Punk-rock band ready to take a bite out of stardom

New album marks liberation, change for The Distillers' Aussie lead singer

October 21, 2003|By Richard Cromelin | Richard Cromelin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The artist formerly known as Brody Armstrong bounces a small rubber ball on the concrete floor and laughs raucously as a pit bull named Redrum takes off in pursuit. She repeats the process, sending the ball bouncing madly off the walls, beams, instrument cases and other surfaces inside the rehearsal facility in Van Nuys, Calif.

Kneeling on the floor and shouting encouragement, she seems more like a carefree youngster playing with a favorite pet than the rock world's next big thing, or at least its most controversial siren since Courtney Love.

If nothing else, this game of toss and chase must represent a momentary escape from the pressures attending the major-label launch of her band, the Distillers.

"It's just intense times," the 24-year-old singer-guitarist says. "We haven't had a moment to stop and take a breath. Sometimes you feel like you're suffocating. But at the same time, you can't complain. We're doing what we love, but it's a lot of ... work.

"We're basically booked up to next August. And to think about that, to really think about all the work ... it makes me want to move to a farm and milk cows instead of being a cow that gets milked constantly."

But as far as Distillers partisans are concerned, this has been in the cards for a while. Last year's album Sing Sing Death House, on the Los Angeles independent label Hellcat, brought the Distillers' raw but catchy punk-rock and the singer's shredded voice to the forefront, marking her as a punk princess whose ascent to the throne, many felt, was just a matter of time.

Sing Sing made an indelible impression, concentrating feelings of oppression and release into a 28-minute package that honored punk fundamentals while straining against its conventions.

It was mainly in her rusty-razor singing, which brought humor and a swaggering, vivacious personality to topics ranging from her own troubled upbringing in Australia to the American suffragette movement and good old-fashioned angst.

Kids responded. A Los Angeles radio station played the album cut "City of Angels," and Warner Bros. Records stepped in and signed a deal for the group.

The just-released new album Coral Fang is a joint venture between Warner and Hellcat, which eases the little problem of her in-progress divorce from Tim Armstrong, the leader of the highly esteemed punk band Rancid and co-owner of Hellcat.

Tim Armstrong declined to be interviewed for this article.

The divorce has been messy. She's taken her mother's maiden name Dalle, prounounced "doll." Since breaking off with her husband last year,

Dalle has been branded a climber who used the well-known musician as a steppingstone to stardom. She didn't earn any sympathy by posing recently for photos in Rolling Stone playing tongue tag with her new boyfriend, Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme.

And signing with a corporate record company isn't the kind of thing that sits well with purist punk fans. Dalle has heard it all before. Sitting on a sofa in a bare room at the rehearsal complex, she takes a drag off a cigarette and intensifies her gaze. "Other people's opinions hold no relevance in my life," she says, between sips from a beer bottle. For her, it's just one more challenge in a life that's been packed with them.

"My greatest satisfaction in life," she says, "is to be greatly underestimated and then rise above, and beat the odds into a bloody pulp."

Uncaged animal

As a girl, she says, she was always collecting strays, perhaps to compensate for the turmoil at home. Her mother kicked out her unfaithful husband when she was 2. Things began to stabilize when her mother remarried, but when she hit her teens, it all went haywire.

"I was promiscuous, I didn't want to go to school, I didn't assimilate with my peers, I hung out with older people."

She also dabbled in drugs, and although she excelled at art and literature, she got kicked out of schools, roaming around Melbourne as she lived on the dole and worked menial jobs. She developed a social conscience working and living at an activist commune, but it was an aimless life until music took hold.

"It was my salvation," she says. She began playing in bands and was 17 when she met Tim Armstrong at a music festival in Sydney where both their groups were playing.

She followed him back to Los Angeles and formed the Distillers, going through personnel shuffles, releasing two Hellcat albums and spreading the word on the Warped Tour and an arena-rocking bill with No Doubt and Garbage.

Now stabilized with the lineup of bassist Ryan Sinn, drummer Andy Granelli and guitarist Tony Bradley behind Dalle, the Distillers are trying to keep the old spirit alive amid the growing attention and inevitable complaints that they've gone too slick on Coral Fang.

They just laugh that off. Sing Sing Death House might have its engaging rawness, but they shudder when they recall trying to record 14 songs in one week.

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