Becoming Isolated with Bully’s Alicia Bognanno
The Nashville punks return with a fierce sophomore effort, ‘Losing.’ In order to get here, the band and its leader Bognanno had to go to hell and back.
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
Alicia Bognanno is in the driving seat. Behind the wheel of Bully's tour van, she chirpily slips away from the cheap motel she and her three bandmates crashed in last night off a flight from Nashville, and heads blindly into Caljam festival in San Bernardino, California while making small talk. Gripping the steering wheel, her left bicep offers up a tattoo of a smiley face, with the words "to each their own" underneath. She's as nonchalant and affable in conversation. Bognanno may play by her own rules, but she's not a loner in Bully. Her core bandmates Clayton Parker (guitarist) and Reece Lazarus (bassist) have had her back since 2013. Their constant deferral to her leadership when it comes to lines of questioning, musical choices and their everyday business planning is respectful and supportive. That said, Bully has had its isolating moments for its matriarch.
"Dude, doesn't she remind you of Tanya Donelly?" says a sound guy side-of-stage during their ripping early afternoon set under the boiling sun. Donelly's era (she co-founded Throwing Muses, then played with The Breeders and Belly) is accurate for the noncompliant, DIY ethos of Bognanno. She's a studio head who moved to Nashville from Tennessee to become an audio engineer, ran sound at a venue called The Stone Fox and insists on recording and engineering all of Bully's records on tape herself even though her detailing of that later on in interview sounds like a fucking nightmare ("It takes so much damn time. When we went through the track listing for the record we were like, 'Don't care. Don't wanna listen to this whole record again.'").
Today is the first time the quartet are taking new tracks from their forthcoming second album Losing (out now via Sub Pop) out for a spin. They tear through them like a pack of greyhounds bolting from their kennels. There's something inscrutably kickass about them, but Bognanno in particular is a beacon of fierceness.
"Cut my hair I feel the same/Masturbate I feel the same/Hope you're okay I feel the same," she screeches onstage, debuting the album's opening track "Feel the Same." The song is about being stagnated by the mundane and whizzes past like an anxious, cluster migraine. Later on "Focused," Bognanno, Parker and Lazarus sway around each other in front of new drummer Wesley Mitchell, steadily building towards a final belligerent rage-propelled chorus. "I am trying to stay focused," repeats Alicia, using up every last bit of grit in her larynx.
The catharsis in the need to remain on course here is brutal, but also curious. Bully don't sound like a band who had a great run on their debut album. They sound like a band who hit reality hard when they come off the road, a band who felt dissatisfied when life didn't look any more improved.
It's odd because from the outside looking in, that debut—2015's Feels Like—seemed to have gone fantastically: rave reviews, incessant touring, sired as the leaders of an alternative scene in Nashville that stuck two fingers up to the city's traditional country music market. As is typical of Bognanno, however, she has a difficult time seeing herself the way the world does. Once the dictaphone comes out Bognanno is far less relaxed, more careful, often frustrated that she's let too much run out of her mouth. "It's hard for us to accept that role," she says sheepishly, insisting the scene existed long before their arrival.
Despite all their plaudits, Losing is absolutely not an album about winning.
"Alright. Now we'll play some shit you guys might know," says Bognanno to the crowd. "Thanks for standing in this heat."
Coming offstage they look buoyant, flicking open beer and wine in their trailer. It's an unassuming celebratory return. Bully are back doing what Bully do; playing the hell out of their songs, proving that you don't need whistles and bells to make a brutally charming record, scraping by on a do-or-die mentality and providing an aspirational example for a DIY grunge manifesto. Being a Nashville-based alternative rock 'n' roll band in this current climate ain't easy. Beyond that, playing onstage as the only woman every night in an America that elected a misogynist troll has posed new challenges for Bognanno's mind.
"It's insane," laughs the 27-year-old. "But it's funny too because [the struggle is] what you have to have to keep driving. People will ask us about how we're making it as an indie rock band. No matter what we do, where we play, there's so much further to go. We're not a big band, but the fact that we can make a living is progress. Your entire existence as an indie rock band is playing live. When you're touring you're in this false validation bubble where people come to see you play every night. You start to lean on things that shouldn't matter, you think you're doing well in life, then all of a sudden you fall off the grid."
Bully had to pull the plug on gigs—their lifeblood—12 months ago. It wasn't an easy decision. Losing sounds like the desolate musings of someone writing poetry alone in their bedroom, which is almost what Bognanno was doing after they had to make a premature call to stop touring and concentrate on album two. (They're on Sub Pop after having left Columbia subsidiary Startime. "We were bottom of the barrel so everything took a long time, especially compared to fucking Beyonce," she explains of their label change.) Over three months, Bully wrote every day in a rehearsal space in Nashville, then debunked to the same Chicago studio they used for the debut (Steve Albini's Electrical Audio). Getting back to confined home comforts was Bognanno's savior. Having worked on the input list, researched all the gear and mapped out everything before they went in, she was "thrilled" to be back in the darkness among the machines. "I was nervous too," she says. "I was unsure if I was still capable of doing it, which is stupid cause I am."
The album is a paean to 90s slacker grunge—a timeless soundtrack for any form of angst. Though Bognanno is keen to point out that there's a lot of positivity in it, too. "Kills To Be Resistant," for instance, is a jangly crush-inspired anthem: "When I'm alone, I stare at your picture," she sings. "But when I'm around you I try to keep my distance." "Spiral" discusses a feeling of "being too old for this shit" over a gnarly meatier riff, suggesting that Bognanno feels like she's grown up. The likes of the ultra catchy "Blame," however, are far more derogatory with Bognanno referring to herself as a "bitch." They seem to document disappointment in love, a wariness of other humans, a tendency to be self-destructive in relationships.
"I feel awkward saying this in front of everybody so…I'm just gonna say it anyway. I don't like going out," says Bognanno, awkwardly. While her onstage presence is fearless, out in the real world she's less connected. "I enjoy being social but if I'm around a lot of people that I'm not comfortable with I overthink things and get in weird funks so it's easier for me to stay at home. It feels safer. I'm gonna not have to deal with much of the emotional wave pool if I keep to myself," she says, pausing. "I was not in the best place when I was writing this record."
The lack of confidence that dogs her was compounded by a fear that Bully had also lost all momentum. "Running" is a rumination on that. "I struggle with being back in town, it's hard to do when you're not around/You say I'm running but I don't care…" go the lyrics. It may be fair to interpret the song as a conversation piece with her ex-boyfriend and Bully's former drummer Stewart Copeland (no relation). As Bognanno explains it, Copeland "wasn't gonna do the second record" and the band had to keep finding replacement drummers on the fly while touring. She isn't keen to discuss Copeland further. "I'd rather not. We have gone without [a drummer] for so long. The three of us have worked really hard to compensate. We don't wanna be a band with a fucking hired drummer." His departure meant that as a songwriter she also had to face herself—really face herself. "I wasn't cooped up in a cabin in the woods with an acoustic guitar but…" she laughs. "On the first record I had someone [Bognanno doesn't specify one person in particular] to always bounce shit off, ask them if it's OK. For this album, I chose to ask myself more, to make the record go in the direction I wanted."
Reflecting back on the debut, Bognanno was very self-critical. She knew she wanted to take more risks as a guitarist. "It's one thing to play in your own house but it's another to do it in front of a couple hundred people. You're already getting up there with people assuming that you're not going to be as good. Guys who can just sit down at Guitar Center, plug into an amp and start shredding… To have the confidence is a luxury. It's assumed that I don't know what I'm talking about. You can learn to play a fucking scale on a guitar perfectly but that doesn't mean you can write a good song."
During interviews and not in casual conversation, Bognanno can come across as a bag of nerves. Perhaps that's why the rest of Bully are quiet, too. Bognanno isn't used to hearing their feedback but she's keen to. "I heard [the boys] talking about [new song] "Blame" while they were loading in the car one time and I was like, 'What did you guys say? You like that song? OK we'll keep it.' We had an interview and Reece went, 'I'm fucking proud of this record.' And I was like, 'Ugh you are?' I think that made me feel better for about three weeks."
I suggest that it must help to know that she's written songs her bandmates relate to—that must assist her journey out of her own head.
"Yeah I don't know. Do you guys?" she asks. "We never really talk about lyrics together," says Lazarus. "I don't know if I wanna go there." "What?" asks Bognanno. "What is it?"
It's not Bognanno's lyrics that have the guys triggered. More the way in which Bognanno delivers them. Parker recalls a time in the studio when they were doing take after take of "Focused," a song about female solidarity that features multiple layered vocals. "After the last chorus she screams for an entire minute," says Parker. "There was a moment where I heard her scream and was like, oh no. It sounded like her voice just broke."
Where the band records, Alicia spends hours in the basement by herself while the boys are upstairs. They can't see each other. "Fucking pain in the ass," she says of the process, explaining how she pans her vocals in grave, exhausting, piecemeal detail. "I don't think people take into consideration what happens when you record on tape. Why the fuck do I insist on doing this? It takes so much damn time. If someone fucks up you have to do the whole thing over again. It's insane. Then if you execute it properly you have to rewind it, listen back and see if you even like it."
It seems apt that Bognanno would be in the bottom of the studio alone, screaming her guts up until she became voiceless. It's a metaphor for the event that kickstarted the entire process of Losing, which is as much about Alicia's own struggles as it is America's. The process began with the election of Donald Trump, and the album ends on "Hate And Control," Bognanno's most political statement yet.
"You don't like it when I'm angry/Tough shit learn to deal" is a necessary mantra for these times. Bognanno recalls the moment when she felt she had to write it. Her details are vague but the story details one of their last ever gigs before today's. It was November 10, 2016 in Seattle opening up for Descendents two days after the election.
"It felt like everybody in the audience was a 40-year-old white man. I was the only women of all three bands on the bill. There were shitty guys up front, a couple shitty things yelled out, I felt like shit. I didn't wanna do it. I should not be saying this but, uhm," she tapers off. "That was the first time in my life I wanted to go home."
Bognanno was discouraged and scared. "I felt embarrassed after the election, second-guessing whether or not I had been misled. It was so confusing that the population could vote for someone who had such disrespect towards women. It felt horrible, terrible, so fucking awful, and I just wanted to leave."
The track is a rallying scream against the administration, and also a fuck you to anybody who makes her feel like she doesn't deserve to be fronting a rock band. She remembers everything about election night. They were in a "shitty" sushi restaurant in Seattle, ready to celebrate the first female President of the United States. As the results started coming in and matters turned worse, Bognanno retreated to sitting in her van outside a gas station. "I wanted to cry but I didn't cry because I'm very tough."
The thing that stands out most for Bognanno during that night was being at Lazarus's parents' house without a single other female companion. She silo'd herself in her room and went to bed. "I remember feeling alone. I couldn't fucking do it. I had a complete mental breakdown in front of our tour manager." The upshot is that she survived it, and now the name "Bully" has taken on a new meaning in the Trump era. When I say this Bognanno grows anxious one last time. "Ahhhh. Oh!" she squirms. "I get paranoid that people are gonna think we're pro-bully or something." The opposite. Bognanno has repossessed the word to hoist the patriarchy and its leaders by their own petard. "Oh wait. Fuck yeah," she says. "That sounds exactly how I wanna feel."
Eve Barlow is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.