By Vanessa Markov
Photos By Andrew Hartl
AWOLNATION are too good for their own pace – that’s the only explanation I can think of for the painfully short set they played at Sound Academy on Monday night. Granted, 90 minutes is a substantial headline slot for a band who’ve just released their second full length, but the sentiment echoing through the halls after the show was, “What do you mean it’s already over?”
I showed up at Sound Academy excited as all hell to finally see the band who I consider to have put out one of the greatest fucking records in modern rock, and left needing more – like a whole extra hour more. At least. But my desire to see AWOLNATION at peak live production (read: fire and explosives, or maybe an epic remake of the SOA chase scene that featured “Burn it Down”) for a solid two hour minimum raised the fear that it might actually never happen, and there’s nothing myself or anyone can do about it.
You see, everything about AWOLNATION seems to represent a change or shift in the norm. First, the sexy yet surprising smash hit “Sail” – a tune that songwriter & frontman Aaron Bruno swears he thought nobody would ever care about – broke down barriers of musical genres and put the band and their debut album Megalithic Symphony on the commercial map. Second, the band is represented by Red Bull Records, a label that sticks to its brand reputation in terms of operating entirely out of the box, particularly when it comes to creative control. The moment I was given the chance, I congratulated Aaron for the almost entirely organic growth of his fan base in a world where the natural discovery process is all but lost between commercial intent and straight up spam:
“We haven’t had a lot of help with a label necessarily. We don’t come from a powerful label with the same kind of abilities and connections in the industry. We’ve been all about word of mouth. You have to do a certain amount of promotion, but we kind of exist on our own island and try to let it come to us as much as we can without telling anyone they’re supposed to listen to it. Authentic music – honest music – seems to find its own way to rise up,” Aaron tells me, modestly adding, “Having said that, I’ve been part of a lot of different bands I’ve felt that way about that didn’t have that end result, so I think I just got really lucky. It’s my time, finally.”
Aaron was in two notable bands prior to forming AWOL, and both of those bands were signed to labels that eventually dropped them. Despite having learned a lot from his past experiences, Aaron refers to his previous projects as utter failures:
“All I ever had was failure up until this point. When things started to take off for me, it was such a devastatingly grueling journey to get there that I was genuinely happy about it. Having said that, I now have complete creative control over what I do,” he speaks of the difference between being in a band and going solo. “When you feel like you have a vision of exactly what you want, being pushed or pulled in different directions can be a very depressing thing. I can only parallel that to my previous band – when you’re writing with a bunch of people, everyone is pushing and pulling you in different ways. But that’s the thing about being in a band, you know? You create an atmosphere and sound that you can only do with those individuals, as opposed to my current situation where I can do it however I want, to the best I can, with no one there to judge me until I’m ready to present the song.”
With creative control being the massive issue it is in commercial music, I asked Aaron if he had any advice for young bands struggling to find their place in the scene:
“It’s really difficult to do your best as a writer or lyricist when you have other people trying to throw in their two cents on what you’re trying to do as you’re creating. I think it’s best to allow different band members to figure out their part first – let them do their very best, and then come together to tear it apart and put it back together. People can also be passive aggressive and try to sabotage their own success just because they’re afraid of going through with it.”
As Aaron spoke, it became clear that his measure of success is more complicated than mere commercial acceptance. I asked him what it meant to him to be in the mainstream spotlight:
“It’s really technical validation more than anything. And it’s nice to not be stressed out about money like I used to be. Taking the artist out of me, it’s good for me as a man in this world. It’s good for when I met my fiancé’s parents, for example, or if my parents talk to their friends. For people who aren’t music lovers like we are hearing that, ‘Oh this guy’s in a band’, the next question is almost always ‘Are they successful?’ It’s nice to be taken seriously in that way.”
Putting the artist back in him, self-development and exercising fearlessness are top of mind:
“The most terrifying aspect [I had to overcome] was singing. I was never the American Idol singer. They would send me out the door the second I walked in. The biggest thing was discovering how to sing and be myself instead of imitating someone else. When I first started singing at 12, I was just imitating whatever I was listening to at the time, which was earlier Nirvana and Operation Ivy, hardcore music and so forth. After that I was in a band where I only screamed so I learned how to control my voice in that manner. Then I tapped back into the more rock style vocal, and after that, I was in a band that had more of a Bee Gees style where I’m singing in a falsetto. I had put my voice through the wringer of all these different styles and finally put it all together in a fearless way because I didn’t think anyone was going to hear what I was doing anyway. I put it all on the line and sang the way I wanted to, and the end result was AWOLNATION.”
If one thing is evident on Run, the sophomore album that had Aaron needlessly sweating over the task of topping “Sail”, it would be his wildly eclectic musical past. History simply hasn’t seen such a brilliant fusion of piano pop, electronic, and straight up heavy metal until now.
The live show itself has a profile somewhat separate from the albums, in that the guitars are much louder and heavier live. Combining that with Aaron’s perfectly trained screech (that somehow sounds even more fucking flawless than the records) and hip-hop influenced backbeats, AWOLNATION is the sonic equivalent of a euphoric emotional revolution that you never want to end.
“The reaction has been great. It’s been a surprisingly seamless transition between Megalithic Symphony and Run. If you were a spectator and didn’t know any of the songs, I don’t think you would know which songs were from which record as far as crowd reaction and participation is concerned. It’s been really nice that people have studied the lyrics and melodies, which has made it a really anthem-like show from beginning to end.”
Another highly notable aspect of AWOLNATION’s music are the passion-laced lyrics that actually mean something. Aaron is one of few artists I’ve met who will honestly and gladly discuss subject matter without the fear of reducing the “relatability factor” to a general audience. There are countless articles out there where he tells you the inspiration and writing process behind whatever song he’s asked about, and so I took the opportunity to ask for the story behind what I believe to be one of Run’s most powerful tracks, “Fat Face”:
“I’ll tell you as much as I feel comfortable revealing about that song,” he begins with a touch of vulnerability in his voice. “I was just talking about this with Isaac, our drummer, and his wife last night at dinner, it’s interesting looking back now – much older – how high school and junior high and elementary school affects you so much. Still to this day, some of my insecurities are knee-jerk reactions and results of that time. You’re so vulnerable and you’re such a sponge to information and emotions, so [Fat Face] taps into my childhood insecurities and exercises those demons out, in a way.”
This sparked a conversation on the lasting effects of childhood on the development of a person’s character, particularly in artists:
“What would be called bullying now – there’s a title for everything these days – was just life back then, you know? Sticks and stones break bones, but words do hurt. So that saying is bullshit [laughs]. Isaac made a great point, though, and that’s that any artist that we love has a similar story. Check out that Nirvana documentary that came out about Kurt, Montage of Heck. He’s right in there with all of us. Those things make us who we are and that’s a good thing, for sure.”
Having recently seen Montage of Heck and being deeply affected by Kurt Cobain’s story, I asked Aaron for his opinion on the documentary.
“It’s pretty devastating. I already knew a lot of it because I was a Kurt fanatic, but it was hard to watch I thought,” he says, adding (to my utter delight), “Though it was nice to shed a light on [Kurt] without Dave Grohl in the way, promoting whatever he is promoting now. Even though Dave was a pivotal part in one of my favourite genres ever, it was nice for it to just be about Kurt.”
The way Aaron comes across as a whole, whether it be through his music, lyrics, conversation, or stage presence, is fearlessly soft – he has the aura of an innocent child mixed with the strength of a soldier. On stage, dark red and blue lights cast him and the band as eerie silhouettes for nearly the entire duration of the show. Every few songs, Aaron asks “Is everyone OK?” and manages to sound sincere in doing so.
Will AWOLNATION ever go down the mammoth glitzy production path we would expect of such an explosive act? It’s impossible to tell when their path has already seemingly forged itself in a parallel universe – one where the music speaks entirely for itself and musicians are the unassuming servants of its message.
“People take themselves a little too seriously when it comes to art, you know? It’s just music that we’re playing. You take a look at people like Bono or Madonna, these massive artists that take themselves so seriously – it’s hilarious…We get to play music, we’re just grown up kids who get to live out our childhood fantasies. It was terrifying to release a sophomore album to a success story record, and Isaac once again pointed out to me, ‘You gotta take yourself less seriously and forget about all this’. And then I started laughing. Everything was all good from that point on.”
The Run tour continues with multiple U.S. and Canadian dates through ‘til August 1.