BY TOM BOWKER
Something taste a tad Rancid to you? Welcome the Distillers
"Are you ready to be liberated/On this sad side city street/Well the birds have been freed from their cages/I've got freedom and my youth! " The whiskeyed snarl evokes Mia Zapata and Courtney Love. The anthemic guitar riff brings to mind Prison Bound-era Social Distortion. It's the Distillers' "The Young Crazed Peeling," easily the best rock single since Seattle went ka-bang in 1994.
In just seven years, Distillers singer/MTV punk pinup Brody Armstrong has made the unthinkable transition from Australian teenage gutter punk to America's great female punk-rock hope. While bouncing among Catholic school, an abusive home, and life on the Melbourne streets during her preteen years, Brody found an outlet for her rage in British hardcore dinosaurs Discharge. "It was so fast and so crazy," she says. "I'd never heard anything like it. All that screaming! It was exactly how I felt. It was exactly what I wanted to say." A new life opened up for Brody as she began hanging out at the Art House, Melbourne's all-ages punk dive, eventually finding a like-minded crew of 14-year-old hardcore girlies who formed Sourpuss, her first band. "We were awful," she says with an audible grimace. "We thought we were playing fast, but we couldn't play our instruments, so it was a big mess."
On New Year's Eve 1995, Sourpuss played Australia's Somersault festival alongside Rancid. When the then 16-year-old Brody and Rancid's 30-something singer, Tim Armstrong, bumped into one another, Cupid yanked out the crossbow. "Love at first sight," Brody states. After two years of long-distance romance, a barely legal Brody left the land down under and moved to Los Angeles to wed Armstrong. A year after her transplant, Brody found drummer Matt Young at a record store and bassist Kim Chai in her hubby's office at Epitaph/Hellcat Records and began the Distillers. After guitarist Rose Casper filled out the lineup in 1999, the quartet recorded its self-titled full-length and released it the following year on Hellcat. A rousing punk record featuring piss-in-your-eye snottiness, breakneck verses, rousing anthemic choruses, and a blistering cover of Patti Smith's "Ask the Angels," The Distillers racked up good reviews and sold well, but virtually every write-up of the band mentioned her famous hubby and compared their music to Rancid. "I can hear a lot of Rancid in the first record," the amply tattooed Brody admits. "But if that's all they have to say, I think it's lazy journalism." More annoying to Brody were the charges of nepotism stemming from the Distillers' residing on her husband's label. "Tim started the label for his friends," Brody explains. "Lars [Frederickson, Rancid guitarist] is on Hellcat; so is Matt Freeman [Rancid bassist], and so are the Dropkick Murphys. It's definitely a family business."
Unfortunately for Brody, holding the band together proved tougher than telling her critics to kiss off. After touring the States for a year, both Chai and Young came to loggerheads with Brody and were asked to leave. Now without a rhythm section but with an upcoming slot on Rancid's winter 2000 tour, Brody recruited Andy Outbreak and Dante Sigona -- the rhythm section of Bay Area punk combo the Nerve Agents -- to fill in for the dates. "She was ready to break up the band," Outbreak recalls. "I couldn't let that happen. The Nerve Agents played the second Distillers show ever, and they were one of my favorite bands." After the tour, Outbreak was invited to join permanently and recruited a fellow Bay Area punker named Ryan to play bass. "I had a choice between going back to school or dropping out to tour. I'm a loser, so I decided to tour," Outbreak chuckles.
With this lineup, the band entered L.A.'s Westlake studios in May 2001 with Bad Religion guitarist/Epitaph headmaster Brett Gurewitz producing. There, the band drew inspiration from Westlake's infamous "Michael Jackson Room."
"When he recorded Dangerous there, Michael had a special room built with a skylight and a swing for Bubbles the Chimp," Outbreak explains. The resulting record, Sing Sing Death House, joins Antiseen's Boys from Brutalsville and Recover's Rodeo & Picasso in the 21st Century's first wave of punk-rock classics. While the record has its share of whiplash-inducing hardcore tracks like "Bullet & the Bullseye," the interior of Sing Sing Death House reveals a massive leap forward in Brody's songwriting skills. Gone are the days where her choruses stood out like a truffle on a hamburger. Tracks like "City of Angels" feature bridges as gorgeous as the Golden Gate and a Bukowski-like lyrical style unnerving in its directness: "It's a ghost town, rabid underworld/Dionysian night, vitriolic twilight/A mirage comes up, it never ends/Once you get burnt, you're never the same/Left behind, erased from time/Ain't no decency in being boxed up alive/Look around, ain't no RIP signs here/We don't rest in peace/We just disappear."
After being tabled due to September 11, Sing Sing Death House finally emerged in February 2002 and won the attention of L.A. alt-radio behemoth KROQ, which added "City of Angels" to its rotation within a few months. Suddenly, the Distillers owned a much higher profile that has snowballed into two videos on MTV ("The Young Crazed Peeling" and "City of Angels"), arena tours with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and No Doubt, and a major-label deal with Sire Records. "We didn't ask for any of this; it just happened," Outbreak states. "But it is nice to not have to starve on the road." Outbreak is blasé about the outrage expressed by horrified punk purists (dismayed by the now-well-fed combo) who have posted more than 100 times on Distillers.net under the heading, "Why the Distillers Are Fucking Up."
"No one ever says anything to our face," Outbreak drawls. "It's just a bunch of kids hiding behind their computers who still live with Mommy and Daddy. I don't know what they're worried about. According to the 'experts,' we're just a flash in the pan."
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