Brody Dalle, The Distillers, and 2000s Melbourne
Ben Thomson

Brody Dalle, The Distillers, and 2000s Melbourne

With widespread unemployment and a 2.2 billion dollar deficit, Melbourne was the perfect breeding ground for disenfranchised youth.
July 5, 2017, 5:53am

I had a basic suburban upbringing. The lawn was mowed, the TV was king and every Tuesday night Channel V was a magnet for bored youth. My older brother—in the middle of a loutish punk phase—would invite his best friend over to watch Punk Off, a half-hour weekly special showcasing the best in old- and new-school punk videos. As a sheltered nine-year-old, I thought punk was something Ashton Kutcher invented.

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Punk Off and The Distillers changed that. Watching the music video for "City of Angels" for the first time was a strangely beguiling experience: The dark, flash-frame-heavy visuals weren't anything spectacular—I'd seen some R.E.M. videos by then. It was the singer who grabbed my chubby, pre-pubescent face and pulled me towards the TV screen… Brody Dalle—then known as Brody Armstrong—was unlike anyone I'd seen or heard before.

Everything about this person was alien to my suburbanite senses. For one, I didn't think music could sound so vicious and overwhelming. And then there was the fact that the singer was a girl. Unbeknown to me at the time, girls could shred guitar and scream their lungs out. Still, Dalle's style was magnetic in its own way. Leather, chains, patches, piercings, tattoos and a motherfucker of a mohawk. At the time, Oasis was as heavy as I thought rock went, but The Distillers' seething and emotionally volatile brand of punk was Ritalin, and I was the hyperactive dweeb in need of a hit.

It wasn't long before I dragged my mum to HMV to spend my petty cash on The Distiller's sophomore record, Sing Sing Death House. The album title and the front cover alone were enough to make me think I was culturally and artistically lightyears ahead of my third-grade colleagues.

The thrashing drums and buzz saw riff of opening track "Sick of it All" was intensely liberating, even for my short attention span which at the time focused primarily on Tazos and and footy cards. Dalle's lyrics also made a quick impression: "I'm a nihilist raised on violence / I'm a mirror fucking image of no control". I had no idea why this person was so mad at the world, but I liked it.

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It wasn't until I heard "The Young Crazed Peeling" that everything became downright serendipitous. Aside from being a bratty, snot-nosed earworm, it was the first time I learned something about the enigmatic frontwoman. "My name is Brody I'm from Melbourne / Fitzroy Melbourne Fitzroy Melbourne / I grew up on Bell St / Then on Bennett St / My Mum kicked out my Dad for battery." As if the angst, attitude, and aesthetic weren't enough, we were from the same damn city.

These days Fitzroy is a hodgepodge of yuppies, delinquents and dilettantes. 15 years ago, Brody Dalle and The Distillers were pinning it on the map for listeners to um-and-ah over its graffitied storefronts, grubby sidewalks and biker-owned pubs. Before gentrification hit the city like a rogue wave, Melbourne was experiencing a midlife crisis. Following the excess of the 1980s, high interest rates and the tightening of monetary policy sent Melbourne and the state of Victoria into a recession. The unemployment rate hit ten per cent and Melbournians were left wondering how to pull themselves out of another economic shithole. Crime rates would also spike as Melbourne's infamous gangland killings were slapped across every newspaper front page.

With widespread unemployment and a 2.2 billion dollar deficit, Melbourne was the perfect breeding ground for disenfranchised youth. "The Young Crazed Peeling" was a textbook summation of this pre-gentrified city, before then-Premier Jeff Kennett introduced widespread privatisation schemes and maniacal construction projects.

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Even though Dalle has been living stateside since 1997, her musical upbringing was as Melbourne as permit parking, and much deeper than just "The Young Crazed Peeling". In the mid-90s, Melbourne's rock scene was an awkward mixture of indie, garage and grunge fixation. TISM, You Am I and Custard were the darlings of the city's musical output, one which longed for overseas recognition and was—obviously and unashamedly—male. The blatant homogeneity of the scene became the target for a new wave of ferocious, young rockers.

Dalle's first band Sourpuss was born out of Collingwood's Rock n' Roll High School, a storied venue which gave female students somewhere to meet, collaborate and practice music. Along with Bindi, Tuff Muff and Midget Stooges, Sourpuss was at the vanguard of young, female artists using music to evoke their everyday struggles with identity and self-empowerment. This all came to a stop after Sourpuss were invited to play the 1995 Somersault Festival. It was there that Dalle met Rancid's Tim Armstrong. Despite a 13-year age gap the two were inseparable. Like a trans-Pacific Sid and Nancy, the two tied the knot shortly after Dalle turned 18, and moved to LA.

In an interview with The Guardian, Dalle once said that the sexual abuse she experienced in her early teens played a part in her moving overseas at a young age. "I moved to America with money I got from the government of Australia for being sexually abused," she said. "I'd gone through a couple of court cases when I was 14, 15 years old, and I'd been compensated for one of them. When I turned 18, I got that money and got the fuck outta there."

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The Distillers formed in LA in 1998 after Dalle met bassist, Kim Chi and guitarist, Rose Casper. Shortly after, in 2000, the band released their eponymous debut album. Of course, the Courtney Love and Rancid comparisons would come flooding in. But Dalle's ungodly snarl on "L.A. Girl" alone makes Love sound like Lena Katina. Despite several line-up changes, The Distillers remained Dalle's brainchild and the conduit between her Fitzroy upbringing and the upper-echelons of American punk.

But it wasn't until Sign Sing Death House that Dalle found her creative niche. Her songwriting began to reflect the influences of both Fitzroy and her adopted home. This is distinctly evident on tracks "I am a Revenant" and "Bullet and the Bullseye", which play like Sourpuss got dragged through the dark, scungy depths of the LA River.

There's no doubt Dalle's lyrics were stubborn and impulsive at times. In "Sick of it All" she sings of taking an oozi to her inner-north Catholic school and shooting bullies in the face. Some might call that "emo". Others would call that a punk as heck tune and you should suss it out immediately.

Being nine, the lyrics and their meanings were peripheral. What mattered was the music blasting my earholes one blistering scream at a time. And it was damn catchy stuff. But their anarchic lust to lay waste on the music scene was short lived.

By the time 2004's Coral Fang dropped, the band was on its last legs. Dalle had recently split with Armstrong after having an affair with Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. "Drain the Blood", "Dismantle Me" and "Hall of Mirrors" largely addressed Dalle's messy divorce and the "blacklisting" she believed she was subject to by Armstrong and his Hellcat labelmates. While the production was cleaner than its predecessor, you could still feel your teeth being smashed in with every passing track.

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I remember my brother—spiked-hair, lip-pierced, and wary of the world as he was—playing a burnt version of Coral Fang in my dad's car on the way to school. This introduction was far less instant than Sing Sing Death House. The tracks were tempered. This time around, Dalle's vitriol was harsh, but subtle and controlled. And unlike Sing Sing Death House, neither Melbourne nor LA were referenced. This was a personal album, and Dalle wasn't exploring her relationships with places so much as with people.

"Dismantle Me" and "Die on a Rope" would soon be in constant rotation on my Sanyo Discman. Unfortunately my boyish commitment alone did little to keep the band together. The Distillers disbanded in 2006, much to Dalle's dismay.

"It was all the work that we put in together, the relationships that we had and the camaraderie – it was a gang and those boys were my best friends," she told Faster Louder in 2014. Dalle went on to form the short-lived, and painfully middling alt-rock outfit, Spinnerette, before starting a solo career and releasing her debut album in 2014.

Brody Dalle mightn't be as synonymous with Melbourne music as Paul Kelly or Courtney Barnett or Rock Dogs scarves, but her in-your-face take on growing up in the concrete rat race are throwbacks to a long-forgotten Melbourne.

For me, Melbourne was my outer-suburban surroundings. We all lived in weatherboard houses, walked our dogs and watched the local footy on Saturdays. Not that my suburb was Pleasantville: people would shoot up on public transport and teenagers would drink, loiter and sell drugs in front of the local supermarket, but in comparison to Dalle's upbringing it was the Australian dream written by the Coen brothers. For Dalle, Melbourne was an inner-city concrete jungle. It was a sanctuary for angry, confused young denizens, whether they were experimenting with drugs or barely learning how to string a guitar. Like Loaded and Monkey Bone, Brody Dalle's art was raw emotion fed by the constant tirade of shit Melbourne's inner-city can and will throw at you.

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Sometimes I'll ask punters and local musicians about The Distillers. Do you remember them? Were they an influence? Do we give Brody Dalle enough credit? I may as well be asking them to explain analytical chemistry. Perhaps Dalle relocating so early in her career left her mark on the local scene in gradual decay; the VASSY or Iggy Azealia of early 00's punk if you will.

The Distillers helped spur my interest in Melbourne and arseholes-and-elbows punk rock. I'll never be able to understand how Dalle saw Melbourne. I was too young to understand her take on family dysfunction and drug abuse. At nine, these things didn't exist in my social sphere—let alone Melbourne itself—but the music was powerful enough to grasp my attention and keep it for a lifetime. Out of all the bands Punk Off introduced me to – Bad Religion, NOFX, Rancid, The Transplants, Pennywise – The Distillers still fit snug in the back of my head to this day.

Revisiting Sing Sing Death House these days is more than indulgence, it's a reminder of everything serendipitous about discovering this band; the same hometown, the same surroundings, the rebellious older brother, the totally mainstream dross my childish and uncultured primary school peers were listening to.

Dalle now lives in Palm Springs with husband, Homme and her three children, but her roots never changed. Even if Melbourne had forgotten The Distillers, The Distillers never forgot Melbourne.

Listen to "World Comes Tumblin' Down" and you'll get a sense of Dalle's "pill popping pity in Melbourne city". Listen to "Young Crazed Peeling" and Dalle's opening line will give you the chance to escape it all. "Are you ready to be liberated?" Prepubescent or early-20's, punk escapism has never hit so close to home.

Follow Vincent Dwyer on Twitter.

Illustration by Ben Thomson.