Recently, two things made me feel really old. In planning my little sister’s bachelorette party, one of her friends, about fifteen years my junior, emailed everyone asking what we’re gonna wear. “Black dresses? Jeans and boots?” I cried a little because I realized it’s been so, so long since I cared enough to ask what my friends would be wearing to something. Then, Alicia Bognanno told me she was four when grunge was big. In the ‘90s. If all of you reading this were also four then, please keep that information to yourself.
For someone who didn’t grow up with grunge or ‘90s alternative rock, Alicia and her bandmates in Bully have managed to make one of the most exciting, ‘90s grunge/alternative rock records I’ve heard since – well, the ‘90s. Maybe even before that. Some of the expected innocence is ditched for a touch more wisdom, but the aggression, raw emotion, distortion and upbeat, catchy melodies that make up Losing are in full force. On stage, Alicia is relatable and sympathetic while emanating a super cool, devil-may-care, guitar god vibe. You know, basically, what everyone single guitar player on earth strives for.
I met up with Alicia after Bully’s soundcheck at Music Hall of Williamsburg a couple months back. She kindly let me interrupt her pre-show salad to let me geek out and air out my inner fan girl.
Anna Blumenthal/EarthQuaker Devices: I want to congratulate you on the new album, Losing. It's really awesome. I love it. I have some of the songs in my head from listening to it just a couple times already.
Alicia Bognanno: Oh, awesome.
EQD: You recorded it at Steve Albini's studio. I know that you have a long history with him, and that you interned at his studio. How was it recording with him?
AB: It was great. We actually didn't record with him. I engineered both records. But he owns the studio. I think it's easily misinterpreted, but I did intern there and spent some time and sessions with him and the other house engineers. It was great. Very informative. They take really good care of the studio and all the gear. I learned endless knowledge when it comes to mic placement, and microphone usage, and different preamps.
EQD: That's awesome that you engineered your own album too. That must've been hectic.
AB: Yeah. It was pretty wild.
EQD: Did you engineer the last album also?
AB: Yeah. I do it all to tape, so that's a big reason why we go there.
EQD: I was reading about how you were saying it's the way you love to do it, but it's so time consuming and ridiculous.
AB: Yes. It's tedious.
EQD: Do you think it ends up sounding better on tape?
AB: I just like the method of it, and since I've been the one engineering it, I want to go with the method I'm most comfortable with. It forces you to commit to things that you don't normally have to if you're recording on software. Also, I like that you have to make choices and you don't have endless options for everything you do. It's nicer for me. I'm a very indecisive person. I don't want to be able to do anything I can all the time - do whatever track and completely manipulate it to something that it isn't actually [happening] in real life. That's why I like doing it on tape.
EQD: You have to be really on top of your game too. It makes punch-ins harder and everything. Were you involved in producing the album too or did you have a producer?
AB: No. We don't use a producer.
EQD: It seems like you've always had a pretty clear vision of what you wanted to do since you went to school for recording, and then you were interning with Steve Albini. What did you learn from working with him?
AB: Mostly mic placement, mic usage, what they use for vocals, or what they're likely to use for kick or for drum floor mics in the room. And a lot of stuff about the tape machine and the analog equipment, because that information's kind of hard to find. A lot of times, if you're just Googling it online you don't know how valid it is or who it's coming from. That was the most sacred information that I learned. Any question I had pretty much about the process, or the machines, or aligning them, or editing with them, they knew, and that was incredibly beneficial, because it's hard to find people who have endless information about analog recording.
EQD: Are you really into gear?
AB: A little bit. I mean, I can't afford any of it. I have saved up and got a couple of my favorite microphones.
EQD: What about guitars, amps, and pedals?
AB: I wouldn't say I'm a gear head. I know what I like. In general, for guitar I like a Humbucker and a beefy or warmer sound. Most of my pedals and the amp that I use, which is a Bassman head through a really, really old Marshall cab, all caters to that.
EQD: It seems like Bully has been touring almost constantly for the past couple years. Is life on the road now normal for you?
AB: Yeah. I love being on the road. I like it better than being in town. It's nice to be out playing and feeling like you're doing something, and it's nice to get that feedback. It's a good feeling.
EQD: Can you talk about some of your musical influences? To me, your songs and your singing seem to be really emotional, and raw, but also upbeat. The music sounds to me like its roots are in a lot of 90s grunge and punk. I also hear some of the riot grrrl bands in your delivery.
AB: Yeah. I really like a lot of stuff that came out of that era. As far as honesty goes, I remember being a huge fan of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville way after it came out. I'm 27, so I wasn't growing up with grunge. I was four years old, so I wasn't aware of it. But I remember listening to that and just really appreciating her honesty and almost a little bit of her vulgarity, but that’s so subject to certain people and what they think. I constantly get asked about how personal our lyrics are, but every time I do, I think, "Compared to what?"
EQD: Right. Exactly.
AB: I really love Kim Deal from The Breeders. I'm a huge Kim Gordon fan. I like the Replacements, and PJ Harvey. I really like her recordings, which were done by Steve.
EQD: Are there any bands you played with recently or current bands that you're digging that we should know about?
AB: Aye Nako who we're on tour with now is really awesome. Flasher I've been really into. Big Ups opened this tour for us and they were great. They're from New York. I really like Palehound's new record.
EQD: Do you have full say on who you tour with now?
AB: For the most part, yeah. It depends on the tour and the rooms that they've booked. If they booked stuff where they need help selling tickets, we're gonna get a lot of push to go with bands who will help sell tickets. But if the shows do fine on their own, then we can pretty much take whoever we want.
EQD: In listening to your songs it made me realize that none of the really big ‘90s grunge bands were female fronted, and as much as I love those bands, I can relate a lot more to your music and your point of view. It's really refreshing to see a woman on stage be so open, and honest, and raw about what you're dealing with and what you're feeling. The relatability aspect I think is really important.
AB: That's great. Thank you.
EQD: Are you into a lot of those ‘90s Seattle grunge bands?
AB: Not really. I was never a diehard Nirvana fan or anything. I like them, but I think when I found out about them they were already ginormous, so I didn't get to appreciate them on a smaller, indie scale before it hit. Of course, we're on Sub Pop so I'm not like, "Oh, I hate those bands." They're great, but I would be lying if I said they were a big influence. I think it would be more towards the other stuff of that era. Kim Deal, and Kim Gordon, who weren't necessarily labeled grunge. Maybe more alternative rock.
EQD: You talked a little bit about your current setup, in terms of guitars. Do you have a bunch of guitars or do you have just one main guitar?
AB: I have a bunch of guitars, but I only play one. I can't seem to leave it. It's like a Frankenstein guitar. Every part on it is different, but essentially it's a Squier ‘51 body. It's really great. I got it as a gift. [It was] my first electric guitar. I think that's why I have a hard time subbing it out for other ones. Usually if I'm not playing that I'll be playing some sort of Fender Jazzmaster. Or a [Fender] Offset. We did a campaign for them, and I really liked those.
EQD: Yeah. I saw those Fender ads. They were great.
AB: Those guitars were awesome. I have an Offset, and I have two Jazzmasters, and a couple acoustics, and I have a Tele. The Tele’s just more for me to play at home, but on the road, I stick with my guitar that I've had forever. It's a ’51 Squier body and the neck is by a company called Bluesman. It's a small company about 45 minutes outside of Nashville. It was a gift to me when I first started playing electric. It rules, I love it.
EQD: What pedals are you using now?
AB: I'm using the Ghost Echo, and the Acapulco Gold, which I'll use as a doubles distortion. If I'm playing, and I'm going to go into a lead part I turn on the Acapulco Gold. I also have an old Rogue delay. I still need to get a really basic delay, but I have a $30 delay that I got off eBay when I was 19 on my pedal board that hasn't left (laughs).
EQD: That's the Rogue?
AB: That's the analog Rogue delay, yeah. And it’s not on my board right now, but I use the Dunes a lot. I used it pretty much on every song of the record as my distortion. And then, on there now is the Greer Amps distortion, which is a little bit muddier than the Dunes distortion.
EQD: What role do effects play in your songwriting? Do they help you write or is it something you add later once a song is done?
AB: They totally help me write. I think that it has a lot to do with why I even picked up guitar. Once I could start messing with pedals and playing electric it just seemed so much more appealing and I felt like it was the first time I found a real format to translate what was going on in my head into a song. It definitely helps. It's kind of crazy - you could be messing around with something, just a few chords clean. And then, even just in the writing process, kicking on your distortion just helps you see so much quicker where that song is gonna end up. I really like effects. I think they can totally change a song. I use them from the beginning of the songwriting process. Not very loud. But, I am always cranking my pedal board. If not right off the bat, then it will for sure hit that point before it's sent off. I didn't even start playing with reverb until this record. Just little things, but I think it totally caters to the song writing process. For me it does.
EQD: That's awesome. Are your bandmates really into pedals too?
AB: Mm-hmm. I don't know what's on their boards right now. A bunch of EarthQuaker pedals (laughs). We all have the same size board, so we all have about five or six pedals on there.
EQD: Awesome. Do you write all the songs, or do you guys write them together?
AB: I write all the songs.
EQD: What's next? Are you gonna be touring for the foreseeable future?
AB: Yeah. We’ll be touring for a while. Hopefully for a while. We'll do Europe. We're working on Australia and hopefully Japan too. We've done Australia before and Europe before, but we've never been to Japan. We really want to go.
EQD: Your new album is called Losing. Do you feel like you're losing in the sense of not winning? Are you losing things, or people, or parts of yourself? I was thinking that losing certain things could be a good thing, like losing things or people that are holding you back or shedding things that aren't helping you.
AB: It's all those. Everything you just said was the answer to that, sort of. There's nothing really specific about it. It's kind of up to your interpretation, but it's definitely not as negative as it reads right off the bat. I think a lot of the songs sound heavy, and super dissonant, and the lyrics are pretty brutal, but in the end it's kind of about taking back ownership and finding some sort of empowerment throughout that situation.
Bully's Losing is available on Sub Pop Records and at your local record store.
Anna Blumenthal handles Sales and Artist Relations for EarthQuaker Devices. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, plays bass in Sit N Spin, DJs 60s soul and R&B at various Brooklyn bars, and has seen Cheap Trick over 30 times.