Los Angeles outfit AWOLNATION’s blend of rock, punk, hip hop, and synth-pop betrays conventional categories in a way founder, Aaron Bruno, has been angling to perfect over nearly a decade and two major-label band efforts. While “AWOL” refers to a high school nickname for the sociably elusive Bruno, the only thing absent without leave of late are copies of their debut from shelves. Those baited by “Sail,” a kind of AWOL-national anthem certified Gold this week, are treated to rousing musical eccentricity with Megalithic Symphony. Intensely retrospective tracks wave the white flag, while revelatory, proletarian numbers celebrate collective triumph. The result is a kind of musical ADHD—we wonder how Bruno kept it latent for so long.
We caught up with Bruno on a rare day off, leading up to a US headlining tour and a performance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, to survey his ongoing commitment to being musically noncommittal.
AMANDA DUBERMAN: So where are you right now?
AARON BRUNO: I’m in Laguna Beach.
DUBERMAN: Lucky for you!
BRUNO: Yeah, we’ve been extremely busy, and then I got sick, so today was the only day there’s been a little bit of swell and the weather’s been good. I’m just kind of soaking it up.DUBERMAN: You were part of some nominally successful bands in the past: Hometown Hero and Under the Influence of Giants. Can you explain the nature of your departure from these projects and the founding of AWOLNATION as a solo project?
BRUNO: Sure. Around the end of the Giants, the second band, I felt like I was getting better at songwriting myself. When we decided to go our separate ways, it was more of a of a sad, “Okay, let’s go do our own thing.” I was leaving the Giants in a pretty low point, where financially, it was really hard to find a way to make money in the music industry, and I didn’t really have a place to call home. Being in a very humbling, slightly dark, slightly depressing time I think fueled the fire and the passion that went into the writing of this whole record.
DUBERMAN: What did you do in the interim?
BRUNO: I like to write pop songs and the stuff I write is fairly poppy, so I thought maybe my lot in life was to write pop songs for people. It never felt right writing songs for other people to sing, though. At that point, I wrote “Sail.” It was a really nice release for me, and it was really therapeutic—almost like a journal entry about how I was feeling at the time. And without me ever thinking it, that ended up being the single that kind of kicked open the door.
DUBERMAN: Let’s talk about that. After hearing “Sail” on the radio, someone might anticipate Megalithic Symphony to be slightly different than what it is. Did “Sail” precede the founding of the project, or follow from it?
BRUNO: It was just a really nice accident that brought me the kind of success that I never have had. I hadn’t really decided what I wanted to call the project or knew how serious it would be. “Sail” wasn’t necessarily like, “Oh shit, we made this song, now we have to put out a record.” It happened to be the first one that people gravitated towards, or at least the radio did. It was a shocker for me, for sure. I still wake up every morning and I can’t believe that “Sail” is in the charts.
DUBERMAN: This seems to be a pretty existential moment for you. Megalithic Symphony has been well received, and you’re embarking on a headlining tour, where presumably people come out exclusively to see you. If the next few months are kind of the formative months for AWOLNATION, what are you expecting and hoping for?
BRUNO: This is such a strange and different project than what else is out there, for better or for worse. No one has really offered to take us out on tour. Pretty quickly we had to realize that we have to build this thing ourselves from scratch, and we started doing headlining shows right out of the gates. Now as the shows are getting bigger, we’ve kind of been training for this all along without even realizing it. For that reason, it doesn’t feel extremely stressful, or like a pivotal moment necessarily. I’m just happy to get the opportunity to play for anyone, whether it’s 40 people or 4,000 people.
DUBERMAN: So, I guess the next few months aren’t really “formative,” but opening up a broader outlet for what the project has always been?
BRUNO: Right. When “Sail” went Gold, I didn’t feel any different than I did the minute before. All I think whenever we hit a landmark is “What’s next?” What’s really exciting is the developmental friendship we’re having with our fans. It’s like the honeymoon phase. There were so many records growing up that did that for me, and I’m so grateful to be able to provide that kind of feeling.
DUBERMAN: Have you seen any AWOLNATION tattoos yet?
BRUNO: I have. A girl recently got a chest piece, like shoulder to shoulder, and it said “Jump On My Shoulders” and I was like, “Whoa, that’s permanent, you know.”
DUBERMAN: Well, if for whatever reason things don’t pan out, you’ll know you’re permanently memorialized somewhere.
BRUNO: Yeah, I’ll show my buddies at my 20th high school reunion: “This girl got a tattoo of a song I wrote.”
DUBERMAN: You’ve said in the past you don’t necessarily want to dilute listeners’ individual interpretation of songs by being too explicit about what they mean to you. At the same time, it seems AWOLNATION as a project, has a distinctly underdog, almost populist kind of message. How do you approach these two elements differently, if indeed you do?
BRUNO: The answer’s kind of simple. I never try and force-feed any song idea or lyrical message. It’s really what’s on my mind and what comes out of me. And a lot of these lyrics are metaphors for specific life situations that I’ve been through, and in most cases, the struggles. Something about human beings wearing sadness heavily on their sleeve inspires me to make something uplifting about the situation.
DUBERMAN: Are those the things that have always inspired you, or more a result of what you’ve been through professionally, or personally, over your career?
BRUNO: I would say it’s always been in me to want to have victorious songs. I sort of want my songs to have a feeling of victory, but through a lot of pain. Like, you’re 75 percent to the top of the mountain and sometimes you fall back to the bottom, but hopefully by the end of the record you’ll feel like there’s no mountain at all.
DUBERMAN: Definitely. The thematic content of the album is pretty lucid. It shifts from this kind of anguish to revelation, or victory. Sometimes within a single song.
BRUNO: Yeah, thanks. I mean I’ve never been one to be turned on by much darkness. I can be inspired to try and get out of it. For me, it’s not fun to root for the person who has won a million Super Bowls; it’s not fun to root for the Patriots. I’ve always been a Raiders fan, because they’re always struggling. So when you reach that kind of success, it feels that much better. Really, this record is an extension of who I am and all the quirks that make up who I am. Humor, a little bit of pessimistic sarcasm I think comes across in the record. All along not really taking myself too seriously. I’m just really grateful the stars aligned in my brain and these songs came out.
DUBERMAN: Has the reception of Megalithic Symphony influenced your writing process at all? Have the same types of themes been occurring to you lately as before the success of the album?
BRUNO: Ideas just kind of come to me; I don’t fight them too much. Definitely, being on tour can be, at times, slightly depressing if you’re in a place that makes you feel homesick and you write something really depressing. Or you’re super inspired because you’re in Berlin, this place that you’ve never been before; it’s so beautiful, and you come up with something a little bit more uplifting. I do think that there is an element of your surroundings dictating what you’re going to be writing.
DUBERMAN: What songs are people responding to the most at your shows?
BRUNO: Every time we play our single, “Sail,” everybody goes nuts, because that’s what they hear on the radio. But also when we play our songs “Knights of Shame,” which is a 12-minute song, people really appreciate the effort that went it to it. We’re having so much fun at that point in the set. And also there’s that kind of first-date mentality, where you’re not exactly sure how it’s going to go, if there’s going to be a makeout session or not. With “Knights of Shame,” it’s a full lovemaking situation.
DUBERMAN: I hope you’re using protection.
BRUNO: Well, of course we use protection. There’s a barrier there. There’s your protection.
DUBERMAN: How did you come to the album title Megalithic Symphony?
BRUNO: There’s a lot of megalithic structures throughout our world, and there’s not a very good or factual explanation for how they got there or why they’re exactly there. I feel the exact same way about the song ideas that come to me. These ideas could have come to someone else, but I’m grateful they came to me and people are responding positively to them.
DUBERMAN: Lastly, were there any songs for which you were particularly nervous about their reception?
BRUNO: Pretty much the whole record, anything on it. It’s always so fun to do then you look back on it and think, “I wonder if anyone is going to dig this.” Part of me is extremely confident and thinks, “Of course people are going to love this. I love this, I’m a music nerd, I feel like other people out there will love it too.” And then part of me sees the reality of the situation of being so attached to a song that you don’t even know what’s up or down by the time you’re done with it, it’s kind of frightening. I’m always confident that it’s at least strange enough or different enough that I can at least hang my hat on that.
AWOLNATION’S MEGALITHIC SYMPHONY IS OUT NOW. THE BAND WILL TOUR THROUGHOUT THE FALL, INCLUDING DATES IN LOS ANGELES NOVEMBER 3 AND NEW YORK NOVEMBER 21. FOR MORE ON AWOLNATION, VISIT ITS WEBSITE.