As the minor chords churn out and lyrics hurry in over the top of them, the rasp in Alicia Bognanno's voice fits perfectly through the analog haze. Sure, the '90s influence is there with splashes of The Breeders, Kim Gordon and Nirvana, but Bognanno and her band, Bully, are bringing a now classic sound into the modern age.
And yes, she's aware of her music's similarities to the era. "I would say that those ['90s acts] are the bands I first started to listen to when I got to college, which doesn't really make any sense because I went to college in 2008," Bognanno says. "That's just what my friends were listening to. There are a lot of bands that came out of that era which were the first bands where I would say, 'Holy shit, this is amazing.'"
Now, Bully is amazing fans of its own thanks to a fast and furious debut album, Feels Like, that offers up 10 songs in under 30 minutes. The Nashville quartet is back out on tour for a round of dates, including a stop at Snug Harbor on Jan. 26, before getting to work on the sophomore follow-up.
While the band might throw a cover song or two into its sets, they only have one short album in their repertoire and shows rarely last even as long as 40 minutes. That's mostly due to Bognanno not wanting to force the time issue within her songwriting.
"I'm not going to write a song and make it longer just for the sake of being the average length of a song," she says. "If a song happens to be shorter, I'll think about putting another part in, but if it's not there, it's just not there. I don't think too much about it. We still play about 12 songs live, which is an average set."
She notes that the one or two songs that band members has written for Bully's next album are already a bit longer. Part of that comes from making them more complex as the band, which formed in 2013, becomes more of a cohesive unit and proficient as musicians.
Part of the band's sound also comes from Bognanno's background. She went to college for a degree in audio engineering and was able to engineer Feels Like thanks to a vote of confidence from her label, Columbia Records' Startime International.
"It was really important for me to do it because it's something that I want to get better at," she says. "I want to be a better engineer and I don't think there's a much better way to learn than to being able to do it with your own stuff and how you want to do it."
Much to her chagrin, the label also got the finished product and asked someone else to mix it to see how it might impact the final result. Thankfully, Bognanno says, everyone preferred her mix.
Looking back at it now, Bognanno can't help but hear things she'd love to fix — or songs she'd like to leave off.
"After everything was tracked and hearing everything back to back for the first time, it was a lot more clear for me to see which songs I didn't like as much and which songs were my favorite," she says. "I definitely learned that after I go back and listen to a lot of the songs, I want to be better at guitar. A lot of the stuff that's super simple, I want to expand on it. When I go to write the second record, I want to make it more complex than the first. Some of the poppy stuff like 'Reason' we don't play live because I don't love it."
Bognanno didn't always see herself in a band. She grew up in suburban Minnesota where people just weren't playing in bands. A high school teacher introduced her to the concept of audio engineering and steered her toward a degree.
"I was passionate about it," she says of engineering. "Now, I live in Nashville and every 15-year-old is in a band. It was a lot different where I grew up."
When she got to Middle Tennessee State University, she started learning keyboard for a music theory class. Around the time she turned 20, she moved out of the dorms and into an apartment where all of her roommates had guitars. The first time she picked one up, she realized it was a lot easier to express herself using six strings as opposed to 88 keys.
Being around so much music, it seems inevitable that she would eventually start a band, which she did in mid-2013. By the time Bully was set to record, Bognanno had everything mapped out — where she wanted microphones, what kind of equipment she wanted to use. The end result is a great source of pride for her.
"It's more fulfilling to know that I did it myself," Bognanno says. "Maybe in the future there will be times when it will be too stressful or if it interacts negatively in the process, that would be the time for me to hand it over."