The whole enterprise of Bully is constructed like a roll cage around Alicia, who is the one who pulls these songs—these clear-eyed and barbed and, because of the health in her voice and the space she’s left around it in the recording, these living, breathing songs—to the surface.
I understand now that there are several Nashvilles. When I venture out from under the protective wing of the musicians I’m with, just to get coffee and maybe a sweater because I have yet again failed to pack like a person who has packed before, I’m startled by how much eye makeup I’m having to reconnoiter with. Especially since the women wearing it are on their way to a rec league softball game. I hate the passive aggression of places with no sidewalks. Everybody is always telling you to get the hot chicken and swearing you’ll regret it. Everybody is always telling you Nashville has money. I never make it to that part of town. Word is the time to buy was two years ago. I’m at the nail salon by the liquor store and it’s three generations in here and everybody’s asking me what pink I got and they’re all getting it too and I think it’s because I don’t look like I’m from here and that’s probably because I’m not dressed for the weather. There is a fakemeout Parthenon.
The four musicians in Bully navigate this city much more gracefully than I do, in swag Vans and borrowed flannel and the T-shirts of bands they truly love. When we’re on line at fancy coffee shops it feels like their circle is the opposition party. Or an invasive species. Alicia Bognanno came from Minneapolis to the MTSU audio engineering program, which is the real deal. If you go to school there you get to touch gear worth more than your life. Nashville’s internship game is very tight. Alicia did one at Battle Tapes Recording in East Nashville, and another at Electrical Audio in Chicago. Steve Albini’s spot is where Bully recorded its first album – in the big room with the high ceiling -- and she grew her time at Battle Tapes into a job and a mentorship and a friendship and now Jeremy Ferguson and his wife hope their baby girl grows up to be just like Alicia.
The four musicians in Bully navigate this city much more gracefully than I do, in swag Vans and borrowed flannel and the T-shirts of bands they truly love.
Nashville is where the Stone Fox is, the venue where she ran sound and, watching band after band, gave herself a musician’s home training— “Ask a bartender to bring me a drink onstage—I will never do that, even if I’m dying of thirst.” The Stone Fox is where she met Reece, then the booker, who still does that and is also now her bass player. There’s a Starbucks in Nashville that holds a job for Clay, who plays guitar in Bully, when they all hit the road for a month or two at a time. Nashville is where Alicia and her boyfriend, Stewart, the drummer, decided to base a band on her songs and her voice and populate it in the belief that touring would inevitably follow. She is more casual about the plan. ”Let's just get people that we get along with and can count on and travel with and the music part will come second,” she says. “Which I know sounds crazy, but I just meant we’ll practice until we get where we need to be.”
Bully is four people, but Bully is Alicia’s expression. From the van Bully’s label bought for them Reece is advancing the next show and Stewart is dreaming up and shooting the album cover and Clay is eschewing imported beer and refusing to believe the hype. Clay has played in too many bands for that. Clay is Jarobi here.
The whole enterprise of Bully is constructed like a roll cage around Alicia, who is the one who pulls these songs—these clear-eyed and barbed and, because of the health in her voice and the space she’s left around it in the recording, these living, breathing songs—to the surface. I think it’s her disinterest in hospital corners, the headlong pace she keeps most of the time, that reminds me that I used to be a little kid, that I used to run really fast and I didn’t always have all these bags to get in my way and that the first time I rode my bike with no hands that was the best feeling I’ve ever had in my whole life.
“Let's just get people that we get along with and can count on and travel with and the music part will come second,” she says. “Which I know sounds crazy, but I just meant we’ll practice until we get where we need to be.”
Stewart has spent more time than the other band members thinking about his role in Bully. He supports Alicia personally and particularly – “obviously I’m dedicated because Alicia’s my girlfriend and I love her” – but not in a self-negating way. In a previous band he wrote songs with Alicia, but he is relieved to put that burden down. He was tough on himself. “My whole experience writing songs it just kind of felt like it was never good enough.” And he likes being surprised by his band’s songs again. “She writes a song, and she starts working on it, and then we come in and write our parts and play our parts,” he says. “It’s not until we play ‘em that she’s like, ‘Yes, that works.’ Or, ‘No, it doesn’t.’ She doesn’t really come in with a whole lot of direction as to what to play. But that’s also really exciting, because you don’t know what a song is going to become.” Like how George Lucas could find out what happens in Star Wars VII, but he says he wants to wait for the theater like everybody else.
When Stewart talks about Alicia’s songs, I can see the part of him that, despite having met the man behind the curtain long ago, despite maybe at times even being the man behind the curtain himself, still marvels. This is most clear in how he voices the theoretical aspect of his support of Alicia. “You’re made to feel like talking about gender is something that, like you can’t be too honest about how you feel about it. But it’s fucking a problem! There’s not enough female voices in rock n roll,” he says. “I think she represents a different kind of voice and perspective as a songwriter. You want to be on that team. You want to help other people get to hear that voice. And just be around it. It’s a really awesome thing to be around.”
There is a whiff of awe in the way everybody in Bully talks about Alicia, but a long time ago they all ran through the romantic notions of touring. “We’re gonna be gone for like the next two months, so it’s like, am I gonna find a place and pay rent and open electric and water and the internet and then not – you know what I’m saying? What’s even the point, really?” says Alicia. “It’s really cool, but there’s a serious lack of control, I feel like, that you have over everything in general when you’re gonna commit to that at as a lifestyle. But it’s OK. I like it.”
The road can become a suspended state of irresponsibility, a time when childish things don’t get put down and repercussions are far far away. But Bully isn’t moving that way. "That kind of escaping feeling is leaving me,” Alicia says. She’s thinking about getting a filing cabinet for the van and she’s researching travel guitars, so even when she’s strapped in for eight hours at a time Instagram isn’t her only option. "When I'm playing music I feel like I'm getting work done," she says.
When Stewart talks about Alicia’s songs, I can see the part of him that, despite having met the man behind the curtain long ago, despite maybe at times even being the man behind the curtain himself, still marvels.
With a little over a week off between a Canadian tour and a British one, everybody has a lot to get done. Clay is working all the shifts they’ll give him. Reece is bartending through Record Store Day. Stewart is shooting a music video for somebody else. Alicia’s response to my question about watching other bands perform is to get real stressed about not taking good care of her ears. I am highly sympathetic to this specific enactment of self-sabotage. She’s pre-emptively mad at herself for not handling those maintenance type things we’re all bored to tears by, like getting those prescription earplugs, the ones that are molds of your actual ears and make it a flat frequency response so it’s super perfect (her words, not mine, obv. All I was told is the prescription ones work better than toilet paper and maybe I should try to not look like such a scrub all the time).
But the earplugs are a stand-in. What she’s really anxious about, and what Stewart’s arranging things around, and the subtext of the hints Clay and Reece let slip while we’re sitting in the backyard finishing off all that shitty beer, is new songs. The group’s debut album isn’t out until the end of June, but the want for them is underneath every minute I’m around Bully. It’s that good anticipation though. Alicia’s got it bad, but she doesn’t, at the moment, have what she calls a room of her own, just a place to plug in and zone out and let the songs come through. "It just feels like you're like not at peace at all until you can do it," she says. "It just feels really good. While I'm writing and when I want to write it just feels really good. I feel like I'm doing the right thing."
A Truly Bully Movie
Created by Alex Schubert
Cop one for your mom.
18 x 24 inch Silkscreen print of Bully's Tour Poster designed by Alex Schubert. Printed in Nashville by Grand Palace. This is a pre-order as posters will be printed in the middle of June! We're waiting for our favorite Silk Screeners to run this job. Get them here!