The Nashville rockers bring their uncut angst to Gasa Gasa Sunday night.
Alicia Bognanno’s voice is a powerful instrument, raw as sushi and stuffed with endless ennui. Her band, Bully, is a traditional 4-piece outfit—two guitars, a bass, drums—that backs Bognanno with crunchy, forceful grooves. They are currently on tour behind their second full-length, Losing, and will play Gasa Gasa Sunday night, with support from Cincinnati shoegazers Smut.
Bully was formed in Nashville, but its sound is a far cry from the country tunes the city is famous for. They’ve carved an impressive rock n roll niche in the music city, considering none of the band members are natives.
“We were all fans of rock music before we came here—it’s what we grew up with,” Bognanno says. “And there’s a good rock scene in Nashville, and a lot of support for that kind of stuff, and it’s been here as long as we’ve been around. So it hasn’t really been much trouble for us at all. It’s a really good home base for us, since we’re playing music full time. It’s easy to live here.”
The band already had a foot in the door in its fledgling phases. Bassist Reece Lazarus was booking at the same venue where Bognanno ran sound when the two joined forces, recruiting drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Clayton Parker to fill out the ensemble. But like any other indie band, they still had to hustle to find their footing in a notoriously unstable industry.
“We definitely had our fair share of empty shows and booking our own tours and sending out our own vinyl and stuff, before we moved over to a label,” Bognanno says. “But I think it was really helpful already being a part of that community, and being able to watch shows every night and see how other bands go about doing it.”
Because of Bully’s lo-fi, angsty aesthetic, the grunge label is often slapped on their sound, almost by default. “It’s especially weird now because in the past few years, the ‘90s have made a crazy resurgence, and so we try to stay away from it. No one wants to just be a trendy band. Everyone wants to think of their music as being timeless,” Bognanno says. “I wouldn’t give our music that title, but we honestly had no intention of it sounding grungy. If we’re gonna be anywhere, I’m happy with that genre. It makes a lot of sense, as far as the rawness of the recording goes, and the simplicity of the four-piece, and all the guitar, but we don’t consider ourselves a grunge band.”
Bully’s sound is unpolished, but it’s far from sloppy. Bognanno, who majored in audio engineering in college and interned at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio in Chicago before moving to Nashville, boasts an impressive background in shaping soundwaves. Her expertise has allowed Bully to keep their production and engineering in-house, even after signing with Sub Pop this past summer.
“I engineered both the last two records,” Bognanno says. “I just put the credit for production as Bully because we didn’t have an outside producer. It’s weird to say I did it because I think that’s just what bands do—produce themselves.”
Bognanno is also the band’s sole songwriter, so she’s in complete control of the music, from conception to finished product. “Usually—well, all the time—I’ll sit in a room and write a song, and fill in whatever parts I have for it, and then I make a demo and send it off to the guys, and we all get in a room together and work it out live,” she says. “It’s really on a song-to-song basis, though. Some songs, I’ll start with bass and then move to lead guitar. Other times, I’ll just bring the chords to the table. Clay and I split lead guitar pretty evenly, so if I’m playing lead, then I end up starting with bass for the chords. It really depends on the song.”
Like her mentor Albini, who has engineered for Nirvana, PJ Harvey, The Pixies and more, Bognanno records exclusively in analog. “It makes the most sense to me,” she says. “It just clicks with me better, and it’s more enjoyable. I mean, I love the way it sounds, but I’m not doing it because of that. I just prefer to record on tape. It’s simpler to me, and it forces me to commit more, and it limits me with the tracks. I like having certain limitations. I think it helps me keep everything as natural as it can be.”
Doing what’s natural is central to Bognanno’s musical philosophy. Her lyrics, which deal with deeply personal issues, seem to come from lived experience, but when I ask if it’s important for her writing to always come from a place of lived experience, she laughs.
“It’s funny because I get asked that all the time, but I don’t think of my lyrics as being too personal,” she says. “Like, compared to what? But I think that as a songwriter, the way I know how to write is about personal experiences. I’m not good at thinking up certain situations and writing about them. So I think I navigate towards that direction because that’s what I’m familiar with, and that’s how I know how to write. Usually, when I’m writing a song, I’m frustrated, or I’m trying to process certain feelings or get through a situation, and it’s kind of a tool for that. So naturally, it ends up being a little bit personal.”
I ask if she’s ever tried to write about something completely foreign to her. “Sometimes, but more just as an exercise,” she responds. “With the way that I sing and the way with we play, it works a lot better if it’s something that I can actually feel, that actually aggravates me, or makes me happy or makes me sad. We have to play it every night for the following year-and-a-half, so it’s a lot more difficult to do that if it’s something that I’m trying to relate to, but the relation isn’t there firsthand.”
Part of indie rock’s appeal is often its intense relatability, the feeling that hearing an artist’s music gives the listener special insight into that artist’s personal experience. But Bognanno claims she doesn’t write with relatability in mind.
“I just go with what I know,” she says. “It seems to be relatable. I often get comments about certain songs. So if that happens then great, but it’s not a priority when I’m writing. I try not to think about what the listener is gonna like. Sometimes it happens subconsciously because of course I want people to like it, but it’s not my priority.”