Aaron Bruno folds his slight frame onto the far end of a pea green ’70s era-inspired sofa in a small studio in Los Angeles. His eyes are pools of glacier blue. They gleam as he stares forward and recounts a life. He’s walked a well-worn path: struggling musician, label malcontent, stage wrecker. Yet the collected gaffes of a frustrated, wayward wanderer have been exceedingly transformative. Bruno has emerged an artist who, after a gruelling search, has finally found his voice.
But the strings connected to multi-platinum success are tied to the weight of overbearing expectation. “My biggest fear is letting people down,” says Bruno. “This is the first time we’ve had a tonne of passionate fans, a culture and a scene. How the f–k am I going to follow up a six-time platinum song?”
Bruno and his band AWOLNATION rocketed into popular culture’s fickle field of vision thanks to his strains on Sail, the unexpected hit single from 2011’s Megalithic Symphony. It solidified Bruno as a singular songwriter and ignited a fury of smash-and-grab imitators. “It was just another song,” says Bruno, 36. “I didn’t think about it. I can’t explain why people connected with it – it was something that hadn’t been heard before.”
Despite financial rewards and complete creative freedom – the twin holy grails of the music industry – he finds little comfort in revelling in his past triumphs. Maybe that’s because Bruno has lost everything. Twice. The wiser version of that man sitting on the couch here in Los Angeles has gone to great lengths to ensure this will not be a trilogy. As the frontman and creative engine behind AWOLNATION’s much-anticipated second album, Run, Bruno is carefully managing expectations, hedging bets and refusing to make the same mistakes.
Comfort is a luxury he can do without. Bruno grew up with it, on the “safe and boring” tree-lined streets of Westlake Village, a sleepy suburban community 60km north-west of Los Angeles.His father Jim, a financial planner, and mother Diane, a primary school teacher, inspired his early interest in music. His father’s cassette tape collection included everything from James Brown to Herbie Hancock, and balanced out the ’80s pop hits that blared from his mother’s car radio. When Bruno was 11, his brother’s vinyl collection was his eye-opening gateway to rap music.
“In terms of vibe,” he remembers, “my first punk-rock experience was actually rap music.” Bruno’s other love was surfing. His father would take him to surf spots from Malibu up the California coast to Santa Barbara. “I spent all my time surfing to escape the banality of Westlake,” he says.
Soon he discovered the straight edge punk scene in Los Angeles, which heavily shaped his views on life and the hardcore sound of his new band, Insurgence. But in those half dozen early years music was still just an unprofitable, clunky hobby. “I felt like any minute my dad was going to pull me aside and ask me what I was going to do with my life,” says Bruno. “My parents were definitely disappointed, and I’m pretty sure they were terrified.”
To allay their fears, he enrolled in the music theory class at Moorpark Community College but dropped out after two classes. Surfing interested him, theory didn’t. He grew tired of hardcore (“I could hide behind a scream but I wanted to sing”) and formed Home Town Hero to satisfy his need to create something more viable. The post grunge band’s six-song demo helped secure them a manager and their first record deal at Maverick.
But Bruno feuded with the label and the band’s vexing sense of self-entitlement quickly wore thin. Clinging to their punk rock roots, they trashed a stage at the House of Blues in New Orleans in front of music industry tastemakers and were dropped by the label. “From that moment on my career went down, down, down,” says Bruno. “Looking back, it was evident we got a record deal way too early.
He re-invented himself once again – this time with the anthemic sounds of Under The Influence Of Giants. But he became frustrated by his inability to gain traction in the music industry. His difficult reputation stalked him like a shadow and he began to implode. After touring clubs, Under The Influence Of Giants were picked up by Island Def Jam, but had little success. The only American radio station to give their fist single an airing was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They were dropped again.
For the first time, Bruno realised he might not become the musician he set out to be. His reputation was in tatters. He had no money and no back-up plan. “I was 30,” he says. “And what did I have? Nothing.”
But Bruno did, in fact, have something. Despite his failures, he was still wildly talented – he played guitar, piano, drums and synthesizers and had a knack for writing weighty and meaningful lyrics. He could let go of the fear and create what he wanted to hear. As long as he was satisfied it didn’t matter. If he could put together a band and play small shows “where everybody sings along” – that would be success.
A producer was interested in the strange sounds Bruno was putting together on his own and offered to help develop them. He also gave him a job writing songs for aspiring pop stars so he could have some money in his pocket.
Bruno wrote and recorded Sail in two hours in September 2011. Engineer Kenny Carkeet felt he would need to lay the track down again because of some distortion. “Who cares?” replied Bruno. “No one’s gonna care about this song anyway.” So they left it as is. It would go on to spend 79 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the second-longest charting song in Billboard’s history.
“This was the first time,” he says, “that I was able to really say what I felt and not feel ashamed of it.” Last year Bruno spent four months in a small barn studio just north of Santa Barbara to start recording AWOLNATION’s much-anticipated second album.
Run is a kaleidoscope of feeling and sound. Bruno, who played all the instruments, is at his best blending hypnotic beats, personal anguish and an amalgam of vocal styles that have an accessible feel to them. This accessibility is the main thread of his appeal, even if you’re not quite sure what you’re accessing. This latest long player transcends in a way he hasn’t before. Run, the album’s title track, is a lo-fi hip-hop-infused slow roll that feels like the musical impetus to an uprising.
Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf) is like a communal concert experience waiting to happen thanks to its uptempo chant-worthy lyrics. Yet at the same time it’s a personal referendum on individuality and disdain for music industry imitators.
But the gem is Windows, a soaring, head nod-inducing song with a message: that life’s most desired answers may forever be frustratingly beyond our grasp. It’s a visceral trip that flirts with hopelessness but evolves satisfyingly into an ode to self-realisation.
“But I’m aware/And I don’t care,” Bruno triumphantly bellows. This is his finest hour as an artist – unencumbered and unbound, and yet compellingly vulnerable.
“I’ve grown as a songwriter,” he says, “but it remains to be seen if everybody else feels the same way.” So there is Bruno sitting on the retro chicness of the green couch. He slowly sips a cup of tea while a photographer takes a light reading in the next room.
It has been quite a journey. But he has arrived at this particular moment very much intact, albeit a little battered.
The Bruno before you is pragmatic and thoughtful more than he is flashy or showy. This is a star frontman who refrains from making lavish purchases. His dad does his taxes, while his mother still worries about him. Bruno’s old school friends are now his surf buddies. He drives a 2008 Toyota Prius that’s got about 150,000 miles on the clock. He tried the rock star thing, but found that being himself was a much better fit.
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