Music Monday: Helium's Mary Timony Is Bringing '90s Classics Back

The indie rocker talks Helium essentials and unreleased demos.

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Mary Timony's voice is deep but not masculine, imbued with a certain melancholy that makes you feel like she knows more than she's letting on. She's been a constant fixture in indie rock for almost 30 years, first as part of DC's seminal band Helium, and most recently as part of Ex Hex and the supergroup Wild Flag (with Sleater-Kinney members Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein, among others). No matter the outfit, her voice is always unmistakable.

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If she were just a singer, it would be enough to cement her place in the annals of ass-kicking rock musicians. But her signature guitar-playing — by turns fuzzed out with distortion and carelessly meandering — makes her an unstoppable force. When you add all of that to her deeply strange lyrics that weave fantastic worlds right in front of your eyes (or is it ears?), you've got the recipe for an absolute supernova. Her songs are essential listening, classics that have flown under the radar for far too long.

Mary and I talked on the phone a couple of months before the release of the Ends With And, a special Helium double LP that collects the bands' rarities, B-sides, and unreleased demos (along with the reissues of their only albums, 1995's The Dirt of Luck and its follow-up two years later, The Magic City). We discussed revisiting old songs, the importance of keeping archives, and living in DC under the new administration.

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Laia Garcia: So what inspired you to put this box set together?

Mary Timony: Part of it was that they were kind of out of print in vinyl. And every once in a while people would ask me about them. So that's really where the motivation came from. And then Matador [the record label] had the idea of putting together another record of the EPs and singles. I was like, "Yeah, that's a great idea," because even though we only put out two albums, we just had so many little things that weren't on albums. So for the past year, I've spent many, many hours going through everything in my basement and attic to try to find stuff that I'd lost.

LG: Was there anything that you had forgotten about or that you were surprised about?

MT: Yeah, totally. I mean, some of the stuff I hadn't heard since the early '90s. There were a couple of 7-inches I didn't even have anymore, some I don't know how I found them. I reached out to so many different people that I hadn't talked to in like, 25 years. I was totally like a mini-detective, Google-searching people, trying to find email addresses. Luckily, everyone was super-helpful. People had saved things! It was a fun project, like a treasure hunt or something.

LG: Was there a point where you started archiving all the things you were involved with?

MT: I didn't, that's the problem. I mean, I don't throw anything out, but I've never organized anything. So I just had this vortex of cassette tapes of practices and so many 4-track tapes! I had to go out and buy a 4-track cassette player, and luckily, they're super-cheap now, like $50 or something. But yeah, I'm not like a librarian of my own stuff. It definitely made me realize that if you're someone who's making stuff, it's smart to try and organize it at some point.

LG: You should get an intern!

MT: Yeah, I should get an intern, it's true. [Laughs.] No, I don't think I could subject anyone to the mess in my closet.

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LG: I wanted to ask about one song in particular, because it's my favorite Helium song, "Hole in the Ground." It was on the soundtrack for that movie All Over Me, which you were also in. How did that come about?

MT: Oh my gosh, yeah! I think Alex Sichel, who directed the movie, had just heard the band, and she just called me up and said that they were making this movie, and I should come down to New York. I think it was just a day that I was there, and I remember it being really fun.

When I wrote that song, I feel like I was still trying to figure out who I was musically. I was in college, I think I was like 22. I was in this band in the early '90s, here in DC, called Autoclave, and I just played a lot of cool guitar lines in that band. Then I went through this weird folk-music phase for like a year, which was really bad, and I'm hoping nobody ever hears any of it. So that song was me trying to break out of the folk phase. I was trying something else, a new style. I was a pretty angry kid at the time, and like, super-feminist, so that's what all that was. That's what I remember was going on.

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LG: You're going on tour soon. Have you started practicing? Do you need to relearn the songs?

MT: Yeah, at first it was really, really weird, because I play the guitar a totally different way now. But it's actually turned out to be a little bit easier than I was thinking, because you never really totally forget anything. It's kind of in my muscle memory.

It's been interesting revisiting all of it. I was just really going for it in The Dirt of Luck and Magic City, in a way that I don't do anymore. I'm much more scared and careful now. I'm going back to it, and I'm kind of like, "Who wrote this stuff? It's weird as hell!" Like, the guitar parts are pretty weird. I mean, they all makes sense to me, but it's also I was really being true to myself in a way that got harder for me to do as I got older.

LG: That's why being young is like, so great, because you're just doing whatever you want, and then you get older and you're like … Oh shit!

MT: Yeah. You go from having no shame to OK, now I understand how things work.

LG: Recently you played in Late Night With Seth Meyers' band. How was it?

MT: Oh, it was super-fun! I actually know the bandleader, Eli Janney, because he and Syd Butler, the bass player, are from DC and were in band here, like while I was in high school. I know Fred [Armisen, who plays drums in the band sometimes] also, and he just invited me to come play with the band while Marnie [Stern, who plays guitar in the band] was out for maternity leave. It was a wild experience. Like, it's so fun to write music that you're only going to know for that day, and then you'll never play it again.

LG: And you're also a guitar teacher, right? How long have you been doing that?

MT: I would say a little over ten years, I guess. At one point it was pretty full time, but now that I'm busy with stuff, I don't have as many students. I only have seven or eight right now, which is awesome, because I love all of them. They're all super-special. It's really nice. I just have these students that are really cool and they don't necessarily know my music, but some of them I've taught for a really long time. I love connecting with them and watching them grow up.

LG: Has it been weird living in DC postelection?

MT: It was fucking intense. I mean, it's been intense everywhere, but I live, like, right down the street from the vice-president's house. You just can't escape it here. After the inauguration, my boyfriend, all my friends, and I were just at protests as much as we could, making phone calls all the time, and going to meetings.

I just went to Thailand and Japan, which was incredible. It was one of the best trips I've ever taken, partially because I got the hell out of here. Tuning everything out really, really helped me, because it's fucking stressful. I think I saw Jon Stewart say something really funny, like "the presidency is supposed to age the president, not the people." Everyone's just so stressed out, but I think we're going to get through it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Laia Garcia is Lenny's deputy editor.

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