&& we have a winner.
Brash Distillers frontwoman Brody Armstrong survived a hellish childhood, a punk-rock divorce and a controversial new romance to stand now on the brink of stardom. “I won’t be crucified,” she tells Blender
By Michael Odell
Blender, October 2003
The rock lovebirds just won’t break their clinch.
It’s nearing showtime, but at the elevators of Manhattan’s chic W Hotel, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme is muttering gruff niceties into the ear of a statuesque young woman. Luckily, her heels provide the elevation required to successfully negotiate the cooings of the six-foot-six QOTSA giant. Homme is the more famous of the grungy twosome, but all eyes in the hotel are firmly fixed on the young woman. Her T-shirt is safety-pinned at the cleavage. She has ketchup on her left breast. Then there’s the calling card tattooed on her left shoulder: a human skull accessorized with a pink ribbon. Above and below, the gothic type exhorts you to FUCK OFF.
The “It punk” in question is Brody Armstrong, singer and songwriter with Los Angeles band the Distillers. Though we can hardly help ourselves, Armstrong plainly makes Blender feel as if we really should be staring someplace else.
This romance has largely, up until now, been but a rumor. On message boards and in punk fanzines, word had spread over recent months that 24-year-old Brody had left her husband, Tim Armstrong, leader of the punk group Rancid, for Homme, whose band currently enjoys unanimous critical adulation and near-platinum sales. Pierced gossips hissed about Brody’s motives, insinuating that she was a social-climbing mercenary who had traded up in partners in order to form a modern-rock power couple on the eve of her band’s major-label debut. They hurled Kurt-and-Courtney comparisons at her like poison darts.
But Homme and Armstrong are past caring about the sniping chitchat. Some neat scheduling means their respective bands are currently on Lollapalooza together, and Armstrong will later cite post-show fun as a reason for feeling “not exactly the tits.”
Today’s lingering farewell is due to a sudden divergence in band duties. The Distillers have time scheduled at a New York studio, where they’re nearly done mastering their third album, Coral Fang. Homme, meanwhile, heads with his band for a performance on The Late Show With David Letterman. Later, Armstrong and her band have a sweatier, smellier date at New York’s legendary punk venue CBGB.
Distillers guitarist Anthony Bradley, drummer Andy Granelli and bass player Ryan Sinn wait for their singer on a sofa in the hotel foyer.
“Where’s the Beaver?” asks Bradley, using a cozy band nickname for Armstrong. The singer parts from Homme and apologizes for being tardy. She was up late partying last night, but she’s paying a heavy price: She has a fuzzy head and a cracked, husky voice — which, actually, is proving a recording hallmark. But most of all, she’s having weird dreams.
“I dreamed I was smoking crack. Then I dreamed I was having sex with a dolphin. The last was that my mom had a baby boy, and I was baby-sitting and put him inside a plastic bag.
“Now what the fuck is all that about?”
* * * * *
A lot about Brody Armstrong and the Distillers invites such inquiry. The macabre lyrical world of their first two offerings, The Distillers (2000) and Sing Sing Death House (2002), hint at Armstrong’s past, the sort of upbringing that even most social workers would need a stiff drink to read about. It was as though someone forgot to buy Armstrong’s folks a Good Parenting handbook and bought them Fucking It All Up instead.
She was born Brody Dalle in Melbourne, Australia, in 1979. Her English father, whom she calls “a cab driver and drunken poet,” was thrown out of the house by her mother when Brody was 17 months old. He left for the U.K., returning three years later to start a new family. However, Brody’s mother was so concerned about his reappearance that she moved out of Melbourne, taking Brody with her, and left no forwarding address. Armstrong’s vivid dream life figures strongly here: She remembers a recurring childhood nightmare of two alligators in a hot tub fighting to the death.
By her early teens, Armstrong was struggling. She left home and began compiling a magnificent delinquent case history. “I dabbled in drugs, but there was no addiction problem,” she says. “But my mom and I fell out big time. I was terrible. I would have thrown me out. I was a very, very bad girl. But also just a teenager trying to figure out who I was.”
She was also playing guitar, inspired by punk acts from Discharge to Devo. When she was 13, her guitar teacher taught her the Hole song “Teenage Whore,” and a year later Armstrong formed a band, Sourpuss, with her best friend. When she was only 16, Sourpuss played the second stage at Australia’s Somersault festival, a gig that changed her life.
Also on the bill were Hole and Rancid. Armstrong met Courtney Love that day; they’re still friends (Armstrong, in fact, plays guitar on two tracks on Love’s forthcoming solo album, America’s Sweetheart). She also met 28-year-old Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong, and the two fell mohawked-head-over-heels in love.
Initially, their relationship was strictly long-distance. Brody and Tim would write to each other as often as they could, and Brody, with Tim’s encouragement, formed the first incarnation of the Distillers, taking the name from a brewery found along the train route from Melbourne to the industrial Australian beach town of Geelong. Frustrated by the 8,000 miles between Melbourne and Los Angeles that separated them, Tim, a sweet, gentle man and a much-beloved figure on the U.S. punk scene, asked Brody to marry him. Upon turning 18 in 1997, she moved to L.A. and married him the following year, ditching the fledgling Distillers back in Australia.
Though initially she hated America, finding L.A. in particular “vulgar,” she still set about recruiting a new lineup for the Distillers: Kim Fuellerman on bass, drummer Mat Young and Rose Casper on guitar. Fuellerman had been working at Epitaph Records (Rancid’s label), and the band signed a deal with Epitaph. Interestingly, when she talks about that time today, Armstrong says her need for independence was already an issue in the marriage.
“I don’t like being codependent,” she says. “And I had to rely on Tim for everything.”
By the time the Distillers released Sing Sing Death House, Young and Fuellerman were out of the band. Casper would play on the album but depart soon after. Why? Armstrong, ever more ambitious, had decided the band was in a rut and canned them all.
“I fired them all for indifference,” she says. “I was a 22-year-old tyrant with a definite idea of how things should be. They weren’t hungry for it.”
She recruited Andy Granelli from San Francisco punk band the Nerve Agents, and Granelli brought Ryan Sinn with him. Anthony Bradley, the Distillers’ former T-shirt salesman, came aboard later. But further changes were imminent. The Distillers, who had built up a fevered following with their open-throated live shows, signed to Sire Records. Meanwhile, Tim and Brody’s marriage fell to pieces.
“I got married when I thought I knew everything about the world,” she says. “I realize I knew nothing. I didn’t know the fundamentals of relationships, the roles we play, honor and trust, etc.”
Blender suggests that an 18-year-old girl marrying a 30-year-old man might indicate some unresolved paternal issues.
“Yeah,” she allows. “I wasn’t calling him Daddy, but yeah. I learned a lot from him. Especially about how he runs his band. But I did it myself, too. Tim’s not a demigod; he came up through the ranks like me.”
Though she told the alternative newspaper LA Weekly this June that she still loves her husband and always will (the two are still legally married), things are not so rosy now. “Oh, yeah, we’re best of friends,” she says with some sarcasm. “We pub-hop together, go to strip joints. What do you think?”
Now her relationship with Homme, another older man with rock-star stature, is a matter of speculation. Armstrong shoots Blender a look that could incapacitate our spinal column when we ask whether Homme plays on her new album.
“Sure,” she answers, rolling her eyes. “Josh wrote our new album. And Tim wrote the last one. That’s what I use these people for.”
Actually, Coral Fang could not be anything other than the product of Brody Armstrong’s pitch-black imagination. Backed by major-label dollars and produced by Gil Norton (who has worked with the Pixies and Foo Fighters), it far exceeds the raw potential of the Distillers’ first two albums. The one-dimensional bile splatter of Sing Sing Death House has given way to better structures, though the pace is still brutally intense, and Armstrong’s vision of the universe still gothic and curdled. The sing-along suicide anthem “Die on a Rope” and the scabrous “Dismantle Me” hint at the turbulence of her personal life.
“‘Die on a Rope’ is about…well, that’s personal, but really obvious, too. I’m asking my hangman, ‘Will I die on a rope?’ ‘Dismantle Me’ is my personal dialogue with a certain person, too. Let’s just say you can’t come out of the abyss unscathed,” she says.
It’s this lyrical waywardness as well as the trajectory of her personal life that have earned Armstrong the “new Courtney Love” moniker. She’s surprisingly sanguine about the comparison. Love and British punk queen Siouxsie Sioux are the only role models that she will admit to.
“I don’t know Courtney that well, to be honest. What I do know is that she’s kind of underachieving until she’s president of the United States. She’s that smart. And she has come through a Greek tragedy unbroken.”
* * * * *
The distillers’ CBGB show is a veritable oven. Josh Homme is here, as is Seymour Stein, the man who signed the Ramones and Madonna — both of whom reside somewhere in the Distillers’ genetic lineage.
Armstrong has changed from her dress-down ketchup-print T into a striped top and wrestling boots, all plucked from her pink suitcase. As they launch their attack, some diehards in the crowd know all the words and punch the air, but the new material is mostly just appreciated rather than met with screw-faced hysteria. The crowd-surfing really gets going during “City of Angels,” their radio breakthrough. Perhaps it’s a sign of Armstrong’s appeal to women that the song heralds the start of an inter-gender stage-diving face-off. Blender counts three guys and three girls tossed overhead. The guys are chest-beating gorillas; the women kiss one another when they hit the stage. The women win this round easily.
The Distillers, sans Armstrong, leave the stage drenched in sweat. The New York crowd senses a band on the verge of something much larger. They clamor for more. Armstrong doesn’t seem to care, though, offering her fans a double helping of middle finger.
Earlier, just before sound check, Armstrong had shown Blender the provisional artwork for Coral Fang. Pulling it from her bag was a spontaneous, friendly gesture, like a friend offering you a smoke. But when you take a closer look at the drawing, it tightens the throat: It depicts a statuesque woman, nude except for high heels, being crucified, a stab wound to her left abdomen gushing blood.
People are probably going to read a lot into that image.
“It’s already happening,” Armstrong says. “But the difference with me is that I’m a survivor. I won’t be crucified.
I decided a long time ago that I could achieve my vision. The weak are crushed. The weak are killed. I’m not one of those.”
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