Feels Like Something Real
Nov 19, 2015 Web Exclusive Photography by Pooneh Ghana
Alicia Bognanno is tired. You can practically hear her rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, even through the static of the phone. Luckily that weariness is buoyed out of annoyance by her ineffable excitement for where her life is currently headed.
From Lollapalooza to Pitchfork Fest to Nashville and back to Chicago, Bognanno and her bandmates in Bully (drummer Stewart Copeland, guitarist Clayton Parker, bassist Reece Lazarus) have been on a fairly epic tour of festivals and late night TV appearances supporting their debut album Feels Like, and the exhausting process somehow hasn't totally hampered Bognanno's spirit yet.
Built on the foundation of Bognanno's grungy primal screams and crunchy guitar riffs, Bully conjure up plenty of '90s nostalgia and comparisons to bands such as Nirvana and The Breeders (a logical leap, as Bognanno cut her teeth interning for none other than Steve Albini at his Chicago studio). Bognanno is no slacker when it comes to music though; with a degree in audio engineering and a scientific mind for recording, she co-engineered Feels Like, and it pays off in the record's cutting fuzz and artfully tarnished vocals. With refreshingly honest lyrics about low self-esteem, sexuality, and missed periods, Bognanno makes Bully stand out in the pack of up-and-coming neo-grunge bands.
We caught up with Bognanno at home in Nashville between festivals to talk about making an album from the inside out (and shared some tips on how to stay sane while spending hours a day in a van filled with dudes).
Natasha Aftandilians (Under the Radar): You just got back from playing two major festival stages; has it felt overwhelming, or nerve-wracking at any point, to play shows of that size, or are you settling into it with ease?
Alicia Bognanno (Bully): I think we're settling into it pretty well. It's not really how big the shows are that's overwhelming...I would definitely say by the time Lollapalooza came around, we had been out touring nonstop, and we were like, "Okay. Play this. It's gonna be awesome. And then we need a break." So, we have a small break right now, which has been really nice. But the big stages, no, I think that depending on the crowd, it's usually really fun and exciting.
Do you enjoy the touring part of being in a band?
No, I like it. It definitely gets exhausting, just because of the nature of it is kind of nonstop. But it's really awesome to be able to play every night.
Your boyfriend is the drummer for Bully; what is the best part of you guys touring and playing together, and what's the worst part been so far?
I would say we're pretty good when it comes to band stuff and keeping it professional, but I would say the best part is when we go places that we've never been before, or have off days, and we're in cool places, to be able to experience that together. Worst part is probably—and I would say this is probably touring in general—but just never really getting space. It's definitely the toughest part about being on the road.
What do you do when you're surrounded by all these people to clear your head?
Every once in a while, we'll play a radio show, or some show that'll provide hotel rooms for each of us, because when we tour on the road, we obviously are not all staying in our own hotel room. We can't afford that. But every once in a while, just doing that really helps. Also in the van we all have our headphones on, so no one's forcing anyone else to listen to music or podcasts that no one wants to listen to. Usually it's just the four of us, and even with our tour manager, we'll get a trailer [for gear], so everyone gets their own space. If we didn't have our own space in the van, I don't know how it would be possible. And it also is really nice that neither of us is super-sensitive towards how each other's acting, so we can get to a venue and everybody can go their own way for an hour, and it's totally fine. No one's like, "Why were you just alone?"
So, I understand that you were really largely responsible for recording and engineering the new album that you guys put out. And I just thought that was interesting, mainly because you were really hands-on in it, but also because I don't think there are a lot of women who work in the recording and engineering side of making music. What was the process like for you?
We recorded at Electrical Audio [Steve Albini's Chicago studio where Bognanno interned], which is this studio that we're really comfortable at. My assistant engineer was Jon [San Paolo], who's just a really smart, awesome person who I knew would be able to let me take over, and if I needed advice or another suggestion, I could just turn to him and be like, "What do you think about this?" And he would be there...it was just us and then the guys, so gender [was something] nobody even noticed—it was just the band and then [Jon] was the only other person that was involved during the whole process. So, it was really planned out ahead of time, and strategically so, so that there weren't any surprises. We weren't thinking like, "Let's go make a record," and then handing it over to someone that we had never met before, that we were about to be with 21 days, 11 hours a day. It was a pretty smooth process, for the most part.
You got your degree in audio engineering; did you ever see that as being a possible career path, or was it just something you did to have something to fall back on?
Well, actually having an audio engineering degree isn't any more stable than being a musician. It's not the easiest, you know. At the time, when I was studying it, it was because I felt really passionate about it, and I planned on doing that. I also didn't expect to be in a band full-time. I knew I always wanted to play music, but I didn't ever just assume that it would get to that point where that was the only thing I was doing. So, yeah, I always just did it because I really liked it. I found it very interesting.
You've talked about the differences between doing recording digitally versus analog, and it seems like everything in the world of music has become very digital—the way we get music, the way we make it. Does it feel sort of like it's a losing battle to prefer those analog techniques, or do you feel like that is the best way to make music?
I prefer to do everything analog when it comes to tracking our record, because that's just the method I prefer. Because it clicks with me, and it makes more sense. I think it's a little bit more physical, and being able to mix on a console is a lot more appealing to me than staring at a computer screen forever. And also, I like that it kind of forces you to commit. You can't just work on a mix for a month, you have to be happy with it and move on. There's less options. Not to say that it's limiting—there's a million things you can do with analog too, but I would say overall, there's less options—which I definitely prefer, because I don't like to get carried away with that sort of thing. So, just personally for me, I like it. It makes more sense. It's just clicked with me better than Pro Tools, which is why I do it.... Doing everything on a computer just stresses me out.
If you had to describe what your band's sound is in a few words, what would you say?
I would say it's pretty raw, and for the most part—raw and energetic, and upbeat for the most part.
I think a word that I keep seeing tossed around in terms of describing the lyrics and your singing style is really "honest" and "open." What does that mean to you?
I dunno. Maybe "honest" just means "upfront." I mean, maybe [because] all the songs are about real-life situations and experiences that have happened and real emotions. I guess, as opposed to me writing fairytales and turning them into songs.
You said in an interview, "I thrive in a place with no money and no friends." Do you think that in the future, when that changes, it's gonna be a harder time for you to write music? Or was that just your attitude at the time when you wrote this album?
No, that's an exaggeration. I definitely have always been the kind of person who works best and is more productive when I'm allowed to have my own space. That was me talking about when I was interning [at Steve Albini's studio], I couldn't go out, I couldn't do anything else except for focus on that one thing and be productive. I've always been that way. I just always work better alone, and with space.
When you aren't writing or recording music, what are you doing with your time? Do you have any other hobbies or passions?
I wish. No. Mostly, at least recently—since, when we're home, it's only been for a week or two at a time—and usually, that week that I'm home, I'm just doing a bunch of Bully work. Merch stuff, and prepping for the next tour, and making sure we have road cases, and getting the guitars set up, and just that kind of stuff that's been keeping me busy. But I have a dog at home that I really love. I like to read a lot.
What kind of dog do you have?
She's a mutt. She has a lot of shepherd in her. She's like a shepherd-husky mix.
Do you ever wish you could take her on tour with you?
Oh, my God. Yeah. All the time. [Laughs] But she's huge. She's, like, 75 pounds. If she would come in the van, she would shed everywhere.
When you started this or now, do you have any goals or dreams for what you want Bully to be, or for yourself as a musician?
I just want to keep being able to make records, and really become a better musician and songwriter, and keep playing live, and just hopefully become even more comfortable and better musicians live.
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