Punk Not Dead – Brody Dalle
In the heart of New York City, Brody Dalle wails into the microphone. Her kohl-rimmed eyes squeeze shut, her black hair, coated with sweat, sticks to her face, and her ruby red lips open to let out a wrenching scream: “They say this is the city/The city of angels/All I see is dead wings.” But this is no city of angels. In fact, Dalle is more than three thousand miles from her home in the hills of Los Angeles. Onstage, inside a blisteringly steamy CBGB, Dalle, then the frontwoman of the furious punk rock band The Distillers, stirs the cramped audience—a mess of grubby, rail-thin punks and celebrities like Janeane Garofalo—into a frenzy that has them crashing into one another as waves of fans push up toward the small stage.
It was July of 2003. The Distillers had recently signed a contract with Sire Records, a division of Warner Music Group. They were on a break from Lollapalooza and were already hard at work on Coral Fang, their third album, due to be released that October. But not all was well in their world. Coral Fang would be the last record The Distillers would release together, and Dalle, the sneering mouthpiece of the band, had been caught kissing the lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age in a Rolling Stone photo—which wouldn’t have been a problem had she not been married to Rancid’s Tim Armstrong.
That photo and the divorce that soon followed would split part of the punk world in two. When the pair were together, being a fan of both bands wasn’t a stretch. Musically, they had much in common. But after that fateful summer, it was as if you had to choose sides. Even at this intimate show, one male fan crowd-surfed holding a sign that read “Take Tim Back.” Dalle ignored him. It seemed, at least as far as the outside world was concerned, she’d moved on. When The Distillers released Coral Fang that October, there were no breakup songs. (On the other hand, Rancid’s Indestructible, released that August, featured songs such as “Tropical London” and “Fall Back Down,” which showed Armstrong wasn’t grieving quietly.
Dalle changed her last name (she’s had seven since birth) almost immediately after the split, naming herself after her favorite screen star, the French actress Béatrice Dalle, who, to Brody’s surprise, surfaced at their Paris show the following February. She recalls, “I almost stopped singing and freaked out because I could see her in the back of the room.” Before settling on her new last name, Brody returned home to her native Melbourne. “I was in Australia and my aunt’s got a really great sense of humor. She was like, ‘What are you going to call yourself now? Maybe you should get really authentic and make it a real Australian name. You know, like Brody Bushwacker or Brody Kangaroo!’ She was totally fucking with me,” Dalle recalls, her faint accent finally slipping in. While she’s Brody to you, Dalle’s family still calls her by her given name, Bree. “They call me Breezy Wheezy, which drives me crazy because when I was a kid I was asthmatic, so I got called Breezy Wheezy—which seems really cruel!”
In 2005, after it seemed that the bad times were over and the heartache had passed, The Distillers began to implode. It started with the departure of their drummer. “Andy Granelli joined Darker My Love and didn’t tell me. We had fired our management. We weren’t talking to each other. We were interviewing all these producers to make a record, but we didn’t have anything. I had songs, but we had not played anything. We weren’t even thinking of making another record. We had just spent two years on the road and were exhausted, stripped down, raw nerves,” Dalle says, a layer of sadness coating her voice. “It was awful. Andy and I decided it was probably not a good idea that we continue and that maybe one day we’d get together again—but it wasn’t right now.”
Things are different today. That infamous kiss with the lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Homme, turned out to be more than a rock ‘n’ roll fling. The same year The Distillers disbanded, Homme and Dalle discovered she was pregnant and tied the knot. Two years later, after appearing under various pseudonyms on Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal tracks, Dalle laid down roots for her next project, Spinnerette. In 2008, the group released their first EP, Ghetto Love, and an album is due to be released any day. And, moments ago, Dalle said good-bye to her 3½-year-old daughter, Camille Harley Joan Homme, putting her into the car with Homme’s parents. While Dalle is playing her first overseas shows in London with her new band and Homme is in the studio, Camille will be in the desert seeing her grandparents. But knowing her daughter is in good hands doesn’t stop Dalle from shoving pictures of her and Homme into Camille’s tiny purse. Dalle admits, “I’m hopeless … I’m like, don’t forget me!”
Camille is the person who has changed Dalle’s life forever. Growing up in Melbourne, Dalle had a rough beginning. When she was very young, her mother kicked her abusive father out of the house; by the time Brody was 9, her mother had remarried and had a child with another man. By 13, Dalle had been kicked out of more than one school, was sleeping on the streets, and was dabbling in drugs (including heroin); sometime before she moved to the States, she reportedly tried to strangle her mother in their kitchen. She got her first tattoo at 14 (she now has around 20), a jailhouse-style star on her thumb. Two years later, she had the image of the deadly redback spider inked on her ankle. “I’d been drawing stuff on myself for years. I got that star and I kept going.”
Before she left for America, Dalle had multicolored stars inked on her wrist down at a seedy tattoo parlor in the Melbourne docks. “That was done by this dude who was, like, 300 pounds and wearing what looked like a tattoo body stocking because all of his tattoos had melted into each other. It looked like he had fishnets on with little red roses everywhere. [Laughs.] He scared the shit out of me and was holding my arm so hard that I wanted to run out of there. It was probably not a good place for a teenage girl to be hanging out in, but, you know … I was there.”
Soon after she moved to America, Dalle had Jesse Tuesday cover her right biceps with a powerful black-and-white dragon and geisha. “I love tattoos. I love marking myself. It’s like a timeline.”
But despite that positive timeline, it seems it wasn’t until the birth of her daughter that Dalle made amends with the choices of her past. “When you have a child it really opens the Pandora’s box. You don’t want to pass on your disease or your past or all that insidious shit from your childhood. There was a lot of stuff I had to let go. My mom was a single mom when I was growing up, and that was a real struggle for her. I kind of blamed her for a lot of stuff that happened and raged at her for a long time until I had Camille and I realized how fucking difficult it must have been for her, and how isolating and how painful it is to be a full-time working mother and have a child.” She continues, “When I had Camille, that all changed. I apologized to my mom and I was healed. Then my dad died, and that was another thing that brought my mom and I closer.”
She’s grateful for her stepdad, the man she calls her father. “He saved my life. He was young when he got with my mom. He was in his mid-20s and I think it was a bit daunting for him to get into a relationship with a woman with a child, but he did it. He was in love with my mom. And when you’re in love with someone you’ll do anything, won’t you? By his own actions, he taught me to be a better person, to be accountable for my actions, my thoughts, and how I move in the world.” It may have taken years for these lessons to sink in, but his presence registered with her even back then. “He was an incredible listener. And when you’re a teenage girl, I think you really need that outlet. I didn’t really have that kind of relationship with my mom growing up. There was a bit of a disconnect, which I think happens for all women. You’re trying to cut the cord so you can grow into yourself and grow into a woman. … I just realized—in 10 years, Camille is going to be 13 and we’re totally fucked! [Laughs.] All my teenage karma is going to come back to me!”
If that’s the case, at least not all of her teenage years were full of tragedy and destruction. When she was 16, Dalle started her first band, the all-gal punk rock outfit Sourpuss. As young as 8, Dalle would rock out on her dad’s tennis racket as if it were a guitar, even though her main inspirations at the time were the axless Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Roxette, and Miami Sound Machine. But her biggest influence was her uncle Frazier, who used to play his guitar down at the beach, something she thought was “the fucking coolest thing in the whole world.” He gave Dalle her first guitar, showed her a few chords, and soon she was on her way. “That’s also when there were starting to be female role models like Courtney Love and Bikini Kill and L7 and Kim Gordon and shit really started to explode. Then I had something to aim for and look up to—there was a whole movement going on that I could be a part of.”
Over the course of the next five years, Sourpuss evolved into The Distillers, and Dalle met Armstrong backstage at the Warped Tour, fell in love, moved to Los Angeles, got married, and then, a few years later, got divorced. Not that any of that shows up on the new record. “I’d grieved the loss of that marriage before it even ended, because I knew it would. I don’t recommend any 18-year-old girl marry any man 12 years her senior. It’s not a good idea, even if you think it’s the best idea in the world. You cannot convince me. I look at my sister, and I can’t imagine her being domesticated back at 18.” Although Dalle has reconciled many of her past relationships, she and Armstrong no longer speak. “We have no connection. Not by my choice.”
For any fan of The Distillers, Spinnerette’s sound will come as a surprise. Tony Bevilacqua, the final guitarist for The Distillers and one of Dalle’s best friends, returns, but the anger that was so visceral on the three Distillers albums—The Distillers, Sing Sing Death House, and Coral Fang—has dissipated. In place of the growl that earned her too many comparisons to Courtney Love, Dalle rolls out her singing voice, which is deep and seductively pretty. The 5´8? Australian also looks different, almost mod. She also looks healthy. “I’ve been running, like, six miles a day and boxing. I gained, like, 50, 60 pounds and it’s fucking hard to get that kind of weight off.” Dalle attributes the excess weight she gained during the pregnancy to years of self-abuse. “I think it came from the four years before of not eating, not taking care of myself, and doing all kinds of shit that was destroying my body. I found out I was pregnant, and you can’t do any of those things. No coffee, no booze, no nothing. I was like, okay … what can I do? I can eat! But I look more like myself now than I did before I was pregnant, so I guess I feel more comfortable.”
She hasn’t returned to her hard-drinking party days and doesn’t plan to. “Getting smashed out of my brains isn’t really appealing to me anymore. I can have a half a glass of wine, but punching people and taking all of my clothes off—it’s no-class. I’m Irish. I black out. I should have never drank in the first place, as I get pretty surly when I drink. I put those things away that are of no use anymore. I’m a little more concerned with getting shit done than wasting my time.” But one thing she hasn’t given up is getting inked. Though she has no plans to get any matching tattoos with Homme for fear of jinxing their relationship, she had Clay Decker tattoo her late father’s name onto her arm, plus a Chanel symbol to represent her daughter. She won’t likely get another tattoo like the one on her left arm that reads “Fuck Off.” That tattoo came one night in Albuquerque when she was hanging out with her friend Tick. “We were just fucking around and she’s like, ‘Let me tattoo you. What do you want in writing on your arm?’ I’m like, ‘Fuck off.’ The skull and the butterfly were there and the ‘Fuck Off’ came a year later, in 2000.”
Despite the more responsible lifestyle and less brutal sound, Dalle’s still plenty fierce—just different. “I actually still scream a lot in the live show. When I was with The Distillers, we were on tour all year, and my voice was constantly broken. It never had time to heal. Not singing so long, I had this virgin voice,” she says, with a hint of that raspy tone that once characterized her sound. “But you can hear my voice now because I’ve been practicing. It’s deeper. And I don’t smoke anymore, so I can breathe deeper and hit higher notes.”
The first song Dalle penned for the Spinnerette record is the love/hate song “Cupid,” followed soon after by “Ghetto Love,” a track that she worked on relentlessly with Alain Johannes, the guitarist for Spinnerette, Queens of the Stone Age, and Eleven. “‘Ghetto Love’ was originally supposed to be about jungle fever. My little sister, who’s the white sheep of the family and who loves black men, was like, ‘Please make it about jungle fever,’ and I was like, ‘No way! I don’t know if that’s going to go down too well.’ So instead, it’s about humanity and trying to make the world a better place. When we made that we were like, ‘We can’t stop now! Let’s keep going!’”
That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. During the album’s creation, Johannes’s wife, musician Natasha Shneider, was dying from cancer. “It got really dark. We just felt, all of us, we felt so bad for him. There’s nothing you can say. You can do things to help support, but you just got to be there, you know, and be hyperaware all the time and just love each other.”
As a result of that, and of Dalle balancing her job as a new mother, the album took two years to finish. Now it’s ready to be released on Rush’s label, Anthem. The music is brighter than Dalle’s past efforts, but the lyrics are still cathartic. “Dealing with relationships and your past and trying to free yourself from your past so you don’t drag it into your future—a lot of those things have been really hard for me to write about. But they’re the main theme on this record: having love, or lack of love, or losing love, or trying to get love, or trying to kill it.”
There are some lighter moments as well, like the dirty “Sex Bomb,” an ode to rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson about the pleasures of monogamy and being with her husband (the pair have also been writing songs of their own together). “He’s definitely my sex bomb. It’s about monogamy and getting laid every night. You don’t have to put on a show or get all dressed up or talk about a bunch of shit you don’t want to talk about. If you want to get laid, you can do it whenever you want. That’s the beauty of love.”
Last October, at a small club in Santa Barbara, CA, Dalle shared these songs onstage for the first time. “I think it had been four years since I had played a show. I wanted to get my feet wet without having anyone glare at me. I didn’t want to be under the magnifying glass. It’s a little nerve-racking when you haven’t played or performed in that long. You kind of forget. I’m a mom and I’m in full-on mom mode. Strapping on a guitar kind of felt like strapping on a strap-on. Like, what is this? Oh yeah. This is what I do for a living.”