Helium's Mary Timony Talks Two Decades of Offbeat Indie-Rock Excellence

Guitarist on why she's reissuing her back catalog, how Snoop Dogg influenced her songs, her crazy tours with Wild Flag, Ex Hex's future and more

Indie-rock veteran Mary Timony talks to Rolling Stone about reissuing the Helium back catalog, touring with Wild Flag, Ex Hex's future and more. Credit: Mary F. Calvert For The Washington Post via Getty

Mary Timony is modern-day indie-rock royalty. Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield has dubbed her a "guitar hero," while Sleater-Kinney member and Wild Flag collaborator Carrie Brownstein recently described her as "Mary Shelley with a guitar." But on the phone with Rolling Stone, the current Ex Hex leader and a veteran of bands such as Helium and Wild Flag professes that she's been more focused on shaping superstars of the future. "This week I'm learning an Iron Maiden song called 'Fallen Angel,' which is pretty awesome," says Timony, who teaches guitar to children by day. "It's for this little kid who's named Oliver – he's a total whiz. He wrote this song for his science class in school that's all about atoms and types of matter, and it's all based on this Iron Maiden song."

The early Nineties marked a renaissance for women in rock, but well before bands like Hole and the Breeders stormed MTV, and just as the riot grrrl movement was coalescing in the Pacific Northwest, Timony was already well on her way to becoming an alt-rock luminary. Classically trained on both guitar and viola, the D.C. native made a mark on her hometown's DIY scene as a member of Dischord's resident all-female math-rock band, Autoclave, between semesters at Boston University. After that band's breakup, she joined the group that would become Helium – taking the place of indie-folk It girl Mary Lou Lord (who notably ditched the band for going electric). The band's final lineup cemented in 1992; comprised of Timony on vocals and guitars, Shawn Devlin on drums and Timony's then-boyfriend, Polvo bassist Ash Bowie, Helium joined the growing ranks of oddball indie bands like Pavement and Built to Spill.

Though Timony shared the DIY, pro-woman ethos of early riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, her aesthetic didn't fit neatly into any category. Timony articulated her feminist politics from the vantage point of her own freaky universe, populated by astronauts, flirty unicorns and vampiric sex workers with axes to grind. Helium's sounds would progress from the fairy-tale noir of their Pirate Prude EP into 1995's off-kilter pop opus The Dirt of Luck and the Medieval prog rock of 1997's The Magic City and No Guitars EP.

Increasingly disenchanted with the business of being a band, Helium stuck it out for one last U.S. tour before parting ways in 1998. Timony went on to form an array of projects – knocking out three solo albums, followed by stints in Sleater-Kinney–affiliated side acts the Spells and Wild Flag, and her beloved power-pop trio Ex Hex. Given her prolific output, which only continues to grow, it seemed Timony would successfully resist the nostalgic allure of a Helium comeback. But with the 20th anniversary of The Magic City approaching in September, and the increasing scarcity of Helium records in print, Timony went searching through the archives of Matador Records. "I didn't have anything, just a couple seven-inches," she said. "I kept hearing that people couldn't find the Helium records on vinyl anymore, [besides] the ones being sold on eBay." 

Matador eventually found the masters and reissued Helium's entire catalog in May – plus Ends With And, a collection of demos, singles and rarities. With the help of Brooklyn band Hospitality, Timony is currently reviving this material on tour as "Mary Timony Plays Helium." She spoke with Rolling Stone about her lifelong career as a guitar virtuoso, why she almost quit music and what inspired her to bring back Helium.

You already have this really big catalog of music besides your work in Helium. What made you decide to revive this project in particular?
Well, I kept hearing that people couldn't find the Helium records on vinyl anymore. I guess somebody sent me a link to some records being sold on eBay. I noticed they'd gotten a little more valuable because they're not really in print. I had to bug him about it for a while, but Patrick Amory from Matador told me that they were ready to reissue them. 

All I originally wanted to do was make sure they were available on vinyl. But Helium did a bunch of stuff that never really came out on vinyl, and there were these weird seven-inches that we put out when we first started ... stuff that Ash and I did under a different name. And then Patrick came up with the idea of just doing a new record of all of that stuff – to finally get it all in one place, which felt like a nice thing to do, because a lot of it was pretty hard to find.

Did you personally own any decent copies, or even masters of your work from that time?
No, I didn't have anything. I guess the first two seven-inches that Helium put out in the early Nineties, before the Matador stuff ... We had a really hard time finding the master for the The Dirt of Luck. I think Matador maybe had one of the masters on cassette. A lot of those masters are almost unusable now. They're on cassette somewhere, in somebody's attic.

So where did you end up finding them?
Matador has this huge warehouse of everything that they've ever done somewhere in Manhattan. But the only thing that they could find for a little while was the master made for the cassette version of the record. I was like, "This sounds really fucked up" [laughs]. Like, "What's going on?" And then we realized that it was like the master that had been mastered for cassette, so it sounded super tinny and weird. I mean, that record already sounds weird as it is. It's really kind of extreme-sounding record. And then having the master made for cassette made it sound even more extreme. But anyway, just actually finding the real master was really hard for certain stuff. Because they don't last forever, you know? It's just so vulnerable, that tape is so vulnerable to aging and stuff.

Lesson learned: It's important for people to archive their work in multiple formats.
Yeah.

So, you could have just gone to Matador and asked them to re-press your Helium records. But what made you decide to take the show on the road?
If you want to know the full honest truth, it was just a good way to promote all this unreleased stuff. At first I was like, "I only want to do it if we can get the whole band back together." I spent probably four or five months trying to convince them that it would be a good idea [laughs]. "Do some shows!" Shawn, the drummer, was super into it. But Ash is in North Carolina now, he's got a kid and a job. It doesn't make sense for him. It felt like it would be weird to call it Helium and have only two original members. So I just decided to do a short and sweet round of shows. I'm going to play with the two guys from New York that are in this band Hospitality – they're really awesome. So it all worked out nicely. It would have been fun for sure to have Helium get back together, but it just isn't going to happen right now.

Can I ask why you all disbanded in the first place?
Yeah. Let's see. ... It was just typical stuff. Being in a band is pretty damn stressful. I don't want to complain about it because it's ... amazing to even live in a country where you can do stuff like that. But, you know, it's not easy at all. In some ways it's stressful. You gotta go on tour a lot, and you always worry about money, and then trying to collaborate with people. It came with stresses. That was most of it. But then Ash and I were a couple and we had broken up, so that made it really hard.

When was the last time you performed a Helium song live?
I don't know. I think at some solo show I might have broken one out time. But since the band broke up I haven't played any of those songs. Helium always wanted to do another record, it just got too complicated. But there was a time when we were definitely going to do another record. But yeah, I haven't played any of those songs since we broke up. So it's been like 20 years, I guess? I thought it would be a lot weirder to relearn the parts. But it hasn't been that weird. It's been a fun project.

You've said that when playing with Helium, your intent was to try to unlearn how to play the guitar. Did you have to relearn how to unlearn your guitar?
Oh, yes. Well, OK, I went through a bunch of phases with my music when I was in Helium, and the first one ... I think I was talking about the songs on Pirate Prude. ... With the songs on that record, I was approaching the guitar in this destructive way, and I was trying to unlearn things that I had learned on the guitar. I don't know – I was playing the guitar leads with one finger and making all this feedback. I just had this... aesthetic or something at the time that was kind of destroying the guitar aesthetic. But that kind of went away with Dirt of Luck and I started playing it ... When I listen to that Pirate Prude EP that's all I hear is me trying to fuck up the guitar, and not play well. And be kind of destructive with it and bash it around.

It's just been like learning covers to me. The reason it hasn't been to weird to learn these songs for me is one of my day jobs is I teach guitar. And I learn covers all of the time with that job. It's easier because I remember some of the lyrics and stuff. I thought the process of relearning the stuff would be really dramatic and bring up all this, you know, stuff from the past. But it really hasn't. It's really been kind of fun.

What cover song have you most recently taught your students?
Well, let me see. This week I'm learning an Iron Maiden song called "Fallen Angel," which is pretty awesome. It's for this little kid who's named Oliver – he's a total whiz. He wrote this song for his science class in school that's all about atoms and types of matter, and it's all based on this Iron Maiden song. He's so great. He's only, like, 10 or something. Pretty cute. So yeah, I don't know, all kinds of stuff. I teach lots of Beatles. You know, just the typical classic-rock tunes.

You helped shape this very messy, abrasive guitar style in indie rock, but you're actually a classically trained guitarist. In your later works your songs became so pristine and very carefully assembled. What was the drive behind this phase in your work?
Away from the messy style, you mean?

Yeah. Did you just decide that you'd given up on indie rock, or that you just wanted to go back to your roots?
I mean, I think that's true. I do see Helium's The Dirt of Luck as like very, very careful and pretty organized, even though the sounds were really, really distorted. Like the whole record is super distorted. But it was pretty carefully arranged and played and stuff.

So the evolution had already begun to progress throughout your Helium catalog.
Yeah, I do feel like The Magic City was a complete retreat away from indie rock and punk and stuff. After that, though… I haven't really thought about what was going on with me after Helium. I feel like a lot of the stuff I did to a certain point was like retreating farther and farther away from what was going on in the music world. The music business stressed me out, going on tour stressed me out, and I was just, like, doing everything I could to not be a successful musician in some ways. It just got weirder and weirder. And the people, the crowds got smaller and smaller. The money got ... you know. And that was all fine with me. Because I was just like, "This shit is way too stressful. I don't want to drive around in a van for months." But then I learned eventually, the weirder you get, probably people are not going to respond that well. I don't know. I think that's partially true. I definitely was in my own little world there for awhile, I think, with those records.

What made them weirder for you?
Oh, let me see. Well I definitely think there's a pretty big difference between The Dirt of Luck and then the No Guitars EP. Like, when I listen to it now I'm like, "Wow, what did happen?" I think a lot was going on in our lives, maybe. There was some serious stuff going on. Ash's stepdad was really sick, and life just suddenly got very, very serious. Like my friend's boyfriend died. I don't know. But at the same time I was kind of like burned out on a certain sound. Even playing guitar. So for the No Guitars EP we used a lot of keyboards. And there's barely any drums or distortion on it. It's just an extreme change. Extremely different sound. I think we were just kind of like maybe in this thing where we were just like retreating away from whatever was going on.

Your first EP, Pirate Prude, was this sort of dark fantasy-rock record – but the fantasy element seemed to take over later on, as your reality became harder to stomach. Even in your sound, it's like you transported out of the Nineties and into someplace completely timeless. What was your mindset like while recording these albums?
I would say the Helium record that's most of the time is The Dirt of Luck. It sounded like things that were going on at that point, with the production. I was listening a lot to Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle right before we made The Dirt of Luck – I was totally obsessed – and same with Adam Lasus, the guy who produced it. He was amazing to record with. So I think that record influenced our sound a bit. Just the way that Dr. Dre production sounds ... there's a lot of really, really low frequencies and really, really high frequencies. But I wanted to make everything on the record distorted. Every instrument: the bass, the guitar, the vocals, and some of the drum tracks. Everything's blown out. 

Ash and I were camping out in Adam's studio in Philly, sleeping on piles of acoustic insulation foam in the live room on the floor. There was construction being done in the studio and a new wall was being built. The studio manager thought Ash's coat was junk, so he stuffed it into the wall and sealed it in as soundproofing material! Ash and I also got really into playing Sega Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog and Road Rash during our breaks. We started talking about how cool the background music sounded in these games and, before we knew it, we were trying to get Adam to make mixes sound similar to the video game music. Like extremely flat and trebly. So we were going for a lot of extreme sounding things on that record. But at the same time that record sounds more like it was made in 1995. 

Now when I listen to The Magic City, it doesn't sound of the time as much. I will say that in Magic City I was feeling withdrawn from the world a little bit. We recorded in Mitch Easter's studio in North Carolina. We spent hours playing his collection of cool keyboards and guitars and hanging out with his dog Revvo. Our work always had a lot of images, but with Magic City, they became more fairy-tale images, so it became actual fantasy in a weird way. But Ash and I collaborated on the stuff for Magic City a lot more.  Like, Ash was such a huge influence on my creative process and everything. He is the real genius. I think both of us were kind of in this place where we were ... just not really of this world, or in our own little world.

With Magic City, you got all those King Crimson comparisons.
Yeah, it's a more classic-rock-influenced record. But at the time that was ... definitely not cool. You know? When that record came out, people's reactions were more just like, "OK, Helium's kind of gone off the deep end. They're really into this Medieval stuff." Which we weren't, it was just like some of that lyrics were a little bit like that, and the artwork. Then actually we had to dress in Medieval outfits for this one photo shoot. I think it was for Alternative Press. That was totally not our idea at all. We were like, "Oh, jeez, OK. This is weird." But it's kind of funny now that I look back on it. Like now I know, as an older person who's been doing this for a while, I could have just said no. But at the time we just went with it. I think Ash said a funny thing about that – he said, "I think that broke up the band." [Laughs]

Do you think the Ren Faire aesthetic broke up the band?
Yeah. Yeah, maybe it did. [Laughs]

What was it like making music right after Helium broke up? Did you ever tour solo?
Honestly, with my solo record, I didn't tour a ton. I would do the thing you're supposed to do when you put a record out: Tour a month in the States and do a week here, a week there. I was still going for it, even though nobody bought the records or ... there were not very many people at the shows [laughs], but I didn't care. I was still doing it all, even though it didn't get much attention or whatever. It was definitely a struggle there for awhile. I think the last solo record I did, I did a whole month long tour in the States. I think I ended up just breaking even when I got home, and I had to sleep next to a litter box in Pensacola, Florida. And I was like: "I am stopping this. I am not going to do music anymore."

Oh, no! You actually wanted to quit music?
I know! I mean, it was really sleeping next to the cat box in Pensacola, Florida, that got to me. I am not going on tour and begging people to stay at their houses. Like, I was 36 at the time. I was like, "I can't do this for a living." Yeah, so then I stopped. For a couple of years I was like, "OK, I'm done with rock music. I'm just going to teach." And then ... I love teaching and stuff, but I did start getting the itch to play. Luckily Wild Flag just started, and that was really fun, because I got to go out and play shows and people were coming to the shows, which was an experience that I hadn't had since my twenties, really. So it was pretty fun.

You got the full rock and roll experience with Wild Flag.
Yeah, yeah. That was a fun band because ... it was different. It was truly, truly collaborative and we wrote stuff really fast and just kept it. We worked on arranging and stuff, but it wasn't this completely painstaking process. It was more just like, "Do it now and it's done." You know? Like, pretty fast. That was a fun thing to be involved in. Every project's different. You learn things from every project for sure.

That wasn't your first time collaborating with Carrie Brownstein, either. How would you describe working with her?
Oh, she's a good friend. Helium opened for Sleater-Kinney on this tour in Europe in 1997 when The Magic City came out, and we had a lot of adventures, and it was a super crazy fun ... crazy time. Like a lot of tours are, but, you know, we were in Europe, and when you tour over there, I feel like you bond more, because you're on this adventure in Europe with this other band. And people didn't have iPhones at that point – you were just more cut off from the world when you were on tour in general, and especially in Europe. But we went wild; we went out dancing after shows. Carrie and I became really good friends. She was in Olympia at that time, and I would go out there and visit her. And we had a little project called the Spells. That was fun. I think we might have played one show, but that was it.

So what drove you to write power pop songs with Ex Hex? And what's next for the band?
I always kind of wanted to. You know, like most people do, I go through a lot of different phases – as in, what you're into and what influences you and stuff. And I think for the first time, I just wanted to try making music that I wanted. Just really trying to write pop songs more than I had ever done, just trying to see if I could do it, you know? It's really so much harder for me. Like, I'm just not a natural pop person. It either happens or it doesn't. Most of the time it doesn't. Like, trying to force yourself to do a certain thing, because it's really hard creatively I think. That last Ex Hex record was a real challenge. It took a long time to write those songs. I just kept whittling them down and whittling them down and rearranging them. And we all would make different arrangements. We worked really hard on getting it together I think. With Ex Hex, we're actually starting to work on another record pretty soon!