’s a great guitar player. He’s got a great voice. He’s got everything. And on one hand, he’s a buddy of ours and he’s always been supportive of the band. On the other hand, he’s Jason Isbell, one of the best songwriters of my generation. It was a really humbling thing, but at the end of day — and this is back when we were both drinking — we’d go out to the bar and have beer and talk about baseball.”
American Aquarium’s late-breaking success accelerated with the February release of the group’s “Burn.Flicker.Die” follow-up, “Wolves.” The album lays to rest the band’s noisy bar-band past and notes its newfound success.
“A lot more people are paying attention to what we’re doing now than two years ago,” Barham said. “We feel pretty good about it. It’s nice to see 10 years of hard work come to fruition.”