Awolnation’s hit “Sail” has been ubiquitous on radio and TV for nearly 10 years now. The song that deals in heavy electronics and a grunge-styled chorus was in some ways a precursor to the crossover acts that now dominate alternative radio. Aaron Bruno, the band’s mastermind who cites Kurt Cobain as a hero of his, appears to be ready to move on. Sick of the highly processed sounds, simple formulas and, computer-guided sounds, he sought to return to simpler times where honest song-craft took precedence over synth hooks and vocoders. “Handyman” the lead single off of the band’s latest album heads in that direction. But Here Comes the Runts still uses big synth lines, and heavily processed sounds to deliver eclectic hook-heavy compositions.
Bruno has experienced an extreme spectrum of the highs and lows associated with being a professional musician. In 2002, Bruno’s grunge-influenced band Home Town Hero released its major-label debut on Madonna’s Maverick Records. Two years later, the band quit the label and went on indefinite hiatus. Bruno and HTH member Dave Stewart went on to form Under The Influence of Giants. In 2005 they signed to Island Records but were basically finished by 2008. In 2009, Red Bull Records offered Bruno some studio time. The label liked the results and offered him a deal. That lead to the creation of Awolnation and the release of the band’s first album Megalithic Symphony. “Sail” took over the radio but the band’s sophomore release Run failed to produce an equally successful single.
Awolnation will play Upstate Concert Hall in Clifton Park on June 15. We had a chance to speak to Bruno this week about his latest album and his hopes for pop music.
David Howard King: Listening to Here Come the Runts I was really reminded of some of Queen’s biggest albums where the band moved seemingly effortlessly between styles and influences but held it all together with great melodies. Was Queen a particular influence on this album?
Aaron Bruno: Of course. Even if you don’t think you are influenced by Queen you are. Just like any band worth listening to during that time period when popular music was dominated by rock bands that tried things rather than formulaic pop. The Cars, Bruce Springsteen, could be pop stars. The Eagles, who basically started as country and folk, became one of the biggest bands in the world.
I want to take music back into that world but I may be a little too early. Musical influences cycle every 10 years, great bands come out and everything cycles. Nowadays you don’t have to wait around for a new album cycle to discover new music. I appreciate that. I want music that will last well rather than be popular right now. I want to leave behind songs that my family can be proud of, songs the musicians in my band can be proud to play, albums that people will listen to 10 years from now. I don’t want to chase that dragon of being popular. When I turn an album in I want it to be something you can listen to from front to back.
It’s disheartening to only hear a single you like from a band when they’ve made a record you can listen to in its entirety. But there aren’t that many bands making albums like that anymore. I sometimes wonder if I made a mistake by putting my heart into 11 or 13 songs and pushing them out into the world together. Maybe I should have released 1 at a time, or 2 at a time.
DHK: Is there anyone who works that way right now, making fully realized albums, that serves as inspiration?
AB: No. War on Drugs comes pretty close to hitting that mark. A lot of people make shit albums with one good song. You love the song and hate the album. I hold myself to a higher standard and make a good album. But the industry doesn’t really support that. But I’m not afraid to put the blame on artists as well. There are these bands where you can tell they just throw in the towel and the album is full of b-list songs. Your heart and soul should go into every single song.
There are a lot of old country songs and folk songs that are new to my ears–stuff that is inspiring. It’s the kind of stuff you get excited to wake up and play, to have coffee and play, to play for friends.
DHK: Has your label put any pressure on you to rein in the genre-hopping and create an album that focuses on one style?
AB: No, luckily the guy at the label who signed me had a clear understanding that I was going to do what I was going to do. To put it as nicely as I can: for as many ups and many, many, many downs I’ve had with this label, the one shining plus is the really cool trust that I’ve had from them. One of the reasons I signed with him is that he believed in this vision. The chaotic mindset of making albums with different subject matters. I don’t even know how to make albums that sound the same all the way through. If you listen to the White Album–I know it’s crazy to bring up the Beatles–but listen to that album, it goes everywhere. That is what appeals to me about it.
DHK: I’ve read that the release of Radiohead’s OK Computer was a huge influence on you. The band was praised at the time for being able to replicate the album live. Does it matter to you to be able to recreate your albums in a live setting? Is it possible?
AB: It is possible because I have such a great band. My guitarist and drummer played a lot on this record. So I had more instruments at my disposal. So they know how to play the album live and they have pride in being control of the recording process. These guys are incredible musicians. I take it as a challenge to figure out how to do it. So you get the main points, maybe the cliff notes of every song when we play live. We don’t play with backing tracks or with a computer running our songs.
DHK: You basically functioned as a one-man band during the recording of your first two albums. I’ve read that you made a point to make this more of a band recording. Was it easy to give up that kind of control you had in the studio?
AB: It was fairly easy. There was a fun camaraderie in that. I consider myself a bit of a drummer myself so I can say to my drummer, “Here is the beat’s basic pattern,” and the kick and snare follow that. I give him the basic guidelines, but he’s so good and I know what he’s capable of. As a fan of drumming myself, I could push him very far out of his comfort zone because we have the same references. I can say, “I want that to sound kind of shitty in the same way x or y did,” because we are the same age and have a similar story, gone through the ups and downs together and Nirvana changed our lives. It’s like having a new instrument.
DHK: I know you love old-school hip-hop and it has clearly had an influence on your sound. However, you’ve stressed that you want to see music go in a less electronic direction. Do you think indie rock can compete with rap in terms of innovation? Do you think rock music can still do daring things and capture the imagination the way hip-hop now does?
AB: I don’t know, it’s almost like using guitars is punk again. A lot of indie artists now seem to basically be writing hip-hop songs and I’m partly responsible for that with “Sail.” I love the biggest beats from hip-hop and punk rock. Now you turn on the radio and the songs that they play are heavily influenced by our first record. I think it’s important we move forward and evolve. Rap was punk in the 80s because punk had basically gone mainstream. Hip hop, or what we used to call rap, was punk to me. NWA was never played on the radio.
DHK: I know you’re a big fan of Dave Grohl’s drumming and as we discussed you are influenced by hip-hop beats. It feels like you’re coming from that place in the 90s where those huge grunge and alt-rock beats were being played alongside Dr. Dre and Tupac. Is that fair to say?
AB: It is all coming from the same place. A Metal breakdown, a hip-hop beat; they have the same intention, an undeniable groove, a cadence. It has the same effect as a marching band. It might come from a different place but it has the same kind of cadence as gospel music, church music. I was influenced by rap and metal breakdowns, hardcore breakdowns. I came up listening to Metallica, Sepultura, underground hardcore like Undertow and Snapcase. I find myself listening to those breakdowns or a groove in a rap song and thinking, “I love how it does this,” I’m not going to rip anything off but I have a take that comes from a different place. I’ll listen to a Cool and The Gang song and hear different musical possibilities. So maybe you start with a similar groove and add acoustic guitar.
DHK: You had the opportunity to open for Prophets of Rage recently (The supergroup made up of members of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill.) Members of Rage Against the Machine have sort of lamented the idea that they influenced nu metal. It sounds like maybe you are in a similar place with the legacy “Sail” had on alternative radio. Did you ever talk to any of the members about that?
AB: It never really came up. I am good friends with Tim Cumberford (drummer of Rage Against the Machine/Prophets of Rage) and we talk about the Raiders vs. The Broncos. He wants me to get into mountain biking. Tom and I talk a bit about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I guess he’s involved in that and I did predict to him that The Cars was be inducted. And I was right, so that was a trip. But I did go on these long drives with the guys from Prophets during that tour and we talked a bit about music. It was very surreal. I’d sit there and ask Chuck D about something and he spoke in this amazing poetry. So he would leave little hints about what I was chasing and then later I’d find myself saying, “Wait! What was the answer to the question I asked you?”
Awolnation plays Upstate Concert Hall in Clifton Park on June 15 at 7 PM. Tickets are $27.50 if you buy them in advance.