Hardcore Romance & Dreamy Delinquents: An Interview with Mary Timony
by Elizabeth Barker
For more than two decades, Mary Timony has written songs that are weird little wonderlands. Timony’s references range from animal allegory to cosmic imagery to mythology, and she uses them all to tell stories of love, depression, and transcendence.
With power-pop trio Ex Hex (her latest project in a musical history that also includes bands like Autoclave, Helium, and Wild Flag, along with her kaleidoscopic solo career), Timony’s make-believe world is maybe a roller-derby track or cruising strip sometime in the early 1980s: Ex Hex’s debut album Rips is all fast guitars and big glossy hooks, with lyrics that feel torn from the notebook of some dreamy juvenile delinquent. A sample couplet: “You got all dressed up but there was nowhere to go/When the cops shut down our rainbow.”
I spoke with Timony about the making of Rips, her sixth-grade Casey Kasem obsession, new wave fashion, and teaching teenagers to shred like Joan Jett.
You’ve been saying that Ex Hex was partly inspired by music you heard on the radio in 1982. What about that era appeals to you?
I think the whole thing came from me thinking about what I liked about music when I was in, like, the sixth grade — -the stuff I heard on the radio when I was just learning about what rock music was. Really we just wanted to make something that was fun and sounded like music we’d want to listen to. That seems obvious, but it’s actually kind of hard to do that. Or at least it is for me.
How did you get into that radio-in-1982 mindset?
All three of us in the band got into a power-pop mode. We were really into Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour, and thinking a lot about glam rock like Slade and The Sweet and Cheap Trick — -bands that were exciting to me when I was a little kid.
What were you listening to back then?
I was obsessed with Casey Kasem and Top 40 radio. I would listen to this local radio station Q107, and every night at ten o’clock — -which I guess was my bedtime then — -they had the Top Ten at 10. I would go to bed listening to that every night and make notes. I was really into which songs went higher; I think it was interesting to me that it was like a competition. I had songs I was rooting for.
At one point I was so into the idea of there being ten songs that are the best songs in the world, I did my own poll of everyone in my sixth-grade class. When I got home from school, I’d call everybody and poll them. I remember there was one girl who told me she didn’t listen to the radio, she only listened to records, and I was so shocked by that.
Do you remember the first record you ever bought?
My brother got a Kinks record when I was in fifth grade, which was before my whole Casey Kasem fascination. The first record I bought myself was probably Culture Club or The Eurythmics.
How did Ex Hex come together?
I knew Laura [Harris] from seeing her in this band called The Aquarium. They played pop music, but really jammy and atmospheric, and I always liked her vibe on the drums. So we started jamming together and we were looking for someone else, and Betsy [Wright] had just moved back to D.C. We tried playing with her once and it just felt right. And we also all kind of knew each other in weird ways. Like, Betsy and I went to the same high school and we were obsessed with the same English teacher.
What was the deal with the English teacher?
He was just one of those teachers that everyone was in awe of. He used to tour with The Doors and traveled all over Europe and was really into the Romantic poets. He would put on a show in every class, reading poetry, and everyone at our high school loved him.
How old were you when you first started writing songs?
I got a guitar in ninth grade, so I was about 14. My friend would give me notebooks of all her poetry, and I’d write songs with those as the lyrics. And then I started writing my own lyrics the next year. Probably because I was in that English class and read a lot of Romantic poetry.
Who were the first bands or musicians that made you want to make music too?
Probably my brother. He was writing songs and I’d just jam with him in our basement. But I started realizing that a band was something that anybody could do when I started going to punk shows in D.C. I think I was 15 — -the whole D.C. hardcore thing was happening then. The first show I went to was Rites of Spring and it was a really crazy scene. I was like, “Wow, these are kids that are just a little bit older than me.” It just hit me over the head, seeing all these kids who are kind of making a racket but it’s also really intense and people are so excited about it. So from then on I started seeing as many hardcore shows as I could.
What was your first concert?
The very first concert I ever went to was in South Dakota. It was a Journey cover band. It was like, “Oh, wow — -real rock music!” And then the second concert was that Rites of Spring show in D.C.
I was really into D.C. bands. When Fugazi started, I went to every show they ever played. And I also went to see Culture Club around that time. I still remember that the ticket cost $11. That was a pretty big moment for me.
How did your creativity tend to manifest before you started making music?
When I was 13, I got really into being new wave and started wearing all these crazy clothes. I went to a school where we had to wear uniforms, but I would do things to alter my clothing: I’d safety-pin stuff to my T-shirts and pour paint in my hair. I got really nuts for a year or two there, with all the crazy costumes. And then when I got really into music, that all kind of died down a little bit. I guess because I had something else to concentrate on.
With Helium, and with a lot of your solo stuff, there’s a fantasy element; your lyrics are world-building. How did those songs tend to start for you? Was it like you had stories in your head and went from there?
When I’m writing lyrics, I tend to come up with a lot of metaphors and images. That’s just what naturally happens for me; it’s the way I wrote even in high school. The lyrics on the first Helium record [1995’s The Dirt of Luck] were pretty full of those images, and with the second record [1997’s The Magic City] I really went into it. I guess I’ve realized from talking to people that a lot of the time it’s really coded and hard to understand what I’m actually talking about. On [Rips] I tried to strip that away and be as raw as possible. So it feels more direct and less like I’m hiding.
Have you ever gone through any prolonged periods of not making music?
Yes, definitely. I tend to go through phases where I’m trying to be creative and then I won’t write a song for like a year. But it’s okay. I’ve just kind of accepted that that’s the way it works. I’m not one of those people who’s really prolific and can keep churning out awesome ideas all the time. I have to pretty much force myself, and sometimes it’ll work but sometimes it’s such a struggle.
Do you find that songwriting serves the same purpose for you, creatively or emotionally, as it did when you first started making music?
Yeah, I do. It’s always so fun when it works. It’s like solving puzzle or something. The reward is just that you get so excited about it.
And you’re a guitar teacher as well — -are you currently teaching guitar?
It’s a little crazy right now because I’m so touring so much this year, but I still have seven or eight students. I really enjoy it. Connecting with the kids is really fun.
What do they want to learn to play?
It depends. This one girl, I actually learn about music from her. Her cousin runs a record label and her parents are novelists and it’s just a really cool family. She’ll come to a lesson and be like, “Here’s this really cool band from the ’60s that’s all women and they used to open for The Grateful Dead.” So I’ve been learning about all this obscure music from her, and she’s 14. And I have another girl who’s super-obsessed with Joan Jett.
If they’re at the right level, there’s a few Television songs with complicated solos that I like to teach them. And there’s some Beatles songs that are really great — like, “Dig a Pony” has a guitar line that’s awesome.
The thing that’s most thrilling to me is that I’ve actually put some of them together in bands and they’ve gone on to do their own shows, and then I record for them. So that’s pretty cool.
I love the video for “Hot and Cold.” How did that come together?
Lara Gallagher directed it; she’s super-smart and so talented. She just gave us the treatment and we were like, “Food fight — -yes!” And then Betsy’s also in Chain and The Gang sometimes and they happened to be on tour and we were shooting in Portland, so it all worked out that Ian [Svenonius] came and did a cameo.
Who made all the food?
A girl named Jade [Harris], she’s so awesome. She basically stayed up all night before the shoot creating all this amazing food that looks like it’s from the ‘60s.
How does Ex Hex feel different from all your other projects?
It really feels like a strong team — -like it’s a gang, and that’s great. We’re all really involved in all of the decisions. It’s so much better than doing solo stuff; I just felt like I was in such a vacuum after a while with all of that. And touring’s really fun because we’re all buddies and we have such a blast. I just feel so super-lucky that it all pulled together somehow.
Elizabeth Barker is a Los Angeles-based writer and co-editor of StrawberryFieldsWhatever.com. You can find her on Twitter at @elizafishbarker.
Images courtesy Merge Records. Photographer: Jonah Takagi