Mary Timony, a DC-based multi-instrumentalist who’s been a staple of American underground rock since 1990, is ready to unleash the archive. She is prolific and adventurous, most recently playing in the bands Ex Hex (with Laura Harris and Betsy Wright) and Wild Flag (with Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss and Rebecca Cole), and with a cluster of solo and side projects over the past few decades that expressed her ever-wandering imagination and ingenuity.
But it was Timony’s restless, baroque, ferocious band Helium, which she based in Boston from 1992 to 1998, that first elevated her to nationwide prominence as a unique guitarist, singer, and lyricist, and it is that music she is currently gearing up to recontextualize. In May, the top-tier indie label Matador will reissue Helium’s two full-length albums (The Dirt of Luck and Magic City) as well as a new collection of rarities, demos, and b-sides from its EPs and seven-inch records (that’s called Ends With And, which references a lyric from Helium’s first “hit,” “Superball”). In June, Timony will play those ‘90s songs on tour, perhaps less a product of nostalgia and more like exerting visitation rights on her formative years—the notion that to move forward, it can be crucial to look back.
The riot grrrl movement of the 1990s has been exhaustively chronicled, but Helium perhaps less so, despite that it was musically and philosophically adjacent to the movement. Though obviously feminist at the time—the band’s first EP, Pirate Prude, contained multiple songs alluding to sex workers expressing their power intellectually and through vengeance—there was a marked distance between Timony’s lyrics and their intent, a curtain of distortion that kept them at arm’s length and open to more interpretation than, perhaps, the in-your-face indictments of many riot grrrl bands at the time.
Her myriad women fans, at least, seemed to get it—a confluence of vivid and sometimes religious imagery and ominous dares to temptation. The songs interpreted the unease that comes from struggling against gendered expectation, defiant but duplicitous. In Helium’s nascent beginnings circa 1993, Timony used her alto snarl and heavenward soprano to explore and question the murky territory within the Mary-Eve dichotomy. On the stomping ‘95 song “Baby’s Going Underground,” she sang:
Baby, I saw they kicked you down
Now you’re the only dirty trick in town
The stars are bright under your nightgown
A star is bright, a star is round
Among other feminist bands of the time, and even within the overall ‘90s underground rock scene, Helium existed on a different plateau. Timony was a woman playing with and leading men—Ash Bowie on bass and Shawn Devlin on drums—in an indie rock scene that was dominated by them. She was a classically trained guitar virtuoso in a landscape that did not valorize virtuosity.
And consequently, despite the clear anger in her lyrics, she was often viewed as a fetish object by these men (who, as I recall, still thought of themselves as inherently more progressive, simply because they were participating in alternative culture, whether their actions reflected it or not). A 1995 SPIN profile observed the tension at play in the Pirate Prude EP—“postfeminist-signifier fans noted the Superman S pinned on Timony’s negligee [in the ‘XXX’ video] and understood the gender-tease equation”—and illuminated some of the motivation behind it: “People would assume,” she said, “I was the girlfriend of the band.”
Timony dealt with these issues with a lyrical magnifying glass, never obvious (and eventually, with 1997's Magic City, in a streak of personal feminist storytelling framed by fantastical allegory). “I was so angry,” Timony told Jezebel. “The lyrics are my take on feminism, written from a really personal place.”
Last week, I spoke with Timony by phone about unearthing her archives and re-examining the music she made when she was young. This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: My first question is about process—how you physically went through and unearthed all these old demos from the 1990s?
MARY TIMONY: It was kind of like a treasure hunt through the junk in my basement and my attic, and contacting everyone I know from those days who might have something. I actually did go through hours of four-track tapes to try to find demos, and that was a process, even trying to find out how to play the tapes—I had to go buy a four-track at a music store, and none of them were labeled. It was a project I was working on for months.
I also went through a similar process with the photos, because we realized we were going to need approval from everybody who took them, so I had to look up all these people, like, random people who took a photo in Germany. It was a really crazy process, just getting in touch with all these people I hadn’t talked to in like 25 years.
What was it like, to go back and re-examine that era of your life?
It wasn’t as painful as I thought! A lot of that early Helium stuff before The Dirt of Luck, I’ve always felt pretty embarrassed by, because I cannot listen to my voice, I just did not know how to sing. But it’s been enough time now that I’m able to see it as something I did a long time ago. It’s not as embarrassing as it was.
The idea of looking back at yourself when you were young, revisiting that self, can be strange. Was that a process, too?
I was definitely more of an angsty, troubled person, but I guess that’s normal. I really had some shit I was mad about. [laughs] You know, the typical twenties thing; things seems so extreme when you’re that age.
In revisiting all your Helium music, what really struck me was that you were deploying these political concepts, but your lyrics weren’t necessarily overt. I wonder about your approach at that time, and how it shifted over the years of playing in the band.
I know what you mean. First of all, being a girl that played guitar at that point in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, definitely felt like more of a statement; it was just “weirder” than it is now. I felt more isolated, kind of like I was doing something that not a lot of women were doing, or was not a “womanly” interest, like being a truck driver or a mechanic. It was really different then.
So I couldn’t escape that. And then I was really thinking a lot about how women are seen, and how it feels to fall into that. I had a lot of stuff I was angry about, and I was really feminist, and the whole riot grrrl thing was happening in D.C. when I lived here and Bikini Kill moved to town. I was pretty influenced by that, but also at the same time, I am who I am and I was just making music, so I think the lyrics are just my take on feminism but written from a really personal place.
I was thinking about how it must have been so annoying to be this virtuosic guitarist, and then like all these dudes are playing barre chords and being hailed as like, indie rock gods.
It took me a long time to figure out how I fit in anywhere, I think. I went to music school and I was pretty genuinely nerdy, I was just into like, practicing guitar. But also, I didn’t really want to be in that world. I wanted to be a punk rocker. It really took me a long time to figure out how those two could connect.
It’s weird, because I teach kids guitar now, and kids are exposed to so much now because of the internet, it’s just a lot easier to figure out these things. You don’t have to choose one kind of music that you’re into or choose one kind of person you’re going to be, because they’re just exposed to so much stuff. So a lot of things I did at that age were just trying to figure out how I fit in.
I think that’s really apparent to me when I listen to the early Helium stuff. I studied guitar, I was in school for classical guitar for a little bit, but I didn’t know how to sing at all. I was terrible at singing, which is a really weird combination. Also with the early Helium stuff, the place I was coming from with how I was playing guitar was in this way I was almost deconstructing what I had learned and making myself play really sloppy. Like the Pirate Prude EP, for me, at the time, I was trying to play sloppy. You wouldn’t know that, but I was like, playing with one finger, using the whammy bar in a really sloppy way. I guess I was really angry in general at the world at the time, so it was a way of playing in an angry way.
Do you remember when you realized where you fit in?
After that EP, when I was like 25; I think the Dirt of Luck, when I listen back, was me figuring out what I wanted to do and the music that I wanted to make. I finally was like, This is coming from me. I’m not reacting to what I’m supposed to be doing, or angry at people; it felt like it was coming from a place inside of me [laughs].
It’s so hard being young!
I always felt like it was a lot easier for most people than it was for me, but maybe I’m wrong about that, maybe it’s hard for everyone! There’s a whole weird world you’re trying to get through.
I wonder what it was like for you, because you were coming out of adolescence and into adulthood in a pretty specific, somewhat public eye, and in that male-dominated indie rock world, where everything was so gendered. Some of the old articles I went back and read about Helium were so off-putting, men kind of not knowing how to figure out your band.
I feel like I really quickly found out that if you say you’re a feminist, at that time anyway, there was a big reaction to that, and it wasn’t understood except by other women. I think peoples’ attitudes about that stuff has changed a lot. To talk about being a feminist at the time was more loaded; I remember being really weirded out by how the band was written about. I was just a dumb kid trying to figure it out, but still mature enough to figure out how to be diplomatic in interviews and stuff.
And now, you’re what I would consider a career musician; you’ve been playing in bands this whole time, you teach guitar. How do you place all that into your trajectory?
It never feels like I’ve figured it out. It’s easier now, I guess, but it’s been a struggle, man. It’s not an easy thing to try to do with your life at any level of activity or money. It’s always a hustle, just being self-employed in general. Being an artist is easy in some ways because you make your own schedule, you’re following what your passion is and stuff, but there’s not a lot of stability and the money and your schedule and—everything’s up to you all the time!
But I don’t feel as worried about it anymore. Throughout my twenties in Helium, we weren’t the greatest businesspeople, I think. We never wanted to tour so we weren’t making money, I had to have temp jobs the whole time; I was working in hospitals and filing papers, doing really shitty jobs throughout my twenties. Touring is not easy, but I kind of feel like we did not do a great job at those kinds of things. It’s been a journey! [laughs] But I’ve figured it out a little more now.
I also wonder about Helium’s evolution with The Magic City, when you progressed into a more baroque style of playing guitar. Were you trying to re-incorporate your classical knowledge?
With Helium, we always spent a lot of time in the studio, so the albums sound different because the people who produced them were pretty involved in the band and creative decisions. But I would say that in general, The Magic City is more of a classic rock record, less angry. I got more into escapism themes, and [producer] Mitch Easter had all these crazy instruments in his studio so I ended up playing a lot of overdubs; now when I listen back I’m like, Oh my god, why did I add that sitar on that song? I wish someone had stopped me! On that record, I definitely learned you can add way too many overdubs.
I think with the Helium stuff, we were pretty lazy about practicing before we went into the studio, which is bad. [laughs] You learn things when you get older! I just assumed, Oh, we can just fix it up in the studio but... that doesn’t happen, really. You just spend up spending a lot of time there. So now I’m really inclined to practice really hard and demo stuff out; working on the Ex Hex record, we just demo’d and demo’d and demo’d. Now I’m more focused on actually listening to what things sound like and how everyone’s playing.
I’m also curious about the alternate tunings you used on those Helium albums.
I’ve been mostly re-learning the guitar parts for The Dirt of Luck; I dropped down the E string to a low D on a couple of songs, but there’s a lot of distortion and harmonics on that record. A lot of the leads are... I don’t know why I did this thing where I played leads with one finger, but I did. On Magic City, Ash had a guitar where all the strings were tuned to E, and there’s a lot of distortion on it, and he’d bow it with a drumstick. It’s this droney sound, it’s on “Baby’s Going Underground” and “Superball.”
Back then there was an almost Wild West notion in underground rock music, where you could just do whatever you wanted, this sort of post-Shaggs thing where anything was right. Do you think that still exists now?
You mean back in the ‘90s, you could just sort of make your own thing up?
Yeah, where you could do whatever you wanted to do, and if you didn’t really know how to play an instrument it didn’t matter, it was a response to classic rock and hair metal where you’d have to do these riffy solos.
That’s so true, there was this whole feeling that amateurism was cool, and I feel like that blew my mind, because I grew up in the ‘80s, my older brother was really into the Grateful Dead and stuff, and I took classical lessons. When that came along, I just could not wrap my head around it, and it kind of blew everything I knew out of the water. But it was cool. I don’t know if that could exist now, because every type of music, every way of thinking about music, all exists at the same time now. I don’t think anything’s shocking anymore; in a way, that’s good, because people learn a lot and are able to become really good musicians. But I don’t know.
Does that confluence of everything affect what you do now? Ex Hex leans, to me, sort of simpler and more minimal. What is your approach now in songwriting?
I’ve been approaching it pretty differently. When I started playing with Janet and Carrie and Rebecca in Wild Flag, that was a really good experience for me because I really did start thinking about editing and arranging stuff you write now. But I’ve never felt like being creative is easy. There have been times when it’s been easy, but I think I’ve gotten a lot more self-conscious about it. Part of it is that with Ex Hex, I’ve been trying to write a specific style of music, pop, which I’m not very good at doing. In some ways I write pop songs, but I feel like I should probably be a person who makes noise. The things that come easiest to me is just like, weird shit that people don’t like. It’s really hard to make things that you love and that other people love!
But Helium, to me, always felt like a pop band. I don’t know if it was the ‘90s climate of rock being a lot of dudes moaning in a minor key, but your songs were so hook-y. How is it re-learning all those songs for the tour?
It’s been really hard, actually! I’ve been practicing some of them, and it was definitely weird when I was learning them. Now it seems like not that different from stuff I’m doing now. The guitar parts are harder in some ways, and weirder—there are things I would not write now—but it’s been fun to revisit it. You get in a certain way of doing things, and revisiting how I used to play has made me break out of the way I was thinking of guitar now.
I really like the guys that are playing in the band right now and I think it’ll be fun. I tried to get the original Helium back together but Ash is just super-busy right now and he really couldn’t do it. Other people have careers and children, so of course I’m like What, I don’t get it? I’m just like, a lifer.
Mary Timony will play the songs of Helium on tour in June. Matador will reissue The Dirt of Luck and The Magic City, as well as the rarities/b-sides compilation Ends With And, on May 19. Tour dates and pre-order info can be found here.