The word “bully” has a negative connotation in 2015, one heavy with menace and violence. A bully is an instigator, an aggressor—someone who can spot your weaknesses and exploit them mercilessly. It’s a curious name for a Nashville quartet that is transforming familiar ‘90s alt-rock (Dinosaur Jr, Pavement, Weezer) into smart, sharp-edged millennial indie rock, but “bully” is certainly an apt description for the band’s churning guitars, rambunctious rhythms, and tightly coiled intensity. Their debut Feels Like sounds alternately like a balled fist and a fresh bruise.
More crucially, the word “bully” is a perfect distillation of frontwoman Alicia Bognanno’s visceral approach to songwriting. She trades in steely observations, raw-nerve confessions, and intense anger directed almost exclusively at herself—although a few bystanders and bad exes might get caught in the crossfire. Her voice rises from sugar-sweet to scratchy howl as she bares her most harrowing fears to the world. In other words, Bognanno is her own bully.
Not merely the band’s vocalist, songwriter, guitarist, and all-around visionary, she is also Bully’s producer and engineer. Her musical life in music is inseparable from her experiences studying audio techniques and technology. Growing up in Minnesota, Bognanno often made up her own lyrics and melodies—nothing so complete as a song—but it wasn’t until her senior year of high school that she found an outlet for those creative urges. “I took an audio engineering class at this alternative school,” she recalls, adding that sessions were held at the local zoo. “Suddenly, it was like, Wow! I have a way to record stuff. Now I need to figure out how to play an instrument.” She learned piano quickly, but guitar was more difficult; she had more fun using Logic Pro X to loop beats for some of her friends who were aspiring rappers.
Audio engineering engaged her in ways that other subjects had not, and Bognanno credits her teacher with recommending an inexpensive four-year Bachelor of Science program at Middle Tennessee State University, about thirty miles south of Nashville. There she immersed herself in courses in recording techniques, music theory and history, even copyright law. She even took another stab at guitar, this time with better results. “I think learning just some basic theory helped a lot, but I think it was because I picked up an electric guitar instead of an acoustic,” she explains. “It was a lot more fun.”
While the school emphasized digital recording, Boganno became obsessed with analog equipment. Part of the attraction was the richer and roomier sound, which opens up new and livelier textures in the instruments. “It’s hard to bust out of what your instructors are showing you and what all your classmates are doing,” she says, “but there were two teachers who maintained the tape machines, and they gave me lessons on the mechanics and techniques.”
Bognanno used that experience to pursue an internship at Electrical Audio, the Chicago studio complex owned by Steve Albini and host to legendary sessions by some of Bully’s heroes and biggest influences: the Breeders, Liz Phair, Superchunk, even the Stooges. When she returned to Tennessee, she started working at a local studio (Battle Tapes), ran sound at one of the best venues in town (the Stone Fox), and formed Bully as essentially a solo project backed by a trio of friends: Stewart Copeland on drums, Clayton Parker on guitar, and Reece Lazarus on bass.
Despite Bognanno’s expertise as an audio engineer, the band is less a studio entity than a stage act, one that has quickly developed a reputation for its ferocious live shows (the Nashville Scene named Bully the top local band in its 2014 Best of Nashville issue.) On record, Bognanno strives to retain the band’s formidable guitar attack while highlighting her boldly candid lyrics. “At this point in my life I always want everything I make to sound like we’re playing live,” she explains. “That’s why I didn’t put any keyboards or any extra stuff on there. Some people don’t like that, but I had to go with my gut.”
The band recorded live at Electrical Audio, doing as few takes as possible. Once they’d gotten a good performance, the songs were mixed immediately, not merely to save time but to preserve the excitable urgency of the music. Overseeing every part of the process put extra pressure on Bognanno to deliver some truly unbridled vocal performances. She practically screams the lyrics to opener “I Remember,” documenting her memories of a curdled romance as the guitars roar and tumble behind her:
I remember showing up at your house
I remember hurting you so much
And I remember the way your sheets smelled!
It made for an intense session. “Stuart was trying to get some footage while we were in the studio, and he said he couldn’t be in the same room with me while I was recording those vocals. It was just too intense. I don’t even know how it comes out of me.”
A deeply personal album by an artist bravely mining her own life, Feels Like is all about trying to figure yourself out—about holding yourself accountable and acting like an adult in a society that doesn’t offer very many good examples. It’s a coming-of-age album, which only makes Bognanno more relatable. “Sometimes I wonder if people think I’m a complete mess,” she says. “It’s not easy to put yourself out there like, but it’s true. Everyone goes through shit like that.”