In the Chicago episode of Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl is getting a tour of Steve Albini’s studio, Electrical Audio. Albini gestures and says, “There’s a whole other studio on the other side of that wall,” at which points Grohl looks hopeful, “…that you’re not gonna get to see, because, fuck you guys.” Grohl’s a friend of over two decades; imagine being an intern there. In summer 2011, that’s where Bully’s Alicia Bognanno found herself, having spent months emailing to get the gig.
“I wasn’t with Steve every day, but when I was, he was really nice, really respectful, knew the answers to every question that I had, he would explain things thoroughly,” says the 24-year-old, who writes, records, produces sings and plays guitar in Bully. “He was really great, and that goes for everybody there. It was really cool to see bands come in and out in 10 days and have tracked their record and seen it mixed. It’s cool to see that you can just do the best you can at the moment, then it’s done and you can’t go back to it, y’know what I’m saying?”
Her enthusiasm was more than reciprocated: “Alicia is maybe the top student intern we’ve ever had,” says Albini. “Her work ethic was tireless and constant. She was a fucking joy to have in the studio. If everybody in the studio worked as hard as Alicia then everybody’s records would be Number One hits.”
When work is done for the day at Electrical Audio, interns are welcome to stay behind and record on a specific reel of tape set aside for them. That’s when Bognanno first started writing and recording Bully’s earliest material, her familiarity with the studio taking her and the other three members of the Nashville band back there to record their debut album proper.
Bully is Bognanno’s baby, but the Nashville four-piece are all old friends: she and drummer boyfriend Stewart Copeland were in a college band called King Arthur, which they quit when Bognanno started writing her own material. Copeland was also in Saddle Creek garage rockers Pujol, as was guitarist Clayton Parker. Bassist Reece Lazarus works with Bognanno at cult Nashville bar The Stone Fox. On the road they play Settlers Of Catan and plan routes around independent comic book stores. “I don’t really go out much,” says Bognanno.
Those mild manners might be why it’s taken a while for anyone to start taking notice: after putting out their self-titled debut EP last October, it wasn’t until they played New York new music festival CMJ a year later that their single ‘Milkman’ got picked up online (two months after its release). As euphoric as Japandroids and sweetly scabrous as Julianna Hatfield’s alma mater Blake Babies, the skittish gem sees Bognanno “spinning around in my underwear”, high on independence. “I used to be a SHARK!” she yells joyously, the song’s brisk attack mimicking her preferred working methods.
Bognanno has a knack for writing simple tracks whose sticky melodies make them sound uncannily like classics: her frayed scream sounds like Kurt Cobain’s; palpable in the six songs they’ve released to date are The Replacements’ burly riffs, The Violent Femmes’ poppy twang, and climbing Breeders bass lines. But what sets Bully beyond their hypothetical pop-punk peers (Swearin’, All Dogs, Krill) is the quality of their recordings.
“For the record I wanted it to sound like a) the way we do live, and b) I wanted each song to kind of sound like how I feel about it,” Bognanno explains of the two weeks she’s just spent back at Electrical Audio recording Bully’s debut album. She did everything herself, only roping in staff engineer Jon San Paolo because it was impossible for her to run between the console and live room on two different floors. That’s where Bully get their extra power, because Bognanno is never fumbling to execute the sounds she has in her head.
But she admits that she doesn’t listen to tons of other bands: “I am not a huge music junkie,” she says, eventually naming The Replacements, The Ronettes and Aimee Mann’s old band Til Tuesday as recent fixations. “It’s not like I don’t like music, but when you’re around it so much” – she just quit working at Nashville studio Battle Tapes – “you just need a break.”
After opting into a high school studio recording class so she would be able to produce her own songs, a teacher suggested Bognanno apply for the audio production course at Middle Tennessee State University. She was accepted, escaping from the tiny Minneapolis suburb she called home, where she didn’t know “a single person in a band in high school.”
A keyboard player, Bognanno didn’t learn guitar until college, when the rest of King Arthur left their instruments at her house. She talks unromantically about the artistic process, giving the impression that Bully’s music, which she started writing during her internship, just… appeared fully formed. If she’s restrained in conversation, it’s because everything comes out in the songs. “Since I was seven I would have little notebooks that I would write lyrics in,” she says. “I mean, they were awful, but I’d always wanted to write songs. It was a way to express myself.”
Her challenge when writing Bully’s debut album was to be less abstract. “When I first started writing I would hide behind hidden meanings,” she says. “But now I’m trying to be as honest as possible. I feel like that can be more relatable, it feels better to just say what you mean.” It’s palpable: ‘Brainfreeze is the opening song on the ‘Bully’ EP (and the name of Copeland’s pop-up Nashville comic book shop), where Bognanno uses a metaphor about lactose intolerance for a relationship issue: “Your lies are thicker than my milkshake/But they both make my stomach ache/And they’re both slowly weighing me down”.
Meanwhile the howled ‘Trying’, an unreleased song from their forthcoming debut, sees Bognanno “praying for my period all week”, crushed by society’s expectations of women and admitting, “I can’t keep it together, I’ve been better”. “That song is definitely stuff I don’t have dinner conversations about,” she says. “But it feels good to sing ‘cos it’s so brutally honest, it’s almost a stress-reliever.”
Three or four of Bully’s previous songs will appear re-recorded on the album, which is currently nameless and will probably be out in spring. There was no shortage of indie labels after them, but eventually they went with an imprint of Columbia, a major. “We just really liked the guy who runs Startime,” Bognanno explains. “He was really eager.”
I ask what she learned from her internship, hoping for a neat line about the famously principled Albini’s ethos. Instead, she raves about tape speeds, how Electrical Audio aligns half-inch tape machines through Oscilloscopes, and the many notebooks she filled with microphone techniques. I’m lost, but then Bognanno’s meticulous attention to detail aligns her more closely with the ‘In Utero’ engineer than rank sentimentality would.
Bully are one of NME’s artists to watch in 2015. Read this week’s magazine and NME.com throughout the week for more interviews with the most exciting new acts this year.