Aaron Bruno had major success with Megalithic Symphony, his first album under the band name Awolnation.
That 2011 release spent 111 weeks on the Billboard magazine Top 200 album chart and its hit single, “Sail,” hit nearly six million in sales while becoming the second longest-charting song on Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 singles chart.
But even though he felt he had proven himself with Megalithic Symphony, Bruno still felt he had some doubters to deal with when he went to work on the follow-up Awolnation album, Run.
“I’ve always worked best when I’ve had sort of an imaginary or sometimes real enemy, almost,” Bruno said in a recent phone interview. “Music to me is rebellious and has always been a flag to carry for some sort of cause. And that could be just socially, that could be politically. That could be on a relationship basis, and all of the above. So for me, I kind of knew that there were going to be a lot of people who didn’t think I could possibly repeat the same kind of success. So that was a fun little chip on my shoulder that I got to tap into.
“There are plenty of critics that overlooked the first record,” he added. “They didn’t know that it even happened. Then all of a sudden ‘Sail’ was this massive success, so of course they were going to want to hate on me and say OK, this guy can’t do this again.”
Bruno, though, took his success as a license to challenge himself musically, and not only did he believe he could avoid a sophomore slip-up, he could push his music well beyond the musical template created with Megalithic Symphony.
“I think the success of the first record gave me a lot of confidence that people could relate to what a lot of people probably thought was insane in the first record. So it gave me artistic freedom to push myself even further after seeing what really translated and reacted live, and obviously commercially as well,” Bruno said. “[It] certainly gave me a newfound confidence to make the sophomore freak out record that I’ve always wanted to make. In fact, I’ve been looking forward to having this opportunity my whole career, but it just never happened. When this opportunity presented itself, I was very ready to do it. It was difficult, but a wonderful challenge that I took head on and I’m extremely proud.”
As Bruno’s last comment suggests, he’s not exactly a newcomer to the music business.
In a career that stretches back some 15 years, he had been a key member of two major label bands – Home Town Hero and Under The Influence Of Giants – that seemed positioned to make an impact on the music scene.
It didn’t happen. Home Town Hero, which was signed to the Warner Bros.-affiliated Maverick Records (owned by Madonna), had some modest success with its 2002 self-titled debut, but broke up shortly before the release of its second album, 2004’s Bitch City.
Bruno and Hometown Hero bandmate Drew Stewart then formed Under The Influence Of Giants and landed a deal with Island Records. But the group’s 2006 self-titled debut album stiffed and the band ended.
Bruno began developing the Awolnation sound not long after the demise of Under The Influence Of Giants. A big break came in 2009 when Red Bull Records, which had received a recording of a few of Bruno’s new songs, offered to let him use its Los Angeles studio for free to do further recording. After hearing songs Bruno recorded there, Red Bull signed Bruno (as Awolnation), and he went to work in earnest on Megalithic Symphony, which was released in March 2011.
Like Megalithic Symphony, the Run album was entirely written, played and produced by Bruno working in his home studio. He said he realizes some people may see this as an egotistical – maybe even self-indulgent – way to make music, but he said that’s not what attracts him to working this way in the studio.
“I think the satisfaction comes in efficiency for me, “Bruno said. “It’s that, when I have an idea, I can execute that idea right now instead of having to wait or rely on someone else. I think that’s the most satisfying quality to doing it the way I did, and being able to better myself as a songwriter and producer or whatever it is I’m doing that day and not have to rely on other human beings because, I mean, no one else is ever going to care about a song that you wrote and you’re going to perform as much as you do. I think that’s the main point.”
The music he created on Run retains the heavy keyboard base Megalithic Symphony with new songs like “Windows,” “Woman Woman” (a top 10 single on Billboard’s alternative rock chart) and “I Am” (which went top 5 on that same chart) combining the silky synthesizer/electronic tones, bouncy danceable beats and classic pop hooks that characterized much of the first album. Meanwhile the frenetic “Burn It Down” and “Soul Wars” (from Megalithic Symphony) returns on the new song “Kookseverywhere!!!”
But Run is a more personal lyrically and more involved and quirkier musically than the debut, and several of its songs expand the musical range Bruno showed on Megalithic Symphony. It starts off with a curveball in the title track, a moody, deliberately paced tune that mixes piano and strings with a repeating synthesizer coda before turning heavier and more foreboding, while “Drinking Lightening” mixes a dirge-ish sound with Brian Wilson-esque harmonies and moments of pop brightness.
The taste of punchy rock that first surfaced on the Megalithic Symphony song “Kill Your Heroes” gets pushed even further on the songs “Dreamers” and “Hollow Moon” (Bad Wolf).” That latter track, with its big beat and huge synthesizer riff, topped Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart. At the same time, a few songs, such as the acoustic-centric “Headrest For My Soul” and “Holy Roller” show a more of a gentle, intimate dimension.
For all of its ambition, Run, however, doesn’t have anything quite as audacious as the 15-minute epic disco pop jam, “Knights of Shame,” from Megalithic Symphony. Still, Run is the kind of album that gets richer with repeated listenings.
Bruno said he and his four-piece backing band are giving the music a different feel live as they tour behind Run.
“It’s much heavier and dirtier. It’s just really good,” Bruno said of the live sound. “I didn’t know how it was going to go. But rather than trying to make it sound like the record on stage, we’re trying to make it sound better and more brutal and dirtier and more interactive – and more human. When you make a record, it’s just a time capsule of where you are at that time. Hopefully you get better at playing these songs live, all along keeping in mind that I don’t want to alienate our fans and flip out a song so much that it’s not even familiar to them. I tried to keep what are my favorite elements of the song, the most important parts, and then add new as well.”
If you go:
Indypendence Day with Awolnation and Ludacris
Saturday – Sunday, doors at 2 p.m.
Pan Am Plaza, Downtown Indianapolis
prices vary, all-ages