Bully isn’t a grunge band Alicia Bognanno assures over the phone with a slightly wearied tone. Of course, she can see the similarities. A nostalgic mind could be forgiven for associating the Nashville outfit’s raw instrumentals and her own stripped-down vocals with some archetypical flannel band of decades past. But for her, Bully is a rock band pure and simple.
So then, what makes a rock band really? When rock first mutated from rock ‘n’ roll, artists weren’t simply making music they thought that others wanted to hear. Instead, they matured, making emotionally honest statements about the world around them. It was music about the realities of everyday life and that’s where it still strikes its resonant chord.
Listening to her debut album Feels Like or follow on Losing it’s easy to pull some truth from Bognanno’s contention. Bully’s recordings come wrenched from the gut, littered with incisive observation alongside caustic emotion and feeling. Songs like ‘Trying’ and ‘Feel the Same’ aren’t just honest they’re also catchy as hell. You don’t have to stand in the shoes of this twenty-something sound engineer turned songwriter to catch them smack bang in the middle of the chest. Bully as a rock band? Yeah okay, we buy it.
Rabbit Radio: You’re based in Nashville, yet Bully isn’t exactly a smooth rocking country outfit. Is there an element of the city and its culture that seeps through into your sound?
Alicia Bognanno: Not too much honestly! Everyone from group is from different areas. I’m from Minnesota, but I’ve been in Tennessee for about eight years and Nashville proper for about five. I think we all developed a taste in music before we got here. There’s certainly a lot of support for us here but I wouldn’t say there’s too much influence musically.
RR: There’s a grunge influence that a lot of people latch onto when talking about your music. Here in Australia it seems to have really struck a chord with a much younger generation than simply those who grew up with it in the ‘90s. What is it do you think it is that’s drawn people back in?
AB: I’m not sure. I think we get compared to ‘90s rock, but I don’t think we are. I was born in 1990! I think what people see, where they see similarities is having two guitars, bass, drums, a pretty stripped down vocal and keeping things raw. I think that when nostalgia kicks in – in the 2000s there is a lot of electronic stuff going on. People just like revivals, aligning something new with a similar sound.
RR: Losing seems to come pinned together by a big relationship thematic. Is it capturing or documenting a particular time or moment in your life?
AB: This record is similar to the last in that every song is about a certain situation. I think it could easily be perceived as a breakup record, I totally understand that. But it’s really all over the map as far as what each song is about. There wasn’t one particular experience that I based the whole record off of. It was more just whatever I was feeling the day that I sat down and wrote the song.
RR: Do you ever write from the perspective of a character or as someone else?
AB: It’s mainly coming from experiences in my life. But I do try to tap into certain emotions or adapt to different situations if I’m able to.
RR: Feels Like and Losing both seem to really hit that sweet spot between delivering something personal and tapping into some bigger relatable emotion. Is that something you’re consciously trying to tease out as a songwriter?
AB: My main priority when I’m putting a song together is making sure that it all sounds cohesive to me. From top to bottom it’s about it making sense to me and then for the listener, however they want to perceive it, if that at least makes sense. At the very least there’s got to be some sort of storyline.
RR: Are there places you’ve backed off from going?
AB: There is stuff I don’t want to put out there. I never want to throw anybody under the bus, that would be like my main rule! I can pull whatever I want about myself, but I don’t ever want to release anything that hurts someone else or make it obvious that they are what that song is about. I always keep that clear to make sure that I’m never hurting anybody’s feelings.
RR: Which do you find harder to write, the more melodic material or the screaming heavy riffers?
AB: Sometimes the quicker, simpler ones do come faster but it’s hard to say. Lyrics are what always takes me the longest. Sometimes I’ll sit down and they’ll just pour out of me and I’ll be happy with them within a couple of hours. Others I’ll honestly go through four, five or six drafts and they won’t be finalised until the moment they’re tracked.
So it’s really hard to say, but I think songs like ‘Milk Me’ on the first record and ‘Feel the Same’ both of those came out pretty quickly. Whereas something like ‘Seeing It’ that took a little bit longer. I had to cycle through it a few more times.
RR: A term that crops a lot when people talk about your music is this word anthemic. What is it that makes a piece of music anthemic? Is it more than just big riffs and a big chorus?
AB: I didn’t know people placed that term on us, but that’s a huge compliment and I’ll definitely take it! I would maybe say it’s just a vocal melody and a chorus that you can remember or sing along to easily.
RR: Is there a song that immediately comes to mind when you think about the term anthemic?
AB: On the second record I haven’t decided yet I don’t think. I know for the first record it was ‘Trying’. You could just tell based off when we play live, everybody will sing along to it. Usually you get an idea after you’ve played something live for a bit, which ones people really start headbanging to. We haven’t played this second record live a lot yet so we’ll see.
RR: Is there anything form the first record that’s surprised you when it’s comes to how people have or haven’t reacted live?
AB: When we first put out ‘Brainfreeze’ I didn’t think anybody was going to like it but it’s become one of our most popular songs. That was really surprising to me. I always I feel like I do a particularly bad job at gauging what the public is going to be into or not. When it comes to singles, I just kind of take direction from our team because really, I have no idea! I’m really bad at it. It’s an art how bad I am!
RR: I read that in 2015 you were really getting into Courtney Barnett while you were down at SXSW. Are there any Australian acts you’re fired up about at the moment?
AB: We really like Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, we did a couple of dates with them last time we were in town. Fraser A. Gorman you probably might know. I also like Twerps a lot. Those are the three that come to mind!
RR: Do you have any plans to come back to Australia?
AB: It’s hard to say right now. We’re definitely are planning on coming back, but we don’t have it locked in yet.
RR: Losing is out this Friday, what’s else is in store for the group?
AB: We start our headline US tour on November 2nd so probably just playing for the next year half. After that we’ll go back into the studio and do it all over again for the third record!