AC/DC said, “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll.” That adage rings true for many aspiring musicians. And the glorified metal stallions from Australia that coined it ought to know since it took ‘em six years, several albums and the death of their original lead singer to finally breakout.
The same axiom holds true for AWOLNATION brainchild Aaron Bruno, whose choppy path to aboveground approval has taken many perplexingly twisted turns. Stranger still, the rugged journey towards the summit was propelled by a sentimental ballad Bruno almost didn’t include on Megalithic Symphony, a dazzlingly Industrial-strengthened, synth-rocked, electro-pop commencement Prodigy’s Liam Howlett would be proud to laud.
Though Bruno calls it “The ultimate surf session without sounding like Spicoli,” no one will accuse the musically-inclined Los Angeles-bred surf rider of directly emulating the Beach Boys’ vocal harmonies or Dick Dale’s tremolo guitar vibrato or being a slacker stoner like the fictional Fast Times At Ridgemont High character referenced.
Instead, Megalithic Symphony is a thrillingly bombastic, super-sized, orchestral epic, constructed by a motivated bohemian spirit who’d already experienced several major ups and downs whilst discovering his true muse through the Fab Four.
“I was in a punk band, the Ice Monkeys, in sixth grade, then joined a straightedge hardcore band during high school with the same two guys, who were soul mates,” Bruno shares. “A few local bands got signed in the early 2000s when majors still had money. I knew I could sing falsetto melodies and did so. We got a deal, went on Warped Tour with no money, and played the Tiki tent thanks to a friend of our drummer. We used a stolen credit card for gas.”
Those were desperate times calling for desperate measures, but the persistence paid off and Bruno’s formative trio, Hometown Hero, received a modicum of support, receiving local airplay at a major-marketed L.A. station. But just as things were getting off the ground, the new kids on the block hit an inconvenient snag.
“We were young, cocky and ignorant; too big for our britches. I had head-butting issues with the label. They wanted me to make a video with a director I didn’t want to work with because I thought it’d be cheesy. So they pulled support for the record and it was my first huge letdown,” Bruno retrospectively admits.
With his fantasy dream crushed, Bruno fought an uphill battle to “get out of a fiery pit.” He took it as a learning experience and continued to grow as a songwriter. Hometown Hero had fallen apart, but those challenging times only made him stronger to reach the next horizon. Thinking he was too cool for school, it took him a while to open his mind and finally give serious listens to his parents’ favorite band, an old mainstay known forever as The Beatles. In short time, their illuminating melodies swayed him. Also around this time, he was more willing to intently explore keyboard music, adding Fender Rhodes, clavinet and miscellaneous textural abstractions to increasingly captivating compositions showing off his “Prince, Michael Jackson and Bee Gees side.”
With a record deal now in place for the newly coined foursome, Under The Influence Of Giants, Bruno got a chance to once again thrive. But concerns about the band being “too indie for pop and too pop for indie” proved critical.
“We were in purgatory. But MTV played a video. It was a flash in the pan,” Bruno recalls. “We couldn’t get major airplay, which was frustrating. We’re number one in Grand Rapids but no L.A. support. Under The Influence’s first record, Bitch City, went unreleased, but a self-titled release appeared in ’06 on Island Records. It was credible, uplifting pop.”
When the band dissolved, Bruno was devastated and hit rock bottom. Luckily, he felt there was nowhere to go but up so he tried the “solo thing.” Though scared to venture down that long hard road, he felt he had no choice. Dead broke in the rut and afraid to borrow money he could never pay back, the much-maligned minstrel hit a crossroad. Living with a friend at a Beverly Hills shack with no air conditioning, cable, or kitchen, he was once again inspired to uncompromisingly delve into artistic expression.
“I had to answer to the man in the mirror,” he explains. “It’s exciting being single. Possibilities are endless. I’d write pop songs for a couple hundred dollars three times a month—barely enough cash to get gas and drive around. Those throwaway songs exorcised demons.”
Though these tracks don’t show up on Megalithic Symphony, an Austin, Texas discjockey at KROX gave the most unlikely AWOLNATION tune a few spins and it blew up, providing a weirdly esoteric lead-in.
Catapulted by flatulent synthesized strings and assembled in only a few hours, sympathetic soulful ballad “Sail” launched Bruno’s latest undertaking and landed AWOLNATION on Billboard’s alternative charts.
Yet closer to AWOLNATION’s usual fare are several upbeat numbers reliant on altruistic stylish reference points from contemporary techno-rock progenitors Prodigy to ‘80s new wave synth-pop titans Thomas Dolby and Howard Jones.
“People can’t put their finger on it, but to say it’s comparable to Ministry blows my mind,” Bruno lets on. “There’s an element of programmed drum syncopation and hard synths, but it’s so much more organic than Ministry ever tried to be.”
And he’s not afraid to get a little edgy on a few demanding cuts. On unifying celebratory rave-up “People,” Bruno proclaims, “We were born to rage.” During urgently demonstrative rallying cry “Burn It Down,” he’s knee deep in a shit-stormed blitzkrieg that recalls Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s flamboyant opulence at times. For “Kill Your Heroes,” society’s stupidity to super-size talented individuals comes to the fore.
“At the end of the day, I’ve always been a very extreme person doing his best to find real art. And the pent-up frustration of finding that comes through on the record. It’s hard to rise up and get a piece of the pie. There’s a lot of madness in the world. ‘People’ reflects the fact you grow up thinking everything’s black and white only to find it’s blue, gray and all these other colors,” he says.
Glossy suite-like stop-and-start shuffle “Guilty Filthy Soul” quite effectively blends a spectral kaleidoscope of tonal colors, diving into what he explains is the “Prince-led Radiohead deep end before swimming out of a swerved bridge.” Co-written by a fellow surf-riding musician, studio guitarist Jimmy Messer (who also sings backup on earnest piano ballad “All I Need” and worked with several teen sensations in association with Rock Mafia) gave it a resounding approval when the finished results were heard.
Resplendent sunshiny strut “Wake Up” reinvigorates Queen’s gleaming call-and-response kitsch, bringing Bruno’s “Last Of The Mohicans” groove to a testosterone-fueled metallic funk scamper with an oversized rhythmic breakdown. Just as powerful though not as assertively inclined, mammoth apocalyptic dance epic “Knights Of Shame” co-mingles Murray Head’s mystical novelty “One Night In Bangkok” with a snappy party-down rap jaunt and temporal Manchester-related lockstep beat in an ‘80s-derived apocalyptic dance for the end of time.
It’s a rebel’s heart that most definitely stimulates Bruno’s musical passion. He stood up for his art against negligent label politicking in the past, even if it cost him some precocious fame or fortune. He can’t stand moronic reality TV icons. Nor does he tolerate ignorant politicians. Plus, he encourages people not to believe anything they see or hear on TV, for that matter. And for those keeping score, he loves Neil Young’s Harvest for its honest vulnerability.
When he advocates for everyone to “Jump On My Shoulders,” the sentiment couldn’t be any clearer. He’s gonna take the cooler mainstream listeners for a ride that’ll land AWOLNATION bigger gigs just like headlining former tour mates MGMT and Weezer. Word is ex-Blind Melon guitarist Christopher Thorn, a big fan, will join Bruno and company for the upcoming tour.
Throughout his inaugural megalithic opus, Bruno rewards listeners with a persistent variety of well-crafted mantras, chants and entreaties, coming up spades time and time again. Best of all, the cleverly masqueraded pissy lyrics contrast perfectly against both the peppier upward mood swings and up-tempo polyurethaned production.
Before heading to Zuma Beach to catch some tasty waves, Bruno concludes, “I was studying megalithic structures like Stonehenge and the pyramids and thought it was appropriate to this group of songs. They’re the best I had to offer, but came together many different ways.”
Catch AWOLNATION at The Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday, July 13. More info at awolnationmusic.com.