Interview – Bully

There’s something undeniably special about Bully.

At a time when nostalgia is ripe for the song writing and sound recording traditions of the ’90s, as killer acts like Cayetana, Hop Along, Speedy Ortiz, All Dogs and Dilly Dally emulate the music from their teenage record collections, Bully have emerged from that class as favourites of critics and fans alike.

Part of that can be attributed to just how brilliantly their debut albumFeels Like sounds. It’s deliciously rough and crunchy – like you want a rock and roll record to sound – but it also features extreme clarity; each instrument slicing cleanly through the mix despite its jagged edges.

That can be attributed to the band’s creative force, Alicia Bognanno who not only fronts Bully, but also produced and engineered the record. A former student of producing icon Steve Albini, Bognanno used her engineering expertise to hone her band’s sound in a way that perfectly highlights her poignant and honest lyricism, while still feeding the right amount of grit into the mix to make sure the sonic cement sets right.

Bully are now set to tour Australia, including as part of the famed Meredith Music Festival, so Channel [V] spoke with Bognanno about people connecting with her art, why she thinks all musicians should get some engineering experience, why her hometown of Nashville is becoming a home for alternative music – and we educate her about Meredith’s famous nude race, the Meredith Gift.
[V]: Your songwriting has become renowned for how honest and personal it is. A lot of the time songwriters take a while to reach a place where they feel comfortable to, or even realise they are able to, express themselves honestly in their lyrics. Do you have a specific song or moment of songwriting where you maybe got a sense of clarity and honesty and realised that was going to be your style?

AB: I would say the first lyrics I wrote where I was kind of like, “This is the path that I’m going to follow for the rest of the record,” was when I wrote the lyrics for ‘Trying.’ Or the first time I kind of realised what I was writing might be a little confrontational and a little – I don’t want to say “too open,” I think it’s fine – but that was definitely the first half of ‘Trying.’

I’ve seen an interview with your band members where they described how they’ve all been in other bands before but that when they first started working with you they instantly realised there was something special about your songwriting. That’s clearly evident with how many other people have also found a connection with your music. What’s it like to learn that people are drawn so strongly and relate so much to the art you create?

It’s a really great feeling. I mean it’s awesome because it’s just something that I feel like I’ve been working towards for like forever, so to think that it even has the tiniest little bit of a voice is a really comforting thing. And it’s just cool to know that something that you care so much about that people can relate to it a little bit and don’t hate it [laughs]. So yeah, it’s really good.

Being an engineer and producer on your own record is obviously a great way for you to be able to express yourself and your music more clearly because you know how to control the way the sound comes out. Do you think, considering the way the music industry works these days where musicians are responsible for a lot more aspects of their career, that more musicians should be taking steps to educate themselves on how things work on the other side of the desk – not only with home studios but in real studios?

Yeah, I mean I think that it can be really important and super beneficial for you to know how to operate, just on a really basic level, recording, so that you can take care of your own demos. It really kind of opens the door for you to do the baby work yourself – the song writing and having rough demos. But I also think on the other end of it I don’t necessarily think that it’s a musican’s responsibility to be a professional engineer because I think sometimes you have to be conscious that your music isn’t suffering so that you are engineering – if that makes any sense? And I think you need to make sure to keep conscious of making sure that it’s not kind of crossing that line, and that it is separate a little bit. At least that’s what I try to keep in mind.

Like when we went to make a record it was like if I ever get to the point where I feel like I’m not really focusing on the song or the music, I’m focusing more on the engineering side of it, then I need to ease up and have a little bit of help. But I think that yes, on the other end of it, it’s great and you should know how to do it, especially when you know how inexpensive you can create really rough tracks and recordings of things. And it’s just cool to be able to do things yourself and not have to rely on somebody else to it for you and make it happen for you.

Are there any particular moments on Feels Like where you hear a certain element of production and are particularly proud of the sound you achieved using your own expertise?

It’s weird. I feel like the songs are mixed kind of differently throughout the record. I really like ‘I Remember’ but the mix I definitely spent the most time on was ‘Trying’ and I think that’s because I knew everyone wanted to push that as the single and I was psyching myself out a little bit, so I was trying to make it a little bit more polished than I usually prefer. Maybe ‘Trying’ – I haven’t listened to the record in a while [laughs].

You’re kind of being grouped with a sound or a movement of artists that are coming out of Philadelphia in bands like Cayetana and Swearin, and Ohio in All Dogs – do you feel or have any affiliation with those bands and if not do you have any inklings on why you guys have all kind of landed on a related sound and emerged simultaneously?

No, I don’t. I haven’t heard or speak to too much those bands that you mentioned, except that I think that we played a show with Swearin a while back, but yeah I’m not sure. I know a lot of people like to say that it’s reminiscent of the ’90s, so maybe they think those bands are too and it ties us together. But I’m not sure.

You’ve got a lot of fans here but obviously we haven’t yet had a chance to experience your live shows – what can we expect when Bully finally performs in Australia? What do you think separates you guys live from anyone else?

The whole kind of thing I was trying to keep in mind for the recording process was that we could replicate the record live and vice versa, so I would say if you like the record you will probably like the live show.

You’re playing Meredith Festival when you get here, which is a pretty legendary event. Are you familiar with it at all and maybe some of the practices and customs of the festival?

Only from what I’ve heard when we were offered to play it and I’m so excited. I heard there was just one stage. Is that true?

Yeah it’s pretty magical. It’s one stage, it’s on a farm and the sun sets behind the stage. It’s also BYO drinks, which is pretty rare.

Oh, really?!

Yeah, but it’s got a strict no dickheads policy, so if you are acting like a dickhead you can be kicked out of the festival.

[Laughs]

And it also has, at the very end, a nude race around the entire festival.

[Laughs] How has no-one told me that yet?

I was going to ask if that had come up in conversation at all.  It’s called the Meredith Gift and there’s a mens’ and womens’ race and the winner of each race wins a ticket to next year’s festival.

Wow! So cool. Yeah this festival sounds amazing!

There aren’t many indie rock bands emerging out of Nashville at the moment that are reaching the scale of you guys, but there seems to be an increasing amount of eclectic artists coming from the city that aren’t just country acts. Considering the cost of living in cities like New York and LA, do you think that there’s the potential for cities like Nashville and other smaller cities to become alternate options for artists from the indie rock and alt worlds in the future?

Yeah, I really do. I mean I already know so many people that have moved here from New York and LA for the music scene. I mean, it’s a lot more affordable to live – it doesn’t have great public transport but that doesn’t really matter if you’re driving around in a van with all your gear anyway. It’s just a great place to be because of all the resources, which I’m sure there is plenty of them there [NYC and LA] but you can do it at a more affordable cost. Especially if you’re never home. Who wants to pay crazy rent and then never be there. It’s just been expanding like crazy here too. I mean rent prices have gone up so much in the past two years. But still, they’re still great compared to New York. So I can’t complain, it could be so much worse. But yeah I definitely foresee it to keep expanding and it’s cool that the music scene is so diverse and leaning more towards that direction and a little bit further away from country.

You kind of touched on it then, but you’ve been touring more relentlessly than ever before since the release of the album. Have you discovered much about yourself or the band as a unit while you’ve been on the road? And how are you surviving that life because I know it can be tough at times?

Yeah it can be very tough. I think one thing that we all do well when we travel together is everybody just puts on headphones, so nobody is forcing anyone to listen to something they don’t want to hear, which helps. And we’re all really good about not being offended if someone wants personal space, and most of us want it. So that’s really cool, that we can all relate on that level. And everyone on every tour kind of gets better and better at new tricks they can do or activities they can do in the van to pass time or just try and stay healthy and just try and not kill each other. But yeah it can be rough but it’s really awesome to be able to play every night.

Have you been approached by other artists and bands that are now keen for you to come and work on their records?

I wouldn’t say any bigger or recognisable bands have asked me to work on their stuff. To be totally honest I’m not really thinking about that because I just know how crazy our schedule is for the next year, so I couldn’t really do it. And I don’t have much interest in producing other things, but I would if I had the time to engineer records. So yeah, but not be any notable artists, they haven’t asked me to.

Because I know Steve Albini has been a big influence on your career to date as an engineer. Do you hope to emulate Steve’s career one day – spend most of your time in the studio and the rest of the time out playing with your own band?

Yeah maybe. I would say a lot in the future, when I’m sick of being gone and just crazy busy with Bully stuff all the time, it would be cool to focus more on the engineering side of things. But if it’s hard to say right now when I’m all kind of wrapped up in this and I love being able to – I think I would rather play a show than be in the studio. Just because it’s a huge sense of relief that I don’t necessarily get from engineering. So at the moment I’d rather be playing and just working on my own stuff. But in the future I can definitely see myself going towards that direction.

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