The Man Behind The Astronaut Mask: Our Interview With AWOLNATION's Aaron Bruno

AWOLNATION's Megalithic Symphony is one of my favorite albums of 2011, so I was really excited to talk with the man behind the astronaut mask, Aaron Bruno. He spoke with us about surfing, the first album he ever purchased, pornography, and his amazing music videos.

First things first, how did you come up with the name AWOLNATION?
Instead of saying where exactly it came from, I'd rather just explain what it means to me, if you don't mind.

OK. That would be great.
To me, absent without leave is taken as a negative thing in a lot of cases. It's common to think about a military situation, but that's obviously not where I'm coming from. To me, it's a place you can escape to musically and where you can listen to this record and feel like your day's a little better and escape to, sort of like a drug. Or like you need the record like what got me through high school and my upbringing when I was an insecure weird kid and going through puberty.*

In a nutshell, it's just a place for people to escape to. A lot of people feel that way, that need music or unfortunately in a lot of cases, some people turn to drugs. Some people turn to hiking, mountain biking. For me, it's surfing most of the time when it's not music. A lot of people feel the same way as far as needing something to turn to to get through the day. If this record I made can help anyone do that, that's always been the goal. Music has definitely done that for me.

You've played both Jimmy Kimmel and Austin City Limits this past month. How crazy is your life right now?
You could use that word, but I would say more stressful than anything. When was the last time you watched a band perform on a show and said, "Wow! That was fucking awesome!" It very rarely happens because you're not playing in front of your bitchin' fans where people are doing stage dives and singing along, you're passing the mic to the audience and people are jumping and slam dancing and moshing, all that stuff. You're playing for cameras and that's not what I signed up for at all. It's my least favorite thing in the whole world to do. Having said that, it's a really good opportunity for people to hear the song and get the message across, so you've got to do it. It's extremely stressful because what's the main thing you hear when you see a band on TV? The vocals, way too loud.

Now we're about to do this thing for FUEL TV, it's called The Daily Habit. We're also doing Jay Leno three days after that. It's pretty insane but I feel most comfortable playing shows, so it's not that big of a deal. I don't feel that different than I did before all this happened, I just feel very lucky and humbled by the whole experience.

I saw you crowd surfing at Austin City Limits on YouTube. Is that something you normally do at your shows?
Yeah, there's always crowd surfing but I never had actually literally surfed on people's heads on a boogieboard. Being a surfer, there's certain days where I get in a really sad, depressed place being in certain cities where there's no water. I can't overstate enough how much the ocean means to me. Without getting too Point Break or North Shore on you, it's a real thing for me. So I thought, "Fuck, if I bring a boogieboard, I think it'll work." But I didn't think I'd be able to get to my feet. I just thought it would be funny to jump on the crowd and act like I was paddling and boogieboarding, All surfers know that boogieboarding is pretty cheesy, but if I used an actual surfboard, I would crush people so I had to use a boogieboard for all those surfers out there that are wondering why I sold out and became a sponger just for one day.

I did get to stand up on it, so I was surfing on humans. It was basically a miracle. I didn't think it was going to work at all. The band before us played, they were called Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. and they were awesome. There were four or five thousand people watching them, which is a shitload of people but it wasn't slam packed where you could just jump on people and they'd catch you. An hour went by and I was getting ready to play and we walked out and there was an overwhelming amount of people and I knew it was possible. I knew I could jump on my stomach but I didn't know if I could get to my feet. There were really strong dudes holding me underneath so I thought I'd be fine.

It looked pretty cool, though. Do you throw any covers in your live performances?
Every once in awhile, we'll do a little thing but it always feels like I'm an intruder or an impostor. Someone wrote this song that means so much to them. It's always a little bit uncomfortable. But we've busted into "Billie Jean" before. We've messed around with "Everybody Wants To Rule The World." Covers are pretty fun. I've never had an experience where a cover song just turned a show to a whole other level. It's never happened for me. I think it is possible, but I'm not sure if we've picked the right songs.

Who are your musical influences?
That's just too broad of an answer to give you. All music influences me. I love country music, love pop music, love hip hop music. There's not a genre I don't like honestly. The only genre I can think of that I really didn't like was nu metal and the screamo whole thing, I wasn't into that. But everything else I love.

OK. Well can you tell me the first album you bought with your own money?
The first tape cassette I bought based off of allowance was Run–D.M.C.'s Raising Hell.

Huge record for me with the Bob James "Take Me To The Mardi Gras" sample that's been used on so many people's records. But as a kid, I was this white boy listening to funky stuff growing up and it just touched me. That was the first cassette tape and I remember the first CD I bought was two things. One I ordered off an infomercial, which was the Led Zeppelin box set, which was like the first box set that ever came out for CDs. It was only two CDs, by the way. I was instantly a Bonham fan right away. Bonham hit me harder than the vocals did or any of the guitar playing because I've always been kind of a drummer at heart. Iron Maiden's Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son was the other CD I ordered.

Let's talk about your first video, the one for "Burn It Down." We roasted it here on our site because it was so fabulously bizarre. How was it making that video?
It was pretty funny, man. The whole idea of videos is very tiring for me. The idea of lip-synching and posing and all that stuff doesn't feel extremely real, but if you come up with a video that's so obvious it's a joke, that it's supposed to be light hearted, then you can get more into an acting scenario and have fun with it. I just wanted to make a video that had the sort of vibe of the classic special effects that I grew up with like in Ghostbusters or Big Trouble In Little China or E.T. I guess E.T. was more for the "Sail" video. I just wanted to do something that would make people go, "What the hell did I just see?" "Burn It Down" isn't necessarily a song with some great message that I'm trying to convey, so we just wanted it to be a party video.

So did you come up with the ideas for that and "Sail?"
I did. For "Sail," I actually have to give credit to one of my best friends in the world who actually appears as a rapper on our song "Knights Of Shame." His name is The Gatsby but his directing name is Cameron Duddy. We didn't have a hit song or anything yet, so we got... I don't want to say the bottom end of the barrel, but the ideas weren't the best ideas. It was all cheeseball shit like "and then we're gonna have this girl who's a seductress in vinyl and all these flames and shit." I'm like, what? That sounds horrible. That sounds like a Puddle Of Mudd video or like a new Metallica video, "Give me fuel, give me fire," that whole scene. And then Cameron called me one day and was like, "I got it: you're abducted by aliens." And I'm like, "Obviously, that's the video." But we knew we weren't going to have an actual alien in it. We just wanted to provoke thought and the idea of questioning society and all those fun cliche things that we all like to do. It was an idea that wasn't meant to be taken literally. I've seen a lot of crazy conspiracy stuff which I tend learning about as well but the whole idea is just to be searching for the answers of the unknown.

Let's talk about the album for a minute. I truly believe it's one of the best albums I've heard in 2011.
Aw, man. I can't even express to you how much that means to me. Thank you very much.

How's the reception been to Megalithic Symphony?
Surprisingly, it's been fairly parallel to what you said. I haven't seen anyone hate on it too hard, which blows my mind. I always expect the absolute worst and hope for the best with everything. I never thought this record would have the success it's having. I didn't think the single would go Platinum in Canada and Gold in the States as quick as it has. We're about to release the second single. "Burn It Down" was sort of like "just get it out in people's face" but we weren't counting on that being a single necessarily. It was just something to get out there. And then "Sail" took off and we were like, "What? Really?" At least that's how I felt. That's one of the strangest songs on the record to me.

If you look at the tweeting stuff that goes on with us or our Facebook page... I'm not saying I feel this way, but I can't remember the last time we played a show that someone didn't say it wasn't one of their favorite shows they've been to. And like I said, I want to reiterate I'm not claiming that. It's just what I've read and it's very humbling and very shocking. At the same time, I feel very confident about what I've done but I just didn't know if anyone else would feel the same way.

Why wasn't "MF" included on the album?
I thought that was probably the least mature sounding song and lyrically not as deep as the rest of the record. Having said that, it was a very fun party song and we enjoy playing it live. I also wanted to give some of our diehard fans something only they have. Not everybody knows "MF," but when we go to shows, people are calling out, "Play 'MF!' Play 'MF!'" because that's the song that not everybody has. But for me lyrically and stylistically, it was a big sarcastic joke of a song that was fun and really fun to make.

Where there any world events or personal events in your life that influenced the lyrics to the album?
Yeah. Not necessarily events, but me sort of opening my eyes in the last three years to true history and the way our world has been built and the way it really is rather than what all the major media corporations feed us. I would say that was a heavy, heavy component to my questioning of things and truly wondering what was going on. And just naturally feeling like there's a lot of evil in the world and it seems like in this day and age with social media and the Internet and stuff.

When I was in sixth or seventh grade, the idea of finding pornography was absurd. We would be at bike tracks, going off these jumps, and in this bush some dude would've left the box cover to a porno movie. Nowadays, kids can just go on the Internet and blow their minds. And that blows my mind. I would have to search so far to find any sort of dirty material as a kid and it's not like that now.

That's a good example of that or the fact that someone in a chickenshit sort of way can just go online and ruin someone's life. Now you have a lot kids committing suicide because they're coming out of the closet and they're gay and people are just ruining their lives on fucking Facebook. That's despicable to me. But with all true progression, there's good and evil I suppose. I guess a lot of those things weigh heavy on my heart and I think about it and it bums me out but I try to find the good in everything and make the best of it.

Visuals seem to be a big part of your band to some extent. You guys did something really neat. Lots of people stream their albums before they're released. But you guys sent out those lyrical videos, one at a time. Was that promotion your idea?
Yeah, it was either myself or my manager. We think the same and he's like an extension of what I'm doing. He knows where I'm coming from exactly. He's like, "I think it would be cool if we just did simple videos with the lyrics because the lyrics really matter on this record." I think when you watch a video and you see words, it gives you two things: it gives you the song, hopefully somewhat of an interesting visual, and more importantly, you're actually reading something. Just like the old '50s where you'd see the ball going along the lyrics so it was easy to remember. The more people that know the lyrics at our shows, the better the show is, the louder the anthems are. The louder the singalongs are, the more I can pass the mic for a second and save my voice because all these songs are extremely vocally demanding.

We were stoked that people were reposting [the videos] and caring. We didn't expect it. We don't expect any of that stuff, by the way. When it happens, we're just like, "Wow. This is crazy." Every once in awhile, me and my manager will have a talk. "Can you believe this is really happening?" It's pretty trippy. You keep your head down. Even though we're having success, I am very motivated to get to the next level, whatever that may be.

I really enjoyed the Halloween and Christmas videos you sent out to your fans. Do you have any plans for more of those?
Absolutely. The next music video, we're actually doing for "Not Your Fault," is along the lines of everything I think has been unique about this project. We're actually doing a stop-animation, Claymation, 3-D movie for that video and the stuff I've seen is just blowing my mind. Plus, I didn't have to be in the video, being a cheeseball lip-synching.

OK. I've got ask you: what's the deal with the astronaut, the spaceman guy?
Exploration. The whole idea of that and just adding a little bit of mystery to the whole thing, instead of it being "Check Out AWOLNATION" with my face everywhere and trying to look cute and all that stuff like most labels want.

I won't keep you much longer. I've got three questions called The CB3 we ask every guest. Thriller or Purple Rain?
I gotta go with Thriller. Sorry. I love Prince. It breaks my heart to say that, but you gotta go with Thriller.

Sixteen Candles or Pretty In Pink?
I guess I would go with Pretty In Pink because of the soundtrack alone.

And finally Debbie Gibson or Tiffany?
These are like three of the best questions I've ever been asked. It's like saying, "Do you love your Mom or your Dad more?" I'm going to go with Debbie Gibson. I think her songs are a little bit deeper. I really do.

And I think she's a little hotter.

Well thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
Thank you so much, man. And I appreciate your kind words. I really do.

Want more AWOLNATION? Official Site | Twitter | Facebook

*We were disconnected three times at this point. Unfortunately, he told me, "That sucks, man. I thought that was the best answer I've ever given and then I looked down and I was just talking to myself."

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