For anyone wondering when the next heavenly growler would arrive, the wait is over. Brody Armstrong, guitarist and vocalist for SoCal/Bay Area act the Distillers, may just be the next generation's leading howler. "I don't think anyone can sing like her," says Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz, who owns Epitaph Records and mixed the Distillers' upcoming album Sing Sing Death House for Epitaph imprint Hellcat Records. "She has an amazing voice. She sounds like a gravel truck with a broken axle, but she never misses a note. She sings right in key, but she's really got a super-intense, rough edge. It's amazing."
On her band's new disc, 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. Now, with the eminent release of Sing Sing Death House and the help of her husband, Tim Armstrong from Rancid, Brody Armstrong is living a punk dream: turning a bludgeoned past into something worth screaming about.
When Sub Pop released Nirvana's Bleach album in 1989, Brody was only 10 years old. "I was a pretty gloomy child," she admits from her current home in Los Angeles. 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 in her family and at school, where she wasn't exactly leading spirit rallies. Eventually, she took off for the streets, figuring that living in the alleys between the Chinese restaurants, laundromats, and pubs 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."
Armstrong's mother sent her to private schools to try to tame her defiant streak, but that didn't really work. "For some reason my mom decided to send me there 'cause I was a young, wild, promiscuous teenager," Brody says. "[It was] pretty horrifying for me. I'm pro-choice and I was in Catholic schools where I couldn't debate about that. It wasn't acceptable 'cause we were "children of God.' It was bullshit."
Match vitriol with vinyl, though, and you've got the makings for some great music -- something Armstrong discovered through the 1981 album Why by British hardcore act Discharge. "I just loved it 'cause it was so fast and it was fucking crazy," she says. "I'd never heard anything like it in my life -- 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."
After scoring a couple of rare Nirvana 7-inches from an uncle, discovering Hole's Pretty on the Inside, and uncovering Aussie punks the Saints and the Lime Spiders, Armstrong became hooked on punk rock. In the mid-'90s, she jumped into the act herself, pulling together a few friends 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 -- "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 Los Angeles 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," who flew from Detroit to audition for the band. In 2000, Tim Armstrong's Hellcat label (home to Rancid, Joe Strummer, and US Bombs) released the Distillers' self-titled debut. While music rags from Spin to Kerrang to Hit List praised the album, many people still likened the Distillers to a female-fronted Rancid. "I can hear a lot of Rancid in the first record actually," Brody admits. "That's not a bad thing, but I'm glad that on this record I went out and found my voice."
Being compared to Rancid is the least of Armstrong's worries. Some punks have labeled her a gold digger as well. But in the end, she says working with her husband and the Epitaph gang is more a community thing than a business deal. "A lot of our friends ended up on Hellcat," says Armstrong. "Timothy started the label for his friends, and now Lars [Frederiksen, Rancid's guitarist] is on there and Matt Freeman [Rancid's bassist] has something coming out and the Dropkick [Murphys] are there too. It's definitely a family business."
According to Armstrong, the new version of the Distillers also feels more like a family. She met new drummer Andy (no last name) when the Distillers were on tour with his other band, the Nerve Agents, and new bassist Ryan (also no last name) at a record store. (Rose still plays second guitar.) Although Armstrong is the only member of the Distillers not currently living in the Bay Area, she still says it's a tight unit. "We were all born in the same year -- except Rose is a little younger -- and we have a policy of honesty, which you need in a family. There's got to be trust and honesty. So now it feels right, it feels really cohesive."
The functional family will release its sophomore effort this January. On Sing Sing Death House, Armstrong 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 sneer or a snarl, with Armstrong leaving fang marks in a number of social issues. "Sick of It All" links boys who shoot their classmates with girls who fight eating disorders. "Hate Me" rants about self-hate and suicide, and "Desperate" slams down 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. "Everyone is feeling alienated," says Armstrong of the subjects of her tunes. "That's the thing that we have in common. The songs [on Sing Sing] are about trying to live in the day in order to survive."
Armstrong's songwriting has improved noticeably since Distillers, which felt like a fired-up fighter swinging at multiple targets. Gone are the endlessly repeated "fuck yous" and vague references to bludgeoned love affairs and misunderstood girls. While Sing Sing doesn't feature tricky wording -- most of the stories are pretty straightforward -- both the subject matter and the delivery show Armstrong's ability to realize her present strengths while taking an honest look at her past. "The Young Crazed Peeling" starts out with Armstrong's mom raising her alone, then moves on to watching people die and getting "smacked off your head," and ends with her current stability: "I love a man from California/ He's the prettiest thing/ We've got the same disorder."
Listening to the album is like watching a Super 8 film that takes you from Armstrong's days in the alleys of Melbourne to the streets of Los Angeles -- zooming out to reach fucked-up teens and zooming in to wrestle with Brody'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.
"This is one of the best new bands to come out in a long time," says Brett Gurewitz. "People oughta pay attention."