Aaron Bruno: Doing his own thing
Led by charismatic singer Aaron Bruno, AWOLNATION, an electronic/indie rock act, scored big a few years back with “Sail,” a soaring anthem that found its way into TV shows. commercials and films. The band slowed things down with last year’s Run. With its cooing vocals and piano melody, “Fat Face” could pass a Beach Boys’ tune, and “Jailbreak” comes off as soul/R&B. Of course, it’s not all mellow. The band cranks up the guitars on “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf),” a song that finds Bruno practically screaming. Bruno recently phoned us from his L.A. home where he was about to start a “slimmed down” headlining tour before joining Prophets of Rage for a fall tour.
I know you’re in the middle of a headlining tour but how excited are you to hit the road with Prophets of Rage?
It’s a dream come true. Rage Against the Machine was like the Black Sabbath of my generation. They came at a time when it was a breath of fresh air. Public Enemy had already happened, which was a big deal to me as well. Listening to Chuck D’s lyrics over and over and that bass-y vocal and the power behind it. When I was first heard, “Killing in the Name,” I thought Beastie Boys got a little harder. Zack is one of my favorite vocalists of all time. If you’re not going to have Zack, it’s great to have Chuck D. And B-Real is great too. Tim Commerford has become a good friend of mine and has helped with AWOLNATION over the years.
What are you political beliefs and how do they come across in your music?
My only belief is that we have the right to think what we want to think. That’s basically it. It’s never been about being part of one party or another. There hasn’t been one group of people that have appealed to me or my thoughts. I have done my own thing. It’s gotten me to where I am now, for better or worse. In any situation, if you see a group of people flocking toward something, be it a speaker or a restaurant in an airport, that’s the last place I want to be. I try to find my own situation. My only belief is that I want have the right to think what I think and not be told what to think. I tend to tune political things out. If you turn on the news, you think the world was ending yesterday. I found that music is the best source of happiness and togetherness. I try to stay on the positive side of things. The Rage guys are more educated when it comes to issues and I’m more like the guy who marches to the beat of his own drum. There’s good and bad people in every group. There’s good and bad people in every religion and on any given day, depending on what night we had the night before, in my band.
Talk about how the band first came together. I think it was 2009 when it first formed? You had been in other bands. How was AWOLNATION different?
It was fundamentally different because it was the first time I felt comfortable doing it all on my own or at least leading the vision all the way. The bands before had been more traditional in terms of coming up with ideas together and voting on them and approving them. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. For me it had run its course, and it was refreshing to not have someone backseat driving my lyrics or melodies or how I wanted it to sing or sound. There had been too many cooks in the kitchen for long enough. Having said that, we had made some great meals together and made some dishes that didn’t work. Some of the bites were okay. This was the first time I had set out alone to do it. By no means did I think that would be better or more successful. I did know it would be rewarding that I could see my vision all the way through.
So you had a concrete vision for what you wanted the music to sound like?
I didn’t know what it would sound like. I knew there was stuff I enjoyed and would do. I didn’t see why not to do that. I didn’t know why I couldn’t have a song that was a ballad and then have a more brutal-sounding, heavier song with guitars, or synths, or a more aggressive vocal. I was aware of the scattered nature of all of it, but I thought my voice would be the thread to keep the sweater together. And I do love Weezer, by the way, so that’s my way of giving them a shoutout. My drummer just did play “Undone—The Sweater Song” with them in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which was a really cool thing to see.
Were you surprised by the success of “Sail”?
Of course. There was never a moment when it just happened like that. It wasn’t like winning the lottery where your life clearly changes. It was gradual, organic growth. My manager kept telling me it was the strangest journey a song has ever had. I always believed in that song but I didn’t think it would be a single. I like to think of it as a combination of every single song that I wrote that never happened and had the potential to be good. There were songs that folks said would be the biggest single ever and of course none of that happened. I always had a sense of melody and a sincerity. It all came together perfectly in an imperfect way. I finally had something to say. That’s a fundamental difference in this project versus the other bands. Then I was too immature to have a clear voice.
Talk about your approach on Run. What did you want to do differently with the album?
I am what I am. It’s like waking up in the mirror and you go, “There’s my face. Take it or leave it.” Some days it might look more tired than others. That was my approach with the record. I wanted to push myself. I wanted it to be heavier sounding and more emotional. Hopefully, I have grown as a producer. I do all the writing and producing and mixing as I go. I feel like I’ve improved. I wanted to push the limits. I didn’t want to write “Sail 2.0” but there are songs that tap into that emotion. I wanted to keep the train going. All odds were against me. We survived the sophomore slump and trust me, all odds were against me. When you have a break out first album, everyone wants to be part of the shiny new toy and the second is different. It didn’t seem as easy. It’s like, “We helped you on the first record but we don’t feel like we need to help you on the second one.” Even though Red Bull is a massive company, they’re still an independent label so we don’t have the same kinds of connections with majors who can offer the next Coldplay premiere or whatever it might be. We’ll always feel like the underdog, which is fine with me.
Was “KOOKSEVERYWHERE!!!” the first song you wrote for the album?
It’s not the first I wrote but possibly the first song I recorded for the record. I think we were in the middle of touring for the first record, I wanted a song that was uptempo and tapped into the roots of my punk rock upbringing. I wanted a song with that kind of beat that you could dance to. I don’t know if I’ve heard something like that before. Nine Inch Nails did a good job of that. I just wanted a song that would freak people out. And it does. Every time, we play it live I think the crowd will go crazy. But everyone just goes, “What is this?” It’s like aliens landed. I enjoy that response too. It hasn’t got the bombastic response that I thought it would get while other songs get that response. I never know. I’m the worst judge of how people will respond.
The song “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)” went through a few stages and started out as something softer. Talk about those stages and how it evolved.
We had just got back from a European tour where we had played Kooks. It was time to get this new record into shape and take it seriously. “Sail” went so long I could chill out and ride the wave. That was the first song that I went into the studio with the intention of making the second record. I had this tripped out song. It had a stony vibe to it. Once I got into the studio, I turned into more of an anthemic song about facing your fears and it ended up being a No. 1 alternative song, which I never thought would happen. “Sail” was never No. 1.
Have you started writing new songs?
I’ve worked on this other artists’ records, one called IRONTOM, who we’re taking out on this tour coming up. I finished their record. I co-wrote and produced that. And there’s another artist, Sickabod Sane. Same thing with him. I was able to do that in the midst of this record cycle. It was nice for me to take a break from my own project and I think I learned a lot. It’s like if you don’t make out with someone for a long time, once you get to do that again, it gets to be a big deal. Now, when I have been working on new songs for the upcoming record, it feels natural, and I have a clear sense of what it will be like. Anything can change, of course.