Shortly before getting on the phone to interview Mary Timony, I had a strong memory from the fall of 1997. I was talking to a guy I only ever saw at Orpheum, and I asked what he thought of the then-new Helium record, The Magic City.
He made a puckery face and suggested that Timony and her bandmates had sold out to the corporate demand for electronic music by putting a keyboard line on “Leon’s Space Song.”
How better to illustrate how wrong everyone was about everything back then? But 21 years later, Timony isn’t so sure.
“Yeah, that keyboard part sucks,” she laughs. “I kind of agree with that person. I just made a bad call on the actual sound of the keyboard. I’ve always regretted that decision, honestly.”
Aesthetic regrets aside, her current tour, on which she is performing her old band’s material (the show comes to Neumos on February 20), has made it clear that things have changed in the 20 years since Helium broke up.
“It’s definitely a different world than it was in the ’90s,” she says. “There was the mainstream and then there was the counterculture. That whole framework doesn’t exist at all anymore. Everything’s so splintered, and there’s just so much music, and so many bands… This is now a career that a lot of people have. And it’s normal—it’s not like a rebellious thing to do.”
Has that changed how she relates to it? “Maybe a little bit, ’cause I’m almost 50 and… things are different. It’s gotten a lot more scary. I feel like I was more angsty at one point, and now I’m just focused on the process of making music.”
Timony’s process has been a reliably fascinating subject throughout her career, which began as lead guitarist in the short-lived but hugely important DC indie punk band Autoclave. Next came Helium, in which her advanced guitar skills were somewhat at odds with the stumbling aesthetic of the era. Their songs, which she wrote, offered an almost sneaky marriage of pop immediacy and harmonic complexity.
She cultivated this recipe over the course of four rich, weird, wondrous solo albums—which she describes as “some crazy records that people hated” (I didn’t)—and the almost all-the-way-great side project Wild Flag (also featuring Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney and Rebecca Cole).
Her current band, Ex Hex, is a perfect guitar-bass-drums trio, which strips away all extraneous elements in favor of visceral, ecstatic rock ’n’ roll.
The germ of Ex Hex’s radical simplicity might be found in the Helium song “Baby’s Going Underground”: “Maybe someday we’ll get back, get back / The rock life and the heart attack / Baby likes it when it hurts like that / A million days after the, after the fact.”
What was once tongue-in-cheek now reads as prophetic, almost like Timony was sending her future self a message—and us, too. And though it hasn’t quite been a million days since Helium, it’s a joy to discover that those songs still hurt like that.