Sunday, September 25, 2011

Rough Punk Riders

The Legend of Brody Armstrong

By: Jennifer Maerz
Date: May 23rd, 2002

Over the years, the rock world's been scarred by dark, acetylene-throated singers who unleash screams that could scrape the filth off city sidewalks. The first two Hole albums were full of Courtney Love's rot 'n' rage; Kurt Cobain could yowl like a rabid animal; and listening to Appetite for Destruction was like hearing Axl Rose crawl up from the gutter to hiss about Hollywood zombies.

For anyone wondering about the next hell-sent growler, check out the Distillers: Brody Armstrong, guitarist and vocalist for the Los Angeles/Bay Area act, may just be the next generation's leading howler. “I don't think anyone can sing like her,” says Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz, the Epitaph Records owner who mixed the Distillers' most recent album, Sing Sing Death House. “She has an amazing voice. She sounds like a gravel truck with a broken axle, but she never misses a note.”

On Sing Sing, the 22-year-old Australian native channels her ulcered Melbourne past into gritty tunes with big hooks, using her “gravel truck” vocals to run roughshod over years of family conflicts, drug addiction, and culture shock.

“I was a pretty gloomy child,” she admits from her current home in L.A. As an adolescent, she wrote poems about darkness, rape, and rage. Her mom, a career nurse, kicked out Armstrong's biological father for physical abuse, then remarried and had a kid with her new husband. Armstrong felt like an outsider at home and at school, where she wasn't exactly leading spirit rallies. Eventually she took off for the streets, figuring that living in alleys beat the fighting at home.

“Around 13, I started getting really angry and hating my mom--I mean, really hating my mom,” admits Armstrong. “She hated me too. We ended up strangling each other in the kitchen. I was always an angry kid, so I started running away and doing [angry] teenage girl stuff--cutting myself, getting high, not going to school.”

Match vitriol with vinyl, though, and you've got the makings for great music--something Armstrong discovered through Why, British hardcore act Discharge's 1981 album. “I just loved it 'cause it was so fast and it was fucking crazy,” she says. “I'd never heard anything like it--all that screaming. I'm sure I didn't really understand a lot of the politics, but it was exactly how I felt. It was exactly what I wanted to say.”

In the mid-'90s, Armstrong jumped into the act herself, pulling a few friends together to play in a band called Sourpuss. On New Year's Eve 1995, Sourpuss landed a spot on the side stage at Australia's Somersault Festival, where the lineup included Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, and Rancid. During that gig, Brody met her future husband, Rancid's Tim Armstrong—“It was kind of love at first sight,” she says matter-of-factly--and kick-started her career in music.

When Brody turned 18 in 1997, she moved to L.A. to live with Armstrong. She formed the Distillers with bassist Kim Chi, who worked in the Epitaph offices; ADZ drummer Matt Young; and guitarist Rose “Casper.” In 2000, Tim Armstrong's Hellcat label (home to Rancid, Joe Strummer, and US Bombs) released the Distillers' self-titled debut. Since then, the Distillers brought in a new drummer, Andy (no last name)--who Armstrong met when the Distillers were on tour with Andy's other band, the Nerve Agents--along with new bassist Ryan (also no last name), who she met at a record store.

With a new lineup (the band is now a three-piece, as Casper recently left the group) and a new album, Armstrong also revels in her newfound voice, a spit-gobbing yowl that claws its way from low and husky to hard and heavy. Every song is served with a snarl as Armstrong leaves fang marks in a number of social issues, from classroom shootings to eating disorders to slams on heroin addiction. The songs are short and bittersweet, with revved-up old-school riffs and catchy melodies. Throughout, Armstrong creates anthems for the disaffected, and the band parades them around with rowdy singsong sensibilities. Her songwriting has also improved noticeably. Gone are the endlessly repeated fuck you's and vague references to bludgeoned love affairs and misunderstood girls. Sing Sing shows Armstrong's ability to realize her present strengths while taking an honest look at her past. Listening to the album is like watching a Super-8 film that takes you along with Armstrong from the alleys of Melbourne to the streets of L.A.--zooming out to reach fucked-up teens and zooming in to wrestle with Armstrong's personal issues. And while the stories may be the same ones told by junkies, punks, and runaways across the country, Armstrong delivers her messages with an unmatched ferocity, making her one of the best fucking singers around.