AWOLNATION (a.k.a. Aaron Bruno) is the coolest music nerd ever. Dressed in a summer-appropriate pink-and-blue collared shirt, baby-blue rimmed sunglasses, tan Keds and sporting a mop of stylishly disheveled blond hair, the Southern California born and bred Bruno speaks of early memories breaking down the chords and bridges of a Madonna song while in elementary school. “I became an obsessed fan of the music I liked,” he says. While he may have flirted momentarily with the idea of becoming a baseball player due to his success as a pitcher in middle school, he never deviated from his desire to pursue career in music, even when one record deal, and then a second, fell through.
Bruno sat down with MAGNET before his set at Firefly Festival to discuss his early years, his creative process and his current success.
How has your Firefly experience been so far?
Well, we just played a short, little, intimate four-song set at the Treehouse Stage. It was really cool, they spent a lot of time building that stage and it had a good vibe for sure. So far, so good.
Awesome. Well, first things first. When did you develop a passion for music?
I don’t know … as far back as my memory goes. It always seemed so untouchable to me, though. It seemed way too far-fetched that I could actually be a part of it. I just loved it and the way it made me feel. Early on, I became an obsessed fan of the music that I liked. I do remember at a pretty young age noticing chord changes and chord progressions and what that meant in terms of an emotion for me. Other things didn’t make me feel quite the same way, like sports. I played sports, surfing and swimming, like most Southern California kids. But I remember when I was younger, asking my mom what a part of a song was—apparently it was a bridge of a Madonna song, and it went to a minor chord progression, and that really impacted me. So I guess at an early age I was already trying to study music and figure it out, figure out why I was feeling certain emotions.
Not a lot of kids think about all the little elements of a song. They just like a song.
I know! My mom still brings that up to this day. It was a fun moment for her. It was a telling sign, I suppose.
Did you play any instruments as a kid?
Yeah, my dad and mom taught me how to play guitar, right around that age. I was never a shredding guitar player or anything like that, but I got good enough to be able to fiddle around in my room.
Have you always had a music career? Did you try anything else?
I wouldn’t call it a career, really, when I was younger, but that is always what I was most focused on, yeah. I had other jobs to make ends meet, of course, but there was never any other option for me. I mean when I was really young I was a great baseball player, believe it or not, so at one point I may have been thinking … I mean I was only 12, so who the fuck knows what you’re going to do at 12. But from age 11 to 14, I was the pitcher, so maybe at that point I was thinking I might pursue that. But that wasn’t going to happen either though because I never grew after that. It’s always been music, I’ve always been chasing it. When I was about to turn 30, my dad had a serious sit-down with me. It was a real moment to decide what the hell I was going to do to figure out how to survive.
At that point, had you had any success with your music?
Well, I’d been in two other signed bands. Which in a way is worse than not being signed, because I had false hope—twice. Two different times I was told by everybody that I was gonna blow up, and then it completely crashed and burned. So that is kind of my story in a nutshell. Then I started AWOLNATION, and it took off.
Did you get signed by Red Bull Records before or after you started AWOLNATION?
How has that affected your career? I know they have a lot of clout, and I hear your music everywhere from X-Games broadcasts to commercials. How has that helped with your success?
It’s been great. The typical major labels that you think of have a lot of connections and a lot of favors to be able to piggyback other artists off each other, and they have clout and power that we don’t have with Red Bull records, but Red Bull has the whole world of Red Bull. It’s a choose-your-weapon kind of thing and AWOLNATION’s music definitely plays a nice role in sports, and people seem to relate to it. And I grew up playing sports and I am a passionate surfer, so it’s a nice fit for me. But it’s not quite as guaranteed as it may seem. You’d think that I would just be automatically on everything Red Bull. After this last album, though, they have definitely jumped on board big time and it’s been great.
Yeah, I would think that it’s such a great platform for artists who are already great, but it just helps everyone else to hear their music and get the word out about them. So you were talking earlier about really loving music and trying to pick it apart and see why it makes you feel certain emotions. Who are your influences? You were talking about Madonna …
I can’t talk about my main influences because we would be here for five days, honestly. I was a child of the ’80s so I grew up on a heavy dose of pop music—kind of the last time pop was good. Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson. I was also really lucky to be a part of the start of rap music, because that wasn’t on the radio at all when I was a kid and I had to find it. My older brother hit me to all the right shit, like Public Enemy, N.W.A, Kid And Play, LL Cool J. I would listen in my room. The attitude of rap and the beats were huge for me. When I became 12 or 13, I began to search out stuff that was more left of center, punk rock music and Nirvana. Then I got into the hardcore scene. Love Radiohead; OK Computer changed my whole world. After a certain age, I stopped caring about the genre I was playing or listening to and just listened to everything. There are good songs in every genre you just have to find it.
Absolutely! So, can you describe your process? Do you collaborate with your band when you are making music? Are you thinking about what you want to put out in terms of what you are feeling or are you thinking about the listener’s experience?
I think about my experience because I am the listener. I’m just writing songs that would move me if I heard them and have moments that hopefully would blow my mind if I heard them as a listener. I figure if I can trick myself into becoming the listener, I can be a pretty good judge of what is good or not. And I can only write the songs that I write. I don’t work with other people. What you see is what you get.
Sure. Do you like being on tour or in the studio better?
Now, I like being in the studio more. It’s close to home, and it’s paradise, you know? The best part is having a creation that no one has heard yet. It’s like a little secret you have, like when you are a little girl and you wrote in your journal and had all these secrets that if your older brother or some jerk found that would be terrible.
That’s why I had a lock on mine! So have you had great experiences on tour?
Yeah! I mean, we are playing in front of sold-out crowds every night. I never dreamt that would happen, so I don’t complain. We’re on the same flyer as Paul McCartney tonight, and tomorrow we are opening up for the Stones in Pittsburgh, so it’s been pretty cool.
I guess your dad is pretty proud.
He’s stoked. I’m also stoked for him in that he doesn’t have to feel like he failed me somehow as a father, you know? That it all worked out. I still have time to fail though.
Well, I think you’re on a good path, I don’t think that will happen. What’s next for you?
Just continue the same old stuff. Continue writing, hopefully write a better third record, and a better fourth, and so forth and so on. I’m working on other projects with other up-and-coming artists, producing their stuff and trying to mentor them the same way that other people along the way have, showing them a lot of the tricks of the trade.
That’s great. Thank you so much for taking the time, I really appreciate it.