The solo project of Aaron Bruno, former member of Under the Influence of Giants and Home Town Hero, AWOLNATION crosses into more genres than can be listed, but blends these various influences seamlessly. A bit pop, a bit hip-hop, and more than a dash punk rock, AWOLNATION has provide support to acts ranging from MGMT to Weezer, and while the project’s debut release, the Back From Earth EP, only contains five tracks, all five hold up to countless repetitions (believe me, I know from experience). After hearing a few of the unreleased AWOLNATION songs during Bruno’s SSMF performance, I really can’t wait to see what he releases next. Here’s hoping I don’t wear out the “repeat” feature on my iTunes player before the next album drops.
LA Music Blog recently talked to Aaron Bruno about the decision to go solo, the process of writing with one of his idols, and how he came up with the name AWOLNATION.
Previously you were with Under The Influence of Giants and Home Town Hero. What sparked the idea of starting AWOLNATION?
I would say the natural progression of growing up and going through different avenues of life. With growing up, I’ve found that certain relationships dwindle and fade away. Before I was always writing with someone else and splitting the publishing, doing the three musketeers “one for all” kind of thing, just to keep the camaraderie of the band together.
With Home Town, there were four of us, and we split everything equally. Then with the Giants, there were three writers in the band, and we split everything equally there. Then for better or for worse, hopefully for better, after the Giants put out our first record and were in the process of writing the follow-up record, the complete downfall of major labels happened. We didn’t really know what was going on at the time. I think everybody was really scared, and there was just no way we were going to put out another record. It was just time for us to try our own things.
I’d been writing a lot of songs that were personal songs to me that sometimes I would submit to the different bands that I had been in, and for whatever reason, people didn’t seem to want to do those songs. I had built up a pretty big rejection folder of songs and ideas, so it was pretty easy for me to say, “All right, if this isn’t going to happen, I’m going to do the solo thing.” I’d wanted to do it my whole life, but just wasn’t ready for it and certainly didn’t have the courage to put myself out there like that. I was left with no choice, sort of at rock bottom, and decided to fight for myself and do essentially what I had always wanted to do, but just the stars hadn’t aligned for me to do so yet.
Considering that the name Under The Influence of Giants was sparked by the whole thing that happened with Maverick and Home Town Hero, what influenced the name AWOLNATION?
Awol has been a nickname of mine since probably the end of high school. It was based off of me and my buddies. We all thought that we were skilled freestyle rappers, which none of us were at all. We would always just battle and that was the name I’d go by. It was based off me getting anxious about the idea of leaving a party or a social event where there’s a bunch of people that you need to say goodbye to. When you go to say goodbye, everybody’s like, “What? You’re leaving already?” I like to be able to skip out when I want to. Not that that’s a good quality or character trait. [LAUGHS] It’s just a little quirk about me where I would leave without saying goodbye because it was just easier, so that’s where the name Awol came from, and my name’s Aaron, so I guess the A thing.
I had been flirting with the idea of throwing “nation” on that for a while. Then when I started actually creating these solo songs, it just sounded like what AWOLNATION sounded like to me as a band name, so it was only natural. It was basically a name I had for a long time, but it wouldn’t make sense to use it unless it was a solo project.
How has the songwriting process changed for you going from group projects to the solo stuff?
It changed drastically. Before someone would come up with a guitar riff or a cool drum and bass kind of groove idea, and I would write a melody and lyrics to that. Or it would come from me, which at the time was normally just a simple guitar chord progression and a melody. You know, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus kind of format. Then the other guys would put their little stamp on it and make it theirs too. They’d have suggestions or certainly strong opinions about what I was saying or not saying, so forth and so on. I don’t mean to sound like the way we wrote was highly confrontational. It was pretty smooth. It was definitely a headache at times because, like in any business or creative situation, when you have a bunch of cooks in the kitchen, sometimes the original intention can be diluted a little bit.
Now it’s just me looking in the mirror. I have my group of 10 best buddies or family members that I totally trust, and if they weren’t moved by something, then I would definitely think that it was maybe not good enough. If I had a great idea in my opinion, and then I show it to my father or my girlfriend or a good friend of mine that I respect musically, artistically, and they didn’t dig it, I would definitely be disappointed and bummed and wonder if the song was good enough. [LAUGHS] I still have a nice selection of judges, but at the end of the day, it’s my decision. There are times when I don’t know if anyone’s going to totally get what I’m doing, but as long as I feel like it’s the best I can do, then I feel pretty good about that moving forward.
Do you prefer the process of writing by yourself, or is there a side to writing with other people that you really like as well?
There are certain people that you write with that spark different ideas or take you out of your comfort zone. I can think of two people in particular that I’ve written with recently, one being Jimmy Messer, who happens to be my guitar player. He was around for the first couple AWOLNATION songs when I was trying to figure out if I wanted to put something out or try to just write pop songs or whatever.
Like I said, after the Giants broke up, it was certainly a low time both financially and confidence-wise. It’s the same old story as a lot of bands. I certainly thought that there was a good chance that we’d do very well. When you think your dreams are right in front of you, and then they get swiped away, and the reality of the world just kicks in, sometimes it hits you when you least expect it and you’re definitely unprepared, to say the least.
That was where I was at. I was trying to figure out what was going on, so having Jimmy around at that time was really nice because I came to him with these ideas, and he’s like, “Let’s do these. It’s a solo thing for you.” He helped me co-write. He helped me with “Burn It Down,” and a song called “Guilty Filthy Soul,” and another song called “All I Need.” Those are some of the earlier songs that I wrote that happen to be on the EP.
So that’s an example of when writing with someone could be great. He was able to show me some guitar things that I’ve never seen before because he’s amazing. Over a pretty quick friendship, sort of like a musical soul mate, which you only find so often, we came up with some really good ideas together. That was a great example of when writing with someone works.
Sometimes you write with people because it’s set up, and you’re supposed to write with this person or that person for a pop song or whatever. It feels more like work when you don’t know the person as well, and you don’t totally vibe on the same thing. It definitely feels like work, but when it comes to the AWOLNATION stuff, it’s always writing. If in fact I’m writing with someone, it’s someone that I highly respect, and we are on the same page as far as the ultimate vision of the song and the outcome of it.
Another instance of writing with someone that’s totally outside of my comfort zone is I did a song with Dan the Automator [Daniel M. Nakamura]. I did two songs with him actually, but the first one in particular that I did with him, I was so uncomfortable and nervous because he’s the Automator. He’s responsible for at least three records that I would put in my top 50 albums of all time, and that’s a big thing. His involvement with DJ Shadow, introducing that record, completely freaked me out when it came out. I loved it and was obsessed with it. In fact, that was one of the first records that I freestyled to as Awol and realized how shitty I was at freestyling. Then obviously his involvement in the first Gorillaz record and the Deltron 3030.
I was just in awe that this dude even wanted to work with me. I went down to his zone in the Bay, in San Francisco, and it was wild because he had this idea of what he thought I could be dope on, on a track that he had written. When I first heard it, I was like, “I don’t really see how I can make this song that cool.” I didn’t know how to find my place in it. I just gave myself the first night. It must have been four to six hours of us just vibing out, and then something clicked. Over the next three days, we came up with a really cool song. Right now it’s called “I’ve Been Dreaming,” which is such a cliché, typical title, so that’ll probably be changed by the time the song’s released. That’s another good example of how writing with someone else could be great because you’re taken out of your comfort zone, and you have to fend for yourself. It’s that moment to prove to yourself that you’re there for a reason.
On one of the tracks off the EP, it almost seems like there’s a Little Richard influence. Who or what would you say are some of your major influences for what you’ve currently released with AWOLNATION?
That’s a tough question. I’m such a huge fan of music, so it’s hard for me to pinpoint one in particular. Where you and a lot of people have made the reference of Little Richard, I totally understand, but to me that’s really more what Paul McCartney stole from Little Richard. Being such a Beatles fan, that ended up coming out on sort of a punk rock, weird song. [LAUGHS]
I wouldn’t say there are any particular influences. I have hundreds of influences. I just like good songs. There are certain bands that have changed my life and moved me lyrically and the way they perform and artistically. From when Radiohead’s OK Computer came out all the way to when the first Justice full-length came out. That freaked me out too. All the way to some of the Dan the Automator stuff with Deltron to the Beastie Boys to a lot of underground hardcore music that I like a lot. Dubstep has been blowing my mind for the last year. Just really good music and forward thinking, but at the same time I naturally gravitate towards catchier melodies. I’ve always enjoyed pop music growing up with my mom traveling around to school or whatever, listening to Madonna and Prince and Michael Jackson and all the typical stuff too.
I’ve never sat down and gone, “I want to write this sounding song.” It’s more like the shit comes to me, and I try to make a song out of it. It normally comes to me either when I’m surfing, or I’m in the shower or driving. I record a little voice memo of it and get home and try to interpret that original idea that I had heard in my head onto recording. Sometimes it can be a simple song with more organic instruments, and sometimes it ends up being more electronic and hip-hop based. Generally there’s no method to it. I try to keep that pretty free, just because you never know what kind of ideas you’re going to come up with.
So it’s more of an influence of music as a whole rather than any one particular artist?
Yeah, definitely. I don’t think any artist wants to be compared directly to someone, certainly not someone modern. Although I never take it personal if someone compares us to something that maybe I’m not a huge fan of. It’s only happened once so far, and it was shocking what they said. I’m definitely not giving anyone ammunition to think this themselves, so…[LAUGHS] To me, it sounded like the person maybe just didn’t know music very well because they couldn’t dig a little deeper for a reference, but I try not to take this whole thing very personal. I’m doing the best I can, and people seem to really appreciate it right now. I’m overwhelmed with the good reviews and responses we’ve gotten so far. I’m sure at some point that’ll change. I just don’t take it personal.
How many times have you listened to an album, and your friend was like, “Dude, this is the fucking best album of the year,” and you listen to it and you’re like, “This thing sucks.” For me, when someone hypes me and tells me this record’s going to change my life, I’m almost automatically listening to it to not feel that way. I think maybe that’s human nature, so like I said, I don’t take it personal if people don’t get what I’m doing or don’t think it’s very good. Fortunately so far I haven’t had to run into too much of that.
You’ve released the EP, but are you currently working on a full-length?
We released the five-song EP—four songs, one remix—and now it’s all up in the air really, which I’m grateful for. There’s no formula that we’re running with where we’re going to radio at this date, and then we’re touring for this long, and if it doesn’t happen, then we need to go to this single and so forth and so on. We’re just trying to create awareness of this project because we all feel that it’s important. If that means releasing these four songs and then releasing another batch of four songs, and then a full-length album, that’s a very good possibility.
So you’re playing it by ear?
Yeah. I think we’re leaning more towards the EP thing next because this project is fairly ambitious, for better or for worse. I think it’d be a lot to digest to just drop a whole album sounding like this on people’s heads. We’re in that exciting phase right now where people are discovering it by word of mouth. There are a few things that are starting to happen that are a little bit bigger than that, and hopefully bigger and bigger things come in due time, but there’s no rush at all. Good music to me is timeless, and it really doesn’t matter when it breaks as long as it does at some point. We’re just trying to do the right shows and go about everything with artistic integrity and take our time and make sure everything’s right.
An example of that is the label’s been wanting to do a music video for “Burn It Down” for basically eight months, and the reason we haven’t is because we just haven’t gotten the right treatment figured out. I just haven’t seen the total urgency of doing a music video until it’s totally right. It just so happens that it became right a few days ago, and we’re at that point where we really need it to be done. Meanwhile we’ve been filming a bunch of different vignettes and having different ways of advertising on YouTube for this project, just showing different pieces of art to kind of express what this project is all about.
Considering AWOLNATION is basically you and maybe one other person at a time in the studio, what’s the live setting like?
I have a band that I love dearly, and I generally have these guys play on the record. Our bass player, his name is Billy, and he’s played on several of the songs. When I’m writing with someone or writing by myself, I still have the right guys come in to play because I’m not a bass player. I play drums on most of the songs. Most of the live drums that are on our recordings I normally play unless it’s something way out of my league. There’s a song called “Fist Pumping to the Grave” that is way too fast for me to even consider, so I had my buddy Tony Royster, Jr. come and play. He’s this just phenomenal drummer that I’ve known for a while who plays in Jay-Z’s band and some other pop stuff. If it’s just the basic stuff, I can normally handle that myself, but to take it to that next level of real musicianship, I have different dudes come in.
Besides the music video and the other tracks that you’re currently working on, what else do you have planned for the rest of this year?
It’s all moving fast and I don’t want to say out of my control, but it’s definitely a little bit more urgent now. There are a lot things in the works that I don’t know about because I don’t want to know about a bunch of hypotheticals. I feel like that jinxes it. When you hear that, “Oh man, we may get this fucking ridiculously incredible opportunity,” then I’ll think about it for the next 15 nights even though they always tell you, “We should know tomorrow.” Then the next day I call my manager and ask, “Did we find out? Did we get that thing?” “No, we’re still waiting.” So I try to not be too focused on anything that I don’t have control over as far as booking agent responsibilities or any sort of placement or radio thing. I just try to stay focused on making sure our live stuff is as good as I want it to be and think it can be. Making the next song sound the way I want it to sound and be as good as that can be.
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