Blond-haired, clean-cut Aaron Bruno doesn't look the part of the fans you'd find in The Black Hole at Oakland's O.co Coliseum on Sundays, but the AWOLNATION singer is every bit as passionate about the Raiders as the skulls-and-armor-wearing faithful.
Bruno, 32, said he carves out time wherever he is to watch the Raiders, even if it means making himself the target of verbal abuse by fans of other teams.
"I really enjoy watching a game at home because I say things that people shouldn't hear me ever say and feel emotions that I shouldn't probably ever feel, you know what I mean?" Bruno said in a phone interview last month. "And I don't know if people should see that side of me."
Bruno said his "main jam besides music is surfing," and his band continues to ride the wave of success from their alternative radio hit, "Sail." The single is No. 8 on USA Today's alternative airplay chart compiled by Mediabase, No. 6 on Billboard's Heatseekers Songs chart, No. 11 on Billboard's Rock Songs chart and No. 7 on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart.
He credits his half-brother, Vince Bruno, who played linebacker at Western Illinois University and University of the Pacific, for introducing him to "hip-hop music and punk rock music and all the stuff that kinda shaped what I've become as a songwriter." Those diverse influences converge in AWOLNATION's mixture of electronic music blended with hip-hop, R&B, dance, pop and rock on AWOLNATION's debut album that came out earlier this year. "Megalithic Symphony" (iTunes | Amazon) is No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers Albums chart (top-selling albums by new or developing acts), No. 18 on Billboard's Alternative Albums chart and No. 28 on Billboard's Rock albums chart.
Bruno grew up in the Thousand Oaks, Calif., area and developed a passion for the Raiders when they were located in Los Angeles. Although his participation in team sports such as football and baseball gave way to surfing and music, Bruno never abandoned his fixation on the Raiders.
Formerly in bands Under the Influence of Giants and Home Town Hero, Bruno said AWOLNATION has no purposeful connection to Raiders Nation in its name nor in any of its songs. Whether it's the cheerleaders in the "Burn It Down" video or "Blame it on the A.D.D., baby" sounding a bit like Al Davis' mantra, "Just win, baby," maybe some subconscious football connections are going on here.
The Life spoke with Bruno just before the NFL season, when the singer sounded off on Oakland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and sounded more prescient with comments on the Denver Broncos: "I think they're making a big mistake by not just giving the keys to Tim Tebow" and recently deceased Raiders owner Davis, "I'm not really a hater on Al Davis like everybody else is. I pray that he has one last hurrah before he dies."
As Tebow gets the keys for his first start this weekend against the Miami Dolphins and the 4-2 Raiders keep working on that last hurrah in honor of Davis, maybe newly acquired quarterback Carson Palmer can keep Oakland rolling to the tune of AWOLNATION's "I'm On Fire."
The Life: So was it the L.A. Raiders that you first grew to like?
Bruno: I was a Bears fan originally and I loved Walter Payton and The Fridge [William Perry] and their whole defense and everything. To me maybe Walter Payton is the best football player to ever live, in my humble opinion. I have his videos and at that time, I loved music and everything, but I thought my lot in life was to follow the sports world.
My dad was a pretty good athlete, so I was into Pop Warner football, and I was pretty big at the time. But I feel like at fourth grade I was the same size I am now somehow, you know. I hit my growth spurt early so I just dominated everybody, and then sometime around ninth grade is when everybody started getting way stronger and I'm like, "Whoa, this maybe isn't for me."
And plus all the different social groups kinda started to part ways and I just felt like the jocks weren't my scene really. I was into surfing and music and stuff, but anyway. … So, yeah I was playing Pop Warner and I loved the Bears. I'm pretty sure I was Walter Payton for Halloween. Then I went to a Bears-Raiders game at the L.A. Coliseum and I just fell in love with the silver and black.
And I also discovered NWA and the hip-hop culture, which hadn't hit the mainstream at all yet. But my older brother kinda had hit me to that around the same time I saw this Bears-Raiders game, and from that moment on I was a Raiders fan and I have been pretty much miserable ever since.
The Life: That NWA link to the Raiders is a big music and sports connection.
Bruno: The uniforms are just the best uniforms in all of sports. I know every Raiders fan thinks that but I also feel like there are so many non-Raider fans that also agree with that as well, where that wouldn't be the case with other teams.
People hate the Raiders so much, that's the thing. And that's the reason I like them is any time I go into a sports bar if we're on tour and I have to catch a game or whatever and they're like, "Who are you rooting for?" I'm like, "The Raiders, man." And then, boom, it's just like 15 people just ripping on me, hating on me, and I always hold my own because we have three Super Bowls at the end of the day.
Some guy will be talking s--- because he's an Arizona Cardinals fan and they just went to the Super Bowl recently, but they don't have anything, you know. So I just try to hold my own. I'm not really a hater on Al Davis like everybody else is. … Of course some of the decisions he's made have been extremely frustrating as a fan and very confusing, but he's sort of an easy target, but he made the Raiders what they are so I can't bash on him.
But I can bash on some of his draft picks, in particular obviously, JaMarcus Russell; there's no reason to even talk about that it's so despicable. … I watched every game last season. I haven't missed a game in years, with the exception of turning off a couple of JaMarcus Russell games. But Darrius Heyward-Bey is the second-biggest bust that I remember as a Raiders fan, not too far under JaMarcus Russell in my opinion.
I can't believe that on the depth chart, as I study it, that he's the No. 1 receiver. It's like it's really embarrassing, hopefully after the first two games the powers that be will realize that. Because we've got a lot of great new guys. …
And then this guy Derek Hagan is incredible. Denarius Moore, I think is amazing. Of course, Jacoby Ford was great last year. Chaz Schilens to me hasn't really proved to be worth anything. There's all this hype on him, but I think he's better than Heyward-Bey. And Louis Murphy, he plays with some heart sometimes, but I've seen him drop some incredibly easy catches. And I've seen him do the whole T-rex arm thing when he goes up to catch passes.
The Life: Dinosaur arms or alligator arms?
Bruno: Yeah, he kinda does that sometimes. And then O-line I was really worried about, but they actually looked better than I thought, surprisingly. Stefen Wisniewski, he was tough and kind of nasty, which I didn't expect; obviously his father's on staff.
The Life: How about their star, Darren McFadden?
Bruno: He's been hurt a couple times, so I'm excited we have Michael Bush, who is playing really good and had a great season last year. I'm really excited about this Taiwan Jones kid. But Darren McFadden obviously is sort of like our bread and butter and hopefully he has another great season. …
I mean, talk about frustration. Last year going 8-8 and going undefeated in our division was basically like winning the Super Bowl for a Raiders fan, because we got to knock out San Diego from the playoffs and Kansas City was just kind of like a fluke, I felt. If I'm afraid of anybody in the division this year, it's really San Diego. Philip Rivers is so annoying; he's so good, but he's so annoying.
I spend a lot of time [in San Diego] because of surfing down in San Diego and stuff, and they have really annoying fans. The same could be said for Raiders fans -- I mean, pretty much any fan -- you're going to have bad fans in football no matter what. But Raiders fans get probably the worst rap with violence and stuff.
The Life: Was "Burn It Down" your reaction to the Lane Kiffin era?
Bruno: (Laughs.) Funny you should say that because that was another subject I wanted to touch on. Sports is a funny thing. Sports is sort of like a personal thing for me. I don't really incorporate sports too much into music. They're very different. People get alienated by each other within those realms, you know. None of my lyrics have to do with the Raiders or Lane Kiffin being the worst person ever.
We'll see how he does at SC. Karma kind of follows you around, I guess a little bit sometimes. It looks like it's caught up with him.
The Life: I know AWOL originated as a nickname you had because you would disappear from parties, but does the "Nation" part of the name have any link to Raiders Nation?
Bruno: It could have been subliminally in my head. But I didn't physically think of that; I didn't go "I'm Raider Nation, I'm going to make it AWOLNATION." But having grown up being part of the Raider Nation, hearing that a million times, I'm sure it didn't hurt me coming up with that name at all.
The Life: Now almost every sports team has "Nation" tacked onto the end, but it seems like the Raiders were one of the first to coin that.
Bruno: Yeah, they were the first. Nations are pretty strong, you know. Yeah, that's funny.
I can't even tell you; in the whole music game, these radio people I meet and this whole world that we're in, there's not a ton of sports fans in this industry. Generally most of America loves football, but when you get into sort of the more hard-core music industry kind of folks, some of them love sports just like anyone else, but you'd be surprised [some] wouldn't even think about Raider Nation and AWOLNATION. I'm surprised more people haven't asked me about that.
The Life: The Raiders and their fans have had a badass connection, even though the team hasn't been as strong. Do you still feel that backlash when you go out to watch them?
Bruno: I'm not one of those fans who wears paint on my face or wears a Raiders shirt or anything like that. I'm just a normal dude who just happens to love the Raiders. People are always shocked because if you were meeting me you just never think that I would be a Raiders fan or probably even a football fan at all for that matter. It's just one of those things, you know.
The Life: So you played football until about ninth grade?
Bruno: Yeah, I played up until ninth grade. My heart wasn't in it at that point anymore. I had started a couple little bands and the whole social situation between the jocks and the surfers and the punk rock kids, at least that's how it was when I was a kid; there was a lot of division and different groups, unfortunately. I mean, hopefully times have changed a little bit, but at that time summer came around and the waves were starting to get good but yet I was supposed to be at hell week, two-a-day practices, and I just wasn't feeling that.
The Life: Yeah, right. Tough choice.
Bruno: It's a huge commitment to play football. Especially to play football and know that you're not going to get a scholarship based off it or go on to make a living off it. You're investing a fantasy in it, I guess, you know what I mean?
I know plenty of guys who played high school football and committed their whole summers to it and stuff and they look back now and they're like, "Why did I do that? Why was I even doing that?" Some people do it for the social aspect of things, and I'm glad I played. Baseball and football were the two sports -- I was probably best at baseball, if anything.
I'm glad, sort of, I did that whole thing and was part of team sports and pushing my body at a young age when you're uncomfortable and stuff and learning discipline and all that stuff because had I not, I don't know where else I would have got those lessons from. I'm sure that it has something to do with the way I go about the band and leadership and teamwork because when you're in a band it's a team effort for sure. So I'm grateful to have kind of gone through that thing and have coaches scream at me and have to do gassers and all that stuff. I would never want to do that again, obviously, but at the time I think it was definitely a valuable lesson for me.
The Life: When you talk about learning leadership, you're not that type of a leader in your group, the screaming football coach?
Bruno: No, definitely not. There's no reason for that. I always find that leading with example is the best way to go about stuff. People are people, they're gonna do what they want to do regardless. You can't really change people; all you can do is try to set examples and do the best you can.
The Life: I think I saw a quote of yours how surfing plays into songwriting and the creative process. Do you use it for inspiration?
Bruno: It's not intentional necessarily, but it's just so much what I care about that surfing is a very rhythmic physical activity. So a lot of the stuff that you do with surfing has to do with timing, has to do with studying the different weather patterns, the different swell directions, the tide, the wind and so forth and so on. So a lot of energy is spent studying and preparing for that stuff, and when I actually do get to surf good waves, the genesis of some of these songs that I come up with are sparks in my head that happened while driving to search for the surf or when I'm actually in the water surfing. I'll have an idea, I'm like, "S---, should I just paddle in and record this onto my phone so I don't forget it or should I just remember it?" And if the waves are good I'm like, "Well, I'll just remember it hopefully." And then later that night it'll come back to me.
But I never sit down and go, "I'm going to write a song today." It doesn't really work that way. I just kind of do what I do throughout each day, and when my brain wants a song to be written it sort of just comes to me. And it just so happens that surfing and everything that I put into surfing from my soul is in parallel to the way I go about writing songs. It seem like when I'm getting really good waves, I write really good songs and so forth and so on. And when I'm depressed on tour about being away from the ocean, I find that I'll come up with a really good sort-of sad song as well. So it works both ways, but yeah, surfing and the ocean is probably the most important thing for me in the world besides my family and loved ones and music.
The Life: Yeah, therapeutic and creative at the same time.
Bruno: And unfortunately third place would probably be the Raiders. Part of the thing about loving them so much is it's so punk rock to like them because I can't even tell you how much I get harassed for liking them. We went to London last year when the Raiders played the Seahawks -- and we beat the Seahawks and Darren McFadden had a huge game. And the second I got there I figured out where they'd be showing American football. And I found this bar and I went in there -- I had a mustache at the time, which I felt really good about -- and I went in there and I was the only Raider fan out of the 400 people there in this bar. There were a lot of Americans there, obviously, but there were a lot of British folks and they love the Patriots over there because of New England Patriots, right? It's so cheesy. It seemed like there were a lot of Patriots fans. It doesn't hurt when you've got Tom Brady, too, I'm sure.
So people were just ripping on me; there were some Seattle fans in there and, of course, we won and I held my own. I felt like I was screaming at 400 people the whole time. It was a great time, it was a great time. I was all by myself; my band didn't get there until the following day. I had to go a day early to do press, which I was devastated about because I thought I'd miss the game. I was jet-lagged, I set my alarm, got over there. I think the game was on about 10 o'clock at night, if I'm not mistaken, which is a weird time to watch a 1 o'clock game. And man, that was a good time for sure.
The Life: What are some of your favorite places to surf?
Bruno: My favorite places to surf are sort of like secret spots that take a lot of searching to find and a lot of timing and a lot of the stars aligning for the right friend to call you and invite you to this kind of place that has access to it. Basically undisclosed locations north of Ventura [Calif.]. But as far as normal civilian spots that anyone can surf anywhere from Zuma [Beach] all the way as north to Rincon and everywhere in between. I don't have like one spot in particular. Although I did learn how to surf at Leo Carrillo, that was the spot that I really learned how to stand up and catch waves and paddle battle other people and all that stuff.
The Life: So who is your favorite baseball team?
Bruno: Oh, the Dodgers. Growing up here, I was lucky enough to be at the Kirk Gibson World Series home run game [Game 1 versus the Oakland Athletics in 1988].
The Life: You were at that game?
Bruno: Yeah, I was at that. In the nosebleeds, left field, not directly in the outfield left-field [bleachers], not the cheap seats in the home run area but above, way above third base basically at the very, very top corner. I must have been in third grade at that time; my family almost left because we thought the game was over, and then when he was going to come up to bat we sat back down. I've never experienced anything like that and I don't know if I ever will. That was just a radical eruption of pandemonium I've ever felt. It was just the coolest thing ever.
And there was an A's fan -- you remember the A's whole image at the time, the Bash Brothers, the mustache and badass stuff. … There was a wannabe Jose Canseco fan, right? He looked just like him. And I remember being young and kind of intimidated by the guy. He was talking s---, he was drinking beer, throwing stuff, talking s--- to all the different Dodgers fans, and my mom was there and my little sister so I just felt kinda strange and scared. And the second [Gibson] hit the home run people threw so much of their trash at this guy that he fell down the stairs, somersaulted down the stairs, and everybody cheered even more. He didn't get hurt or anything, it was like out of a comedy, you know. It was great.
The Life: Between all the sports, who are your favorite athletes of all time? You mentioned Walter Payton.
Bruno: Bo Jackson was my favorite NFL player of all time, and it's just such a shame that we didn't get to see how great he would have been. Obviously, Walter Payton; I loved Barry Sanders. … I loved Nolan Ryan. I was a pitcher as a kid. And I loved Orel Hershiser; he had that book, I think it was called "Out Of The Blue," and that was like one of the only books I ever really read when I was young, you know. Before I realized that reading could actually be beneficial for me.
My claim to fame was I did have an 18-strikeout game in seventh grade and there were only seven innings, so it was close to perfection.
Jim Wilkie is the editor of The Life and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.