Why Alicia Bognanno Stopped Bullying Herself for Bully’s Sake

Why Alicia Bognanno Stopped Bullying Herself for Bully’s Sake
Angela Castillo

If you're at the Bully show tonight at Crescent Ballroom, you'll likely leave with Alicia Bognanno's scream ringing in your ears.

Bognanno is the voice and sound behind Bully, which these days is just her and whoever she hires to play with her, and her blatantly honest '90s-inspired guitar alt-pop sound is only bested by her ability to volley from controlled, cool cynicism and to primal screams that shake the rafters.

The Rosemont, Minnesota native, who does not talk age, was born somewhere around the onset of the Seattle grunge explosion of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Mudhoney. Bored with school, she got interested in music — not just listening, but wanting to learn the business.

Bognanno earned an audio recording degree from Middle Tennessee State University which she parlayed into an internship at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studios in Chicago. (You could do a lot worse than the guy who produced the Pixies, Superchunk, Helmet, and Veruca Salt.)

She formed Bully with Stewart Copeland (not the member of The Police), and after releasing some tunes on cassette and catching industry attention, the band signed with Columbia sublabel Startime International. Feels Like came out in 2015, followed by Losing in 2017, which was released on Sub Pop Records.

By the time she started work on her third album, Sugaregg, which came out about a year ago, she was on medication for her bipolar disorder and working on cutting out drinking. Produced by John Congleton ( Heartless Bastards, Modest Mouse, St. Vincent, Sleater-Kinney, and many others) and recorded in two weeks at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, Sugaregg seemingly allowed Bognanno to get in touch with her inner turmoil and find some light.

On the album, which features backing musicians Zachary Dawes and Wesley Mitchell, Bognanno has seemingly learned to create an equilibrium balancing blistering pop and alternative catchy guitar licks.

Since the pandemic, she's found the time to record a stirring reinterpretation of Nirvana’s “About a Girl” and darn good cover of Orville Peck’s “Turn to Bad.”

Bognanno, fresh off her first shows of the tour and a recent show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, spoke with Phoenix New Times about her female musical role models, playing sober, her trademark scream, and keeping Bully hers and hers alone.

Phoenix New Times: I was a big alt and indie fan going back almost 40 years, but I've become disenchanted with [those genres] lately. Too wimpy.
Alicia Bognanno: I feel exactly the same way. Everything is so safe now. It’s like, I don’t want to listen to something you can hear at Starbucks.

What was it like hitting the stage after a year of pandemic layoff? And the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
The Rock Hall is a funny one to go to 'cause it’s always a little bit awkward; we played Lexington [Kentucky] the night before, so that was our first show post-pandemic. I'm playing with a bunch of guys that are super capable, and so I wasn’t even nervous about them. It was like we were playing for years. We went on stage and did our thing, and it was incredible. People starting moshing, which made me a little nervous because of COVID. Now, we're getting restrictions on playing going forward because that was a really weird thing. Hopefully that will change now that we have vax cards. But it was so fucking fun.

How do you measure your live performance?
For me, it’s strictly personal about how I perform. Like, if I’m comfortable and fully tapped into that one place where I like to think about the music, and not distracted by my own thoughts — that’s always the best show.

To me, there is nothing better than when people are moving. It’s like loud rock music for people who are just standing there — it sucks. It’s not what it's about. The whole thing is based on feelings, and emotions and energy. And when you’re not getting that back, it’s a lot more of a bummer.

For the past few years, you have acknowledged and managed your bipolar disorder, which has been a recurring song topic. And you recently quit drinking. How hard was making those changes and what has been your payoff?
It’s nice to be honest and open, and for me coming forward with my bipolar disorder was just necessary in order to talk about the songs because that is my full outlet for it. I can’t really make sense of it until I write it down and understand it a little bit better. It definitely had its dark moments on tour. Getting sober has been huge. Every day, I think how my life changed. It’s just insane. Every day is so different.

My first two shows playing sober, it was so awesome having that fear that it wouldn’t be able to happen. But right away, I was just there. It’s nice to know it wasn’t the alcohol. So many people are standing with me in solidarity at shows that it’s like, I get goosebumps. It’s so incredibly supportive, it makes me regain my faith in people.

One thing that you haven’t had to hone has been your trademark scream. How do you maintain it, or can you?
You’re asking me this as I smoke a cigarette, but I treat my voice like shit, honestly. I got my friend Marisa (Dabice) from Mannequin Pussy who texted me the other day, “How do you do it? What do you do to warm up your voice?" I said, "Nothing. It’s there, or it’s not." Sometimes in the winter when it's dry, I’ll still do it, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good.

It’s such an emotional thing, it comes from your gut. I was always raspy  like I can remember even working in restaurants in high school and having people comment about it. When I first wrote “Trying,” I was initially never really trying to scream; the lyrics just meant so much to me, and there’s really only one way I can do this appropriately and that’s to scream it. It was never intentional; it just became its own thing. Now it’s just there and it feels so good.

Speaking of voices, you proudly stand on the shoulders of earlier women in punk, alternative, and indie music. Who really flipped the switch for you as a teen?
The first time I heard Kim Gordon. I would say that the most influential thing was the record Freezer Burn; it wasn’t so much the singing, but just how eerie it is, and semi-dark, but also so catchy. The first time I tripped mushrooms, I said, "I’m gonna sit down and listen to this record"; that was big one for me. But I remember hearing Kim Gordon’s voice and it was just the kind of stuff that made me feel like I could start a band.

After the departures of Reece Lazarus, Clayton Parker, and Stewart Copeland, how hard or easy was the decision to make the band more of a full-time solo project?
It’s a solo thing, and it’s always gonna be. I’ve gone down the road with having people in it for a long time, but it’s just like a smarter choice for me to be able to do what I want to do, but not to have to think a lot about whether somebody else agrees. Especially since it’s something that I’ve built up.

How different was it to venture outside of Bully when you were approached to write songs for the 2018 Alex Ross Perry movie, Her Smell?
I loved it. I was so honored to be thought of for that. It was my first experience writing for something else. It wasn’t related to Bully. The whole process was so cool and enlightening; I would really like to do more film work. To be able to write in essence, a script and about how that character is supposed to be, and how they are supposed to feel in that moment. It’s nice to be able to not have to think about Bully for a minute and be immersed in something else.

Beyond this five-week tour, what is next up for Bully and Alicia Bognanno?
I’ve been writing for a minute, but I’ll start the writing process over soon. With each record, I want to silence the voices of everybody else or any further judgment that I’m putting on myself and just feel to create what I want, regardless of whether or not it’s in line with what I’ve done in the past.

In the very near future, you will be playing in Phoenix and Tucson. You've played here with Bully three previous times. What is your take on the Valley of the Sun?
I want to do better in Arizona, mainly Arizona and certain other smaller cities on the West Coast. I wish we could sell more tickets in Tucson. I do love dry heat.

Bully. With Lightening Bug. 8 p.m. Monday, September 13. Crescent Ballroom, 308 North Second Avenue. Tickets are $20 plus fees. Visit the Crescent Ballroom website.
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Mark C. Horn
Contact: Mark C. Horn