Someday You Will (Not) Ache Like I Ache:
Bully’s Alicia Bognanno Stays Focused and Defies Clichés

Today’s popular culture, whatever’s left of it, is a precession of simulacra – a virtual hall of mirrors where refractions upon refractions morph amongst themselves for infinity. It’s beyond cliché to say that everything old is new again. Hell, everything new is at best a revamped version of a revamped version (of whatever) that is all reference and no referent. When Courtney Love famously wrote “I fake it so real I am beyond fake,” she probably had no idea just how prophetic her words would be. And that was 25 freakin’ years ago.

And rock music criticism is an area where said hall of mirrors effect is most salient. Triggered by marketing campaigns, manufactured hype and visual cues, critics (and, baby, I’m one too) are wont to deliver strident, prima facie proclamations about artists and their music based upon easy and oftentimes kneejerk reactions. (Non) Issues like label affiliations, logo fonts and even the artist’s hair are fodder for pigeonholing and signifiers of membership in certain generic “clubs.”

So let’s fast forward about a quarter of a century to the present. And once again, what’s new is, once again, a revamped version of a revamped version of whatever. Or is it?

Nashville’s Bully is a relatively new band that might have kinda/sorta been somewhat unwillingly interpellated into the aforementioned precession of simulacra. I mean, when you do the math, the devil is in the details and the numbers don’t lie. (Even my clichés have clichés – all wittingly compiled to illustrate my point.) It all just makes sense. Or does it?

Bully traffics in punky, anxious, introspective, depressive-yet-aggressive musical fare. Bully is on Sub Pop Records. And Bully is a band that just so happens to be fronted by a bleached blonde woman with influences (The Pixies, Sonic Youth) similar to those of its protogrunge antecedents from the much heralded Class of ’92. So, it follows that Bognanno is the “new” girl with the most cake, right?

I mean, Bognanno just looks the part. The cover of Bully’s excellent sophomore album, Losing, a monochromatic image of Bognanno perched atop a mussed up bed with her bleach blonde tresses mussed up just so, could very well have been a freeze frame from Hole’s “Doll Parts” video.

But the end result of all this critical algebra is only dancing about architecture. Saying that Bully is merely a retro grunge, Hole knockoff is too damned easy, reductive and just not fair. There are umpteen crucial, if subtle differences.

First of all, the introspections of Hole (and of grunge in general) were celebrations of decay and debasement, whereas Bognanno’s lyrics with Bully are more about working through catharses toward empowerment and autonomy – or at least toward establishing an uncertain détente with the world. And secondly, Bully’s music is more nuanced and structurally complex than grunge. And finally, Bognanno is no Courtney Love.

The visual similarities between Hole’s “Doll Parts” video and the cover of Losing are only coincidental. And Bognanno is kinda/sorta accepting of the way she is portrayed/marketed.

“For that record [Losing] we just wanted to have an image that would make you think, and that’s what came of it” explains Bognanno. “Most of the time I hate pictures of myself. But I guess I’m comfortable with that image. It’s kind of hard. But yeah, that one felt right.”

Yeah, Bognanno is a bottle blonde – one who just so happens to exude health and clarity from every pore, thank you. Case in point, Bully’s most recent Atlanta show at Terminal West. The band started their set a couple of minutes early, energetically raged through their material with nary a flaw, humbly acknowledged the adoration of their fans, packed up and headed home to Nashville. It was an utterly professional and sober affair – an Olympic performance, if you will.

“We work really hard and we practice all the time and we really care about what we’re doing,” says Bognanno. “We don’t want to take anything for granted or take advantage. So, we work a lot to make sure we’re all feeling well when we’re touring – touring can be really tough. I think everybody in the band takes time to make sure they’re feeling good mentally and physically. We just want to be able to continue to do what we’re doing. We really care about it.”

Such care and diligence (and talent and artistry) is paying off. Now in its fifth year, the band is on the cusp of real fame – even though it may not feel like it just yet.

“Um, I still feel like we’re a pretty, um, relatively small band – just like as compared to the really big bands,” says Bognanno. “We’re on the smaller end of the spectrum. And everything still feels pretty manageable.

“I think the goal is for us to just be able to make a living off of playing music and to have every record do a little bit better,” Bognanno continues. “We’re kind of striving to get a little bit bigger audience every time we tour.”

Of course, fame has its price. Bognanno, who has openly discussed grappling with anxiety issues in umpteen interviews, is not exactly an extrovert.

“I guess I feel a little bit intruded on sometimes,” says Bognanno, haltingly. “I guess people sometimes want to pry into things a little too much. But for the most part, everything feels alright. Most of the people we come across are very respectful of our space and of what we’re doing.”

Granted, Bognanno’s lyrics are for the most part about herself – the adroit musings of a sensitive young woman coming into being. In other words, she’s kind of in the business of exposing her own vulnerabilities for public consumption. It’s something of a liberative process – and a bit unpleasant at times.

“People kind of want to dissect everything,” says Bognanno. “And I really don’t think everything like the songs and the lyrics need to be broken down exactly in black and white.

“Usually the songs are just about a personal perspective of whatever it is I’m trying to work through in my life,” Bognanno continues. “That’s usually where most of the songs come from. There’s not really a particular way or perspective from which I want my songs to be perceived. I think the lyrics are mostly personal – with only a little bit of big picture commentary. But it’s hard to say overall because every song is about something different. They each kind of turn out in their own way I hope.”

And there’s the matter of constant touring. Sure, Bully is a band on the verge that continues to draw larger crowds in better venues. But it’s something of a grind.

“You’re just always waiting,” says Bognanno. “I mean, you ride in a van all day. Then you get to the venue, you soundcheck, and then you wait hours to play. Then you get back in the van and start it all over. Or if you’re making a record you record it, you wait for it to get mastered and then it takes like four months for it to come out. It’s like a constant waiting game.

“Then again, I like all of it, really. I really like doing it. I like playing. And I hope we get to the point where we can be playing every night. I like having a record and owning a physical copy. And knowing that those are my songs – that feels really good.”

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.