Awolnation

The Secret of Awolnation’s Success

Word: Chris Palmer
Photography: Ramona Rosales

His platinum song laced major commercials, his debut album was a bona fide success, and his band sold out tours. But that was three years ago. AWOLNATION’s Aaron Bruno on exceeding expectations the second time around. 

Aaron Bruno folds his slight frame onto the far end of a pea-green ’70s-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 grueling search, has finally found his voice. But the strings connected to multiplatinum 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 ton of passionate fans, a culture and a scene. How the f*ck 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 the sleeper hit “Sail” from 2011’s Megalithic Symphony. It both 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 twice about it. I can’t explain why people connected with it, but 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 past triumphs.

“Sail” from the first album Megalithic Symphony ( 2011).

Maybe that’s because Bruno has lost everything. Twice. The wiser version of the man on the couch has gone to great lengths to ensure this will not be a trilogy. As the frontman and creative engine behind AWOL’s much-anticipated sophomore album, Run, Bruno is all at once carefully managing expectations, hedging bets and refusing to make the same mistakes.

“I surfed to escape banality.”  
Aaron Bruno

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, cookie-cutter suburban enclave 30 minutes north of Los Angeles. His father, Jim, a financial planner, and mother, Diane, an elementary school teacher, inspired his early interest in music. His father’s funk cassette-tape collection, from James Brown to Herbie Hancock, balanced out the ’80s pop hits from his mother’s car radio.

When he was 11, his brother’s vinyl collection was his eye-opening gateway to rap. “In terms of vibe,” he remembers, “my first punk rock experience was actually rap music.” He became interested in both cultural and artistic diversity but his other love was surfing. His father would take him to surf spots from Malibu up the coast to Santa Barbara. When he finally caught his first wave it became a lifetime obsession: “I spent all my time surfing to escape the banality of Westlake.”

Awolnation

Bruno recorded “Sail” in two hours, in one take.

Soon he discovered the straight-edge punk scene in Los Angeles, which heavily shaped both his views on life and the sound of his new band Insurgence. But in those half dozen early years music was still just an unprofitable, clunky hobby. “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. I’m sure they were terrified.”

Awolnation

“How the f*ck am I going to follow up a six-time platinum song?”

To allay their fears he enrolled in Moorpark Community College and took music theory 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 got them a legit manager and their first record deal at Maverick.

But Bruno constantly 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 sing-songy Under the Influence of Giants.

But he became frustrated by his inability to gain traction in the music industry—his difficult rep stalked him like a shadow—and began to implode. After clawing their way back through the club scene the band was picked up by Island Def Jam but had little success. A radio station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was the only one in the country to play their first single. They were dropped again.

Awolnation

On the new album, Bruno is at his very best blending tones, hypnotic beats and a mix of vocal styles that still feel incredibly accessible. And the album transcends in a way he hasn’t before. 

For the first time he realized he might not become the man he set out to be. His rep was in tatters. He had no money and no other plan.

“I was 30,” he says. “And what did I have? Nothing.”

“THIS WAS THE FIRST TIME I WAS ABLE TO SAY WHAT I FELT AND NOT FEEL ASHAMED OF IT.” 
Aaron Bruno

But he did, in fact, have something. Despite his failures he was still wildly talented—he played the guitar, piano, drums and synthesizers, and had a penchant for weighty lyrics. He would let go of the fear and create what he wanted to hear. 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 he 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 one take. Engineer Kenny Carkeet felt it needed a redo 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 become the second-longest-charting song in Billboard Hot 100 history.

“This was the first time,” he says, “that I was able to say what I felt and not be ashamed of it.”

In 2014, Bruno spent four months in a barn just north of Santa Barbara with little Internet access to record the much- anticipated follow-up to that breakout first album.

“Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf) ,” the first single from new album Run (2015).

Run is a kaleidoscope of feeling and sound. Bruno, who played all the instruments, is at his very best blending tones, hypnotic beats, personal anguish and an amalgam of vocal styles that manage to feel incredibly accessible. That accessibility has been the thread of his appeal, even if you’re not quite sure what you’re accessing. But the album transcends in a way he hasn’t before.

“Run,” the album’s title track, is a smothering, lo-fi, hip-hop-infused slow roll that feels like the musical impetus to an uprising.

“Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)” is a communal concert experience waiting to happen thanks to its uptempo, chant- worthy lyrics yet at the same time a personal referendum on individuality and disdain for music industry imitators.

But the gem is “Windows”—a soaring, head-nod-inducing affirmation that life’s most desired answers may forever be beyond our grasp. It’s a visceral trip that flirts with hopelessness but evolves satisfyingly into an ode to self-realization.

“But I’m aware/And I don’t care,” Bruno triumphantly bellows.

It’s his finest hour as an artist—unencumbered and unbound 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, sipping a hot tea. It has been quite the journey. But he has arrived at this particular moment very much intact, albeit a little battered, but that was supposed to happen.

The Bruno before you is pragmatic and thoughtful. Friends say loyalty is a defining quality. He tried the rock-star thing but found himself a better fit. He refrains from lavish purchases. His dad does his taxes. Mom still worries. Middle school friends are still surf buddies. He drives his 2008 Prius that’s pushing 150K miles. There’s still Westlake in him. And you’d be let down if there wasn’t. But comfort be damned.

For Aaron Bruno, there are still chapters left to write.

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