Local Current Blog

Bully frontwoman Alicia Bognanno talks about her Minnesota roots and primal scream

Alicia Bognanno of Bully with Andrea Swensson (Phtoo by Leah Garaas/MPR)

There’s something so satisfyingly simple and appropriate about the title of Bully’s debut full-length, Feels Like. In just two words it captures the band’s ability to convey pain and frustration, to tap into primal urges, and to channel emotional intensity into their songs. And it hints at the longing and despair that the listener is about to experience on their record— thanks in big part to frontwoman Alicia Bognanno’s fearless lyrics and ragged, raw voice.

Bognanno has had a big year with Bully—they’ve played Conan, they’ve toured the country, and their breakout album is poised to end up on many critics’ year-end lists. When the band came through town last month to play a very sold-out 7th St. Entry, I couldn’t wait to catch up with Bognanno and trace her musical roots all the way back to her hometown of Rosemount, Minnesota.

We met up in the basement of the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis to talk about her history in Minnesota, audio engineering, screaming, and the catharsis of writing personal songs. Watch our interview in this video, or find the full transcript of our chat below.

Andrea Swensson: I have to start with where you grew up, because it turns out that we went to the same weird alternative hippie high school in the suburbs, the Zoo School. What made you want to go there?

So, I didn’t go there full time. I would have loved to go there full time. I guess, at Rosemount Public High School, when you’re a junior and senior year, you kind of get to pick electives over there if you want. So, obviously, when they were like, you can pick electives at this kind of hippie art school, I was like, “Duh.” And then I saw that they had a very basic audio engineering recording studio set up over there, and I just immediately knew I wanted to go there.

What was it about audio recording that interested you?

I just had wanted to get into music forever, and I wasn’t really around a lot of people who were doing that. And that was the first thing that was offered to me, that could help me possibly investigate a little bit more in that direction.

What kind of bands were you listening to at that time, when you were 17?

Just whatever was on the radio. Ace of Base, you know. I didn’t listen to cool music when I was in high school. I didn’t have like a cool older brother who was like, “Check out this indie rock band.”

I didn’t either. I was listening to Green Day in my Apple Valley bedroom.

Yeah. Sum 41. Just probably what everyone else was listening to.

So then you got out of here, and you went to Tennessee. Did I read that was at a recommendation of a teacher that was at the Zoo School?

Yeah! Jeremy Bartelt, the teacher who taught the audio engineering class, knew that I wasn’t really super interested in going to college, because I hadn’t been a great student in high school. But I wanted to pursue music, and it was kind of an agreement I came to with my dad. He was like, “Ok, if you can show me a four-year degree that you can get in audio engineering, then you can go to school for that.” And [Jeremy Bartlett] found MTSU, which is a lot more reasonably priced; he brought it to my attention and was like, “You should go here.” And I was like, absolutely. What else am I going to do?

Is your dad an article clipper?

No, not really. Just the bigger things, like when we did Conan, he knew about that. Or something will pop up in Rolling Stone and he’ll hear about that. But he’s not on Facebook, which is awesome. I’m not on Facebook, which is awesome.

Now that you’ve put out this record, you’ve gotten a lot of attention, you’re touring, what’s it like for you to come back to the Twin Cities as an adult and someone that is in the music industry?

I like it. I love Minneapolis. It’s weird, too, because I feel like as an adult, anyone that I will run into that’s lived here or spent time in Minneapolis loves the city. I like cold weather—not freezing cold weather—but when we come through in October, it’s fine. It’s really beautiful in the summer, too, with the lakes.

With your record, Feels Like, you not only performed on it and wrote all the songs but you engineered and helmed the recording. What was it was like for you to be on both sides of the process like that?

It was good. It’s kind of hard to say because we’ve never done it any other way. I recorded our EP too, so I don’t know what it would be like if we did have somebody else handling it. But it’s nice to be able to just avoid having to bridge the gap of communication with a separate engineer, because I already know what I want, and how I want things to sound. In the end, I think there’s no better experience than recording your own record. And I want as much experience as possible, because I’d like to become a better engineer. So it’s really nice to just test it out on myself, because I can’t piss myself off too much. I’m not screwing up anybody else’s project except for my own.

For the record we had a little bit of a budget, so I was able to hire John San Paolo, who I credited as co-engineer. Just to kind of be in there the whole time we were in there, in case I did need to take space—and also in Studio B, we did it all on analog and on tape machine so you kind of had to have someone there when I’m downstairs playing, actually recording it. But aside from that, it was just nice to have somebody I know and trusted and respected to be like, “I don’t like the way this mic is sounding on the kick in, what can you suggest?” Or, “Do you think this bass has too much treble in it?” Or whatever. I could just kind of turn to him if I was feeling iffy about anything and get his advice, and it was a lot smoother of a process that it had been in the past.

Well you’ve done a tremendous job capturing this really primal, raw sound. A lot has been written about your voice, and I think for good reason. Now that you’re on tour, and you’re performing night after night, is it ever difficult to connect back with those emotions where those songs came from, and to keep that sense of urgency to your voice?

No. Not yet. I get asked that quite a bit now, and I get asked about how my voice doesn’t wear out, and it just, I don’t know, it just doesn’t. It hasn’t happened. I like those lyrics, I can still connect with them. Lots of times, too, if the crowd is into it and they appreciate your music and respect it, then it’s not difficult to care about what you’re doing, because it’s motivating and really nice and sweet.

When you’re writing and singing about mistakes from your past or these personal elements of your life, is there something cathartic about that for you?

Yeah! I think that’s why I do it. If you have a bunch of stuff that’s just kind of stuck inside of you, it’s a creative outlet, or just a nice way to get it out there and kind of accept it for yourself and not think about it so much. Or do, but feel better about it, because you feel like you’re not just keeping it in all the time. And there’s a lot of stuff that I can write about in a song that I’m not comfortable talking with somebody about face to face. So yeah, it definitely helps.

Do you ever have fans coming up to you and saying, “Me too”?

Yeah! On this tour I’ve had that a lot, and that’s just the best thing ever. That’s my favorite thing. It’s really cool to hear that, or when people will be like, “It helped me get through so and so,” because that’s what music is good for. To help you get through things or to feel like you’re not alone. That’s my favorite thing ever.

Now that you are on tour and you’re getting this bigger audience, what do you want people to know about Bully?

I’ve got some great band members. Stuart Copeland, he’s our drummer. He’s not the drummer from the Police, they just have the same name. Reece Lazarus is our bass player, he’s got a bird named Sherman. Clayton Parker is our other guitar player, he likes to read.

Those are some great facts.

Yeah. [laughs] Just a little rundown of the band for you. But yeah, I don’t know. We like what we’re doing, and we’re really happy. You give up a lot to just be touring all the time, and I don’t think we’d do it if we didn’t like it, playing live every night.

Bully return to Minneapolis on Monday, January 18, to play the Fine Line Music Cafe. Find more information on our events calendar.