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Nashville’s Bully Will Not Lose

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 27: Alicia Bognanno of Bully performs onstage during day three of the Boston Calling Music Festival at Boston City Hall Plaza on September 27, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

At some point, the meaning of D.I.Y. in independent music became muddled. Rather than signifying a do-it-yourself approach, it’s often used to label careers that never progress beyond basement venues and indie record deals. By that definition, when the Nashville grunge group Bully signed to the label StarTime International two years ago, their street cred became a thing of the past. On the one hand, Bully is a quintessential D.I.Y. band: they write, record, produce, and mix their own music; they direct their own music videos. On the other, StarTime, a subsidiary of Columbia Records, is home to Beyoncé, Adele, and David Bowie.

“What does D.I.Y. really mean?” Alicia Bognanno, Bully’s frontwoman, asks. “People are going to talk shit no matter what. If you’re going to sign with anyone, pretty much everyone is owned by something bigger. I think if we were going to keep it D.I.Y. we weren’t going to sign with anyone, period.” She pauses. “I wasn’t going to put too much weight into it because I knew at the time it was our best opportunity.”

Bognanno formed Bully in 2013. She’d moved to Nashville after completing an internship under Big Black’s Steve Albini—a guy who knows something about D.I.Y. dogma—at his famed Electrical Audio studios in Chicago. She’d spent her time there listening to beloved artists like the Breeders, Built to Spill, and Liz Phair, who’d recorded at Electrical in the past. But Bognanno endeavored to write her own material, and eventually found kinship in three fellow Tennessee transplants: guitarist Clayton Parker, bassist Reece Lazarus, and drummer Stewart Copeland (not the one from the Police). The quartet released a modest EP in 2014 and signed to StarTime the following year.

A major label is an odd place for a punk band to get their start, but it worked. Bully’s first album, 2015’s Feels Like, emerged in a musical climate dense with ‘90s rock worship, but stood out with its liberating bursts of cringe-inducing self-awareness. Bognanno claims StarTime gave Bully total freedom, and the band responded with a record full of memorable songs and little room for sweetness. The explosive “Trying” is about young people’s frustrations—doubt, debt, and pregnancy scares—and “I Remember” depicts a harrowing breakup that feels like an endless hangover. Bognanno chronicled missed periods and poorly-timed romances, her dry, tart rasp glued to the mic for each caustic second. D.I.Y. or not, Feels Like was a debut that had the confidence of a band well into its career, and Bully—which received glowing reviews, including one from this publication—quickly graduated to headlining mid-tier venues and performed on Conan.

But indie success on an indie label and indie success on a major label are two very different things, and for their second album Losing, Bully left StarTime for the famed indie label Sub Pop, a comparatively smaller home. For some bands, that might feel like a downgrade, but according to Bognanno, it was the right move. “When you’re on a subsidiary of Columbia, it’s still Columbia, and it just takes a longer time for things to happen,” she explains. “It’s a huge corporation, and we’re a small band. We just wanted to be at a home where selling however many copies we sell would be a little bit of a success as opposed to being compared to Beyoncé on Columbia.”

The world’s first taste of the album came in the form of “Feel the Same,” a frustrated song with a contented-sounding title. “I cut my hair / I feel the same / Masturbate / I feel the same,” Bognanno sings. It’s easy to understand her exasperation. The song is almost too convincing in its portrayal of an emotional space that is not only irritating and disappointing, but embarrassing. “Spoke with you last night (Do you still hate me?) / Not sure what was said (I’ve missed you lately),” Bognanno admits, perhaps recounting a drunken late-night phone call. “Feel the Same” could be a sister song to Feels Like’s “I Remember,” a laundry list of small moments with large weight: throwing up in cars, remembering the smell of a certain sheet. Bognanno is a pro at letting these intimate spaces become public record, working them out through song.

“You can tell it is about being stuck in a manic mindset, and no matter how much you change your physical appearance—if you’ve ever been stuck in a bad place, people say ‘You need to go work out, you need to socialize, you need to pick up a hobby,'” Bognanno says of “Feel the Same.” “You try all these things, but the feeling doesn’t change.”

Part of the song’s urgency comes from its distinctive guitar tone. “That angst and anxiety is in the playing, the dissonance of it,” Bognanno explains. “We play it with only downstrokes. It can be played up and down–it’s technically the same thing, and it’s easier–but it doesn’t give the same emotion.” In traditional guitar strumming, the pick strikes the strings twice with every motion of the wrist–once coming down, and again on the way back up. Downstrokes are comparatively quick and violent gestures, requiring you to play twice as fast to produce the same number of notes. 

The person in “Feel the Same” reminds me of Patti Smith: the frustrated temperament, the intoxicating music, the sometimes superficial changes that nonetheless inspire depth. Patti changed her hair when inspiration struck. “I got crazy. I move like a monkey. Instead of shooting smack, I masturbate,” she famously told the press after the release of Horses, in 1975. Bognanno laughs at the comparison: “I mean, cutting your hair is a big thing. When you chop all your hair off you’re like, ‘Wow, that looks great…but what else is going on?’”

A similar introspection drives much of Bully’s work. On “Focused,” whose lyrics give Losing its title, Bognanno looks back lovingly at young female friendship, celebrating the role your chosen family plays in your identity during adolescence. “When you’re a teenager, there are a bunch of intense, intimate things that can happen [with your best friend.] It’s a really special thing and I appreciate that relationship,” she says. “It got me out of a songwriting rut and forced me to write differently. There’s a lot of sentimental value. It’s simple and direct, like the record.”

“Focused” begins with a menacing bass line placed low in the mix, with Bognanno’s voice alternating soft and loud above it, trying to recount a memory. It’s not a song that could’ve existed on Feels Like, and it seems to define Losing. After the debut’s fiery bursts of angst, this album has grown up a bit, even as it reflects on the tumult of youth.

For a record called Losing, Bully’s sophomore outing gives the sense of wisdom gained. Bognanno sings from a place of recognizing that frustration is just one step toward coming to terms with your situation. “In a lot of the heavy topics that are spoken about, there’s a good end to the story,” she says. “Or it’s about embracing it or overcoming it or taking ownership of it.”

The title gives a particular, untamed weight to Losing, one that even Bognanno admits is “more negative” than she intended. Whether it’s the personal disappointments she details in her lyrics or her recent travails in the record industry, Bognanno knows that losing is often part of the process. But Bully will not fail.