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BODEGA Tackles Late-stage Capitalism with Sharp Wit on 'Our Brand Could Be Yr Life'

Write-Up and Interview by Giliann Karon
Photo by Pooneh Ghana

Ben Hozie and Nikki Belfiglio pop up on the screen, both wearing flamboyant bowler hats. A cat darts across their desk and their apartment wall is lined floor to ceiling in postcards, jewelry, and other trinkets, indicating an obsessive attention to detail and disregard for aesthetic conventions. Nikki tells me some of the pieces are gifts from fans and other mementos from tour.

Interviewing BODEGA felt like watching a tennis match, just Hozie and Belfiglio bouncing an idea back and forth between each other. I sat silently so as to not disturb the players, just looking at my eyes shift in my lagging Zoom screen. I ogled as they led me down tangents that offered a peek into their buzzing, kaleidoscopic shared brain. 

They’re creatives through and through – seasoned multimedia artists, fluent in their craft. The concepts and narratives on their trilogy of albums are so crystalized and salient that it could only be conceived by people precisely on the same wavelength. On Our Brand Could Be Yr Life, they capture and ideate pressure-cooked feelings of liberal apathy and cynicism without abdicating to doomerism.

This newest album was originally recorded 10 years ago under the name Bodega Bay, but the lyrics and messaging are timeless. They’re not offering any solutions to society’s woes, but rather addressing them with biting clarity and ensuring an audience of active listeners. A hyper-branded, immersive album rollout both sticks its tongue at the PR firms that have their demographics down to a T and showcases Hozie and Belfiglio’s infinite capacity for creativity.


GK: How do you find the balance between tongue and cheek and making a serious album? 

BEN HOZIE: The good thing about humor is it often allows you to say harsh truths in a way that would be difficult to say straightforward.

NIKKI BELFIGLIO: Like a jester in a king’s court.

BH: Often I feel like when we're at our silliest, we're being the harshest. One of my least favorite things about our last record is some of the lyrics were mine.  Our song “Doers” is kind of a Beastie Boys rap-rock thing and some of the lyrics were a little too on the nose in a way that doesn't excite me two years later.

NB: On “Doers,” you were kind of being “Bruce Springsteen trying to do Bob Dylan.” You cram all that lyricism into three minutes. 

BH: The best critique is self critique. By trying to laugh at ourselves, the humor translates within the music.

GK: Your album is so branded and cohesive that it sometimes veers into becoming a parody of itself, which obviously speaks to the point that you're trying to make about consumer culture and companies that know their demographics so well they lose authenticity. As musicians, how do you walk the line of thumbing your nose at corporatism without letting it impact the business side of your artistry?

BH: Back when we first played these songs, we didn't even know what a business was. The point of the band wasn’t to make money. In the beginning, it’s pure expression. 

NB: We’re not sure our music could even be lent towards advertising, which we’re happy to do because that contends to be like film. We’re also filmmakers, Ben especially. In both music and film, you have to accept certain opportunities for branding or sponsorships. At a certain point, you realize what events it makes sense to play and who you’re sponsored by.

BH:  We always joked that we're not in the music business, we're in an alcohol business because the only way these events can happen is because people like drinking beer at them.

NB: We do have a lot of conversations between art and advertising. In fact, we have two songs called “Art and Advertising” and “The Art of Advertising.” It’s been a big conversation now that we’ve signed to a bigger label.

BH: That song is a manifesto to me. Especially after SXSW, I’ve realized there’s so little avenue for bands who want to exist outside the apparatus.

GK: You have a very active social media presence. Especially given the messages about omnipresent consumer marketing on your album, how do you ensure you’re reaching new listeners without making yourself insane?

BH: You have to use social media to reach new listeners. We’ve always been really bad at it but we started trying this year. I don't want to have a social media person pump out endless crap just to fill the void, so we’ve taken it upon ourselves. We bought a camcorder and are trying to make interesting stuff.

We’ve been doing little video essays, which get the least engagement. Of course the filler crap does the best, but at least we’re playing the game our own way.

NB: We have no idea how these algorithms work. We got a branding guru to help us. It's a really hard balance trying to play the game but also doing it with integrity.

BH: We don’t advertise the band. We're sort of like documentarians. We show you exactly what we're doing. We're selling you crap, and we're telling you how we're selling it to you.

GK: It's not your job necessarily to have answers to society's ills, but music, especially punk, has always served as social commentary. What is your end goal of putting such staunch messaging at the forefront of the lyrics and the entire world that exists within your new album?

BH: I don't think artists are responsible to anybody but themselves. One of the problems today is people look to their favorite artists to give them moral guidance, rather than looking to activists or journalists who have done the research. Having said that, our job as artists in any medium is to tell the truth.

Bodega's songwriting style has always been observational. There's no way we could tell our truth without making social critique.

NB: We definitely don't consider ourselves to be fair weather musicians.

BH: I will say there are certain bands right now whose brand is “being political” and you can see how cynical it is. They use that to sell t-shirts, which is different from acting politically.

But acting politically isn’t the same as making propaganda music. I don’t think we make propaganda music either. Most of our songs are social critique, but we’re never pushing our opinions on our listeners.

GK:  You both have film backgrounds. How has that helped pinpoint your album's aesthetic?

BH: My practice has been to make a film, make an album, make a film, make an album. It's been going back and forth that way for about 15 years now. Our first album, Endless Scroll, came out the same year that we made our movie Private Chat.

NB: There are a lot of similarities in the themes. There's a lot of ATMs in that movie too. A little Easter egg for our fans. We have a song called “Shiny New Model” on our 2019 EP and the opening lyric is “what’s the deal with all these ATMs?” It’s a very enduring symbol for us.

BH: We think narratively. Some songs, like “Webster Hall,” are like short movies where there are two characters, drama happens, and then it gets resolved. I think of cinema as having a musical quality and vice-versa. The ultimate end point is when we make the BODEGA movie, which will happen at some point, I'm sure.

NB: I feel like you approach track listing the same way as you approach editing a movie. Every song is a scene and it flows together into a complete package. Ben will record a song and think “this is a solid track” before we have any music for the next record, which I feel is a very cinematic way of thinking about it.

This year, we hired Gummy Films for three of our music videos and while we were directly involved in the music and scenery, they took over and filmed them. Before that, we did all our own music videos and I did a lot of storyboarding.

BH: I don’t think music videos are cinema. They’re advertising. Certainly some of them rise to the call and become great art in and of themselves, but some ads also do the same thing. 

NB: I agree with that, although I do believe you can think cinematically about how you want to shoot music videos.

BH: Your “Gyrate” music video was so cinematic. It reminded me of Eisenstein.

GK: Your lyrics and videos have such a strong narrative structure. What did you watch and listen to while writing this album?

BH: Some of the references are super literal. I was watching Tarkovsky movies when writing “Tarkovski” and “Major Amberson" refers to Orson Welles’s adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons.

We listened to a lot of The Beatles too. The walrus was Paul and on “Cultural Consumer III,” we say “consumer was Paul.” In Paul McCartney’s memoir, he goes to great lengths to explain people always thought of John as the avant-garde one, but in reality he showed them Stockhausen, brought in the tape loop, and introduced them to all this far-out jazz music.

GK: This album is all re-recordings of songs you wrote 10 years ago. There’s easily enough current material to write an album about capitalism and liberal apathy, so why did you decide to reinvigorate old stuff?

BH: It still felt relevant. I just loved those songs and I always felt happy playing them.

NB: Our first album, Endless Scroll, was like a sequel to Our Brand Could Be Your Life, so we always felt like those songs were in relationship and in conversation to each other. We didn’t feel like many people had listened to these songs when we first put them on Bandcamp. Now, we felt we should continue the conversation. Endless Scroll, Broken Equipment, and Our Brand Could Be Your Life are a trilogy.

BH: Our Brand is the prequel. “Cultural Consumer Part I” is about this guy who’s addicted to buying books. He’s borrowing money from his family and putting them in debt because he can’t stop studying the Roman empire. It’s kind of a satire of NYU and the “terminal grad student” mentality.

In “Cultural Consumer Part II” and “Cultural Consumer Part III,” he goes to the Barnes and Noble at Union Square and looks down at a protest. The same guy is now forced to look at this very real political situation, but instead of joining the protests, he's just going back to Barnes and Noble and critiquing it from the glass windows.

GK: What song challenged you the most?

BH: There’s a lot of them that we did multiple times. “Tarkovski”, for example, was originally just like a two minute pop song, but then, we workshopped it on tour in 2022. We started doing that super long jam in the middle of it and it became the best part of the song. Jeremy at Chrysalis told us to go back in the studio and record it with that jam break. That took some time to get right because an improv jam is, well, improvisational, so you hear every nuance of my playing. “City is Taken” and “G.N.D. Deity” both took many, many tires.

NB: The songs I sing always take the longest. My musical language doesn't always come easy to me. Ben, on the other hand, has a wealth of knowledge. He studies rock and roll. He knows the song he wants to write and he knows how to do it. 

For me, I’ll write on some cowboy chords, figure out the vibe I want, and then go from there. It’s a different process. It's a more intuitive bass, which can be incredibly rewarding but also incredibly frustrating. 

GK: What song are you most excited to play on tour?

BH: I’m really excited to play and for people to hear “Major Amberson.” It’s got a really rich, Beatles-like melody that’s a new territory for us. A lot of people that just know our singles might be shocked that we can write tunes like that. The high notes are very high.

NB: I’m excited to play our new song “G.N.D. Deity.” The heavy guitars are really fun. My lyric is “I’m standing naked in the mirror/how far are you taking it?” and I love seeing people’s faces when they hear that line. They’re forced to imagine us naked in a weird way.

Follow BODEGA on Instagram and catch them on tour. Our Brand Could Be Yr Life is out now on Chrysalis Records.


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