Brody Dalle talks Drugs, Dolly Parton and Diploid Love
Sitting in the corner of a swanky bar at a hotel in Kensington, DiS patiently awaits the arrival of Brody Dalle. She's 20 minutes late so far. Anything less and we might have been disappointed. Dalle is a rare breed nowadays – whisper it – a legit rock star. Do you remember those? Apparently the last known sighting of one was round Rick Rubin's house. They were attempting to suck the last remnants of Rock N Roll out of his matted mane of facial hair but all they could find was some leftover mac and cheese. Poor sods.
When Dalle eventually arrives, she apologises in her thick Californian drawl (almost definitely accentuated by a killer case of jet lag) for her tardiness and tentatively starts sipping a cup of coffee. She hides her eyes behind a pair of retro tortoise shell sunglasses - which she never takes off - and removes her cardigan to reveal her famously tattooed arms. Despite our incongruous presence amongst the suits of West London, a relaxed conversation begins.
It's been 8 years since the official split of The Distillers, the snarling punk band in which Dalle made her name. They released 3 albums; an eponymous début in 2000, closely followed by the much loved Sing Sing Death House and their last album Coral Fang (2003) which catapulted the band, but more specifically Dalle, to the front page of music magazines across the world. Since then she has released one album under the Spinnerette moniker in 2010. It is only now, 16 years after she formed The Distillers, that her first official solo record Diploid Love is being released. I begin by asking whether she feels there is more on the line this time? “I love my records so it wouldn't matter if I got bad reviews, I wouldn't care.” Luckily for her, the record is getting enthusiastic reviews as well as heading for the highest chart position of her career (it is in the top 20 of the midweek charts at the time of writing). She seems a little shocked by the positive reaction. “It's just surprising to get so much support. I'm not used to it (laughs). Honestly I'm like “What's going on?” When is the other shoe about to drop? Their setting me up for something.”
Despite her mistrust, people seem genuinely pleased to have her back. Does she have any idea why this is? “I guess it's like seeing another alien - seeing a woman holding a guitar - it's rare. So I think when something is rare people want a little bit more of it”. Whilst the representation of women in the world of rock music is still disproportionately low, to suggest this is the sole reason would be to ignore that Dalle is returning on the crest of a wave of a confident and compelling comeback album.
Diploid Love strikes a perfect balance between familiarity and progression. For fans who crave the carnal growls and spitting aggression found on The Distillers LPs then you'll be please to know Dalle hasn't lost any of her bite. So much so she's developed nodes on her vocal chords from all the blood-thirsty screaming. Her doctor was quick to reassure her about any permanent damage. “He said that unless I wanted to sound like Christina Aguilera then there's no problem.” She laughs. “When he heard what I was doing with my voice he was like “Well, we'll just leave them.”
The record is more ambitious than her previous efforts with an emphasis placed on broadening her musical horizons. This wasn't due to any particular records she was listening to at the time of making it, she insists. In fact, she didn't listen to anything. “Nothing. I'm not kidding. The only thing I listened to were the demos that I used as the backing tracks. I would make a beat on the drum machine and then add a wiry guitar and I would just try to build on that. I would be listening to that over and over again until it all came together and then I would go back into the studio and do more recording.” Was this a way of trying to discover her true voice? “Yes, I just want to get in and just really discover it, I guess.”
An early taster of this experimentation comes in the form of a collaboration with Mariachi El Bronx. The mariachi alter-egos of Californian punk band The Bronx (hence the name) give 'Underworld' a Mexican makeover with their boisterous horn section pumping a tequila shot of adrenaline into Diploid Love. I ask whether bringing in foreign elements such as this have been on the wish list for some time. As it turns out, this particular seed was planted way back in her childhood in Australia, where she lived before moving to LA to be with her first husband, Tim Armstrong, of the band Rancid.
“I've always wanted to experiment more because I grew up with a band called The Hunters and Collectors. They use horns a lot. They're kinda like the quintessential Australian band. Their early stuff in the late 80s is my favourite. It's industrial. It sounds like the outback in Australia - it's big, sparse, weird and jagged with these crazy horns which drop in and out. When I composed that song ('Underworld') I thought it sounded completely different. The only people I knew that played horns are the Mariachi El Bronx boys so they came in and played the part and it became this Mexican themed song.”
It's an inspired moment but perhaps not unsurprising considering her varied taste, which her own records have previously rarely, if ever, hinted at. At the beginning of our conversation she enthuses about seeing Chrissie Hynde the night before and then raves about Dolly Parton the next minute. What is it she likes about Dolly? “Are you kidding? What's not to like? She's a bubble, a breath of fresh air. I saw her at the Hollywood bowl and it was the coolest show ever. I spent a lot of time crying at that show. She has so much respect and love for her family and where she came from. She's authentic, so I love that. I love her.”
Whilst we aren't treated to a Dalle-goes-Country album this time around (can you imagine?) perhaps it was some of Dolly's heart-wrenching storytelling that rubbed off to inspire the more personal moments of Diploid Love. One song, 'I Don't Need Your Love', is the ultimate fuck-you song in disguise. Written about the passing of her father, who was convicted of assault against Dalle's mother when she was a child, it's emblematic of Dalle's stark lyricism. “Somehow the pain of losing you has let me go. That empty space you left has grown roses out of shit and one thing's for sure...I don't need your love” As if to prove her point, a recording of Dalle's two young children laughing echoes in the background, just before the song reaches a triumphant climax.
It's an oddity, not just on this record but in her entire discography, as her voice is unrecognisable. She soars to a high register, free from the grit and gravel that fans will be used to. Is she feeling braver or is this a natural progression? “I've always sang in all kinds of ways, just never really on record. I get bored doing the same things. I want to do something different. Plus I'm thinking down the line, one day my voice won't do what it does now. It gets tired easier. I got to figure out different ways to use it.”
The problem with confessional lyrics is not only does it invite intrusive speculation but retelling your darkest moments night after night can be a bit of a downer, or as Amy Winehouse once said so eloquently, “It's fucking depressing”. Was there ever a moment that she wishes that she wasn't so open in her lyrics? “Sometimes. I had this discussion with Shirley Manson (Garbage) about a month ago and we decided the best thing to do was to be honest because then you're free and you can be yourself. And if you are free in yourself then there is nothing to worry about.” Dalle's recent disclosure of her struggle with crystal meth addiction ring true with this policy. “It's something in my past, it's something that happened and it's nothing to be ashamed of. It kind of went hand in hand with my lifestyle back then. Meth addicts have a 3-5% recovery rate [without professional help – for those that do seek treatment it rises to a still tragically low 12%]. That's nothing. It's insane. But maybe someone could see that I did it and they might feel that they could too.” 8 years since quitting, is it still a struggle to fight her addiction? “No because that stuff took me to a really dark, awful place and I never want to go back. It's not hard at all.”
Whist Dalle is fully removed from her past, both personally and artistically, some have questioned why The Distillers needed to break up in the first place. The band were widely considered to be a solo vehicle. As DiS' Russell Warfield asserted in his recent review, all their songs were written by Dalle and she was the only permanent member in a line up which changed with each album. When I ask whether she understands this point of view, Dalle paints a different picture. “No because we were four people. Being in a band is like being in a vehicle, in a car taking a road trip somewhere, you know what I mean? And you've got to have a similar destination that you all want to arrive at. Sometimes along the way, it doesn't work out that way. Someone wants to get off over there, someone wants to get off over there, or someone talks incessantly and they annoy the shit out of you in the car ride and you're like 'I can't deal with this any more'. We are just people. It's not going to last forever. Relationships don't last forever and at some point something is going to change. It might not be what someone or others might want it to be.” Isn't that a little pessimistic? She shoots me down. “No, it's just realistic.”
For Dalle, the final line-up of The Distillers was the only one which she would have consider continuing with, but the effects of continuous touring took its toll on them as individuals and their relationship became strained. Whilst this would not be a problem for the Mark E Smith's of this world who just recruit ever more replacements, for Dalle, she couldn't go along with it any longer as the band would have become too far removed from its original conception.
Talk of The Distillers takes us through their back catalogue. She describes the first record as terrible. “I hate the first record. That was my first real experiencing in writing lyrics. I looked at the lyrics [recently] and I was like “Oh god”. Just imagine your diary and it gets out there and people are reading it.” She pulls her best unimpressed Mean Girls face. Sing Sing Death House gets a more positive response. “I'm proud of that record. It's when I started to come into my own. I didn't want to sound like anybody else. I didn't want to sing like anybody else and I wanted to write my own lyrics. I put everything into those lyrics”. Given that it was made in two weeks with an engineer who was smoking crack everyday, you'd probably be proud of it too.
It is Coral Fang that holds a special place in The Distillers catalogue. It's an album that pushed the band outside of the punk community and into the mainstream. It's full to the brim with visceral rage and violent, bloody lyrics which mostly centre around her much publicized break up with Armstrong and her new relationship with Josh Homme, now her husband and father of her two children. Of this period, Dalle feels she came into her own. It was the turning point for all the good that was to come. “I actually felt liberated. I felt free for the first time in my life. I felt like I was starting to become in charge of myself.” Since this point, Dalle has never took a second glance back.
Diploid Love is out this week via Caroline.