Bully's Alicia Bognanno on Cher, Warped Tour Mosh Pits, and Quarantine Haircuts

Interviews
09/02/2020
Jasmine Albertson
PHOTO BY ANGELINA CASTILLO

The first song I ever heard by Nashville-based band Bully was the opening track from their 2015 debut Feels Like. Titled “I Remember,” the song is a brisk recounting of all the miniscule details about a past relationship that’s long been damaged - naked photos, meeting the parents, the way their sheets smelled. At only a minute and 49 seconds, the song blazes in with a fury as frontwoman Alicia Bognanno howls every word with the kind of fiery passion that evokes, if not one’s own personal emotions, then at least the words “Oh, shit” from one’s mouth before immediately hitting the replay button.

Five years later, the light has not dimmed on the third studio album from Bully, SUGAREGG. Furious riffs and passionate howls are still aplenty but the thematic tone has shifted slightly. Rather than singing about getting too fucked up, Bognanno’s looking inward to examine her ideas about who she is, what she wants, and where she’s going. This new insight comes from a recent diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. Finally acknowledging and getting treatment for the thing that had been holding her back and upsetting her relationships has set her free to explore new depths and let go of preconceived ideas.

One of the biggest things Bognanno let go of was the need to control every aspect of engineering and producing of the record, which is how she’d operated before. A prior student of Steve Albini’s, Bognanno was an engineering whiz kid but the rampant sexism within the recording community led her to feel like she constantly had to prove her chops. Now, settled in her mind and her skills, she enlisted Grammy-winning producer, engineer, mixer, and writer John Congleton to engineer SUGAREGG while she focused solely on songwriting.

Now that you have that background, I have to warn you that we don’t talk about any of that. Nope. Don't even touch it. There are plenty of recent interviews with Bognanno that you can turn to if that’s what you’re looking for (including one with KEXP’s DJ Abbie for Bully’s Live on KEXP at Home session). But if you’re looking for Bognanno’s thoughts about the sexism surrounding Courtney Love, the awe-inducing splendor of Cher’s “Believe,” and the dangers of quarantine haircuts, then you will be quite pleased.

Below, read KEXP’s interview Alicia Bognanno a few days before the release of SUGAREGG.

 

 


Editor's Note: This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

KEXP: So, we are two days away from the release of SUGAREGG. How are you feeling?

Alicia Bognanno: I feel pretty good. Like, I don't know. I mean, I feel really good. I just, you know... Not touring is like a scary thing because, that's like how you prolong a record. So, that kind of worries me. I just hope stuff keeps up after this because touring is how I make a living. But, aside from that, I feel really good. I feel really good about the record. I feel really good about the music. I've worked so hard that, if it doesn't do well I can't even be mad at myself.

No, you absolutely should. It's fantastic. It's clear the growth of how far you've come as an artist, and I think you should be really happy with it.

Thanks!

Have you seen some of the reviews that have started to come out this week?

Yeah. Yeah, they're really good.

Yeah. That's got to feel amazing. I don't know if you usually care about that.

I try not to, but I really do.

 

 

Right. I mean, how can you not?

Yeah, totally. It's like three years of work and....sounds so weird, but I read some reviews and I literally started tearing up, because I was just so happy, because I spent so much time on it. I made so many leaps and I was just like, "Oh my God, if this does well I'm just going to cry with joy. I put so much into it that that would just be the icing on the cake." If I do get a bad review, though, I try and keep in mind that my favorite record Pod by The Breeders got the worst reviews of all time, so...

So, I kind of wanted to do something a little bit different with this, just because you already spoke to Abbie for KEXP very recently and you talked a lot about the record, so I thought maybe we could just kind of have fun with this one and do some just fun, silly questions. Maybe it'll be a waste of time or maybe it'll be illuminating, who knows.

It'll be great!

 

 

Okay, cool, I'm glad you're down. So, let's start off easy and then maybe get deeper as it goes on.

Okay.

What would you do if you had all the money in the world?

I would definitely give a lot of it to Oasis Center, which is an organization in Nashville that helps homeless LGBT youth but also 18-25 year olds, because a lot of programs, when you're 18, they stop helping you. And so, I think it's really cool they do that. But, I would probably buy a lot of animals and maybe a lot...Oh, what am I thinking?! The first thing I would do is make a recording studio. Duh!

I would still drive a 15-passenger van, that's for sure. I don't want, ever, like a really big house. I like small houses. If I could have a small house and a big studio, but it would be cool. I would buy some very strange, like, eyeball or dinosaur lamps, all that weird, expensive stuff that you can never afford. And then I would probably have a lot of...I would like a pig. Not like a mini pig, I would like a normal pig. So, like a bunch of fenced-in space for two dogs and a pig, and the pig would be treated like a dog.

Oh, my goodness.

This is fun for me to think about. And then I would donate a bunch. I know that sounds corny, but I don't feel like you really need a bunch of money. I feel like if you got a pretty good amount, you know, why would you...? I don't know what you would even spend it on.

Right. At a certain point, you don't need any more.

You don't need a million dollars. I mean, five hundred thousand I would take.

Yeah, I feel like there was...I don't remember the number, but they've done studies and there's a specific number where they're, like, okay, money does bring you happiness up to this certain amount of money and then, after that, no more happiness increases.

That's so funny. I was listening to a podcast the other day about happiness, and they were pretty much going over how peoples' happiness is based off of who they're surrounded by and who they're comparing themselves to. And, a lot of it had to do with, if you were surrounding yourself by like, if your peers and the people in your neighborhood made a lot more money than you, then you would feel like you need to make more money and you'd be less happy than if everyone was kind of the same, you don't really feel like you're failing.

Absolutely. That makes perfect sense.

Totally.

What emoji best captures your essence?

Ahh, the alien. I just like it so much these days, I use it all the time. I love thinking about aliens. I always feel like if aliens came to Earth, I wouldn't care because I feel like I would be safe.

Really?

Yeah, I just feel like we would be...I just feel like I'm not afraid of them, and so I would just be like, you know, "What do you want? How can I work with you? Is there anything you need? Do you want me to make you dinner? I can't really cook, but I will." I just feel like we would really hit it off.

Absolutely. Come at them with compassion. And then, of course, they come back to you with compassion as well. That's just how it works.

Yeah. Don't you ever think about that? Like, if someone tries to attack you while you're walking in the dark and if you could just be like, "Listen, do you want to talk?" What's wrong...?"

[laughs] I have thought about that. I don't know if that's actually how it works.

I know I would probably freak out but, ideally, that's what I would do. I'd be like, "What is your childhood trauma?"

Yeah, "Are you having a rough day, bud? Do you want to talk it out? Do you want a hug?" [laughs] What's your zodiac sign?

I'm a Pisces. Go figure.

Emotionaaaaaal.

Yeah, emoooooo!

 

 

Do you know your full chart?

No, I don't really know much about astrology except for that I'm a Pisces and... I don't know if this is a fluke but one time someone told me that my rising moon, or something rising, was maybe like an Aries or something?

Hmm. Yeah, I could see that. Sure, it could make sense.

I don't know. Yeah.

Yeah, I love that shit. It's fun.

It is really fun.

Yeah. And the more you learn about it, the more you meet people you're like, "Yeah, this is kind of checking out, honestly."

Yeah. Definitely. It's like, when you run into someone who's a pro and they're like, "Let me break everything down to you." You're like, "Okay, I'm here."

Yep. "Tell me about myself!"

Please! [laughs] Yeah, that's what it is. That's totally what it is.

What's the first concert you ever went to?

I think it was a LFO. Do you remember that pop band?

Yes, um, what was that song..."Summertime Girls"?

Yeah, my dad..like I had never been to a concert and he got tickets from work, or something. And, I always think about who the opening band was because, I swear to God, it was 3LW, and I just didn't know at the time but I was just blown away. I'd never been to like anything even close to it.

 

And then, the second time I went to a concert, he also got tickets from work. And it was like some radio station Christmas-bash, and then, I hadn't really been to a concert since I was like, 13, and I was like, "I'm going to Warped Tour!" And now I'm like, "Oh, God!"

[laughs] Oh, my God. I know, I wanted to go to Warped Tour so bad, and I never went until it was too late like, Warped Tour was done but it was still happening, you know? It was like 2010 when I went and I was like, "Oh, this is not the vibe."

No! You know what, that is also why I'm like, "Girls to the front, no moshing unless everybody is having fun," because I went all the way to the front – I don't remember what band it was for – waited the whole time. Immediately, when it started, I got pushed all the way to the back and my friend got pulled down, it was like a dangerous situation.

Oh my God!

Yeah! And then, when I got older and started playing in a band, I was like, "Absolutely not" because I was definitely that girl.

Oh, same. I remember going to a Taking Back Sunday show and coming out bloody. And I was so proud of it, I was like, "Oh my God, look at all this blood on my dress." And then I got kicked out.

What?! What'd you do?!

Nothing! I guess the blood made people think that, perhaps, I had instigated something, but I did not.

Oh, Jesus. Yeah, Taking Back Sunday, I remember.

 

 

Wooo, I loved them. What was the last concert you went to before quarantine?

Shit, um...I went and saw someone at the Basement East. Oh, my God. I honestly don't remember.

Yeah! A whole world away.

Yeah, I don't remember.

Do you have like a favorite artist or band?

No, I don't.

I know, that's a tough one.

Yeah, it is, yeah.

How do you pick one amongst a sea of amazing people?! Do you have a favorite song, though? Like, one that you never get sick of, you can put it on, listen to it three times in a row and won't get sick of it.

Okay. Yeah, "Birthday" by the Sugarcubes.

 

 

And then, I mean, pretty much anything off of Pod by The Breeders. That record blew my mind, and like, I can still put it on and just something about it is like the perfect storm of darkness and creativity, that I just totally sink into the whole record whenever I play it.

Absolutely. Actually, speaking of that, we're going to play a little game of Fuck, Marry, Kill with the other frontwomen that you have been compared to over the years.

Oh, my God! This is my favorite interview.

Ah, great! So, we've got Courtney Love, Kim Deal, and Liz Phair.

Oh! Should I do a plot twist and not kill Courtney Love? [laughter] OK, my first thought would be marry Kim Deal, fuck Liz Phair, kill Courtney Love. But, that's strictly based off of stereotypes.

Right.

If I'm going to base it off the music, I'm going to do, marry Kim Deal, fuck Courtney Love, kill Liz Phair.

Damn.

I know!

That is a surprising one. But also I guess not, if we're going by music.

Yeah, but like music and mellowness. I also, secretly, just have this stick on my shoulder about how I think so much of the whole Kurtney...Kurtney?! [laughs] Kurt and Courtney thing, like she got so much heat and he was like so romanticized, when they would do the same thing. And it was just like, so much sexism. So, even though I'm sure she's done a lot of stuff...well, I don't really know but like, that really infuriates me to hear, because I think it's total B.S. And, still to this day, it's like, "You're still a mess." And then it's like, "Oh, your husband also did a ton of heroin but he's an angel." And it's just like, I get salty about it. So, that's why I'm saving her. So, if anyone at Sub Pop actually knows her and despises her, you can't judge me because I don't.

No, I think that's completely fair. It's absolutely sexist.

Yeah, it's so dumb.

 

Okay, we'll do another Fuck, Marry, Kill: engineering, singing, playing guitar.

Okay, hold on, I need to really think about it...Okay, marry singing, fuck playing guitar, and kill engineering. I just get a euphoric feeling when I play music, as corny as it sounds. I've never felt as authentic as I do when I'm playing on stage. And I've never experienced that with anything else in my life, and so there's just no way that I could not do that.

What is your favorite line from a song?

I really like "Little Mascara" by The Replacements. "All you wanted was someone to take care of ya, all you're ever losing is a Little Mascara." I think that's such a good line.

 

 

And, I'll tell you a funny story which, everybody is just gonna think I'm a fucking idiot after reading this interview. But, you know what? I don't care. I'm going to lean in on it.

Let's do it.

Smart people are overrated.

Seriously!

Book smart. I've got street smarts, Okay? Working at Quiktrip when I was 16 really taught me a lot. That gas station life...

She's scrappy!

[laughs] Yeah, I'm scrappy. But, I thought Cher's song was, "Do you believe in love after love?" And when we played in Australia, this band was covering it. It was the first time I realized that it's "Do you believe in life after love?" And that... I listened to it 30 times in a row on the plane ride home. I could not believe it. I was like, "That is the best line I have ever heard in my life." "Do you believe in life after love." It blew my mind and it still does. So, I'm going to say that. That's got to be my favorite.

It cuts you right to the core.

It does, yeah. Yeah, it's so good. Just thinking about it feels like my brain's about to explode.

Also like, you can't about it too much. It's kind of like the afterlife. Like, if you think about too much you're just to spiral.

Yeah. It's just going to be bad news.

 

 

If you could bring one musician back from the dead, who would it be?

Shit, who's died? Hold on, [typing] "what musicians have died?"

[laughs] "What musicians have died" is what you're Googling?

Yeah. [laughs] Is it so cliche if I say Kurt Cobain?

No, no, no.

Kurt Cobain. What about Elliott Smith? Oh, you know what? Amy Winehouse.

Oh, that girl deserves another chance!

Like, that documentary was so crazy. It was just like nobody had her back. It was just gnarly to watch.

Everyone was just using her!

Yeah. So, let's just say Amy Winehouse for the first pick, she deserves it.

She absolutely does. I think that if she had the right team, the right people around her, she could thrive.

Yeah, for sure.

 

 

What was your favorite age or phase in life?

Now. By far. I hated being a kid. I hate looking back when I was a kid. I just learned how to look back and like not want to tear apart pictures of me as a child. I was so uncomfortable and very insecure and confused with my...I wasn't confused with my gender, but I definitely only wanted to be in, "boys clothes" and it was just this constant battle. Like, I wore a pantsuit to my first communion when I was seven that my grandma had to make me [laughs]. It was just never-ending, and as a result of that, it just made me feel like very undesirable as a child. And so, looking back is like, really triggering. And I wish I could look at that kid and be like, "Now your extra-large t-shirts are super cool."

Oh, poor baby!

But yeah, I hated my childhood for the most part. I liked playing with my siblings. But, this is definitely the best time of my life.

That's great. I mean, I think that just moving forward, every phase should be better than the last, ideally.

Yeah, totally. Totally.

What do your friends love most about you?

Well, you see the thing is, I only had two in Nashville and they both told me last week they were moving [laughs].

Oh, no!

It's weird. It's like, I have friends through music that I bet if I lived by, I would be really close to. But really, I think because of touring so much, I just haven't been able to maintain a lot of friendships. I don't know what they would say about me.

What would your siblings say about you?

That I was very hardworking, I think. I think that all my friends would say that I'm very, very hardworking and very driven.

What's one habit you wish you could break?

[sighs] There's a lot. I wish I could break the habit of being insecure 'cause that just sucks. Then, like having trust issues, I feel like I self-sabotage relationships a lot. But wait. Let's do like on a lighter note, a habit I wish we could break is...Okay, so, I just eat sweets like a maniac. It's very abnormal how much I eat sweets and they actually make me happy. Like, they bring me joy. I have a bite and I just dance, physically, because it's the best thing in the world to me. And I wish that I would eat less sweets because it's going to have some serious health affects on me.

 It could, down the line. Sure. But I mean, it brings you happiness now.

It does bring me happiness. And so, as long as it brings me happiness, then.... I recently have been cutting my hair in quarantine, and that really needs to stop.

Oh, just like the ends or bangs?

I got this razor thing where you just, like, shed off hair, and I just kept going. And now, let's just say, I'm going to be wearing my hair up for a while.

[laughs] Oh, no! Yeah, I definitely have had that urge, but I stopped myself from doing it.

Everything I would say that I would quit doing, brings me a little bit of joy. And I think anything you can find that'll bring you a little bit joy, especially now...Like, I don't know, it's kind of worth the tradeoff.

Absolutely agree. Like, lately I've been trying to drink less during quarantine, but I'm also like...but why? 

Yeah, I smoke just like, maybe one cigarette a day, if that. It's like a treat. I haven't been doing it for long at all, just a few years. Or, during interviews I'll want to do it. I was gonna say that, but really it's just, like, I take good care of my body minus the sweets, and it's one fucking cigarette. And I don't drink anymore. So, you know what I'm saying? Like, I'm not gonna be hard on myself about that. And if anyone judges me, fuck you.

Just fuck 'em.

t's like, leave me alone.

Let her live!

I posted a picture on Instagram one time and it had a cigarette in it, and the comments were awful. I bet you're not saying that to Jawbreaker when you see a picture of Blake smoking a cigarette, that's for sure.

Right?! Women always get critiqued way worse.

Yeah, it was like, "You're going to die!" And I'm like, half of you motherfuckers are probably drinking your brains out or doing a bunch of drugs, and then punishing me for smoking one cigarette, as a break, at the end of the day. It equals out.

It really does. What is the toughest lesson you've ever learned?

This is the first thing that comes to mind; it's not really like the toughest lesson than I've ever learned. But, I think throughout the years, being a woman in music – especially when I started – I just had so many horrible things said to me, that I really had to learn to kind of live on the defense all the time. And I really had to learn to stand up for myself because otherwise I would take on that weight for the next few months. And like, "I should have said this. I should have said that. Why didn't I do this?" And now, in order to get through things and fight through that guilt and that shame, I need to make sure that I say exactly what's on my mind if somebody says something to me that I think is offensive or inappropriate. So, I very much speak up about that now. It's not really like a tough lesson I learned, but also... Shoot, I was just going to say something else and I totally forgot...

Oh, yeah. Another thing that I do, and, again, I don't know if it's the toughest lesson I learned but, definitely, this used to happen when I used to drink. I would feel so depressed and I would feel so much shame, and want to have totally normal conversations with people but then, just manifest them how they may have interpreted it. Or, if I didn't hear back from somebody I didn't know very well, I would just sit and fester on all the things that I could have done that, maybe, they misunderstood or that made them mad. And, that was very magnified while I was drinking but, also in life, if I was just out in social situations and had a conversation and passing with someone, I didn't talk too much. But then, if I didn't really hear from them, or if I reached out or something, I would just.... Or, even if it was a friend, if I thought that they may have misinterpreted something, I would just think about it forever. Now, I just call someone if I have that "thing" and I just said, "Hey, I've been thinking about this all day and I just want to clarify that this is what I meant." And, 99% of the time, they're just like, "What Alicia? I didn't even think twice about that. What are you talking about?" And just being able to say that and not letting it take over my life for however long, has really changed a lot of things for me. So, that was a good lesson to learn.

Yeah, that's big. And I can see, especially with drinking, how that could amplify it. Because your memories of interactions are a little bit hazier. So, you're overthinking every single thing.

Yeah, totally.

 

 

What is the title of the story of your life?

Sassy Bitch [laughs]

[laughs] Yes! I would read that. I would pick that up just because of the title.

Perfect. Perfect.

We're kind of over time. If you want to keep talking, we can. I can go for a while but I can also cut it off.

Let me see when my next interviews is...Oh, shit. I have an Apple call at 1:00. Dang it, this is my favorite interview! I would love to talk all day!

I know, this has been so fun! Do you have time for just one little question... I don't know what time it is there. Is it 1:00 right now?

It's 1:05, but yeah.

Oh nevermind. Nevermind.

No, let's do it!

Okay! Just a quick little question. Since KEXP is a station where the music matters, why does music matter to you?

Because it's a form of connection and a form of therapy, and it makes you feel less alone.


SUGAREGG is out now via Sub Pop. Below, watch Bully's KEXP in-studio performance from 2018.

 

 

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