AWOLNATION'S Aaron Bruno talks 'Sail,' electronic influences and the art of melding genres
It comes out of nowhere. Yet it’s completely awesome. It sounds almost like ... like ...
“It’s obviously Little Richard,” Bruno said. “But also, the Beatles did that so much. So I’m taking from the Beatles, who took from Little Richard. I feel like the song was asking me to do that. My hat’s off to those who came before me.”
For any other modern rock artist, Little Richard would be considered a pretty odd influence. But not for Bruno, the one-man band behind AWOLNATION, who produced one of the weirdest alt-rock hits of 2011 in Sail, a dizzying blast of blues, metal, dubstep, pizzicato synths and Bruno’s larynx-shredding howl.
Strange though they may be, Sail and Burn It Down fit in perfectly on AWOLNATION’S sprawling, genre-defying album Megalithic Symphony. Bruno founded the project following stints in several modestly successful punk and hardcore bands, as an outlet for some of the strange electronic, pop and metal concepts bouncing around inside his head.
On Saturday, AWOLNATION will perform at the 97X Next Big Thing festival at the 1-800-Ask-Gary Amphitheatre. (Click here for details.) At the Deluna Festival in Pensacola Beach in October, we caught up to Bruno to discuss Sail, the rise of electronic music, and his own disparate influences.
You guys fly from pop to hip-hop to metal. What early albums made you think this was something you could do?
I never thought I could do any of it. The songs I write are a result of the stuff that influenced me, or the stuff that I loved growing up. I never listened to Refused’s Shape of Punk to Come album and thought, “Oh, I’m gonna do that one day.” I never thought I could. You have to have a vast understanding of each instrument to be able to do that kind of thing. When those records came out — Radiohead’s OK Computer, Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — I was just a fan. Listening to those records over and over probably planted seeds in my head, but I certainly didn’t think I would be making a strange record one day.
Did you think Sail was going to get played on modern rock radio?
No. I didn’t expect any song to get played on any radio station at all. I just tried to make the best record I could make, and do stuff that I would like if I heard it. It’s a stranger song, a little bit darker of a song, and a different format — it’s almost like the chorus is the verse, and the verse is more like a release from the chorus, in a weird way. I was excited, because it just means we have more artistic freedom, as opposed to using one of the songs that’s more of a standard verse-chorus, verse-chorus, bridge-chorus kind of thing.
And there’s that line that everybody picked up on: “Blame it on my ADD, baby.” Where did that line come from?
I’ve always talked about ADD, because I clearly have it. It’s hard for me to pay attention to stuff for too long. When I listen to songs, once I get to the part I like, I skip it. I always had a hard time in school, digesting and paying attention to the geography lesson I’m getting. I think there are some instances where medication probably does help people get through the day, but for me, I was told I was supposed to take Ritalin, I tried it, didn’t like it and I’m grateful that I didn’t get locked into that, because I didn’t really need it. I think it’s another means for the powers that be to dumb down our kids and get them addicted to something.
Sail is a song that’s got kind of a half-time beat, like a dubstep song. Do you follow electronic music? Are you into the whole dubstep scene?
Of course. All things electronic, I know about, or are aware of, or am a fan of, to a certain extent. When there was a resurgence of electronic music — Prodigy and all those bands that came out in the ’90s — I was so deep into punk rock/hardcore scene, and also listening to bands like Radiohead and the Flaming Lips, that I didn’t get into it. But the resurgence of all of that — Justice, Simian Mobile Disco, Boys Noize — when that happened in the mid-2000s, I was in Europe with my last band, and I got to see firsthand that whole wave of electronic music come back. When that Justice record came out, I was just like, “Oh my god, I need to step up my game.” Anything that has a good groove and hits hard on my speakers, I’m really turned on by.
I wouldn’t categorize Sail as a dubstep beat, because dubstep has a little more of a swing to it on the upbeat; Sail to me is more like a half-time hip-hop/rock thing. But maybe listening to dubstep encouraged me to go that low with the synth.
It’s amazing to me how much energy and life there is among kids these days who go to live electronic music shows.
The band that impress me are the bands that can pull it off live. It’s one thing to see LCD Soundsystem, and they actually are playing all those things you’re hearing; and it’s another thing to see a band like Justice, who I saw, and from what I understand, they were just playing two CDs with a cool light show. That’s really disappointing to me. I could listen to that in my house if I wanted to.
Was there much of a process for you to determine how you were going to translate what you heard in your head for AWOLNATION into a live show?
I suppose so, but it’s no different from when I hear a song in my head and I transfer those to a song in a recorded format. I knew it was going to be less electronically friendly and more organic live. Some of the synth parts, we do with guitars, or all the drums will have real drumming on them. I don’t want people to show up and be ripped off, the same way people feel ripped off when they see any pop artist who uses Auto-Tune when they’re singing live, which is a despicable thing.
Should rap artists or electronic artists be in the Rock 'n’ Roll Hall of Fame?
I think so. I’m not old enough to have experienced the punk rock revolution, when the Clash came out, or even the Gorilla Biscuits or Minor Threat or Dead Kennedys. But for rap music, I was. I consider that the most recent, relevant form of punk rock music, if that makes sense. I know it’s not technically punk rock music, but the attitude of it was. Completely underground, never on the radio. I remember hearing Vanilla Ice on the radio, and telling my mom, “This is gonna be the hugest thing ever!” I was in fourth grade.
Who’s your favorite rapper right now?
Right now, pound for pound, a guy named Action Bronson. He’s a Brooklyn white dude who’s kinda chubby with this big red beard, which is weird for a rapper, and he’s amazing. He’s got a Nas sort of flow, and his voice kinda sounds like Ghostface a little bit. I’m going to be working with him soon. There’ a guy named Curtains I love a lot. He appears on our song called Knights of Shame, which is the last song on the record. And there’s another guy named Hyro Da Hero who’s really good. But unfortunately, there’s not a front-to-back hip-hop album I’ve liked in a long, long time. I can’t listen to Kanye; I can’t even hear what he’s saying. Jay-Z’s one of the greatest, but I don’t relate to music that brags about how you have a private jet flying over us peasants. I don’t feel that. When Kanye came out, I enjoyed him a lot. I love the first album, I love Gold Digger. But all of a sudden, it’s despicable to me. And what blows my mind are people following him, people who are really into Kanye West — what are you into? You’re into a guy who’s bragging about what you don’t have. I don’t find that relatable.
It’s pretty obvious you don’t work from parameters. Knights of Shame is this giant, sprawling song, but it’s also one of your songs that I would most identify as a pop song.
Really, all those songs are pop songs. Sail is a weird format, but it’s very poppy, the melody. All the music I love is the Beatles, Prince, Michael Jackson, Nirvana. Easy nursery rhymes. On Knights of Shame, all the ideas were so poppy in my head, but I knew they were so poppy that I knew I could go wild with the production, or way more left of center with the lyrics. Music, to me, has to be memorable.
What is your music collection like? Do you have stacks of CDs, or hard drives full of .mp3, or what?
I do have a hard drive. My iTunes is out of control right now, and I have 10 boxes of all the CDs I owned. And I’ve lost a lot of them too, which is devastating. But it’s all over the place. You know how girls can be compulsive shoppers, and buy shoes, and you’re like, “Why did you buy those shoes?” That’s how I am with records. I do not know where that Lady in Red single by Chris DeBurgh is, but I bought it. This happened a week ago. It’s one of the best ballads I’ve ever heard.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Autumn DeWilde.