Our interview with Alicia Bognanno AKA: Bully
Bully has been getting a lot of attention. Fronted by Alicia Bognanno, who wears all the hats of songwriter, guitarist, singer, and producer/engineer, and consisting of Stewart Copeland on drums, Clayton Parker on guitar, and Reece Lazarus on bass, they are friends who came together to work on Bognanno’s songs. And with a grunge rock dynamic that’s the perfect match up to Bognanno’s melodic and direct vocals and lyrics, distorted guitar, and hook-laden songs, it’s easy to see why Bully is being talked about. Their debut album, Feels Like, was recorded at Electrical Audio, the Chicago studio headed by Steve Albini where Bognanno worked for a time developing her engineering skills, which she put to use recording the album. Multi-faceted, Bognanno’s original talent is demonstrated on the great tracks that the band’s been putting out, like “Too Tough”, “Milkman”, and “Brainfreeze.” Taking the risk to leave Minnesota and head to Nashville to focus on her music turns out to have been a very smart move. Northern Transmissions wanted to hear more from Bully, as the band gains fans and critical acclaim. Alice Severin spoke with Alicia Bognanno about writing the songs, recording, and what comes next.
Northern Transmissions: How are you and where are you at the moment?
Alicia Bognanno: Good, thanks. I’m in Columbus, Ohio.
NT: And you’re touring at the moment.
AB: Yeah, we’ve been on for about three weeks, maybe a little more, and we still have about two weeks left. So we’re in the middle of that.
NT: Your debut album, Feels Like, is coming out June 23. How do you feel, and what’s it been like over these past few weeks doing promotion and waiting for the release?
AB: I feel really good. I’m really excited for it to come out. It’s weird, because NPR streamed it the other day, and I almost felt like it had already come out, because people had heard it. But yeah, I’m excited for it to officially be out. Yeah, I think we’re all just excited and ready to start writing some new stuff and get the ball rolling again.
NT: Has it been a long process, working on the album, getting it finished?
AB: I don’t think so. I wouldn’t say necessarily that it’s been short. But I think it’s been pretty…there wasn’t like a bunch of down time where it was just done, and we were just sitting around waiting for it to come out. I think it finished being mastered in March. So I guess we had about three months, kind of waiting around, but it doesn’t seem like it’s been longer than usual for our record, really.
NT: You’ve been busy though. And you were just touring in the UK. How was that?
AB: It was good. Yeah, it was our first time over there. I had actually never been there before, so it was really cool. Glasgow was really beautiful, we really liked Wales. And we hit a bunch of smaller towns there too, so it was fun.
NT: And you have a big tour lined up for the fall here.
AB: Yeah, we’re doing a US tour in the fall. We just announced our dates. And I know for sure we’re going to do Australia in December and I think in between we’ll probably be back in Europe.
NT: You were an intern at Electrical Audio with Steve Albini. What was that like, and were you always interested in the technical side of recording? It’s great that you’re known for doing the engineering. It’s a shame, on one side, because it shouldn’t be a big deal, but on the other, it’s exciting because there aren’t as many women in engineering and production as there should be.
AB: Yeah. I’ve been interested in that ever since I got introduced to it in high school. That internship was really great, I felt like I learned a year’s worth of information in time I was there. Just a really great place to work, because everybody who works there is so smart and professional about everything. It was very fortunate, that opportunity.
NT: You were doing analog recording, working with reel to reel?
AB: Well, Electrical Audio, usually everyone does everything on tape. They do have a Pro Tools rig. But that was kind of the reason that I wanted to go there, because when I was in school, and I was introduced to the tape machines, it was just a little bit more intuitive than the computer. I recorded our whole record on tape. But yeah, sometimes when I’m in Nashville, working on other projects, I have to do it on Pro Tools, which is fine. But if I have the choice, I definitely prefer doing it on tape, and mixing on a console, as opposed to computer. But sometimes the budgets aren’t there for it, so.
NT: I once read a producer who said the difference with recording on tape that it focuses you, because the choices you make are more of a commitment. With digital recording, you can have a hundred variations and then forget them all, but tape is more permanent.
AB: Yeah. There’s not just a million different options. You have to stick with what you want. Also, I like it because I feel like if I were to record our record on the computer, digitally, I would just never be done with it, because I could always pull it back up and I’d constantly be tweaking it. And I just didn’t want to do that for this record.
NT: When did you start writing songs and lyrics?
AB: I think the first one I wrote for the LP was “Brainfreeze”. And I started writing that when I was in Chicago. I think that’s maybe the only one that I wrote when I was in Chicago that transferred over to the album. That’s definitely when I first started writing material for Bully was when I was there.
NT: You’ve been playing music for a while. And you started on piano, then switched over to guitar?
AB: Well, I did play a tiny bit of piano. I wouldn’t even call myself a piano player, because I was horrible at it. But I had to do some piano playing when I started college, for classes. So I started playing piano, but as soon as I was around guitars, I was picking that up and I liked it a lot more, and I felt I could be more creative with it. It was way more fun for me.
NT: “Too Tough” which just came out, is really good. It reminds me a little of Aimee Mann, and her solo music. The structure and intelligent lyrics, but also a lot of energy behind it. How did that song start?
AB: Thank you. I think I wrote that around the same time I wrote “Trying”. Just kind of the same as any other song, I usually start by getting a guitar part down. And then I’ll kind of figure out a melody. And then usually a couple of words come to mind, and usually I think they come to mind for a reason, and then I try to figure out what it’s about, and kind of go from there.
NT: Your lyrics talk about real things. You’ve mentioned about wanting to be more honest with your writing. Do you think that’s harder to do, instead of being obscure and mask things?
AB: I think that it’s really subjective, depending on the person. But for me, it is definitely it is. I know that some people would object, and say that it’s harder to be a little bit more obscure and abstract. For me, it’s harder to be honest, because I think it forces me to really figure out what I’m writing about. And yeah, that’s why I like to do it.
NT: What was it like pulling all the members of the band together, and beginning to work together? It seems like all of you have this really good link.
AB: Yeah. Our drummer, Stewart, we had played together before, and he was kind of the first person that I played these songs for. He liked them, and said, you should just do your own thing, and I’ll come play drums for it. So it kind of started from there, and we worked on about five songs. Stewart, and Clay, our other guitar player, had gone to college together in St. Louis, so they were really good friends. Reece worked at a venue that ran sound at in Nashville. So we all kind of just knew each other. As far as like the band goes, Stewart takes care of most of the aesthetics. He did the first EP cover, and he’ll find artists to do, like the album artwork, or the EP, or a certain t-shirt, he’ll pick the artist to do that, or come up with something himself. And then Reece, from working at the Stone Fox, he’ll help with advancing the shows when we’re on the road. Everybody kind of has their own tiny tasks that they do. It’s a good fit.
NT: And you gave up the day job at the Stone Fox. How was that, to decide ok, this is going to be full time now, the touring and the music?
AB: It felt good. Because obviously, if I could only just do Bully, I would like to do that. But, at times it’s a little bit stressful because I can’t really say that I’m ever financially stable because of it. And also we spend so much time sitting in the van, I get a little bit nervous that I’m not engineering as much, and I don’t want to become a worse engineer because of it. I don’t know, I’m just trying to find a balance. But it’s definitely good.
NT: And five albums that inspire you.
The Breeders – Plod
The Replacements – any Replacements album
Fake Limbs – Man Feelings
Sonic Youth – Dirty
Metz – Metz II
Interview by Alice Severin
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