It was a July scorcher the afternoon THAT MAG met up with Aaron Bruno, the frontman and founder of AWOLNATION. But we braved the midday heat just long enough to touch on topics like pre-show rituals, an artist’s self-reliance and the importance of comfortable, environmentally friendly footwear.
The open air media tent on the last day of the Firefly Festival, held in Dover, DE, was located on the far end of a large field. The area’s entrance was manned by several very serious (and seriously miserable) looking security personnel. A visibly exhausted Bruno appeared beyond the guarded gate and walked with his tour manager slowly across the grass towards his first interview of the day. Having had to travel from L.A. just for this one performance and the fact that the band was due on stage in less than three hours, his fatigue was understandable.
Eventually we settle into a couple of creaky folding chairs within the already crowded tent, he removes his sunglasses while answering my first question only to reconsider the decision moments later. This was not the first one-off of Bruno’s week, but in fact, the fourth. In this case, a one-off is a show where the band travels by plane to a venue, plays a single set, maybe does a few interviews and then goes home.
Bruno takes it all in stride saying, “It’s the best job in the world and every once in a while you have to do stuff that’s uncomfortable, like wake up at four in the morning after playing a show at ten at night, but it’s all worth it.”
Given the short time between his interviews and the band’s performance, the subject of pre-show rituals comes up. His response turns into a somewhat revealing account of how Bruno views his most recent success with AWOLNATION.
“Nothing too exciting. I try and bond with my buddies that I’m about the hit the stage with. I have a little vocal thing that I like to do, to stretch out my… instrument I guess you could say. Reminisce about the journey that it’s taken to get to this point. You know, no matter what the show is, some shows are bigger than others of course. I always try to give thanks to the powers that be that put me in this position. That’s normally my ritual, I guess.”
And what a journey it has been. After playing in bands on the west coast since the age of twelve and having negative experiences while attached to major labels, he was certain that in moving forward, things would be different.
“I was never going to be part of a major label situation again, because I had that already and failed.”
He goes on to say that AWOLNATION’s album was nearly finished by the time they teamed up with their current label, Red Bull Records. A relationship he describes as a partnership.
“I never wanna be told what to do, especially when it’s (me) that’s on stage or (me) that’s singing these songs…This comes from the heart so there’s no room for anyone else’s input at all.”
As for Red Bull Records and the immersion of an all too rare label and artist partnership, Bruno had this to say about how it all went down:
“When they heard the songs and saw a couple of our shows really early on, Greg Hammer, the president of the label sort of came to me and said that we should partner up and move forward with what I was already doing, as opposed to coming in and controlling it… they agreed to let me continue to do what I was doing, it’s just they were going to back it.”
The idea of an artist calling the shots in the studio after being backed by a label used to be somewhat of an urban legend. Bruno credits self reliance and artistic integrity for the group’s success with Red Bull.
“What I think is happening is (that) bands are getting smarter and learning how to record themselves. So the day and age of having to meet the producer with the cool studio to make a record is slowly dying. I think it’s really important if you’re a new band that you understand how to record- learn how to record yourself so you don’t have to rely on anyone else. Because when I was broke and in debt and fairly homeless, I was still able to record myself no matter where I was. I just needed my computer, an acoustic guitar for writing, a midi keyboard and my samples I had collected over the years. I was able to make 70% of my record no matter where I was. I could be right here as long as it was a little quieter, and compose a whole song.”
AWOLNATION’s most current album, Megalithic Symphony (2011), was conceptualized, written and (for the most part) performed by Bruno alone. As the record is discussed further, he proudly talks about the joys of touring and recording with his band mates.
“They’re my best friends. Our drummer (Hayden Scott) is the only guy that I didn’t know before the band started, but he’s become a good friend now as well. But ah, everybody else was either in some sort of band that I was in.”
Most notably, Drew Stewart who was also in two other bands with Bruno, Hometown Hero and On The Shoulders of Giants. Bruno claims to be only “average” with most of the instruments that he plays on the Megalithic Symphony, but when asking for help in the studio, he was most excited about being able to pay his friends after struggling so long as a musician himself .
“If there is a part that isn’t natural for me I would have one of my friends come in and play that are much better than me at that instrument. Like, for example, live bass. I didn’t play any live bass, I can’t even try ya know? It’s the weirdest thing, it seems so easy but that is one of the most delicate instruments that you could possibly play and I happen to know two of my favorite bass players in the world, which is, our bass player Dave Amezcua and our good friend Billy Muller and they both played on the record. It was a dream come true that I was able to pay them actual money. Instead of, when you’re broke and everything, you know, you have to ask people for favors. So it was cool that I was able to pay them.”
When the time finally comes for AWOLNATION to take the stage at the Firefly Festival, throngs of scantily clad fans have already gathered at the foot of the stage and had been there for nearly an hour. At numerous points during their set, Bruno refers to how grateful he is to be performing for the crowd, disclosing how surreal it feels for him to be surrounded by gear owned by the iconic band, The Flaming Lips, scheduled to play the same stage only hours later. During the course of what could only be described as a phenomenal show, they play tracks from both their EP Back to Earth (2010) as well as their most recent record, Megalithic Symphony (2011).
On this occasion, the California surfer/ front man was sporting a button down with shorts and a pair of laced sneakers which he has only ever tied once. But in the past, Bruno would have been found wearing a pair of red TOM’s shoes on stage. He was spotted wearing them so often that his fans began to wear them too. Since the TOM’s company is also based out of Southern California, the possibility of some sort of alliance seemed plausible. Thus the topic of comfortable shoes was now on the folding table.
“So the TOM’s were like, a really a good thing to put on after I would go surfing and they became comfortable, like ninja slippers, but they (also) became a little too popular I suppose, for me to continue to wear and I think that TOM’s got bought out by The Man anyway. So now I have these shoes called ‘The People’s Movement’ that I wear all of the time. It’s all recycled material, they use plastic bottles to make the shoe. The whole goal is to try to prevent pollution in the ocean. So anyone who’s reading this interview, I’d definitely check them out ‘The People’s Movement’ shoes, (made by) a good friend of mine and I wear those a lot.”
Back in Philadelphia, local fans are gearing up for AWOLNATION’s September 8th return to the tri-state area. They’re playing the 104.5 block party with Imagine Dragons at the Piazza in Northern Liberties. But in Delaware, on a hot July afternoon, the interview is over, punctuated with hand shaking and a seemingly endless stream of “thank you”, “No, thank you!’.
A tired Aaron Bruno prepares to give his next three interviews while a gaggle of onlookers wait for a chance to take a picture with him. Eventually he walks slowly across the grass for a second time, passing the same guards on his way to AWOLNATION’s artist trailer. The band will depart for the long trip back to L.A. by 5pm, but not before leaving their fans with memories of a killer rock show, a little advice about footwear and some catchy tunes to hum on the way home.
Written by: Hannah Zaic