Just after Aaron told us to just hang out on AWOL's tour bus.
We had the very good fortune of sitting with Aaron Bruno of AWOLNATION on May 4, 2013, for an in-depth interview. It’s one that fans of Aaron and AWOLNATION will certainly appreciate, for his candid answers, and also the ease of conversation, which actually does show through in written form. We hope you enjoy this as much as we enjoyed our time with Aaron, and we’ll give a spoiler alert: The last thing Aaron said to us was, “Hang out here as long as you want, drink some beers or anything else; only the whiskey is off limits.”
Jeff Schad: I want to get the obvious question out of the way first, and I know you have heard it dozens of times before, but what was it like when you dropped “Sail” on the public? Your song became a widespread hit–that’s incredible!
Aaron bringing the energy during AWOLNATION's live performance at the DC101 Chili Cook Off, 2013
Aaron Bruno: There was never a distinct moment where we said ‘Okay, we’re going for “Sail”.’ It was more of an accident–I had several songs recorded for the record, and certainly I thought that it would be a different song, if there was going to be a song at all that would ever be a commercial success. I don’t know, I mean I think we tried to have “Burn It Down” as a single and it didn’t really react when it was played on the radio the few times it was tested. Which I was lucky and grateful that it even got tested at all, you know? And then a programmer by the name of Toby Ryan, he decided, “I think that song “Sail”, I think I’m going to play it, do you mind?” And we’re like of course, play it. Because we are lucky enough to be friends with this radio guy from Austin, TX, [radio station] KROX, they played “Sail” and the phones lit up, and I didn’t expect that to happen, obviously, and it’s still going now as we speak, two years later. It’s a crazy thing. It’s almost at three million [copies sold] and it’s gone four-times platinum in Canada and Norway and a bunch of other countries.
JS: What does that feel like when you get that news? You don’t expect it, and it’s not your goal, so what is that like?
AB: You know it’s headed in that direction, because a lot of numbers equals a million right? So when you get to 100,000 your like ‘Holy shit, maybe it will go gold! Maybe it will go to 200,000.’ I always thought that if I had a record that sold 100,000 copies, I did it, you know I mean? I did it. Like a full record, not just a single, you know? I always thought a single would be great to sell 100,000 copies of. I mean, I don’t even know what these numbers mean anymore, I just know that uh… I just wanted to be able to sell out small venues, anywhere from 200 to maybe 500 or 600 [capacity] if we were lucky, and has ended up being a much bigger thing.When I was younger though, I would have told you that we were going to take over the world, sell millions of records, because I was just completely naïve and ignorant to the world.
JS: You can do anything…
AB: Yeah. 21 years old, you get your first record deal, of course you want all the fame and fortune. And then at a certain point, when it all failed for me, it became really truly about expressing myself through the music and nothing to do with the fame or fortune or anything like that. In fact, you know the fame side of it has been the thing that I have struggled with the most. It’s been the most uncomfortable part about it. I embrace it because it means that the music is translating to people and people are actually affected in such a positive way. So I would like to think that I have made my mark in this world by helping people get through the day with a song, that can be “Sail”, that can be any song on the record. And I meet folks that get tattoos with the lyrics, and stuff like that.
JS: That has to be a crazy feeling.
AB: It’s a little bit scary because you’re like, “Okay, well, man I have a lot of pressure to make sure the next record is good, because you have a tattoo of my words. My thoughts are on you forever.” And I’m also thinking, “I hope you still like this thirty years from now.” Your kids go, “What in the hell is that?” So, to answer your question, it was such gradual growth, and it still blows my mind that people know us at all.
JS: That song to me, and this is just the spirit the comes to me as a surfer… I just picture you writing that on some gloomy, big day, and some gnarly beach break. And that’s where it takes me to.
AB: To me, that one has that feel to it. It has a strong, one of those winter days that is a light drizzle, but offshore winds to go with it. Which back home is usually like an East-Southeast wind that goes along with rain. You know, there are those certain breaks that take are better than others that day. For some weird reason, the Santa Monica area takes the Southeast wind very, very good when it’s rainy conditions, which Santa Monica is terrible for surfing. It fucking blows.
JS: I’ve been there, yeah.
AB: I mean, sometimes at the breakwater in Venice… I have seen that go off.
JS: Yeah, sessions here and there.
AB: And the locals are so intense, that at this point in my life, after touring and being around human beings coming at me all the time, I really want peace of mind when I go surfing. So if I’m lucky enough to get the phone call from one of my best buddies to say, “Hey, let’s go to this one spot that no one’s around,” then I jump at that opportunity. In fact, I swear, if I was about to get married or have a kid and I was told that “Hey, we’re going to go to the spot,” I would probably go to the spot. I can just figure out the rest later, you know? If we were going to play on the Grammys, I wouldn’t show up to the Grammys to surf this spot. And I mean that. I really mean it. So, hopefully he doesn’t ask me if we ever get a Grammy nod.
JS: I nearly missed my sister’s wedding because I was surfing, you know? Those types of things happen when it’s the day.
AB: That’s why I didn’t go to college. I was sitting, and I remember paying for these little classes or whatever, and trying to start the whole process of it, and I was sitting there thinking, “Okay, well, I know the waves are good right now, so I’m going to leave.” And I just left. Because there was no one telling me I couldn’t, so I just did.
JS: You have to go surf!
AB: And, I failed. I still have these weird nightmares now, that it made me feel like I’m not going to graduate high school or something. It’s like I have unfinished business with school or something.
JS: That’s interesting.
AB: Yeah, I know – it’s a reoccurring dream. It always happens around “Oh, I’m going to graduate” and then…
JS: “I’m out! It’s okay.”
AB: Yeah. (Chuckles)
JS: So I’m particularly interested in the connection that music and surfing have to you, and that follows in from talking about surfing already. I found surfing connects me to my passions in life deeply, and that there are always parallels to be drawn, and things to draw from surfing into what you do that you love. So it’s like you are able to find those clear, as well as abstract thoughts of moments in the water. What does surfing and music mean to you – that connection?
AB: They are almost the same to me. I couldn’t tell you which one I like more. Right now, sometimes I wonder if it’s surfing, because music has become a little bit of a profession, a major profession for me. Sometimes you have to do stuff you don’t want to do. You have to fly, or just like any job there is ups and downs. Or just being tired. Coming back from a seven week tour, that was very grueling for us, but I understand music so well, and I feel like it runs through my veins. With surfing, I’m not as natural at. It took a lot of work to get to be able to come out of a barrel.
JS: The layman has no idea.
AB: I started surfing at 13. My first true barrel, really, I mean I had a couple pocket rides, but really when I was like, “Am I going to come out of this? Ahh ahh….(swish, sound effect)”, I came out at Pitas Point North of C Street, south of Rincon and little Rincon, which has become way too crowded. I think I was 22 years old. It’s crazy that it took that long. But I was one of those slow learners. I got up in three steps for ever, and never would go left on my regular foot. I would never go left because it took me way too long to get up. And I surfed this spot called Leo Carillo way too much. It was such an easy, simple wave… Sometimes I look back and go, “Man, I wish I wouldn’t have surfed that spot so much,” because I got really good at carving and doing cutbacks, but nothing else, because the wave kind of runs away from you, so you’re constantly…
JS: Bending away, trying to find a hook?
AB: Yes. It’s just an easy wave.
JS: It’s not bending back at you.
AB: And there are assholes out there all the time, just in my way, and it’s interesting now because I grew up with this generation. We were like the next breed, and now there are like two more breeds after us, and I thought, “Oh, I’m that old kook.”
JS: I know. That’s the shocking thing to me.
AB: You know, I will paddle on my 9’6″ Lance Carson, which is a rare, beautiful item that I will keep in my family forever. So if it’s not barreling, I pretty much kind of longboard now. I’m on that level where I just love to…
JS: Go out, cruise, have fun.
AB: Not trying to get radical all the time, you know what I mean? You got to get radical when you click.
JS: Talking about localism and spots – Lunada Bay. You ever surfed it?
JS: That is one of those spots I think, if there is no reason to go there, you don’t go there.
JS: All right. I want to ask you about your spots, as we talked about, but what experience do you prefer – surfing it at home, now that we know you don’t surf on tour as much, surfing on the road?
AB: When the beach break lines up with the right swell, and the offshore conditions are tubing, there are a bunch of spots. There is really, like, four or five really incredible beach breaks. Well, six. One is private and you have to have like a military identification.
JS: I know exactly where it is.
AB: My brother in law is a civilian that works on the spot. So, every once in a while, the stars align, and he can get me in. But he has to drive me in.
JS: They do a contest, or they did a contest there?
AB: Yeah, you know the drill. But that is a difficult thing to regular foot.
JS: That’s gnarly.
AB: It’s like the Wedge, but a better wave for surfing. The Wedge is legendary, but this is more like a wave you can surf.
JS: Yeah, it’s more surfable for sure. But it’s a left mostly, right?
AB: It’s a left mostly, but in the wintertime, on a negative tide, the right breaks off a point, and I can do whatever I want. I have never surfed it. Actually, I did surf it one time. But it was small. It was one of those weird forcing it kind of things. I saw one maybe.
JS: Novelty session.
AB: Yeah, novelty session. Novelty sessions are what it’s all about. Sometimes, it the best when it’s just you and your buddy, and you feel like you are doing something special, but then you realize that you surf knee high slop for an hour and nothing happened. It never turned on.
JS: It’s that experience though. Like, “Hey, we got to catch it.”
AB: It is. I would rather surf close out barrels with my friends and pick my own peak than a good day at Rincon, or something like that.
JS: I’m the same way.We had a hurricane swell here once , when I was in New York. The swell pushed into an inlet and created this nice wrapping, kind of point break. I had never seen it before or since, but I caught it that day. It was four feet, it wasn’t anything great, but it was cool.
AB: And then there are those days you regret where you actually saw something that looked incredible, and you didn’t paddle out because you thought, “Maybe a different spot was better,” and you always go, “I wish I had done that.”
JS: Should have gone out there.
AB: This semi pro surfer that I grew up surfing with, he was older, like fifteen years older than me. But when I first started surfing, he was…
JS: What’s his name?
AB: His name is Dave White. He’s a realtor now. His daughter plays softball with my sister, and I met him and I was like “Please take me!” And he took me to a couple spots. Ones where he said “Never leave good surf to find better surf.” I have broken that rule a million times, by the way. It’s a good rule to live by, but I suppose you could be more mellow if you just live by that. I will spend five hours before I decide to paddle out, just driving around.
JS: Going here and there, and checking it all out.
AB: Yeah, it’s a sickness for sure. But I think of so much along the drive, and I listen to new songs I’m working on in the car, or whatever, and I do some of my best thinking when I am in the process of trying to figure it out.
JS: As is now, I usually drive two or three hours to surf, so I know what you mean. That is crucial time.
AB: It is.
JS: The lyrics, “live in the water, stay in the water, scared of the city” – that resonates to me. Having surfed in Los Angeles, having grown up in New York, surfed in Long Island. I know that feeling that I get from it, does that represent surfing as a respite to you, those lyrics? Or is it something else?
AB: It can, but it’s also a metaphor for life. You know what I mean? The night life, the city life, the glamour, in bright lights, and all the stuff that doesn’t really have longevity, soul, and life, I guess that is what it’s about. It’s my way of staying stay true to yourself and not get caught up with the stuff that doesn’t matter. The superficial and fraudulence of life.
JS: Last question here. Read in previous interviews, how do you feel about your relationship with your family and how much it means to you? How do your parents feel seeing you now? How do they see your howling success, and your touring the world? What is their feeling?
AB: They are so proud that it’s almost hard to talk to them sometimes. My mom just oozes with excitement and they are pretty emotional at this point. My dad, he just saw us in Dallas, we played this festival in Dallas, and it was pretty high up, very similar to this. It was in a stadium, and I can’t guess how many people were there, it was in the 20’s(thousands). And of course, he got emotional when we played certain songs. If anything, it’s a great feeling to make them proud and not feel like a failure. I was starting to feel like a failure leading up to this. Getting a little bit older, and you’re not a kid any more. I had an agreement with my father that I really believed in what I was doing, and I thought I could find a career out of it. When none of that happened, we had a man to man talk and talked about what I was going to do. And that’s when I started trying to figure out other stuff. I wrote a script for a show, that actually there was some interest in from legitimate people, but they backed out.
JS: That’s cool; yeah Hollywood is kind of funny.
AB: I was also writing songs for other people, all along, having these ideas in a way that I wanted to express myself genuinely Yeah, they are extremely proud. I’m mostly proud for them more than I am for myself.
JS: Giving you support, backing.
AB: It would just be a heavy burden, a heavy weight to bear having a child fail at life.
JS: It’s an interesting perspective.
AB: I didn’t want my father to feel like he failed me by not being a better dad, because I didn’t make it. So, if nothing else, I am very happy that he realizes that he has taught me all the right things to get where I’m at.