AWOLNation’s Aaron Bruno in it for the long haul
Most people might gaze out the window of musician Aaron Bruno’s cozy beach-side home in Malibu and see only sparkling blue ocean, thick beds of green kelp and whale-watching boats drifting near the sandy shore.
But Bruno, the lead singer, songwriter and producer of L.A. indie-rock band AWOLNation, surveys the very same scene and sees a manifestation of his life in music.
Swells crest and ebb, long gaps emerge between wave sets, some days the sea is flat, other days it’s turbulent. Bruno has experienced it all in his many years of surfing and his years navigating the music business.
“I’ve learned to be patient,” said Bruno, 36, whose 2011 debut with his group AWOLNation had the artist riding a mega-wave of success after years of struggle. “There have been times where I wanted things to happen faster, but I’ve come to trust in the way things work out. I’m a believer that everything happens for a reason.”
That perspective wasn’t as easy to come by, however, when Bruno was jockeying for success more than a decade ago as a member of the Westlake-based indie bands Home Town Hero, Under the Influence of Giants and Insurgence.
Each got a taste of success — Home Town Hero and Under the Influence of Giants both scoring major-label contracts — before disbanding.
“The bands I was in before were always trying to break a debut album,” he said, sitting on his Malibu balcony just a few hours before his group’s homecoming show last Saturday at the Hollywood Palladium. He’d just returned from a nine-week U.S. tour that segues into two more weeks of shows across Europe later this month. “The coolest part about this may be that it’s the first time I’ve had two records to pull from on tour.”
That would be AWOLNation’s 2011 debut album “Megalithic Symphony,” which has sold almost 1.6 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music Connect, fueled by the runaway hit single “Sail.” The album and single have logged more than 400 million audio and video streams.
The group’s sophomore album, “Run,” was released in March and debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. It has sold 125,000 copies in about five months, and even though that’s a long way from the numbers “Megalithic Symphony” has generated, Bruno has learned the wisdom of sticking around for the long haul.
It took a full year before the single “Sail” worked up enough steam to catch on with radio in a big way.
AWOLNation, which has largely been a one-man operation in terms of its recordings to date, is a synthesis of disparate elements from Bruno’s diverse musical tastes: post-grunge raw emotion, the provocation of hip-hop and the easy appeal of ‘60s-rooted melodic pop and rock.
All were in full force at the Hollywood Palladium on Saturday night, where Bruno, guitarist Zach Irons, keyboardist Kenny Carkeet, bassist Marc Walloch and drummer Isaac Carpenter moved from sonic assaults blistering with blazing guitars and vocal rage to moments of reassuring beauty in the form of gorgeous pop melodies and harmony.
That’s an outgrowth of the eclectic music Bruno grew up with in suburban Westlake, combining his mother’s affinity for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other standard-bearers of classic rock, his father’s penchant for funk and jazz fusion and his older brother’s passion for the extreme ends of 1980’s pop music: punk rock, gangsta rap and heavy metal.
“A lot of people have said, ‘You can’t do that,’” Bruno said of AWOLNation’s mixture of diverse elements. “But I did. Now we’re starting to see some other bands that are taking a similar approach, and it’s nice — it’s flattering — to be part of the pop music conversation.”
The new single from “Run” is “I Am,” and fans are connecting with it in a powerful way.
“It’s just gone to radio, but we’re already seeing some people showing up at concerts with ‘I Am’ tattoos,” Bruno said. “Some radio people are saying they think it will be as big as ‘Sail,’ which is scary, and almost jinxes it, and I think that’s not going to happen anyway. But it is probably the biggest anthem off the album.”
Bruno showed himself to be a commanding frontman, leaning into the microphone and letting loose deep screams as the crowd that packed the Palladium floor thrust hands into the air and bobbed with the pulse of the music.
Themes of impending apocalypse surface in songs such as “Knights of Shame” (“Dance, baby, dance like the world is ending”) and “Kill Your Heroes,” but with his tanned skin, tousled blond-brown hair and gentle blue eyes, Bruno presents an image that’s more Beach Boy than Beastie Boy.
Bruno’s ability to connect with fans is something he attributes to those lean, dues-paying years before success arrived.
“We were part of the last breed of bands that had to make fliers and cards to get people to come to our shows, and to work with promoters and club owners,” he said of his previous life working the often torturous Hollywood club scene. “I figured if I could win over audiences in Hollywood, I’d be OK with any audience.”
After the frustrations and disappointments with his previous bands, Bruno handled most of the instrumental and vocal duties on “Megalithic Symphony,” and virtually all of those duties on “Run.” But now that he says he’s found a band lineup to play the music live, “I could see using other musicians on the next record. But it would be this band, not anyone else.”
His stated goal as AWOLNation moves ahead is musical more than commercial.
“A good single is great,” he said, “but I just want to keep making better records. I try to approach every song as if it’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ — I want it to feel like it’s the best song ever written.”
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