Imagine writing down a handful of angry memories on a crisp sheet of computer paper. Now imagine dousing that piece of paper with kerosene, crumpling it up, throwing it in the middle of your driveway, throwing a match at it, and then driving over the flaming mass, forward and back, until it is just a pile of ashes.
That’s essentially the image I get when listening to The Nashville-based four-piece, Bully, whose steady trickle of great, grunge-inflected rock songs has me so excited for the June 23 release of their debut album Feels Like. The band recorded the album at legendary producer Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio, the same Chicago recording studio where Bognanno interned and honed her sound engineering skill set. As the band’s main architect–primary songwriter, frontwoman, and producer–Bognanno is a dauntingly impressive creative force whose music is at once vulnerably reflexive and ferocious.
Her voice can careen from sweet to an almost-hoarse caterwaul in an instant. For this reason it is easy to imagine Bognanno reprimanding and then consoling a younger version of herself in many of the autobiographical moments of her songs, even though she is just really “trying to hide from [her] mind”.
Needless to say, I have been digging everything about the new band, so I caught up with them at South By Southwest in Austin to find out as much as I could. Over the course of our conversation we discussed everything from Furbys, to their favorite new music, to the abstract and real frustrations of being labeled because of Alicia’s gender. Press play and read on:
Nerdist: What are you guys listening to in the van while you are touring?
Alicia Bognanno: Courtney Barnett!
Reece Lazarus: That song “Depreston”, I swear to god, that’s going to be my song for 2015. I know everyone else in the band likes “Pedestrian at Best” better, but that song makes me shed a tear, you know? It’s seriously awesome.
Alicia: I like “Pedestrian at Best” and everything else that she does, but “Pedestrian at Best” is my favorite.
Nerdist: What’s the hardest thing about touring so far?
Stewart Copeland: Missing your pets. I have a bird named Sherman; he’s a pineapple conure.
Alicia: I have a dog named Mezzy.
Nerdist: Alicia, when did you discover you could sing?
Alicia: Well, I only have started singing like the way I sing now, for I would say maybe two years. When I was growing up I loved singing. I wasn’t really a great singer or anything, but just the more I started writing, I kind of found my own voice. Yeah I mean, I’ve been singing forever, but like this for two years. I would say it goes in and out of just being mellow and smooth and a little bit melodic to some screaming.
Nerdist: How did you arrive at a sort of grunge-influenced sound? Where did that come from?
Stewart: Whenever we’re working a song out, Alicia comes in and plays the guitar, and then we start adding in parts and jamming, until it starts to become more of a song. I guess they whole grungy thing comes from what she brings to the table for that first thing. She never comes in with an acoustic guitar. She comes in with her electric guitar with a big muff on it. It’s always kind of supposed to have that sound, I guess. Is that right, you think?
Alicia: Yeah. I think a lot of the bands that I like come from that era, so I subconsciously it ends up sounding like that. It’s not intentional, but I’m happy with it.
“I feel like when I was younger, there was a rumor going around that Furbys were illegal.”
Nerdist: What would you say are some non-musical influences for the band, if there are any?
Reece : I’m just laughing about how much we’ve been talking about Furbys lately.
Nerdist: You mean those hate demons with f–king beaks and shit?
Reece: They were terrifying.
Alicia: I feel like when I was younger there was a rumor going around that Furbys were illegal. Is that ever a thing that happened? Maybe not.
Stewart: Probably comics. We’re really into comics. But as far as her songwriting, where’s she coming from, I don’t hear a lot of that stuff. It feels way more personal to her experience than embedded in a time. It seems like she always has these parts where it’s like just a tiny bit of information that seems pertinent to the thing that she’s talking about exclusively. It seems like a personal thing. It’s a lot different than when Pavement drops in a line about Smashing Pumpkins or something. It doesn’t really happen in Bully songs it seems like. It always seems like she is talking about a slight moment from her personal world, universe.
Nerdist: Are all the memories linked by any common thread?
Alicia: No. Each song is totally its own separate thing. I didn’t have an overall theme that I wanted to run into every song. It’s just totally different situations and circumstances per song.
Nerdist: Where do you find that it comes from most of the time?
Alicia: Usually personal experiences. Just like what I’m dealing with at the time, or something that’s been on my mind that I can’t get rid of, or something that’s bothering me.
Nerdist: I was listening to the song “Milkman” and trying to figure out the significance of that profession.
Alicia: With the song “Milkman”, a lot of it is just meaning, “I could doing this, but I am doing this.” It is a weird profession. I think at the time I thought it was strangely kind of a little bit romantic, just thinking of somebody you know dropping something off at your porch everyday. It’s just this really weird relationship.
Stewart: It’s also specifically male which I always thought was such an interesting, awesome part of that song and picking that thing. Yeah, because your mind goes so many different ways when you hear that line. I remember the first time you played that for me I was like, “Oh f–k yeah!” It was so different.
“Female gets used as a genre more than a gender sometimes…I mean, that’s shit basically.”
Nerdist: I know this is likely a topic that comes up a lot, but, Alicia, I want to know what your experience has been being the sole woman and architect of the group. Has that affected or motivated you in any way?
Alicia: I don’t even think about gender really. I notice it more because it gets brought to my attention and everybody writes about it. Then it’s like, “Best Female Bands” or best whatever. A lot of times that’s where it’s coming from. Maybe other people have different experiences, but for me, we’re all just friends. We don’t think about it. We don’t even notice it. It’s not like we’re around a lot of misogynistic people who are like, “Girls can’t play music!”
One time I read this thing, it was this blog and it was like, “Tips for Being the Only Girl in the Band.” It was all these weird tips like, “Here’s where you can pee.” Yeah, in a toilet?
Reece: Female gets used as a genre more than a gender sometimes. Seeing the bands we get put on shows with and then also putting shows together myself, you get kind of pushed to put like a “female band” as a genre, like grouped with another female band. It’s not even marketing it’s like, this music is female. As like, this music is rock. I mean, that’s shit, basically. It’s hard to get out of, because it’s really ingrained, you know?
Alicia: That is the one thing that, thank you for reminding Reece, that just bothers the shit out of me. You’ll be on a bill at it’ll just be all female-fronted bands but they sound nothing alike, and there’s no reason they should be together except for the fact that it’s like, “A girl’s singing.” That’s f–king bullshit. Any promoter, anybody who’s doing that or thinks that when another female fronted band comes to mind because that’s what’s headlining or whatever–I mean, that’s just wrong. That’s where the problem is. I feel like you shouldn’t look at it like that. You should just look at it as music, and other bands that it sounds like. Just because it’s a girl singing doesn’t mean you have to find another girl singing to match it. Actually, we’re lucky because it hasn’t happened recently, but there are times where we’ll be put with bands, and it’ll be like an electronic band with a girl … it’s just like, you’re not fooling anybody. We know why you’re doing this–because you’re trying to get an all-female bill, because you think for some reason you have to. Which sometimes, can be awesome and super powerful and a great thing. But it should be by the genre and how the music sounds, and not because of the gender of the band, or the person leading the band.
Stewart: I don’t really know. I was just going to say all of the good music as far as rock ‘n roll f–king goes, that’s coming out right now–it’s by female fronted bands or people with female leaders. I think it’s coming from female writers. They have a different perspective, and are doing something different with the genre. I don’t know, maybe I’m incorrect.
Alicia: We get asked this question a lot so sometimes it just gets way deeper.
Stewart: Also we’re not the ones to answer it. We’re just trying to write good songs.