Everyone in the 21st century is familiar with the feeling of being roped into an awkward social situation and wanting to leave to work on a craft, see a significant other or just go home and sit in front of the television. AWOLNATION has created an ode to that loner mentality with his music—his very name references the urge to suddenly go AWOL and disappear, and reaching a whole nation of people who want that same thing. As a seasoned hardcore and punk musician, Aaron Bruno is no stranger to being in the limelight, but has always preferred the D.I.Y. ethics of underground subgenres, an ethos Bruno brings to his high-profile status as leader of this wildly successful new band. While AWOLNATION may be experiencing pop stardom, Bruno keeps his feet planted firmly on the ground. In between hiding out and making awesome music, Bruno took the time to chat with CULTURE about music, cannabis and success.
How does having a background in punk and rock inform what you do as the leader of an electronic band? How do you think those influences and the electronic elements of the band work together?
I feel pretty lucky that I went down that path—I took that road in a lot of ways because it gave me a completely different perspective than someone who is aspiring to be in a big rock band or a big pop artist. I didn’t ever take those aspirations too seriously, but I felt at home in the hardcore scene and the punk rock scene. At that time, there was no way to really promote your band online; you had to go to local high schools, flier cars and get in trouble for that, or go to other concerts of minor bands, so if nothing else I learned how to operate as a functioning band and how to do everything on my own, so the work ethic of that was great, feeling like it was you against the world. Those are things that are invaluable to me, and on an artistic or more musical tip, I feel there are a lot of great parts in a lot of the songs that I listened to my whole life that people haven’t heard, so I am lucky I have a library from that world of influences that maybe others wouldn’t pull from. I feel like it’s an advantage for sure.
Do you listen to mostly electronic music or rock? Have you always had an eclectic taste in music?
I never listen to just one kind of music—I think there is greatness in all forms and genres of music. I spend a lot of time trying to explore and look for new music—at least new to my ears. I am constantly trying to search for something that will mature my songwriting and craft. That’s always the hardest question to answer; I think it takes time to really decide if something lasts the test of time.
What is it like being signed to Red Bull Records? You’ve referred to that relationship as more of a “partnership” than a typical record deal—what do you mean by that?
There are ups and downs just like everything else, but I think there would be a lot more downs if I was with a more traditional label. When they came to me they were still new and hadn’t had any success with any of their bands yet. It has been really nice to kind of work together and navigate the wild west of the industry while we try to figure out how to have a presence in such an oversaturated marketplace. I didn’t want to do another major label deal because I had been involved in two prior and they didn’t work for me. When they came to me they offered to allow me to continue down this tunnel-vision path I had in my mind which was to make a record with no compromises where I controlled the whole thing. It wasn’t that I had ego or wanted to be thought of as a solo artist—I just felt I didn’t want to have arguments and deal with the stress of having other bandmates. My other band had broken up and I saw that as an opportunity to just go at this alone and really put it all on the line and utilize everything I had seen along the way.
Rumor has it the band name comes from your high school nickname. How did that nickname come about, and what made you decide to use that as the band name?
The nickname came from my name being Aaron and a play on the first letter of the word, like a lot of rappers that came up at that time. As a joke, I called myself that, and then it became somewhat relevant when I realized I am bad at saying goodbye and getting out of a social situation where you have anxiety and want to disappear but can’t. I find that your good friends will understand when you are in a situation where you just want to leave and you do. At a certain point I attached “Nation” to it because I thought you might as well go for it and I have this ambitious movement in my mind that I never thought would actually happen, and then six years on we have somewhat of that ambitious dream before us. I just figured there had to be a hypothetical nation of people who had the same feelings on certain issues in life, and that is sort of what the name means to me at this point. But everyone has an interpretation of what the name means, so I don’t want to change what that means to anyone in general. Sometimes it is disappointing to discover the meaning behind names or songs, so I want to remain deliberately vague about it.
Which album do you feel best represents your career, and how do you feel your sound has changed since AWOLNATION first got together?
I am in love with the newest record and very proud of it artistically—I think it is one of the best records in years. Why do it if you don’t believe what you are producing is one of the best records of all time? I believe it; I really do; I don’t think anyone else is going to think so, but I still do believe it. I know a lot of artists who say they don’t like their records and I can appreciate that and relate to it, but it can be interpreted strangely because if you don’t think your music is good, does that mean you think your fans are lame for liking the music? I have a philosophy in my mind that I am very proud of the music I put out there.
What do you have in the works now—are you releasing a new album?
I am of course producing and working and writing with two different artists—one’s name is Iron Tom and I am halfway done with their record—they are about to get some sort of record deal and I just love them—I became kind of part of them. I threw everything I have into their songs—it has been a labor of love like everything else and has been my pleasure to mentor these kids who haven’t had the influence or help I had. I am very passionate and excited about the six songs they already have. People can look forward to hearing some of their stuff in spring or summer.
What do you have going on as far as tour plans or other projects?
We are about to go on this arena tour with Fall Out Boy—they are so big that I don’t know if I’m even helping promote the tour (laughs). They have had this incredible career through the ups and downs and have lasted for a long time. It will be the first time we’ve played for a pop audience and gained a few fans. I am still trying to get used to us being a headliner—a lot of times when we headline one of these bigger shows I am surprised that we are headlining.
Do any of you use cannabis recreationally or medically? Has cannabis ever been a theme in your music?
I was completely sober until I was 21, when I had my first sip of alcohol and smoked weed for the first time. It seems to be the opposite for most people—they get in trouble at a young age and get caught smoking weed when they are 14, where I was too much of a nerd and was too afraid to try mind-altering stuff. It wasn’t until I was 21 and felt comfortable trying that stuff. It was a great experience, and there are so many benefits to it, obviously—but just like anything else, too much of any other thing can dumb down it being good. It’s a weird question because I’d like to say it’s a good thing for everyone but it doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. Sometimes you are in a good headspace and sometimes you are not. There have been ups and downs, but mostly I find it to be a wonderful thing. And creatively speaking, everybody knows it’s great. Having said that I will tell you there have been many times that I thought something was incredible I had worked on and then listened with a sober mind and it was awful. (Laughs) It’s about finding the balance.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I always want to thank anyone who took the time to read this or be part of this interview and took the time to care about what I think in any way—it’s a pretty interesting feeling.