AWOLNATION finds love in Austin

We here at ovrld put a premium on Austin artists, of course. However, there are artists who are not from our wonderful city that still have a special relationship with the ATX, and we’d like to support Austin’s allies as well. To that end, we went to La Zona Rosa on Friday night to talk with Aaron Bruno, the creative force behind AWOLNATION. Austin was the first place (even counting his home base of Los Angeles) to support Bruno’s new project, and he repaid the love to the packed audience on Friday. He was also quite generous with his time for us, turning what we had been told would be a 10-15 minute interview into a 45 minute chilling session, excerpted below. Enjoy and check out AWOLNATION’s hit single “Sail” below:

— Carter and Dan


Overload: Whats your relationship with Austin?

Aaron: Austin was the first market to play any of the songs on the radio. Before we even had any typical radio plan like most labels do, our manager knew one of the higher ups at KROX. He sent him a record and he decided to play the song “Sail.” I thought, “That’s cool,” because I’d never thought that’d be a single.

O: Really, never?

A: Never. Certainly not when I was writing it. Nor did I think any of the songs would be on the radio. I just wanted to make the best record I could make. I’ve been doing this for a little bit of time and I thought I’d written hits before only to find out I’d been wrong (laughs)… The band I was in before – called Under The Influence of Giants – we all had gone our separate ways and I was just sitting there going, “Man I have these songs and I don’t wanna stop.” … One afternoon me and Kenny [his songwriting partner] were supposed to be working on something and ended up coming up with “Sail.” I just had this idea, this string line in my head, and then he went to get us drinks, and by the time he came back I sang the whole song. He accidentally left the gain on the input of the mic a little bit too high so it’s distorted and my voice is a little bit distorted naturally at times but it has an extra blown out feel that was kind of a happy accident… And Toby [Ryan, from 101X] played it and it kind of blew up… So it started here and since that moment, because of the success in Austin, it’s branched out to many places in the country so we’re able to do shows like this in most of the country.

O: So we’re both actually from southern California and I’m kinda curious what is that scene like? I feel like when I was there it was so hard to break in and meet people and start stuff.

A: Right. Everybody and their mom wants to move to Hollywood to make it, so in Hollywood and LA everybody that’s a bartender or working at the local coffee shop – they’re either an aspiring artist, actor, in some cases comedians, which I enjoy, or songwriter or up and coming indie band or whatever. It’s hard to be noticed out there, for sure. You’ve gotta bust ass and know the right people. In the last band I was in we were pretty good at promoting ourselves and playing the right kind of residencies. … Right now it seems heavily influenced on the folk side – sort of like indie rock folk scene … Nothing that sounds like us for better or worse, is really out there. But I’m kinda removed from it honestly because we’ve been touring everywhere else and we haven’t played LA yet really. … When I’m home I just surf as much as I can and try to keep my head down and write music but I don’t go out too much these days.

O: AWOLNATION has a lot of different styles across the different songs. Is there something about that that’s responsible for your success now as opposed to the two other bands you were in?

A: I think a lot of it has to do with timing – stars aligning. You know, Grand Rapids, Michigan on our last record was the one spot where we’d play shows like this [at La Zona Rosa]. And then we’d go everywhere else and there’d be 5-100 people. So there’s no secret formula. For whatever reason people are identifying moreso with the lyrics than any of the other bands I’ve been in before. … And I think having been through a bunch of ups and downs and sort of hitting rock bottom, I was able to say stuff that people could identify with for the first time. As far as different styles go on the record, I’m just such a huge fan of music that I like a bunch of different things, so I never sit down and go, “I’m going to write my rock song here, here’s the underlying hip-hop influence on this song, or the disco part on this other song.” It just happens. I always make sure that it’s kind of heavy, though. Heavy to me is not necessarily devil-horns heavy. It can be a groove. Like “Sail” to me has kind of a heavy groove and a memorable vocal. I like simple songs as much as I like the Radioheads of the world…So I try to put it all together and make it kind of digestible.

O: You know “Sail” doesn’t seem like a chorus…

A: It’s strange. Dave our bass player said, “In ‘Sail’ it’s almost like the verse is the chorus and the chorus is just a release from the verse.” I’ve always written songs where I wanted the chorus to explode and be the main part. … Kurt Cobain did it best. He had simple nursery-rhyme songs with artistic, relatable lyrics and heavy-ass parts. So I suppose I’m coming at the songwriting thing from that headspace. I just have a lot more influences, or put a lot more songs on the record…

O: I’m also curious…When I sing along to “Sail,” it’ll blow my voice out. How do you do it day after day and not destroy yourself?

A: As a kid I grew up listening to Madonna and Prince and a lot of 80s pop music with my mom driving me to school. So I learned how to do the falsetto, blue-eyed soul shit at an early age. And then my friends would make fun of me and call me names I don’t even wanna say… So I abandoned that. And in 6th grade I met up with this drummer named Matt Broderick who was the first dude I ever met who loved music. So many people are in bands or musicians now but when I was in 6th grade it was rare to find anyone that liked music that wasn’t just the shit on the radio. So I met this kid, we bonded over that and we started this band called the Ice Monkeys. It was just me on guitar, him on drums and that was kind of a Nirvana, punk ripoff thing we were doing at the time. From there, I fell in love with the hardcore scene and the straightedge scene and I was into screaming. So I went from falsetto and being teased about that into a more punk, Nirvana, Guttermouth, Operation Ivy kind of thing where I only screamed and there was no melody at all. At first I would blow my voice out completely, but then I learned how to kind of control it. It’s sort of like the way a distortion pedal works with a guitar. You could hit it and then you simply press a button and it’s distorted. When people hear it, people think you just have to scream at the top of your lungs, but there’s actually a way to control it so you’re not singing that much louder than your regular singing voice, but it’s still an intense scream. I only learned that from being in hardcore bands.

O: What are your goals with this band? Where do you want to take it? What do you wanna do with it?

A: My last band, after we put out our first record, we were sort of in limbo with the label – it didn’t do as good as we thought. Everybody told us we were going to sell millions of records and be on top of the world and this and that and there were glimpses of that at times where MTV played our video and cute stuff like that…and then it all crumbled down heavily. I was at a point where I didn’t even know if it was even worth trying to do music in an industry that everybody was telling me was just failing so miserably. … I just wanted to have a record come out. Of course you want to sell as many records as you can, and have some sort of success and be able to have money to maybe raise a family one day, buy a home, and all that – the American dream. For me it’s just to be able to have a third opportunity – this is my third official release even though I was in all these other bands, this is the third time that there’s been a record release and a label push behind it. Just to have a third opportunity, I’m very blessed. If it all failed tomorrow, I’d be very happy and feel to some degree that I’d made it by being able to sell out venues like this. … Everyone’ll tell you, “No one makes money in the music industry” and that’s true to a certain degree, but there’s more opportunity for independent bands and good artists to be heard because all you have to do is go onto your computer and just look and you can find the kind of stuff you’re into, or look at different blogs like your guys’ blog and discover new hip-hop or new punk rock or whatever. It’s actually, to me, a very exciting time in the music industry. Not to quote Kurt Cobain, but there’s a lot of old dinosaurs in the industry that are still holding onto the old ways and it’s just a new way now. It’s just really exciting for up and coming bands. … I encourage anyone who reads this interview to not always just get information from what you’re told on TV, but actually search out stuff. And I’m not talking about just music. I’m talking about world issues and the general pulse of the way life is going, how dark the times have seem to become recently.


O: How has your lyric-writing progressed from your previous bands to now?

A: I maybe felt more insecure about what I really wanted to say. … Having to look in the mirror at the end of the day and be the master of my own fate with this music thing puts a lot more pressure on my shoulders to write the best lyrics I can. I just don’t settle any more. … My hard drive’s full of songs that no one’s ever heard except my girlfriend and my dad. You guys have heard of the book Outliers [by Malcolm Gladwell]? Not that I’m saying I’m a master, but…Looking back now, it’s definitely been 10,000 hours of music: lyric-writing, drumming, songwriting, singing, whatever. So I feel like I’m very lucky to still be around, having written this long. I feel like I’m better than I was before.

O: In a song like “Sail” where you say something like “Maybe I should kill myself”…To me, I don’t know if I would be comfortable putting that out there…

A: I don’t know if I am comfortable that it’s out there. I just said it because I felt that way. I think everybody’s fantasized at a low point – ‘what if I just killed myself.’ They don’t mean it, you wouldn’t actually do it, but it’s a fantasy because you’re at a low point. It was admitting I’m at my rock bottom, not saying I will. It would break my heart if someone took that lyric literally…

O: To me it was indicative of it being a really personal project.

A: Well that song was written at the most despairing time of my life. I turned a certain age and I was like, “What the fuck am I doing right now?” I thought by now I’d be living at the beach and all that stuff. I mean, I live close enough to the beach to drive there but I haven’t quite made it to the sand. … I wake up every morning between seven and eight and drive to a couple of beaches … Even if I don’t go surfing, it’s very therapeutic. I normally come up with melody ideas or beat ideas or lyrics.