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Bully's 'Losing' Streak

Bully's Alicia Bognanno talks about the art of the 'album experience,' the band's next record and more

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    Bully (singer/guitarist/producer Alicia Bognanno pictured) headline the Casbah on Feb. 19. (Photo by Alysse Gafkjen)

    Bully's latest album, 2017's "Losing," is a monstrous tour de force of neoteric, grunge-inspired rock & roll. Just don't tell the band's frontwoman, Alicia Bognanno.

    "When we start a record cycle, if there's big reviews or big interviews or ones that I really enjoy, I'll read them," she told me over the phone recently, "but I usually try to avoid that because what's the outcome? If it's good, that's great. If it's bad, I know it's going to destroy me and I know that it shouldn't because either way I just want to keep playing music; I want to keep doing stuff I like; and I don't want to start catering it to what I think is going to make people happy or have it be received in a better light."

    For Bognanno, who admits that she often struggles with self-criticism, going down the music-press rabbit hole can be a particularly nasty thing. Even though reviews of Bully's 2015 debut album "Feels Like" and last year's aforementioned Sub Pop follow-up [listen/buy it here] have been largely glowing, reading someone else's thoughts on your art can be a mixed bag. Every little thing becomes magnified and scrutinized. How does she overcome it? One word: time.

    "I haven't read a review for 'Feels Like' in a couple of years now and it wouldn't even matter or hurt my feelings anymore now. So by having that time, I can kind of listen to [the album] and I can feel proud and look back on it fondly. But when you don't have that time and you're in the middle of [a record cycle], it can be more difficult to not really pick everything apart or tear yourself down.

    "The reality either way is you have to keep going," she continued. "We'll probably be touring for the rest of the year. It's not a good time to open up opportunities to be weighed down by what other people think."

    That rings true especially in today's impatient, gluttonous music-consuming culture. Artists have always had to "let go" of their work when it's released -- as Citizen's Nick Hamm told me last year, "Once it's out there, it doesn't belong to me anymore" -- but today, the way music is frequently eaten up, digested, and instantly discarded (or forgotten about) can be a devastating prospect for someone who obsesses over the minute details of their work. Laborious processes like production, mixing, and engineering (all roles undertaken by Bognanno for Bully) are often things that, in our singles-driven landscape, can get lost along the way if listeners aren't willing to invest time into the "album experience."

    "The way people listen to music has changed," the soft-spoken singer/guitarist/producer told me. "The percentage of people that actually listen to records anymore front-to-back is probably pretty low, especially when you have Spotify and iTunes where you can just click on tracks and move 'em around and do whatever you want."

    Even the order in which songs are arranged on a record can be an extensive (and sometimes tedious) operation -- just another aspect that the casual listener may not fully appreciate.

    "So much time goes into album sequencing," Bognanno explained. "I think it doesn't get thought about all the time, but certain songs don't sound good back to back. Having to kind of figure out how to make the whole album flow is a lot more time-consuming than anyone really anticipates."

    When asked if the band (which, aside from Bognanno, is currently comprised of guitarist Clayton Parker and bassist Reece Lazarus) has any plans to change up the way they approach the traditional album cycle (releasing EPs instead of LPs, for example), their mastermind sounded unconvinced.

    "It's hard to say but I lean more toward full-length records," she said. "And it is hard in that time in-between records because you feel like you're losing momentum when you're not putting something out -- but I'm not sure if it's worth the feeling of regaining that to put something out on its own. I dunno, I mean it takes so much for me to release anything anyway. I wish I could be more like 'Ah, we'll just put this out.' But for me, putting a song out is a really big deal." 

    With "Losing" included in all sorts of recent year-end best-of lists and tons of touring left to do in 2018 -- Bully have no plans to slow down in the near future. In fact, Bognanno says they're already thinking about album No. 3.

    "I think the third one -- and it's hard for me to talk about it because there's really no telling yet -- but we're at the point where we're like, 'OK, we got the first [album] done, we've got the second one done, how can we do things differently now?' Should I step back from engineering the record? Or just focus more on producing it? Do we need to do it all on tape? ... I think the first two records were more about sticking with our comfort zone, and now that we've gotten those taken care of, it feels like we're all a lot more open to maybe trying new things."

    Bully headline the Casbah on Monday, Feb. 19, with Melkbelly opening. Tickets are available online here.

    Dustin Lothspeich books The Merrow and runs the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.