2017 has been a banner year for punks so far, in the sense that “punks” refers to bold, brave voices who aren’t afraid to speak out against the establishment. Donald Trump’s presidency has caused a rise in politically-concerned and conversational public figures, and so have events like Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests, government responses to catastrophic natural disasters, and the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas.
Among those punks is Bully leader Alicia Bognanno, who is also a “punk” in the sense that she fronts one of the most bombastic punk bands playing rapid-fire riffs and kicking musical ass today. She believes in punk and all its meanings: Anybody who has a platform should use it to address topics that are important to them, and even though electronic music is more popular than ever, high-octane, guitar-based music isn’t going anywhere.
Ahead of the release of Bully’s upcoming album Losing, we spoke with Bognanno about punk, as well as the value of quality production on raw music, conversations about mental health, and why baring your soul in a song is really the only way to do it.
Your band had a song on the Donald Trump protest singles series [Our First 100 Days], and you’ve spoken out against Sea World, but some people think that musicians, athletes, entertainers, and other high-profile people have no place talking about political and social issues like that. Why does a musician’s voice matter when it comes to these things?
Anyone with a platform right now should use it; the political climate has been pretty depressing since the election. I’ve always supported athletes or anyone who’s spoken out about politics because they’re entitled to opinions just like anyone else, plus they have a platform. They’re human beings, most of all, with a passion for things.
Aside from you, there are a lot of high-profile people talking about these things, so when everybody is speaking out about these same topics for a long time, do you think that makes the message more powerful, or does it face the danger of turning into white noise due to constant exposure?
I think that it makes it more powerful, as opposed to nobody saying anything, which would be the contrary. So I would definitely prefer that people speak out, and I think when people speak out, it paves the way for those who are less willing to do so to do the same.
You deal with a lot of tough subjects in your music on the new album, whether it’s breakups, illness, death — big traumas like that. Does it ever feel like you’re turning your intimate, personally important thoughts into a commodity or a product, or is it more beneficial for you to get it out there and that’s not something that’s ever crossed your mind?
It really depends on the person writing it. To me, music is a personal and emotional thing, so if I was going to take emotion or personal situations out of it, then that would feel more like just a product, because it would just be an emotionless, senseless piece of music, which to me, isn’t real music at all.
Depression emerges as a theme in your music as well, and in light of what’s happened over the past few months with Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, do you think these tragedies are making people more willing to be open about issues like depression and suicide before they come to a head?
If there are conversations that are happening with people before they reach that point, then that’s obviously excellent. You do see a lot of people coming out of the woodwork and offering their help and support, and there are suicide hotlines you can call, which are obviously great resources for anybody who is feeling something along the lines of that. So if it’s something that’s shedding light on resources that are there to help people who are having a really difficult time emotionally, then I think that’s a great thing.
Punk-leaning music has a reputation for being lo-fi, but at the same time, you’re a producer and you’ve also worked with great producers like Steve Albini. How important is high production value to genres like punk that thrive on chaotic and intense energy?
I think everybody who has a band has an idea of how they want to represent it. Sometimes doing it lo-fi or on an 8-track at home really works in your favor and can give it a sense of raw energy that wouldn’t be there if they were to do something more polished. For me personally, I have a Bachelors Of Science in audio engineering, so of course I’m going to want to use a nice tape machine and microphones and preamps when I have the access to do so, because it’s a learning experience for me.
That’s why we do it, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with lo-fi recordings. I think sometimes they can help, but it’s hard to say with punk as a genre, because it’s just so big and it depends on the project and how that person feels the recording should represent it.
So it varies on a case-by-case basis, which makes sense.
Yeah. I also don’t think there’s a right way to do things. I think you can switch it up per record. Maybe you go to a nice professional studio and do a record where things are more polished and there’s a little bit more clarity. And then you could do a second record that’s not the way you just did it at all. Also, a lot of it is budget. Sometimes you don’t have a label to back you up, so you have to work with what you have.
It came out recently that over the past decade, guitar sales have dropped “from about 1.5 million sold annually to just over 1 million” More so than probably any other genre, there’s a mentality surrounding rock and other guitar-based music that it’s dying or it’s not as good as it used to be, and when Eric Clapton was told that guitar stat, he said, “Maybe the guitar is over.” Is there any truth to what he said?
[Laughs] I don’t think the guitar’s over at all. I think that… I wouldn’t agree with that. Why would the guitar be over? I know a whole community of bands that are still playing guitar. Electronic music definitely has been around for a long time now, and that’s a big genre and it probably sells way more records than rock bands. But we’re not a huge-selling band, we’re not a really big band, so we’ve never personally felt that hit because we’ve always been on a smaller scale. But I don’t think guitar music is dead, nor will it ever be. It might just be minimalized for small periods of time.
Bully’s upcoming album Losing is set for release on October 20 via Sub Pop. Pre-order it here.