AWOLNATION architect Aaron Bruno had some pretty lofty goals when it came time to make the band’s as-yet-untitled third album. “This record I really wanted to make a rock n’ roll/pop album,” he tells Billboard. “And I say pop how we grew up listening to that in the sense of Dire Straits or Born In The U.S.A. or the Cars or Tom Petty or something like that. I felt like this was my opportunity do something like that because I haven’t heard something quite like that in a long time. So I said, ‘I’m gonna make Born In The U.S.A. 2017, AWOLNATION style.’”
Listen to the first single off the album, “Passion,” below. A fast-paced up-tempo rocker, the song gives an introduction to the album, which Bruno made in his home studio at his Malibu, California retreat.
Billboard met him there, a place so removed from the L.A. scene Bruno says only three restaurants will deliver up there. During our hour-long visit he talked about the massive success of “Sail,” how the new album reflects his nature retreat and why this isn’t a political album.
Have you ever had a studio in the house before?
No, this is the first time. I am a homebody, I like being home. And it worked, that was the cool thing. You have this grand idea and who knows if it’s going to work out. The first day we recorded it actually sounded good. And the record definitely has a feel to it that seems parallel to the vibe of this mountain and the land in a lot of ways.
Did you notice right away the songs were reflecting the land or did that take time to emerge?
I’ve never been a city guy. On the first record and after my whole career was in shambles after the first couple of bands I was in I needed to live out there and go out every night and socially network to get the right people to hear my music or develop the right relationships and schmooze a little bit. I think every artist has to go through a bit of a phase. I did that on the first record when I was just broke and in debt and stuff. So I did that, survived it, thank god, a lot of drugs and shit all around. And some of our friends didn’t survive it, lost a couple along the way, heavy stuff. That was a different time, 2009, ’10 when I was developing the genesis of AWOLNATION, and different time musically. Rock was dead, people were looking for a new sound and the first record was a little bit of a new sound. It was definitely different than what was going on and it blew up. Still today I hear songs that sound clearly like “Sail.” Then the second record was part two in a lot of ways. It was an emotionally difficult album for me. It was really weird to make something anticipated, it was terrifying. And those are the kind of records I like a lot. I like darker albums, sophomore weird, go-for-it albums, like Pinkerton is one of my favorite albums. To this day I’ve talked to Rivers [Cuomo] about it a bunch of times and he still feels weird about that record, even though for some of us, it’s our favorite Weezer record. So I’d like to think Run was my Pinkerton in a weird way, although it did pretty good. It did better than I thought it would.
It’s normal though as many artists have issues with their second album. You have all the time in the world to write your first album and then after it’s a hit you have almost no time for the second record.
I just didn’t know what to write about or say anymore cause I was always writing about the underdog story and feelings of alienation and depression, all the stuff we all deal with. So then the second record I was like, “Now, what do I talk about? I can’t be the boy who cried wolf when everything is going well.” So moving along to this third record, somewhere near the end of the last tour I was like, “Fuck, everybody can make electronic music now. If you turn on the radio you’re gonna hear not much guitar, although some people are flirting with it again.” So this record I really wanted to make a rock n’ roll/pop album. And I say pop how we grew up listening to that in the sense of Dire Straits or Born In The U.S.A. or the Cars or Tom Petty or something like that. I felt like this was my opportunity do something like that because I haven’t heard something quite like that in a long time. So I said, “I’m gonna make Born In The U.S.A. 2017 AWOLNATION style.” Of course I never think I can accomplish that but you have to start with some sort of dream. So that’s what I went for and I feel like it’s an evolution and superior to anything I’ve ever even come close to making before. It’s like a non-GMO record. There’s no fake shit on there, none of the vocals are tuned, which I can’t say that about many songs I hear. It’s all real playing.
What was it about Born In The U.S.A. in particular that stood out to you?
It’s a strange time to be an American to say the least. You don’t know what to say or feel. But what I loved about Born In The U.S.A., I was young enough to not know about the evils of war and the power of money and all the stuff that makes our world pretty evil. I didn’t even realize Born In The U.S.A. was a beautiful political statement, I thought it was pro-American songs, just like a lot of people were confused and thought as such. So what I wanted to do was make an album that felt like the dream of America that isn’t necessarily true, certainly not as much as it once was. Or maybe it never has been, but the idea of good old-fashioned baseball. When you listen to that record you just feel this nostalgic sentiment of a fucking high school reunion or that girl you fell in love with that you never got to talk to in junior high and the feeling of unity in a weird way and anthemic songs. The spirit of what I thought it was is what inspired me in a lot of ways.
Do you worry that could be misinterpreted the same way Ronald Reagan misinterpreted Born In The U.S.A.?
Let me be clear, there are no political comments on the album. It’s not a political album at all, I’m just talking more about the feeling of believing in rock n’ roll and the spirit that popular music can be. It’s not trying to make any statements, I’m just tossing out how I feel, telling a couple of stories. As fucked as everything seems there are still some great people that live here. The last thing I want to do is go in a political direction, but that album, Born In The U.S.A., is just smash after smash. Not all of them were radio songs, but they feel like them, every song that comes on.
Tell us about “Passion.”
I find recently I’ve been looking for something passionate musically that I haven’t found, so I wrote a song called “Passion,” that’s the first single. “Passion” would be one of the anthem moments.