After two years of revolving lineups and cruel rumors, the Distillers have emerged as one of today's most exciting punk bands.
By BEN WENER
The Orange County Register
You'd expect her to be sick of the topic, to snap at a mere mention. It's such a minor matter in a suddenly explosive career, in fact, that even broaching the subject with sympathy seems a risky move.
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Brody Armstrong knows to take it in stride. "I don't pay much mind to it. Sometimes it's a little annoying. But he's my husband. I love Timothy more than anything."
"Timothy" is Tim Armstrong - frontman for Rancid, one of the most important punk bands of the past decade, and founder of Hellcat Records, home to Brody's band the Distillers, perhaps the hottest thing ever to emerge from the label's roster.
Tim is the reason Brody, now 23, left her native Melbourne for Los Angeles in 1998, and clearly he has been some sort of Svengali: Above all, she says, he has taught her how to avoid industry pitfalls, how to remain vigilantly aware that when popularity strikes - and it has - everyone will want a piece of you.
But because of their marriage, unfounded rumors abound, the most vicious of which - that Tim writes all of Brody's songs - parallels charges leveled at Courtney Love during Hole's height.
Such idle gossip is easily dismissed. Yet no matter how much Brody shakes it off, there have been few stories written about the Distillers during this, their breakout year, that haven't identified her as Brody Armstrong, wife of Rancid's Tim Armstrong.
"Always, always, always," she says in a quiet, husky voice, sighing then laughing. "But, you know, I think one day (that identification) might be the other way around."
It surely seems headed that way. After struggling with lineup problems after the release of their self-titled debut two years ago, the Distillers have coalesced into one of the most exciting hard-core outfits to come along in years, a real deal with mainstream appeal that doesn't compromise intensity for the sake of a hit.
Already radio and MTV2 have taken notice of the band's acclaimed second album, "Sing Sing Death House": "Seneca Falls," a tough-as-nails tribute to suffragist pioneers, has gotten exposure on the video channel, while national taste- maker KROQ has made a local anthem out of "City of Angels."
Equally crucial to the group's rise, however, has been its tour with No Doubt and Garbage, which begins its wind-down this weekend with two sold-out dates at Long Beach Arena. (The bill is so popular it returns next weekend for a third night in Long Beach, Nov. 29, as well as a stop Nov. 30 at Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim.)
It's perhaps the most interesting display of female talent since Lilith Fair was retired: Three otherwise male bands fronted by wildly divergent vocalists - gritty screamer Armstrong, Garbage's seductive spitfire Shirley Manson and Anaheim pop star Gwen Stefani. Their only common traits: They don't take guff from anyone and are fond of dying their hair.
Armstrong says the femme connection didn't dawn on her until the tour was under way. "Now you know what Shirley keeps telling me? She's, like, 'I'm passing the torch on to you.' And I don't get it. I don't want the (bleeping) torch. Don't give it to me. I'm not in that race."
If anything, Armstrong sees the Distillers as the show's "antagonists," playing to other acts' crowds that often can't make head or tail of what they're witnessing. ("It goes over a lot of heads, yeah. Some people have no idea what's going on.") Still, there's an inherent danger in this extension of punk idealism joining such a commercial venture.
"People would assume that it's the opposite of what we're about," Armstrong acknowledges. "We're not here to sacrifice what we love. This is just what we have to do in order to get where we want to go."
Which is where?
"To a point where making records is our only job."
Isn't it that way now? After all, the Distillers and Hellcat just signed a deal with Sire Records - a Warner Bros. subsidiary once home to heroes like the Ramones and the Dead Boys - to jointly release coming albums.
Armstrong chuckles at the idea that the band is now on easy street. "We're not living hand-to-mouth, but the money we make doesn't cover all our costs. And if that means playing bigger bills to get more exposure, then so be it. I never aspired to stay in tiny clubs for the rest of my life. I want to move, you know? You gotta move forward. Otherwise you get stuck in a trap."
She knows that all too well. Like Love, whose album "Pretty on the Inside" had a significant influence on the young Australian - so much so that the vocal resemblance between the two is often uncanny - Armstrong overcame a deeply fractured upbringing. She has survived abuse, dealt with drug problems.
And as with her husband - "we come from really similar backgrounds" - punk was her salvation. Other outlets for aggression didn't cut it. "Industrial never did much for me. And metal turned me off because I had a cousin who had a mullet. They have these people in Australia called 'bogans.' In the '80s they wore moccasins with fluorescent pink socks, tight acid-wash jeans and a Scorpions or Poison T-shirt. So metal was always unattractive to me."
The cathartic raw energy of punk helped put her painful past in perspective. Now it's a source of inspiration, something she draws on to fuel her while tapping out lyrics on a typewriter. Sometimes, as on "Sick of It All," the results speak to street kids of every stripe. Sometimes the outcome is more personal, as on "The Young Crazed Peeling," an autobiography that condenses her chronicles from childhood misery to life-altering romance ("I love a man from California / He's the prettiest thing / We got the same disorder").
"My life has always been like a Samuel Beckett line: 'I can't go on - I'll go on.' The past is past. I utilize it, but I don't want it to make me this self-destructive rock 'n' roll casualty. That's a cliché. It's boring, and it's embarrassing."
So is most punk rock, she says. "Punk is so redundant now. I never hear anything new. I don't want to get stuck in that place. I don't want to be in some monotonous band that makes the same record over and over again."
To that end, she has fiddled with her sound while watching the Distillers' DNA mutate. Originally a quartet, the group has watched two members leave for Exene Cervenka's Original Sinners, while guitarist Rose Casper split just as "Sing Sing Death House" took off. (Drummer Andy Outbreak and bassist Ryan - just Ryan, thanks - round out the trio.)
"It's cohesive now," Armstrong says, noting there are no plans to replace Casper. "This is it. It's a done deal. There's a comfort zone now and we don't want to upset that balance."
As when she met Tim, she has discovered similar souls. "I've finally found people I assimilate with. We're all born in the same year, we all grew up on the same music, we all think alike. It's good now."
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