In the 18th century, much of what people believed about the natural world revolved around folktales and falsities. Thank goodness progressive thinkers like Ben Franklin were around to shock the world with objectivity and reason.
But Franklin’s “discovery” that lightning was a form of electricity rather than a mysterious sign of God’s wrath was borne out of a much more practical need. The inventive founding father was just plain tired of playing “The Liberty Song” on an acoustic six-string.
And while ol’ Ben’s electrifying breakthrough has produced some pretty cool gadgets and gizmos over the years, this 21st century guy’s vote for “Best Thing Since Electrically Sliced Bread” goes to – the envelope please – electro-rock music.
Which happily brings us to Awolnation. Former Home Town Hero and Under the Influence of Giants member Aaron Bruno began A-nation as a creative solo outlet for some of his songs that weren’t a good fit with his other bands. The result was an imaginative fusion of electronic elements, live instrumentation and polished production.
Awolnation released its full-length debut, “Megalithic Symphony,” in 2011 on Red Bull Records, peaking at No. 21 on Billboard’s Rock Albums Chart and No. 16 on Billboard’s Alternative Albums Chart.
The amped-up album featured 15 of Bruno’s innovative tracks, including the band’s first single, “Sail,” which peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Rock Songs Chart and No. 82 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Bruno chatted with me recently about the extraordinary success of the band’s explosive first single. The song’s commercial and critical acclamation even surprised its melodic maker.
“Yeah, it completely surprised me. The thing is, I thought the first song I wrote was gonna sell me billions of records. Because at a young age, I thought that I had a ‘special ability’ to write songs – looking back now very naive, obviously, and probably wrong.”
“I was being knocked around by all these other bands and I lost all confidence of having any success at all. The weirdest thing about it was that it was that song. Other songs would make a lot more sense if they had done better – or sort of opened the door for the LP for people to hear this stuff.”
“A lot of people around us – the people I respected most – would say that ‘Sail’ was gonna be a big thing. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, what are you talking about? There’s absolutely no way.’ So, some people knew, I didn’t. I thought it was a great song and that’s all I can do, make it as cool as possible.”
The song’s appeal has proven to be virtually limitless as “Sail” has been featured in a number of television shows and commercials, including CBS’ “The Good Wife,” A&E’s “Longmire” and commercials for the Fox television show “House.” The smash gained even greater exposure when it was recently featured in the 2012 Summer Olympics’ Opening Ceremonies.
All of which proves that there’s no such thing as too much exposure, a “problem” that Bruno seemed happy to be dealing with. “I just think don’t that I have a song on the record that could be overexposed. I just don’t know if it could be used in a situation where that could happen.”
“Every time ‘Sail’ goes to another place or any of these other songs go to a venue considered a mainstream commercial outlet, be it radio or commercial-like convention, I always feel like it sticks out like a sore thumb. It still sounds like a little bit of an accident, kind of like knocking Mike Tyson out. So when it happens, it feels out of place for me. It doesn’t feel normal or anything like that.”
“I guess when I turned in the record, I really felt like no matter what the usage was for any song, as long it wasn’t some sort of thing that was a complete contradiction to my morals, I felt that I’d be happy with it being in any situation.”
Based on the public’s robust response to the hit single, there are a large number of music fans that consider “Sail” to be the complete song. The Awolnation frontman had his own ideas as to what it is that makes a perfect song.
“You know, you’re asking me this question at a perfect time. I’ve been working on a couple of tunes that just kind of blew out of my mind. A perfect song is timeless. They give love for years to come.”
“It has to be the right lyrics that touch you. And the thing about a perfect song is you think you can compose the lyrics later on. Maybe you fall in love with a song that to you is perfect because of the melody or the overall feeling it gives – the vocal texture, the instrumentation, the groove of it all.”
“Then one day you notice what the guy was saying all along and it could be this profound moment. Or you could notice what it’s about. Or you could look into it during interviews, only to discover that the song has a completely different meaning to you than you had originally thought. That’s another reason I don’t like to tell people what these songs are exactly about because that’s not what music’s about.”
“I don’t really know what makes a perfect song other than just a general feeling that you get. It gives you goose bumps and it makes you want to listen to it. A perfect song makes me excited to wake up in the morning because I know I get to listen to it in my car.”
The band made a major splash with “Megalithic Symphony,” due in large part to the bombastic reaction to “Sail,” just one shining example of the debut album’s genius. And after speaking with Bruno, the method to his musical madness was abundantly clear.
“When I’m on stage, I don’t have complete control of what the other guys are playing in a five piece rock band. But when you’re in the studio – at least the way I operate it – there’s no limits or rules. When I have an idea, I can try it.”
“When you’re live, you have more of a responsibility to put on a show. People paid money to come see you and it’s a lot of pressure. You don’t want to let them down. So even if you don’t feel like playing those songs, you have to keep playing it.”
“And you’d better show people a good time because it’s an incredible thing that they would support you in any way. In the studio, no one’s heard it. It’s like a secret, new best friend you got but no one knows about. That to me is freedom.”
“I feel really fortunate that it took a little bit of time for me to get the music out there. I feel really prepared for this opportunity. You can only control the way you write songs and the way you put out your vision.”
The changing musical landscape has certainly created unique opportunities for Awolnation, especially as it relates to technological changes in distribution and production. Bruno declared, “Well, you know, it pushes people to do better. It seems like there’s a lot more bands. It’s a lot easier to put out music and it’s a lot easier for people to record. Technology has become so ‘user friendly,’ that you have to just go back to the basics of being able to write songs, I suppose.”
“It’s a great thing because more people can make music. But more so now than ever, it puts a high standard and value on a really good, well-crafted song or a whole album – or doing something new or interesting. There’s so much information available, to stand out is harder than ever now.”
“Sometimes I think about what this record would’ve been in 2001 and it’s insane to me. It’s a huge privilege and an honor to be able to write music that anyone cares about at all. So to be paid an extraordinary amount of money – like in the ‘80s and ‘90s – it was probably very undeserving for a lot of artists. Maybe some of the songs weren’t that good.”
“This is a weird way of ‘musical karma’ coming back around and suggesting that it’s not quite as easy as it was to have one hit and explode and sell millions of records and make all this money. It’s not like that anymore. And I’m not even saying that we’re one of those bands. I’m just saying that I think that’s where we’re at now as a musical society.”
“Think about alternative radio five or six years ago – what that sounded like is insane compared to how much better it’s become. There’s a new wave culture of bands that are doing pretty good that are unbelievable. We’ve played with some of them and it’s refreshing to see.”
Consider for just a moment how insane Awolnation will sound five or six years from now. Bruno’s long-term expectations were remarkably unassuming. He simply wanted to be “Alive, really. I do my best to not worry about what’s gonna happen in the future, because I could’ve never predicted this. I just don’t see any point. All you can do is the best you can now. I mean, I don’t see myself ever not being involved in music. I could say that.”
“It’s just what I know best and it’s what I care about. I wasn’t good enough to be a pro surfer (laughing). My only hope is that I breathe, literally. And then hopefully people will breathe with me and follow me along the journey.”
If you’re listening Awolnation fans, just breathe in, breathe out…and enjoy the journey.