Now sober and solo, Bully's Alicia Bognanno is rediscovering her alt-rock purpose with the return to live shows

click to enlarge "I feel like I haven't had a sense of purpose for the past year and a half. So I'm ecstatic to be back." - ANGELINA CASTILLO PHOTO
Angelina Castillo photo
"I feel like I haven't had a sense of purpose for the past year and a half. So I'm ecstatic to be back."

Everyone has felt adrift to some degree during these COVID times, but there's a different level of existential insubstantiality for performers. Bully's Alicia Bognanno feels that on an acute empirical level. And if you've ever seen Bully live, you'd immediately understand why.

Bully shows are an outlet for blissful ferocity for Bognanno, who attacks her guitar strings with maniacal punk fury and bellows throat-shredding screams of catharsis at a full throttle clip until she and the crowd are left as sweaty and rapturously exhausted heaps.

So when Bully played its first run of tour dates in late July 2021, it wasn't merely fun, it was existentially validating.

"It felt amazing to play," Bognanno says. "I feel like I haven't had a sense of purpose for the past year and a half. So I'm ecstatic to be back."

The only mental hiccup was the back of mind worry about spreading COVID at shows, which has led her to put protocols in place for Bully shows.

"A lot of what would be totally normal and enjoyable was kind of overshadowed by that," she says, "because it's not something you couldn't think about. It's not like, 'We're back and everything's the same!' It's like, I'm seeing these people mosh, and I don't know who's vaccinated."

There's also a newfound clarity when Bognanno hits the stage. Right before the pandemic hit, she gave up booze, so this is her first time touring sober. It's a step-by-step process dealing with that addiction, but dry green rooms and fan support have helped her deal with the mental demons.

"I was really nervous going into it because I feel like I just think a lot more, and I was kind of using alcohol as a way to shut off my brain," Bognanno says. "But then after playing these few shows and having a dry green room, I sent out a mass email to Bully fans just being like: 'This is what's going on. Please don't offer me drinks.' And since doing that, I feel like so many people have put their drinks down in solidarity these past few shows, which has been super helpful. But this whole time I was, like, so paranoid that I wouldn't be able to tap into this place that I was able to when I was playing pretty drunk. And these past few shows have been very reassuring that like that place is completely accessible, and that it wasn't reliant on alcohol."

Bognanno feels much more in control of Bully for one other obvious reason: It's a solo project now. While she'd always been the band's frontward-facing leader, she took full control after the album cycle for 2017's Loser. For Bognanno, it's about finding the ideal way to work, as she'd always been directing her bandmates how to adapt to the songs she wrote anyway.

Now flying solo, but in the heart of the bizarre pandemic musical era, Bully released its third album, Sugaregg, in August 2020 via Sub Pop. Another blistering 12-song collection of rock fury, the album earned rave reviews from Rolling Stone, NME and The Guardian and hit No. 1 on the NACC 200 college radio charts. Despite having to sit on the record for almost a year before being able to tour, Bognanno still feels a deep connection to the songs.

"So many of those songs are about mental health, so that has kind of stayed the same," Alicia says. "A lot of it was an outlet for me to deal with my Bipolar Type 2 disorder, which is like a massive part of my life that I put away for so long. So a lot of the frustration in those songs — and the angst behind them — comes from that place, and I'm still dealing with that every day. I can relate to everything, and I'm really happy that I still can."

Seeing that Sub Pop sticker on Bully's last two LPs, it's hard not to mentally conflate the band with acts from the grunge era. It's certainly a sonic fit (Bully even released a 7-inch cover of Nirvana's "About a Girl" for Sub Pop in 2020), but that was never Bognanno's part of the rationale when signing with the Seattle-based imprint.

"That was never intentional, but my favorite records came out of the '90s," she says. "I didn't even listen to Hole until after Bully had started, because I got so many comparisons. [Laughs] I was more so like The Breeders, Sonic Youth, Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield, all that kind of stuff resonated with me the most."

With that said, most of the best grunge-y music from recent years has been female-fronted. This list includes Bully, fellow Nashvillians Daddy Issues, Wolf Alice, and Wild Powwers. And while women being front and center might not jibe with most people's Nirvana- and Pearl Jam-centric view of grunge, it's actually closer to the genre's roots. The genre's sound and style didn't start out with all white dudes in flannel; rather, the seeds were planted by Tina Bell, a Black woman who fronted the oft-forgotten mid-'80s Seattle band Bam Bam. It's that lineage of inclusiveness that Bognanno connects with in her core.

"If I had to pick a category [for Bully], I've always said 'alternative,' but I'm happy to be in the genre," she says. "And looking at it, the punk world kind of came up from an exclusively dude-club place. Like, 'Name your favorite Descendents songs and then you can come to the show,' you know? And from what I know about grunge — or even Fugazi and Bikini Kill, when all that was happening — it's welcoming. It's like an environment. Like, we are pro-women, we are pro-everybody. Music isn't a club. Music is here for you to find a place to fit in." ♦

Bully and Lightning Bug • Fri, Sept. 3 at 8 pm • $15 • 21+, vaccination or proof of negative COVID test required • Lucky You Lounge • 1801 W. Sunset Blvd. • luckyyoulounge.com • 509-474-0511

Old Dominion with Caitlyn Smith @ Northern Quest Resort & Casino

Sat., Sept. 25, 7:30 p.m.
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About The Author

Seth Sommerfeld

Seth Sommerfeld is a freelance contributor to The Inlander and an alumnus of Gonzaga University.