One might imagine that, like writers in a home office, many musicians are used to being holed up in the studio, therefore making their adjustment to our current quarantine situation not as arduous to cope with. "It's not, and sometimes I feel pretty bad about that," concurs Aaron Bruno, Los Angeles-based frontman and mastermind of electro-rock heavyweights AWOLNATION. "I feel guilty that it's not totally abnormal for me not to see people for a week when I'm at home. Except my dog and my wife, and sometimes I can go half a day without seeing them too."
Bruno exudes a laid-back air when he speaks to the Recording Academy, but underneath one can sense his excitement about AWOLNATION's fourth and latest album, Angel Miners & The Lightning Riders. The release delivers what you would expect from one of their releases; in other words, you might not expect what you'll hear. It's a collection of genre-bending songs that combine raw, emotional vocals with frequently slick production where lo-fi and hi-fi sounds collide. Intimate feelings and larger-than-life sonics merge in a blend of pop, hip-hop, EDM and even heavy rock.
Lyrically, the angst that Bruno is known for surfaces on a track like "I'm A Wreck." It builds in agitation and aggression, and he says it is "just universally how I feel a lot of days where I'm just in my head, trying to figure out the best way to see the glass as half full." The low-key "Slam (Angel Miners)" includes his feelings about losing his original recording studio during the Woolsey Fire, the 2018 blaze that ripped through Los Angeles. (Thankfully, his home was spared.) The song serves up both dark and light thoughts of despair and hope.
Other songs are more sarcastic. Glossy-sounding lead single "The Best" offers a critique on the Instagram aspirations of people who want to elevate themselves digitally but not so much in real life. The anthemic "Radical" is an ode to those fleeting insurgent feelings many of us experience when we're in the mood to take on the world—but only for a short time. In a way, as Bruno remarks, it's like being Cinderella.
"I appreciate you listening to it at all," he says as we speak. "I've just been fighting and scratching and clawing my whole life just to be heard at all. So when it all happened, I do wake up each day and think, 'Wow, there's people who actually dig what I do. Trip on that.'”
He also appreciates listeners digging deeper into his lyrics.
"I must thank you for interpreting 'The Best' as a bit of sarcasm because not everybody gets that," offers Bruno. "Once I realized that that was gonna be the first single and had a lot of 'commercial potential,' I started to get a little nervous. As much as you want yourself to see the light of day and reach the masses and feel good about connecting with human beings and people who care about music—that's the goal, always—there becomes a point where you wonder... I was slightly insecure about that, but I don't take it all too seriously at the same time."
Bruno says that "The Best" has inspired a number of homemade fan videos with "people being inspired to be the best version of themselves, although I haven't found that too many people have discovered the irony in the lyrics," he observes. "It's really a social observation of where we're at with Instagram and wanting to get the most likes. What is it? And how can I be perfect? It's never gonna happen. Ever. We're always going to want what someone else has [like] certain genetics. You're only born with what you're born with. It's interesting because you have no choice of how you're born, where you're born, what culture you're going to be around, what religions you're going to be around. If you ever get into a debate with people about religion, which I rarely do, you can always point out that if you were born in India, it would be a totally different situation than if you were born in America."
The AWOLNATION mastermind is happy to add that fans have been gravitating towards some of the other songs that have been put online already. "It's pretty cool that you're able to release a handful of songs and see with your own eyes what people are relating to," he says.
The song "Pacific Coast Highway In The Movies" deals with the dichotomy of the life one fantasizes about versus what they actually do. In other words, the classic Hollywood delusion. Bruno also offers a "surface-level observation" of people who come to L.A. These archetypes, for instance, might have grand plans to do things with friends that are actually a lot more complicated than they imagine. He illustrates the example of a friend who might want to go surfing, which requires a lot of time, effort and the right conditions.
Bruno's life in music has also brushed up against a reality that he never expected.
"I really didn't think about the responsibilities and the pressure of getting in front of people," he muses. "And talking or having my photograph taken and observing that all the time in constant self judgment. I just wanted to be connected to music, and I really didn't see it as an option to be a professional or even have any kind of success."
When Bruno first started out in hardcore bands when he was younger, he became a singer simply because no one else wanted to do it. He would also sing along to Michael Jackson, metal records and other music. "I thought maybe I could do it, but let's not play in front of people," he recalls. "Let's just do this for fun in the bedroom."
Given the current national quarantine, Bruno is essentially back to bedroom-jamming at the moment. In terms of passing the time during quarantine, Bruno has been interviewing various musicians for Instagram chats (today he will speak with Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready), and he has been playing songs he has been wanting to learn for awhile. "I've been playing these little cover song concerts for the dog and my wife," he says.
His songs have included Beck's "Guess I'm Doing Fine," the "heavy ass" Gordon Lightfoot song "Sundown" and The National's "Pink Rabbits," which Bruno reveals is the song and he and his wife "sort of fell in love over." He also tackled "Keep On Loving You" by REO Speedwagon. "I just had to know if I could do it right," he says of the latter tune. "And the results are in. It's really hard to sing, so that hasn't been going so well."
Another song Bruno has struggled with is Midnight Oil's "Beds Are Burning." He says he felt like he always needed to play that song since he was a kid.
"It's so fun to study these songs because you get into their head more, and I've never been someone who can fully understand what words are being said in songs," notes Bruno. "It's just something I don't have the skills for. My wife and a lot of my friends correct me on songs that are like 40 years old that I've been singing along to. I wasn't even close to the right lyrics."
He learned that "Beds Are Burning" is "a very Australian song. I thought it was a worldwide thing. But then I realized what the whole message was, and [there are] very difficult words to enunciate in the second verse, for sure."
Another musical activity that Bruno has indulged in has been working out acoustic versions of songs from the new album and determining which are the best for live stream performances. "It's been fun to get back to picking up a guitar," says Bruno. "The guys in my band are so good and so much better than me at their instruments that I just I've been lucky enough to focus on the production, the songwriting, and just being the frontman."
While the first two AWOLNATION albums were a one-man band creation, the last two albums have featured his bandmates—drummer Isaac Carpenter, guitarist Zach Irons and keyboardist Daniel Saslow—playing with him in the studio. He praises them and likes that their presence has given the last two albums more of an organic feeling. Josh Moreau played bass on four tracks on the new album, and the dreamy vocal harmonies on "California Halo Blue" came courtesy of Tracy Van Fleet, Callista Hoffman, Suzanne Waters and Elyse Willis. Further, singer-songwriter Alice Merton sang with him on "The Best," Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo guested on “Pacific Coast Highway” while Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert appeared on "Mayday!!! Disco Fiesta."
Having his bandmates around for the latest sessions undoubtedly boosted Bruno's spirits.
"I feel very blessed that I was able to make an album based off such a massive tragedy as the Woolsey Fire," elaborates Bruno. "It was almost like it prepared me for what we're going through now. It's a totally different feeling but very similar emotions. Maybe I learned some tools along the way to handle this a little better than I would have had I not gone through the Woolsey Fire experience. These songs feel very relevant now because I think everybody's the same. They're waking up, saying, 'How do I get through this day without freaking out and watching the news for 20 hours straight?' Or whatever it is. Everybody's got the way of communicating or figuring out or navigating through this whole deal. These songs were part of the healing process of the fire, so now they feel extremely important to me."
Many bands have discussed pushing back their album releases because of all of the economic chaos and confusion sowed by the coronavirus pandemic. Bruno thinks that many of them are doing so because they cannot tour or undertake typical avenues of promotion.
"I understand that fear, for sure," he acknowledges. "But I feel like it's more important than ever to have a record that you can tie some of these emotions to. I feel like this record does have the right coloring of the painting of this world right now. I'm sure there will be some parts of it that'll be frustrating when we release it, but there's a greater thing going on with everybody right now that is much more important than how many streams I get on this record, or if we're allowed to tour this year or next year. I'm happy to have this one tiny little glimpse of therapy for myself to deal with and the people who I know are anticipating this record."
That being said, Bruno loves playing live with his band, and he feels fortunate to have a lineup that he feels a sense of camaraderie with and whom he can trust.
"I really rely on them," he says. "It takes off a little bit of the pressure. Sometimes I can leave, and God forbid let a drum solo go on for a minute." He also takes pride in the fact that they are totally live with no backing tracks, and he relays his feelings of surprise when he had discovered how many bands they have toured with have injected pre-recorded performances, everything from a ukulele to a full choir, into a show.
"By the way, at the very beginning of AWOL, I must admit that I did have tracks," discloses Bruno. "It was like the Wild West, and it felt more like hip-hop in a cool way, like using an MPC and sampling some stuff from the record. But at a certain point, it became just so acceptable to just run that way. I don't mean to go on a shit talking side note here, but there are some bands that pull it off in a more respectable way, for sure. Maybe there's only one person on stage, so clearly they have a bunch of tracks and the itself is very captivating and extremely intense in a totally different way. It's very difficult to pull off, so I definitely respect that. But when you're seeing a full rock band that's presenting themselves as a rock and roll band and there's tracks, and it's slick in that way, I definitely notice it."
For Bruno and AWOLNATION, playing it 100% live works best. He also prefers that in the musicians he goes to see.
"Thom Yorke said it best when he said Radiohead are just a cover band," remarks Bruno. "Basically, they're doing their best to play these songs that are obviously going to be impossible to make sound identical to the record. I'm not going to a show to see the record. I'm going to see the expression and the emotions of the album, but on another level and hopefully sounding better and different. I don't need to hear every three-part harmony or every layer of synth or guitar. Just play. That's why it was so refreshing when the White Stripes came out, or any band that has a minimal aspect and pulls it off in such a great way. That's really encouraging."