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It is not a coincidence that the fourth album from AWOLNATION begins like a phoenix rising. The opening track “The Best” sounds like a mission statement. “I just wanna be the best,” sings Aaron Bruno, who is solely responsible for the alt-rock success story that his brainchild became almost ten years ago. As with everything AWOLNATION, the idea behind that sentiment is multi-layered, as open to interpretation in its ideology as it is sonically loose enough to venture into any direction be it stadium rock, soulful pop or ambitious electronica (or all three at once). The song is about paranoia, discussing the anxiety that comes from our culture's constant pressure to be the top in all things: work, social life, self. “I always want to write the best song, or become the best version of myself, and it hit me that it was quite depressing because that's probably never going to happen. I'll probably never be the best at anything,” he says on the phone, from his Malibu home. “When it hit me, it was hilarious to me. I realized that everybody would feel a lot happier if they were happy with trying to be the best at something. That's a pretty cool way to live.” The album that Bruno has been concocting over the past year is his boldest and greatest because it is has been written and created from the most extreme circumstances; the types of circumstances that make you even more appreciative of everything you've got and even more determined to make your chance to be heard a success. In late 2018, the tragic Woolsey fires tore through Bruno's hometown of Malibu, taking with them the home studio he had conceptualized, obsessed over and realized for years, alongside all of his gear. That studio wasn't just the place where he worked, it was emblematic of a lifetime spent making art as AWOLNATION and before in various projects. “It was a heavy, heavy experience,” he says. While the fires were burning, he was on the road with a band that shares some of AWOLNATION's own musical ethos – Twenty One Pilots. His wife called him while he was playing in Phoenix, Arizona. He felt powerless as she was packing to abandon their house. She asked him what he wanted saved. His mind scrambled. That moment inspired the gorgeous anthem of album highlight “California Halo Blue”. “I stayed on the road because I didn't have a home to go to,” he recalls, recalling that the tour bus became his home. His house thankfully survived. “I'm extremely lucky and grateful,” he says. At the time, everything felt like his hometown (Bruno has lived in Southern California his whole life) was under attack. Beyond the fires, a few days before there had been a tragic mass shooting in Thousand Oaks. It hit like the end of days, like ground zero, like a call to rebuild. Recognizing the two ways to look at the bottle of life (half empty or half full), Bruno ruminated on the power of perspective and on the polarizing effects of saying 'fuck the world' versus seeing the still fleeting beauty amid the chaos. “I ended up doing that every day – trying to figure out a way to look at it all half full, but sometimes I'd get into dark times. I'd be devastated about the loss, the suffering, all the animals, the trees that died, how many people lost their homes. All at the same time I wanted to make the best album yet,” he says, rallying. The album is titled, Angel Miners And The Lightning Riders, and follows his 2018 third LP Here Come The Runts. It began as Bruno's entire career flashed before his eyes. He took in the ups and downs of surviving the release of three albums. “It hasn't always been easy,” he says. “There have been moments of glory, and heartache and everything in between. As the architect of this operation it's given me a pretty interesting perspective.” When sitting down to write new songs, the only facets Bruno was concerned with were melody, lyrical content and sincerity. The album contains all those in spades. “I've always been a big dreamer,” he says, of his ambitious streak. Instead of filling space on this album with palette cleansers and vignettes, Bruno wanted to concentrate on a collection of standalone contenders. The resulting LP is a full-throttle journey, linked by a conceptual framework about good versus evil. It's propelled by a need to escape Bruno's own head and heart and to release into another universe. The idea of the Lightning Riders came to him while he was out on tour. “I started conceptualizing an alternate world that was a fantasy to deal with the sadness of what had been lost,” he says, moving away from the more personal nature of the prior album's songwriting. “I wanted the album to be about something bigger than me.” Every night, he knew he had a task ahead of him; an opportunity to win over these enormous arena crowds. And so he created a lighter/cameraphone moment for the audience to all wave their flashlight in the air. People started referring to the visual wave they created as a “lightning wave”. The scene became a metaphor for Bruno. “I realized we were the Lightning Riders riding the lightning wave,” he laughs.“ That was a little bit of hope, positivity and community that I felt in the heaviest, scariest, darkest moment of my life.” The fact he won the crowd over with it every night gave him the strength to know he could handle whatever was waiting for him when the tour stopped. From there the songwriting started from a basis of looking at the idea of self-betterment, of dealing with extreme fear, depression, and anxiety. “The fire was a reminder of how horrifying life can be,” he says. Conversely the Angel Miners of the title represent the other side of his psyche; the doubt. The song “Slam (Angel Miners)” contains the line “there's always someone looking over you.” That song's panicked mood and lyrical tension forms the backbone of the album as a whole. It's the prime example of opposing mentalities. That notion might strike you as a positive. But Bruno was writing it from a place of neurosis, like something was spying on him. “Any given day I feel one way or the other,” he says. The whole album is about flitting between those two states of mind. With no home studio to go to, Bruno, who continues to create on his own, became resourceful in the same way he was when he started out with nothing. He made the album in his bedroom, and then set up a drum kit in his living room, dismantling his regular family life for the sake of the music. He invited a friend who influenced his work in a meaningful way - Rivers Cuomo of Weezer - to guest on the record (on the song “Pacific Coast Highway”) and Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert for “Mayday!!! Disco Fiesta”. He threw the rulebook out. “I just wanted to make the best songs possible, whatever it took,” he says. “There was something about losing the studio that was a weird blessing. I made this record in a bedroom in my house because I had no choice. It was limiting but also freeing. I did it a lot faster. There was a lot more precise focus.” He also had to prove himself all over again, and that generated some of the most ferocious sonic landscapes for his lyrics ever. Bruno is a lifer and grew up a fan of hardcore punk, anti-conformist rock and envelope-pushing hip-hop. He has never been concerned with operating within the lines of what's trending or why. That's why it was both a blessing and a curse when his mega hit “Sail” took off the way it did back in 2011. He's immensely proud of that song (from the platinum debut LP Megalithic Symphony) but he never wanted it to crowbar him into a lane. “Sail,” which went on to become a multi-platinum single around the world, has a legacy that continues to inspire the most cutting-edge of artists. Bruno is continuously humbled by 'Sail''s everlasting influence in the alternative rock scene, even pop superstar Billie Eilish has mentioned how important the song is to her. Bruno is solely focused on that which lies ahead of him, not behind. Together with his band (Isaac Carpenter, Zach Irons, Daniel Saslow and Michael Goldman), he is anticipating another opportunity to connect with fans in an even more meaningful way with an album that is trying to lift people out of the mire into another realm. It's lifted him out too. He treated the entire process as thought he was starting from scratch again. In so many ways he was. “I wanted to have this mentality like I had zero success. I wanted to start over, prove it all again as if it was a brand new band,” he says. And with that AWOLNATION has never sounded more undeniably urgent.