A few weeks ago, I received an email advertising “free concert tickets.” As I consciously choose not to read the many warnings about phishing from Rich Mikelinich, Yale’s chief information security officer, I opened the email and skimmed its contents. “Free,” “concert” and “tickets” were the only words I gleaned from the message, and that was enough for me to fire back a response with my name, phone number and social security number.
Three weeks later, on March 5, the eve of my 20th birthday, I and four other movers and shakers traveled to Foxwoods Hotel and Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut to see a live performance by AWOLNATION and Fall Out Boy. The trip was sponsored by Red Bull Records, a recording studio owned by the energy drink company, Red Bull. (Red Bull. Red Bull. Red Bull. Say it three times and Michael Keaton will appear dressed as Betelgeuse with a 12-pack of the energy drink.)
You may not know the name AWOLNATION, but you’d probably recognize Sail Cat. In 2013 and 2014, the same time the band’s song “Sail” was climbing the charts, a video of a cat slinking around to “Sail” went viral. The cat leaps from an open window right as the band’s frontman, Aaron Bruno, shouts “SAIL.” The video has been viewed almost 20 million times on YouTube. Emboldened with confidence from my fellow Red Bullies, I resolved to ask Bruno about Sail Cat during our interview later that day.
Foxwoods is composed of six casinos and five hotels, and covers a total of 9 million square feet, making it the largest casino in the United States. It took us 15 minutes to walk from the entrance to the restaurant for dinner. The bingo hall overflowed with octogenarians carrying their oxygen tanks and cigarettes. Armed with a hard-hitting question about Sail Cat, I found the tour manager outside the theater and followed him through a series of black swinging doors, finally entering Bruno’s dressing room.
As soon as I saw Bruno, I knew I would never pair the words “sail” and “cat” in his presence. A sweet concoction of SoCal and punk-rock, he probably inspired Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi.” He offered me a seat. I peed a little.
Bruno characterized his musical career as a series of failed bands that led to nowhere, which ultimately inspired him to forge a different path with AWOLNATION. He describes “Sail,” the band’s most successful song to date, as “artistic, stranger, left of center,” and said the track’s success and longevity — it was on the Billboard Hot 100 for 79 weeks — continues to surprise him.
Bruno thrives off of underground venues’ intimate energy, and says he tries to forge an intimate connection with audiences even in packed stadiums. He’s currently on an arena tour with Fall Out Boy, and played Madison Square Garden the night before I spoke with him. While Bruno laments the lack of stage dives and smash dancing at AWOLNATION’s concerts now, he still finds ways to foster alternative-punk, bombastic energy in his performances.
“My favorite shows are the ones where people sweat and have a great time,” he told me. “I noticed there are some seats here [at Foxwoods,] but I will make sure people stand.”
He kept his promise. AWOLNATION’s performance felt like a surreal, laser-filled dream. Flashing strobe lights and a thumping bass brought the audience to its feet as it scream-sang along with Bruno. At one point, Bruno doubled over as he clutched the microphone. He fell to his knees and scooted on his forehead across the stage as he wailed the song lyrics. The band’s live performance differed from the sound of their albums. Live, they were fluid and more adventurous, expanding upon the alt-rock influences in their music.
Lasers sliced across the auditorium, dazzling the audience in a dizzying spectacle of light and sound; pulsing strobe lights entranced us. AWOLNATION’s performance was a sensory experience. The bass thudded through our chests, and the smell of sweat filled our nostrils.
During “Soul Wars,” the bass seemed to syncopate against my pulse, and I couldn’t tell whether my heart had stopped or become one perpetual beat.
I was surprised at the number of AWOLNATION’s songs that I recognized; I’d heard songs like “I Am” and “I’m on Fire” countless times, even if I didn’t know their names.
Finally, at encore, the band began to play “Sail.” The acid-trip light design paired with punk-rock edge packed a sonic and visual punch. Hearing it live was an entirely new experience. It took over our bodies in a way listening at home never could. I feared the 4,000-seat theater would turn into the giant mosh pit of Bruno’s dreams.
I remembered, before the concert, Bruno’s emphasis on connecting to the fans while onstage.
“I think that I see myself in the audience,” he’d said. “I don’t feel above the people we’re playing for. There’s so much I could learn from people’s faces and reactions. I think that comes from most of my career being unnoticed or unheard. I feel this need to speak loudly and sing loudly so people hear me.”