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A straight-up shot

The Distillers and their fiery frontwoman, Brody Armstrong, are poised for rock stardom.

October 12, 2003|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

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 Van Nuys rehearsal facility.

Kneeling on the floor and shouting encouragement, Armstrong 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 L.A. independent label Hellcat, brought their raw but catchy punk-rock and Armstrong'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 Armstrong's 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 to good old-fashioned angst.

Kids responded, KROQ-FM played the album cut "City of Angels," and Warner Bros. Records stepped in and signed a deal for the group.

When the new album "Coral Fang" comes out on Tuesday, it will be a joint venture between Warner and Hellcat, which eases the little problem of Brody's in-progress divorce from Tim Armstrong, the leader of the highly esteemed punk band Rancid and the co-owner of Hellcat.

It's been messy.

Since breaking off with her husband last year, Brody has been branded as 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, as Courtney will tell you.

Outside the Distillers' sold-out show at the Glass House in Pomona two days after the rehearsal, a kid was handing out fliers with Armstrong's picture and the words "Money Whore."

Armstrong has heard it all before. Sitting on a sofa in a bare room at the rehearsal complex, she takes a drag on a cigarette and intensifies her gaze.

"Other people's opinions hold no relevance in my life," she says, brandishing a longneck Budweiser. "I know what went on. The closest people to me, my family, knows what went on. I can't defend myself against those accusations. And that's all they are, is accusations."

For Armstrong, 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."

A rocky path

After 10 minutes of bouncing and chasing, Armstrong and the dog are spent. The animal, the ball clamped between its jaws, stretches out on the floor and stares longingly at the singer, who hovers over him.

"I think he was abused, that doggy," she says, stepping outside into the late afternoon's blinding heat. "I always had a natural understanding for things that are broken."

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 Brody was 2. Things began to stabilize when her mother remarried, but when Brody hit her teens, it all went haywire.

"I was a young girl who wanted to break out and see the world, who thought she knew everything about the world. 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 though 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.

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