How a high school elective lead to a career in music: an interview with Alicia Bognanno of Bully

How a high school elective lead to a career in music: an interview with Alicia Bognanno of Bully

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Alicia Bognanno was not a great student. “I pretty much got C’s,” she tells us. But her high school had an elective class for audio engineering. In that class, she was a great student. That class lead her to go to Middle State Tennessee University because, “it was affordable, and, most importantly, they accepted anybody.” But there she got rejected from the audio engineering program because of those aforementioned bad grades. She appealed it and got in. Then she started a band, Bully. They have released three albums to date, including, “SUGAREGG,” which was just released. Which is the first Bully album Bognanno did not engineer. Here she talks about choosing to let go of that, growing up in Minnesota and never knowing The Replacements, and how she became who she is today.

Interview with Bully

So this week on air, we’re talking about live albums. Alicia, I was wondering if you have a live album that you love.

The first one that comes to mind is the live Replacements record, “For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s” (1986). It’s hilarious. The lyrics are totally butchered. And in one of ’em, he just starts screaming “murder,” and it’s the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard. We went through a phase of listening to it in the van. One of my tour managers and I loved to hear it, because it was hilarious. That’s really the one that stands out for me.

So, The Replacements are kind of known for being reckless with their live sets. For people that don’t exactly know The Replacements, what’s their vibe like live? What does this live performance reveal about them that you like?

Well, I mean, I don’t necessarily like that they were reckless, because I think that a lot of them were probably struggling with alcohol consumption and stuff like that. I’m not one to romanticize recklessness in rock and roll music. I think that it’s easy to do, but this record is really funny. I like to think that he knows what he’s doing and that it’s not so much that he’s messed up or intoxicated, but that he just doesn’t care. It’s really funny hearing someone butcher the lyrics to their number one hit. They’re known to be smart asses and to fuck with shit. But on top of that, they have a wildly incredible discography. It’s not like that’s all there is to them. They’re obviously first and foremost incredibly talented musicians, but they do have a reputation of having a bit of an attitude and being a little bit destructive, as a lot of punk bands did in that time.

What’s your favorite song on there that they do in a fun way?

I think it’s “Can’t Hardly Wait” that they mess up. I definitely noticed a few hiccups in that one.

Great. So, growing up in Minneapolis, The Replacements are a band that you must’ve just grown up with.

Actually, no. I didn’t grow up with any cool music at all.

Really? 

No, no, no. I lived in a suburb of Minneapolis, and I didn’t know anything about rock music. I just knew what was on the radio. I was born in 1990, and The Replacements, I think they started in the 80’s. I didn’t listen to cool music. I didn’t learn about The Replacements until I was in college. Then, they became one of my favorite bands. I always wish that I would have known about them, but I didn’t know about them, or Hüsker Dü or anything.

So how did you get turned on to it? Because, I did the same thing. I was also born in 1990, and I didn’t know about them until I started working at this radio station. Then one of our DJs was like, “You don’t know the replacements?!” I had a similar thing where I was like, “Wow, this band is great. This band is legit.” And it was a fun discovery. But being born at the peak of a band means that they’re on their downward trajectory as you are discovering music. And it’s like, “Why would I listen to this stuff that’s just becoming old now?” You know?

Yeah. I think that people don’t know how much of a privilege it is to have their cool older sisters, or brothers or punk dads show them good music. Most of us didn’t have that, which is okay, but it’s a shortcut that we didn’t get. You had to care about it or want to know about it. I just discovered it in college. I was around people that had good taste. That was when I turned 18. That’s when I really discovered a lot of stuff like The Pixies, Sonic youth and The dB’s.

I think that most people follow what they were born with. I mean, it is the natural trajectory of  life to mostly do what you were taught or raised with. So if you were raised with boring-ass music, an album had to come to you in order for you to make the decision to not just listen to whatever you were surrounded by. What was that? What was that push for you?

I was dying to get out of the city that I went to high school in. It was just the state of mind I was in at 18. 

Why do you think that is?

I thought until recently that that’s the way it was for everybody. Everyone I was around was always like “Oh yeah, I’m getting out of here when I’m 18.” And then up until the other day, I was having a conversation with somebody and realized– a lot of people are fine with where they are. I just felt super out of place. I wasn’t doing well in school. I was really bad at school. I really wanted to do something musically. But, I didn’t know where to go with that. In Nashville, kids go to house shows when they’re 15. In Rosemont, Minnesota, in my whole high school existence I knew one band that were seniors when I was a junior. And that was it. It wasn’t like a normal thing. So, I wanted to leave. I always wanted to leave. I went to school in Tennessee. I had never even been there before. I just showed up.

Why Tennessee? 

Well, my junior and senior year of high school, we were allowed to take electives down the street at the arts school. You could take one of their more niche classes. They had an audio engineering class, and an auto-mechanic class and stuff like that. I saw audio engineering, and I was elated because it was my chance to dip my toes in the water. The teacher of that program found Middle Tennessee State University, where you could get a bachelor’s of science in audio recording, and it was affordable. Most importantly, they pretty much accepted anybody. That’s how I ended up there. I went and was ready for a change. I was all ears. I was ready to see more than I had. I was very receptive to “Give me all the cool music. Tell me all the cool things you like, I want to mess around with that guitar, let me see your keyboard!” I was “jamming” with other people for the first time. It was a trip.

Isn’t that wild? Like, if you hadn’t had that audio class in high school… I feel like how our lives turn out is so often decided by stuff like that. Like, I’m in radio, because I went to a college with a radio station. It was just available to do. I thought that it would be cool. I didn’t know what I was doing. There was no grand plan. Having access to those resources makes a difference.

I feel really lucky to have found something I was passionate about at an early age, because I had so many friends who went to school and didn’t know what they wanted to do. And then you’re left with debt. Everybody learns and develops at a different time, and you don’t always know exactly what you want to do when you’re 18. You’re still young, and you still haven’t been able to experience a lot. So, I think about how I was lucky to have found something that I was passionate about.

How did you find success in that arena? Were you a better student in audio engineering?

I did my undergrad classes and pretty much got C’s, like I usually did. You had to apply to get into the audio engineering department after two years of school. I didn’t get in. And then I sent the director a mix and got it appealed and got accepted into the program. Once I started doing the audio classes, I was getting straight A’s for the first time in my life. I cared about what I was doing, and I liked it. It was awesome.

You had the guts to appeal it.

Yeah, of course I did. That was all I wanted to do. I was going to find a way to do it, and I was capable. I just don’t test well. I took a CPR class a month ago and failed. I thought they were giving me trick questions. I was panicking so much that I was like, this must be a trick! The answer is not this easy.

That’s what I used to do too. On the ACT multiple choice questions, I would convince myself that the answers could all be right in a way. So, you did well in audio engineering because you found something that you wanted to do. And then you started the band. Are you going to get into engineering at some point? Are you going to turn around and be a producer?

I want to start producing. I engineered, mixed and produced the first two Bully records. This third one was the only one I hadn’t done. I’ve done some friends’ stuff out of my house, but eventually I will build a studio and then do more of that. Recently there have been more discussions about producing, and engineering too, but producing is a little more exciting to me. Since I don’t have my own studio, it sounds a little more comfortable to me.

Why is producing more interesting than engineering?

I get to be more creative with it, and talk about harmonies, and different vocal patterns, and song structures, and bass tones, and guitar tones, and where you could put distortion and what you should take out.

Why were you hands-off on the third record?

I was just sick of doing it. I wanted to be able to fully focus on songwriting and the musical side of it. I was sick of being stressed out while I was trying to make the record. I thought it was going to be really hard for me. I thought I was going to be totally devastated once we started. But, I didn’t even think twice about it. It was fantastic to fully focus on the creative side of things. I was really glad I did it.

Was getting the right producer/engineer difficult? Who did you get?

Not really. I worked with John Congleton for the majority of the record, and then Graham Walsh for two of the songs. Everybody was great and very enjoyable to work with.

That’s great. Bully is such a great band to see live. Do you miss playing live, or is your voice happy that you’re not shredding it?

Oh no. I miss playing live so much. It’s such a good outlet for me, and it gives me a sense of worth or purpose. Without it, I struggle for sure. I guess during quarantine, we’ve been trying to redirect a place for that negative energy to go and I do what I can to keep going. I’ve still been doing a lot of promotion for “Sugaregg,” but it’s definitely kind of scary to not be touring it. Indie bands make a living off of touring. So it’s naturally a little bit anxiety inducing.

How have you been redirecting that energy?

I’ve been running. That has helped me. I go outside a lot, and I walk my dogs twice a day. That’s really been my main outlet. I don’t like running. I loathe doing it, but then after it’s done, I feel better. When it’s done, I feel so good, and it gets me outside. I have a greenway by my house, and I can run over the rivers. I can sit out by the water for a little bit. That’s really what it is for me. It’s getting outside and doing that. I don’t think that it would be the same if I was doing it on a treadmill. But yeah, whenever I’m done, it’s the best feeling ever. So I do it for that. And then I go to bed, and I wake up the next day, and I have to do it again. The vicious cycle repeats itself.

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