Every so often, a band comes along that really matters. With a debut album already starting to feel like a modern classic, Bully are on the edge of something huge.
Words: Stephen Ackroyd. Interview: Ali Shutler.
Hype is a curious beast. To claim that Bully haven’t benefitted from their fair share of rabid attention would be a tad disingenuous; over the months before the release of their debut album, the oh-so-zeitgeisty blogs chattered loudly with their name. But Bully, they’re not like other buzz bands.
Their early tracks burned bright enough to excite anyone with an inbuilt craving for the new and shiny, but where usually that interest starts to wither away as a full length arrives, with Bully it only intensified. Their debut, ‘Feels Like’, wasn’t just a few underground flavours of the month padded out with sound-a-like filler. From the first play it was obvious – this was a special record from a very special band.
Alicia Bognanno doesn’t seem to have the time nor inclination for the ego to go along with her band’s success. Bully’s frontperson, primary songwriter, engineer – there’s no way you could accuse her of not putting the hard work in – but when you’re so close to the coal face, it’s sometimes hard to tell exactly what you’ve created.
“I can’t even tell what it is until I’ve had space from it and can come back to it,” she reveals, when asked what she makes of the album. “I can definitely say that when I listened back I was pleased. I’ve been on the other end where I’ve listened back to songs I’ve taken a break from and thought ‘eurgh, I want to scrap that’. But with this record there’s things I could definietly take and there’s things I could leave. There’s things I want to do differently for the next one but overall, I’m pretty happy with it.”
Read back that statement. They’ve just dropped undeniably one of the albums of the year – one built not on faddish trend or flash-in-the-pan opportunism, but songs that feel like they’ll still ring just as true a decade from now. They’re riding the love for it around the globe, playing headline dates to fans converted, largely, via word of mouth rather than a huge marketing spend from some guy in a suit who sees them as a sure fire route to a big end of year bonus. Despite that – despite the fact that Bognanno has every right to be doing victory laps of her hotel room every single night – there’s no grandstanding, no kicking back, no careerist suggestion they’ve ‘made it’. That’s what makes Bully the kind of band to believe in.
“Just about every interview I do asks about Electrical Audio, which is fine but I give the same answer everytime. And I always get asked about either the honesty or the frankness to the lyrics, those are the two ones that I always, always get asked about.”
Bognanno may be getting tired of talking about it, but if you’d rocked back up to Steve Albini’s studio after interning there to record your debut album – and that debut album went on to sound like a modern classic befitting that legacy – you’d expect to get a few questions about it too.
“I never thought I’d ever have the opportunity to go back.” she enthuses. It’s just a really amazing studio. There’s a kitchen there, bedrooms, showers, you pretty much have no reason to leave and I’ve known everyone that works there. I can be really comfortable around a bunch of helpful minds.”
It’s clear that first spell working at Electric had an impact on what would become Bully. Surrounded by so much musical history, Bognanno took the oportunity to hoover up as much knowledge as she could.
“I was mostly focusing on engineering stuff,” she explains, “but in my downtime I was trying to study the history of the studio and the history of the different eras of rock in Chicago. There were definitely a bunch of bands I really liked that stood out, which I’d say was pretty influential.
“I wanted to know about the place where I was spending all my time. There’s such a community. There are bands that come back time after time to produce their record there. It’s nice to know the story of it; why they keep coming back, who knows who, who used to play in what bands together and all that kind of stuff. Be a little more familiar with the people who help keep the lights on there.”
On returning, there was no hanging around. Bully knew exactly what they planned to do. “We did seven days of bass and tracking,” Bognanno recalls, “four days of vocals then 9 days of mixing. We tried to get everything, for the most part, worked out before we went in there. The only thing that came together in the studio was ‘I Remember’ and that was a last minute thing.”
That “last minute thing” is part of the reason Bognanno is tired of being asked about her lyrical content. While others choose to use their songs to hide the parts of themselves which could be a bit too close to the bone, there’s none of that on ‘Feels Like’. From the word go, it’s raw honesty.
“The whole reason it ends up in songs is that it’s stuff I’m not comfortable talking about face to face,” she explains. “It’s my way of being able to say what I want instead of keeping it all in.”
“People ask if I regret it but I wouldn’t put something out there, that I wasn’t comfortable with. There’s definitely a line I draw. I don’t want to drag anyone else down with my lyrics. If I’m going to dish out information it’s going to be about myself and not other people. If a song is about someone in particular then I would never call them out or say that, just because I think that’s rude.”
It’s that direct honesty that goes part of the way of making Bully seem like a band who stand apart from the throwaway culture of modern music. In a world where we consume by the track, they’ve recorded an album of gems which work both in isolation and as a whole. Immediate enough to grab the attention, they’re organic enough to feel seperate from the constant hum of clickbait and soundbite-hungry social media. Put simply, they don’t make bands like this anymore.
Maybe it’s the vague association to Albini via Electrical Audio; more likely it’s the gloriously scuzzy, effortless charm of their songs – but Bully feel closer to those world-conquering 90s grunge bands than they do much of what dominates the scene today. Not that that’s a comparison that’s always sat well with them.
“I went through a phase where I was really sick of the 90s comparisons,” Bognanno reveals, “but then I thought about it, and either way we’re going to be compared to something. It’s a genre and a time that I liked a lot of bands out of, so I just let it slide. Everyone should interpret it how they want and relate to it, whether or not it’s exactly what I felt while I was writing it.”
Those parallels are nothing but a compliment. They’re not about Bully’s music sounding beholden to an earlier time, but rather that it feels permanent. They’re not a band to throw away when the next hot new thing comes along. Bands like that still exist, but without chasing fame and embracing the hyperactive nature of pop culture, they can find it harder than ever to break through. Bully hit that sweet spot where they punch through without compromise. That’s something to celebrate.
There’s still a long way to go on ‘Feels Like’. Word of mouth is building. The shows are getting bigger, but the fact that Bully are a band to last makes what they do next even more exciting. “I’ve been trying to write while we’ve been on the road,” Bognanno admits. “It’s been good. I’ve been scrapping a lot of stuff but I’ve been working on a couple of songs that I really like.”
With her lack of ego, you’d not bet against something very special coming next. It feels like Bully are only getting started.
Taken from the November issue of Upset. Bully’s debut album ‘Feels Like’ is out now.
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