Nashville’s Bully are modern day pioneers when it comes to intertwining emotional sincerity and a searing garage punk sound. Led by Minnesotan born and raised native Alicia Bognanno, the band are defined by their lead singer’s signature scream, a sheer force of grit that propels frank lyrics over the top of her seafoam guitar’s fuzzed and distorted chords.
Since the release of their 2015 debut Feels Like, the now four-piece have toured relentlessly, playing major festivals such as Pitchfork Music Festival and Lollapalooza, not to mention visiting our shores for Victoria’s Meredith Music Festival. And now? “We’ve just been practising a bunch and getting ready for the release of the record,” says Bognanno. “I feel really good about it.”
I try and keep writing every day, just to keep those muscles moving.
While their debut Feels Like was a coming-of-age record made up of tight, nervy punk tracks like ‘Milkman’, ‘I Remember’ and ‘Brainfreeze’, their latest 12-track LP Losing takes its time. “Structurally I think the songwriting has a little bit more space. It’s not so much a couple of chords and a few minutes of real quick punk, and then it’s over.”
The cool-and-collected 27 year old Bognanno carefully weaves her identity and her craft, giving listeners the chance to hear her uncensored opinions on mental illness, American politics, sexuality and gender dynamics. Oh, and she certainly doesn’t shy away from the odd song about dud weed and homebody behaviour.
“I try and keep writing every day, just to keep those muscles moving, even though I know that they won’t all be keepers,” she says. Clearly, that practise has paid off: Losing expands on Feels Like’s nod to wired minds on ‘Running’, and songs like ‘Spiral’ are full of hurricane swirls of emotion, but there’s an added confidence to Bognanno’s lyricism; she takes control of whatever thought she’s stuck out on by writing and confronting it.
“I think [Losing] sounds a little bit more mature than Feels Like,” explains Bognanno. “I mean, between the two records we had about two years of us just playing together every night, getting used to each other creatively. I think that helped us a lot,” she says of working with guitarist Clayton Parker, bassist Reece Lazarus and drummer Stewart Copeland (no, not the one from the Police). “There’s also more background vocals, there’s more harmonies… It’s a little bit happier.”
Bognanno has a Bachelors of Science in audio engineering and was mentored by Steve Albini — the infamously grouchy engineer behind Nirvana’s In Utero — at his studio Electrical Audio in Chicago. There she proved to be one of their most promising interns, with Albini telling NME, “If everybody in the studio worked as hard as Alicia, then everybody’s records would be Number One hits.”
Inspired by bands like The Breeders and Silkworm’s analogue approach to recording, Bognanno chose to engineer and mix both of Bully’s records herself at Electrical Audio, after being drawn to the quality of its analogue equipment and tape machines.
“[Analogue] doesn’t present us with those options that can be kind of a distraction sometimes. It helps me to make commitments; to just kind of get things done and move on from it. It also pushes us to play really well and make sure that everybody’s giving 100 per cent in every performance, rather than replying on a computer after the fact.”
Some listeners have already become convinced that Losing is about a crumbling romantic relationship, but Bognanno explains she had no intention of constructing the LP around any one particular story arc. “This record was the same as the last, in that every song is really about it’s own thing and different situation,” explains Bognanno. “I think that it’s perceived as sort of a breakup record, because it seems like it’s about a certain person in every song, but it’s not entirely. They’re all about different subject matters. Overall, there was no goal in mind or message I wanted to craft throughout the whole record as I was writing it.”
One theme that ties Feels Like to Losing is the examination of gender dynamics. While ‘Too Tough’ looks at the disparity of emotional labour in relationships (“You’re just too tough to talk it out and talk about it / You’re tryna wear me down”), ‘Seeing It’ navigates gendered violence, ending with a chaotic instrumental that appears to mimic the distress that comes part and parcel with living in a society still unsafe for women. “Gender dynamics are on my mind all the time. Yeah, definitely.
“I mean, [music is] a really good creative outlet – and it’s therapeutic,” Bognanno explains. “I really like playing live every night and I like creating something that other people can connect with.
“We have a bunch of shows coming up and hopefully we’ll be on the road for the next year and a half, and then we’ll just be back in the studio, doing the same thing for the third record,” she says.
As to what the third record might bring up for Bognanno, the singer claims to be unsure. “I mean, everything I’m writing about now I’m sure I’ll be sick of by the time I’m writing [the third record].” She laughs. “So it’s hard to say.”
Will we get a visit anytime soon? “Going to Australia last year was definitely a highlight for us. It was really beautiful. None of us had ever been there before. I’m not sure when we’ll come back, but we definitely plan on it.”