Headed to town as the opening act for Prophets of Rage Saturday in Tinley Park, I spoke with AWOLNATION frontman Aaron Bruno about performing alongside his heroes, the art of live performance, marketing music in the internet era and more...
Coming of age in the 90s, Aaron Bruno was a fan of artists like Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy. Which made getting the call to open for Prophets of Rage - the new collaboration between Rage Against the Machine (minus vocalist Zack de la Rocha), DJ Lord and Chuck D of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill - that much more surreal.
As a devoted fan of full length albums, Bruno drew upon the influence of artists like Nirvana and Bruce Springsteen to craft songs with a message that have struck a chord, propelling AWOLNATION to platinum album sales in an era where that's become virtually impossible to achieve.
Savvy marketing and placement of his music in film, on television and in video games has made AWOLNATION an unlikely success in the pop music world, crossover success Bruno used to expose fans to a whole new array of sounds on the second AWOLNATION album Run in March of 2015.
Performing in Tinley Park Labor Day weekend as the opening act for Prophets of Rage, I spoke with Aaron Bruno about some of his favorite albums, what he's learned from touring alongside some of his favorite artists and much more. A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows below...
Q. AWOLNATION was handpicked to open the Prophets of Rage tour. What was it like getting that call?
Aaron Bruno: It was a dream come true. Rage is, I think, collectively, one of our favorite bands for sure. And Public Enemy just so happens to be in my top three favorite rap groups of all time – Chuck D being in my top two favorite rappers. So to share the stage with these absolute legends has been such an incredible experience.
When they play their set, it’s just hit after hit after hit. And what I mean by “hit” is, not necessarily radio hits, but it just feels like a hit. They all feel like anthems. And they even throw in other great songs from our childhood. They’re all great songs of rebellion, but with a positive spirit to them. So it’s been great.
I’ve been joining them on stage for a fun moment lately as well. So that’s really cool for me.
And the crowd has been a bit of a challenge. Because of course there’s some AWOL fans but generally it’s a bunch of people that are there to get rocked pretty hard I think. So when we walk out I think they’re like, “Wait a second – prove it.” It’s always fun to get back into that opening, sort of underdog mentality.
Because that’s, I think, what we feel most comfortable doing even though we’ve become a headliner over the last five years mostly.
Q. You’ve obviously fleshed out a strong live show. In an era where fans are filming a band in virtually every single live moment - and are more prone to search for a band on YouTube than they are to buy an album - how important is it to have a strong live set?
AB: I think it’s a little of both. Because, like you said, unfortunately, people can go on YouTube or online and just see a great band play. I think in this day and age people get away with not being as good sometimes. I don’t think there’s as high of a demand for great concerts as there once was. When we were all growing up – before you could check out a concert on YouTube – it meant the world to us to see any sort of concert that was actually good. Now, you can just YouTube “1996” and check out the best Smashing Pumpkins set in Chicago ever. So I’m still really confused about the whole thing in general.
Even Coachella, I remember – our drummer is really good friends with Duff McKagan. And through him, he’s become like an older brother to us. And I remember when Guns N’ Roses played Coachella, I was able to sit in my hotel room and just watch it instead of having to be there. Although that was a lot of fun for me to do of course, selfishly, part of me was sad that I didn’t have to be there to see it. It’s weird.
But I do think that true music lovers, like all of us, appreciate it still the most. And we’re a dying breed.
I think the day and age of album lovers – people who love records from front to end – that’s fading. And it’s really sad. Because I for one am someone who loves to find a record that I can listen to from front to end and go through a journey, like a great book or a great movie. I try to do my best to make that happen on my records and I always search for that in the music I listen to as well.
So, to answer your question, I don’t really know! (Laughs)
Q. You grew up watching some of these artists in the 90s that you’re currently touring with. Obviously, all of these guys, over decades, have really honed the strength of their live set. It’s one element of the fall of the major label system that I’ve actually seen a lot of artists lament: tour support. That opportunity for an artist to go out on the road, play in front of people every single night over the course of years and figure out how to do it without having to worry about figuring out how to pay for it. How difficult is it to hone the art of live performance in today’s music landscape?
AB: Well, I’ve been lucky enough not to need tour support. In the very beginning, the label was helpful because… In all the other bands I was in before AWOL, we definitely needed it because we didn’t have any success at all so we needed all the help we could get. But, luckily, for this project, early on we became – we just didn’t need it any more.
Look… Another thing that’s happened is artists that are playing live these days get away with having a lot of [backing] tracks. So sometimes you’ll go see a band play and you’ll hear vocals coming out of speakers but there’s nobody singing those parts.
I remember this one band was opening up for us and I noticed there was like a ukulele coming out of the speakers that I didn’t see anyone playing. And I thought, “Oh s—t, this is the new way it is I guess. This is bulls—t.” It’s one thing to have a hip hop thing and sample some drums or some parts – that’s cool. There’s an art to that. But to just press play and have harmonies going on or sing-a-long parts through the P.A. just seems like cheating.
And I do think that the listener is smart enough – maybe they don’t always know why that’s whack but they feel it in their soul. Or maybe they’re not touched as much as they would be had real human beings been up there playing. So I think there’s going to be a divide as time goes on.
Having said that, when you see Prophets of Rage what you see is what you get. So it’s great to see those guys throw it down. It sounds so good.
[AWOLNATION] really work hard on extending parts and making sure that we’re switching up each set each night. Or each song could be a little bit better than the night before and certainly more exciting than the record.
Because the record is an idea right? It’s a song that you have. And if people are going to come see it live, and pay their hard earned money, you wanna give them more than just the CD.
It’s an exciting time too because technology is so great but it’s also a sad time.
So I’m one of those crusty, older guys now, I feel like, that could go either way with it. When I listen to my mixes, I still enjoy the way a CD sounds in my car very much. And I know that that’s going to die very soon.
Q. I feel like AWOLNATION is a great example of a band that’s using the tools available to them to actually sell records. By that, I mean shrewd placement of your music in television shows, films, video games and more. You grew up watching artists like Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine who went out of their way to avoid that kind of placement. How hard was it to ultimately wrap your head around the fact that this is the proper way to market and sell your music now?
AB: In a previous band called Home Town Hero that I was in, I still had that mentality – it was carrying over from the 90s a little bit. But by the time that AWOL started to happen, it was kind of just the new wild west. MTV had died, unfortunately, as far as exposing music. People weren’t discovering music from MTV the same way they were when we were kids.
So I had already kind of accepted it. I prayed that it wasn’t going to be an embarrassing sort of commercial – and we’ve been lucky that that hasn’t happened so that’s cool. But I kind of accepted it.
Q. You mentioned your fondness for full albums. Obviously it's an idea that the music industry is continually shifting away from. How important is it to you to express your art via fully realized albums?
AB: I don’t really know any other way. Once I start working on the music, it just feels like it starts to take a form as a body of work and that’s the way it ends up being.
Sometimes I get frustrated with old records because I put my heart and soul into it to make sure every moment mattered. There’s no throw away songs from me. I never know what’s going to be a hit or not or what’s going to be a single or not, I just work on it. I pour everything I have into each song, each moment.
Sometimes I want to say, “Well, f—k. I guess if people aren’t going to listen to whole albums anymore, I may as well just release a song at a time.” So I flirt with that idea sometimes but at the end of the day, I’m always going to try and keep it the way I like it. All I’m ever trying to do is make music that I would love if I heard it, you know?
Q. It really seems like you haven't lost the ability to approach music as a fan. Feeling as strongly about the album as you do, what are some of your all time favorites?
AB: Radiohead OK Computer. Nirvana In Utero (although Nevermind is what started my Nirvana obsession). And then I went backwards into Bleach but I was such a Dave Grohl fan it was hard to stomach the drumming on that record. Even though it’s great, Dave was such a big deal to me.
[The Beatles] Abbey Road, the White Album, Sgt. Pepper's. Of course every Led Zeppelin album.
Prince. Michael Jackson – Thriller and Bad. Bad was a big record to me. I know it’s critically not acclaimed as much but Bad was great to me.
Metallica, Sepultura, Slayer.
Public Enemy, honestly. Rage Against the Machine was huge. The Beastie Boys was massive for me.
And then a bunch of abstract stuff that most people wouldn’t know about or that I could even recall.
But I’ll go through different obsessions with single songs at any given point in time. And I’m a huge fan of 80s and 90s kind of one-hit-wonders that come on and still blow my mind.
I’m just a fan of music in general. Even the music that I don’t like, I find that I learn something from it.
Q. You just referenced the 80s and 90s pop that you grew up on. With the success of "Sail" unexpectedly crossing over into that pop world, how does that influence your songwriting process or your approach to making AWOLNATION music now?
AB: I don’t know if it influences it as much as it kind of proves that I can hang in any world. It does give me a little bit of confidence I think. Whether I like it or not, it does let me know that if lightning strikes the whole world can relate to some of these songs.
And that’s the cool thing I never thought would happen. I thought, at the very least, “Alright, maybe in this alternative genre or on the underground scene or in the independent scene we’ll be able play like 400 seat [venues] across the country and sell those out.”
Because I knew we’d be a great live band. That I always had confidence in. Because I came from the hardcore scene and the punk rock scene so I knew how to put on a good show and throw a bunch of energy down way before I learned how to sing good or write a good song. So I always had confidence in that. And I knew the guys in the band were gonna be killer.
So, when everything happened and became this phenomenon, I guess it sort of reminded me that maybe I did know what I was doing when it comes to songwriting.
Q. The words “positive” and “uplifting” have been used to describe your music. Is it difficult to remain positive in an industry that’s often anything but and how important of an idea is that to you to get across when it comes to making AWOLNATION music?
AB: Well, positivity can come in a lot of different shapes and forms.
Sometimes even speaking about something negative or sad can make you feel better in a lot of ways. So you can literally speak about something positive or, more typically, you can throw out some feelings you have sometimes that maybe you’re not as proud of - or maybe some insecurities for example.
And if people can relate to them and think, “Oh my god, there’s someone saying something I feel but I’m afraid to say it.” Or, “I could relate to that.” I find that that’s usually the most positive outcome.
And of course uplifting songs... Michael Jackson songs are fun to listen to although, if you actually listen to the lyrics, they're pretty dark and heavy, you know?
And that's how I felt about all the music that I loved growing up. So, when I was sad, as a fifteen year old kid so confused about life, I'd find that that's when Radiohead's OK Computer came in handy. "Paranoid Android." Listening to that over and over. Because the feeling that I had, they put together as a song.
Any of these guys that I was listening to, from Radiohead to Rage to Nirvana, I felt like they were my best friends or older brothers or father figures to me.
Q. Well, getting back to the Prophets of Rage tour, obviously social awareness is something that has long characterized the music of Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy - but it seems like it’s a concept that’s harder and harder to find today. Every date on this tour diverts a portion of proceeds to a local charity. Having toured with these guys now for a bit, and seeing the way they handle their business, what kind of an effect has that had on you?
AB: I knew [Prophets of Rage bassist] Tim [Commerford] really well but I didn’t know [Prophets of Rage guitarist] Tom [Morello] yet. And to see how he operates has been pretty inspiring. He’s very, very focused.
In fact, the first show he was like, “Hey Aaron, I’ve got an idea…” And I’m like, “Ok, yes! I’m going to sing like ‘Bullet in the Head’ or ‘Bulls on Parade.’” And he was like, “Let’s do ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ but we’ll do the Bruce [Springsteen] version not the Rage version.” And I’m like, “Oh no. I don’t know that version as well as the Rage version.”
I studied [Springsteen's] Nebraska [album] very much (And I failed to mention that Born in the U.S.A. is up there in my top records). And Nebraska was such a big deal to me (as well as Neil Young’s Harvest). But, for whatever reason, I never studied “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” There’s a slightly strange timing in it. So I was like, “Alright… I don’t know, man. I don’t feel very confident about this…”
But [Tom Morello] has got such a strong voice and he’s so smart and I think he knows how to get what he wants. He just made me feel confident that I could do it! He was like, “I know you’ll be great.” I was like, “I think I’ll be bad at it, I don’t know…” (laughs) And cut to two days later, I was onstage doing it and we did a good job. So it’s been cool to see how he operates. He really knows what he wants and seems to get it done. It’s been really inspiring to see how they operate as a band too. Chuck D and B-Real have been incredible.
Chuck D is a guy I never thought I’d be hanging out with for one. Being a kid from the suburbs in third grade listening to [Public Enemy's] It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and now I’m playing catch with him, it’s blowing my mind. He’s like the sweetest man I’ve ever met. He’s like a nurturing father figure of the tour kind of. He’s just the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. His voice is unbelievable too. His voice is just still the same. It’s so powerful.
When I’m sleeping in the bunk later, I still hear his voice talking to me. It’s great.
- Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
(Details on Saturday's AWOLNATION concert below)
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Saturday, September 3, 2016
Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Tinley Park
Also performing: Prophets of Rage
Tickets: $20 - 69.50
Click HERE to purchase tickets