Strength in Simplicity: Mary Timony on doing her own thing

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The DC punk songwriter talks about honing her craft.

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Liz Pelly | November 3, 2014

Photo by Jonah Takagi

The simplest thoughts can be the hardest to say. Mary Timony knows that now. “If you’re not going to say much, you have to say something that’s really good,” the DC songwriter says on a phone call from Olympia, where she’s a few weeks into a tour with her newest band, Ex Hex. “This record was whittled down and whittled down. We wanted every idea to be really strong.”

Timony is talking about Rips, the 12-track debut full-length mega-classic that Ex Hex released earlier this month via Merge—one that indeed conveys a lot of huge emotions and huger hooks in decidedly simple ways. For Timony, whose previous bands include the angular ’90s Dischord band Autoclave and later the more expansive indie rock of Helium, such simple songwriting is a mind-stretch. “I just wanted to try something different.”

Born and raised in the DC area, Timony learned how to play guitar when one was gifted to her brother one Christmas. Her love of the instrument eventually led her to transfer to an arts high school where she studied jazz and classical guitar and viola, supplemented with lessons learned from the D.C. hardcore scene. She went to her first hardcore show and was inspired by the urgency and community. “I saw almost every single Fugazi show in DC from when they first started playing until I moved away to college,” she said last year in a Rookie interview.

In 1990, at a time when there weren’t many women playing around the DC scene, Timony and her friend Christina Billotte started playing together; they had their first practice at Christina’s parents’ house in Bethesda, Maryland, and became Autoclave. (In case you’re wondering, there are still teenagers trying to make cool punk shit happen in Bethesda, Maryland.) Timony later moved to Boston to study English at BU and ended up staying for over a decade, playing there in Helium. Two solo records followed: Ex Hex (2005) and The Shapes We Make (2007). At some point she also made an oft-overlooked record with Carrie Browntein as The Spells, and played in other bands like Garland of Hours and Soft Power. In 2010, Timony and Brownstein started Wild Flag with Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss.

All of this back story is to say: Timony has spent decades making brilliant records. In comparison to the dark-hued songs and alternate guitar tunings that mark most of her personal discography, Rips is a revelation in tight, punk readings of power-pop influences and endless shining hooks. Joined by bassist/singer Betsy Wright (Childballads, Fire Tapes) and drummer Laura Harris (Aquarium, Benjy Ferree), its masterful sound is evidently the result of many collaborators, but it feels seamless from start to end. It has “fuck you’s” to bullies, revenge anthems aimed at exes, and sneering rips into dudes who just can’t communicate: “You’re acting like the foolish kind. Trying to talk to me through your mind,” Timony sings on “Hot and Cold”. It’s not all Timony’s songwriting either: the Wright-penned tracks “How You Got That Girl” and “Radio On” are two of the album’s best tracks.

According to Timony, Rips was about making a record that she’d want to put on and dance around to. “I think that with this record, the goal was to try to make a record that sounded really good. That sounds ridiculous because everyone should do that. But the process of working on it was trying to think of what it was going to sound like in the end. We had a vision for what we wanted it to feel like and worked backwards from that. Because of that, everything was simplified and simplified and simplified. There was just so much stuff that got left out, which is a really hard thing to do.”

Growing up in punk and hardcore, that sort of attention to minutiae and playing around in the studio was absent. “For me, growing up in the DC hardcore scene, I think I grew up with this idea that you make music, and you document it,” she says. “That’s one way of working, and I got tired of that.”

When Timony is in DC, in addition to playing music, she also teaches guitar lessons. “I definitely spend a lot of time around classic rock music from that,” she says. “Those songs probably influence me. I really think people that get into playing music should be forced to learn tons and tons of covers. That’s what happens with classical musicians, all they do is learn other people’s music.”

I’ve heard Ex Hex referred to not as “Mary Timony’s new band,” but as a supergroup of DC punk strongholds, and that’s all the most clear when the band plays live. This past Friday night at Brooklyn’s soon-to-close Glasslands Gallery, Wright and Timony performed with playful abandon, banging noise out of their guitars, leaning over each other for tasteful solos and drawn out jams. A highlight of the set was the expanded “Beast” wherein they let the song play out longer than on record and, appropriately, it ripped.

On Rips, Timony playing in standard guitar tuning, a departure from her work in Helium and Autoclave, and something she says she learned by playing with Wild Flag. “That’s all that worked in that band,” she says. “Wild Flag was definitely a cool experience. I’m glad it happened, but I’m much more glad to be doing my own thing right now.”

“Her own thing” resulted in one of the best guitar-pop records of the year.

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