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Escape Velocity

Lion With Wings: Ex Hex's Mary Timony Interviewed
Aimee Swartz , October 17th, 2014 12:45

With Ex Hex's full-length debut album Rips released last week, Aimee Swartz catches up with Mary Timony to talk island survival, current rock & roll renaissance, and the worst song in the history of songwriting.

Mary Timony's been known to solo her guitar above her head from time to time, but you won't see windmilling anytime soon. "Just the thought of it makes me laugh a bit," she says, gesturing toward her beloved go-to guitar, a 65 Fender Jazzmaster, that balances precariously against a chair in her living room. Understated – and perhaps underrated – though she may be, Timony has enjoyed an enduring, gimmick-free career that has become increasingly rare for even the most uncompromising indie artists.

Oft lauded for her gnarled, feedback heavy riffs and dark, feverous lyrics, Timony debuted her insouciant swagger and fluttering punk heart as a teenager in Autoclave, the influential post-hardcore band she founded with high school friend Christina Billotte (Slant 6, QuixOTic, Casual Dots). She’s went on to front two other bands—the seminal 90s band Helium and, more recently, Wild Flag (with Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss)—and made four solo albums that have earned her a devoted fanbase and a reputation as one of indie rock's most inventive artists. Today, she's killing it with a brand new band, Ex Hex, that may very well be the best of her two decades-plus career.

After a summer of teasers, Ex Hex's full-length, debut album, appropriately titled Rips, was released earlier this month on Merge and quickly elicited overwhelming brilliant reviews. With Betsy Wright (Chain and the Gang) on bass and Laura Harris (Aquarium, Benjy Ferree) on drums, Rips is 35 glorious minutes of the kind of lo-fi, stripped-down, power-punk jams we didn't know we were missing. It somehow evokes the lates and the greats, like the Ramones and the Shondells, while remaining uniquely singular—making it at once nostalgic and pleasantly surprising. Rips' charms abound, from super catchy lyrics that diss and dismiss the bad boys among us – "I always knew you were strange from the start" – to strutting riffs that practically dare us not to break out our air guitars. But beware its earworms galore, particularly 'Don't Wanna Lose' and 'Waterfalls', which will have you rocking out even in your dreams.

Tell us how Ex Hex first got together

Mary Timony: Well, I had been writing a lot of songs with Wild Flag and was still sort of in that groove. I started jamming with Laura and then with Betsy too. Laura and Betsy are both super talented and are really good musicians and when we played together there was a chemistry there. We all have very similar taste when it comes to music – we're all into late 70s/early 80s stuff – and share an idea of our we wanted our record to sound.

The new record is great

MT: Thanks! I really wanted to make songs that I would want to listen to on a stereo. I just kept thinking about "Would I like it?" and "Would other people like it?" which is something that you should probably always ask but I didn't always do.

That's interesting. Makes me wonder who you were making music for before

MT: In the past I've been in the mindset of "Is this communicating something that I really need to say?" or "This is a really weird thought I have — let me get it out there in a song." This record I've been more aware of what it sounds like to someone – outside of my brain – whose listening.

Tell me a bit about making the record

MT: We recorded part with Mitch Easter in North Carolina, who I worked with back with Helium, and then part in my basement studio. The recording of the album itself played a big part of writing the songs because we would arrange them, then record them, then listen back and then decide what needed to change rather than just thinking about it in real time. I was also really happy with the way Bobby [Harlow] mixed it—the songs are so poppy that if it was mixed in a really slick way it would have messed it up.

You're on a break now on your tour, so what've you been doing?

MT: I did go to the beach but just for a night. I've mostly been taking care of lots of band business and practicing tons before we go back on tour. I need more hobbies.

You could collect stamps or pennies

MT: I did randomly once decided to collect glass grapes. I was really excited about them for about a month. Then I sold them in a yard sale so that's done now.   

So what's the best part and worst parts of touring?

MT: The best thing about touring are the shows. That's really the only reason to do it. I love meeting people on the road and seeing new places, although mostly it's just through the window of our van.

Being stuck in the car is the worst

MT: Yeah, it's so hard on your body. But also it does something to your head – it can be kind of disorienting. I have a memory of doing a European tour in a Sprinter van where the windows were covered in black plastic—it was meant to tint the windows but it ended up feeling like you're in a basement doing something criminal. One of the corners was peeling and I remember peeking through and seeing this beautiful scenery that looked straight out of Hansel and Gretel. We were driving through the Alps and I had no idea.

That sounds depressing. Are there any must-dos to make tour a bit easier?

MT: We bring people along with us to make sure we don't lose things because we're all pretty spacey. We're all artists, so that's what you can expect I guess.

What are your top 5 most influential albums

MT: I'd say my favourite records are ones that are just so totally singular – they are impossible to emulate. Pink Flag or any Wire record, really, is just brilliant. The Slit's record Cut, is phenomenal. Fugazi was a huge influence on me for sure but I'm going to cheat here and count live shows instead of a record.  Seeing them live was so powerful – I'd never seen anything like that and it's nothing I've ever seen again. I went to see a lot of their shows growing up and was just fed by their energy. The band Television — those two records are just genius in a different way — the song writing is really good.

Are there any records that poisoned you, in a way?  

MT: I was super jaded when I was in my twenties and there was a lot of music I couldn't listen to without wanting to kill someone. At this point, mostly from teaching kids who have all different sorts of taste, I can listen to mostly anything and not feel tense in my body. Actually, I feel like rock is going through a renaissance — even though some people don't agree. A few rock musicians I know say they hear so much shitty music especially because the kids aren't recording to tape now.  But I think it's great that all these kids can record on their own and people can record their ideas really cheaply and really well and that's just leading to incredible music being made. Of course there's still shitty music being made, but that was always a problem. It was a real problem in the 90s. Record labels were signing bands that sucked and then promoting the hell out of them.

Is there a band that you think should've made a second album but didn't?

MT: The Nerves, who wrote 'Hanging On The Telephone'. They just had one EP that was re-released recently and it's just so fucking good!

Any bands – new or old – you're psyched to see?

MT: I was super excited to read about Let's Active doing a reunion show. I like the Coathangers a lot. The new White Fang album is great. And there's this band from Baltimore called Ed Schrader's Music Beat that's really awesome.

If you could be a fly on the wall in someone's studio, who would it be?

MT: Definitely Jimi Hendrix. I'm forever obsessed with and fascinated by him. I'm so curious about all the guitar effects on his records that were just so cool. He was totally original.

What's your most treasured possession?

MT: My jazzmaster — it's a 65. I just love it. There was a point where I would feel really alienated when people would be like "my instrument is my baby." That's fucking weird. But I'm totally one of those people now.  

Do you have any like super bitchin', hair-band era guitars?

MT: I have a Paul Reed Smith that is super cheesy but I have to admit I love it. It has an amazing tremolo system and whammy bar. I am waiting for the right time to dive bomb.

Yeah, unleash the beast! What others do you have besides the PRS?

MT: I think I have 12, but I really only play four – the Jazzmaster, the Gibson, which is what I'm playing with Ex Hex, the Silvertone and Epiphone. 

That's a lot of guitars! Do you ever anthropomorphise them, like having to play with them all to not leave any out.

MT: No, I alienate them if they're not doing a good job. I sell them off!

Is there a story behind your guitar and why you love it so much?   MT: I have some quirky ways of thinking about guitars. It sounds super hokey and New Age-y but I really believe that guitars have vibes in them. If a musician owned it or someone really loved it, you can really feel that in the instrument. The one I love – my baby – just felt right.

Was there ever a period where you intentionally put it down?

MT: No, never. I just love it so much! I know how cheesy that sounds, but it's true. The only times I've ever not played were out of laziness or a lack of time.  

Did you ever play acoustic guitar and sing Indigo Girls songs?

MT: Yes! I went through a phase in college where I wrote some pretty shitty folksy songs on acoustic guitar. Unfortunately it's one of those instruments that people tend to abuse.

Are there ever sounds you hear in nature or elsewhere that you'd like to incorporate into a song?

MT: That's a good question! Anything with a bell I usually like a lot. I like piano notes and sitar and timpani. Thunder and rain and waterfalls. Put these all together and you'll make the worst song in the history of song writing!

Do you have any lucky charms or superstitions or rituals?

MT: I feel like I can't talk about them because then they won't work anymore. But yes, I have all three.

Tell us five things you'd need to survive on a desert island?

MT: Food. Water. If you're in the sun so you'd probably need a tent. Yes, I'm boring. But practical! Once I take care of my basic needs I'd think about other things like board games or the collected words of Shakespeare to kill the boredom.

What's your spirit animal?

MT: Probably a unicorn. Maybe a lion with wings. Or an ant eater, or a blind mole.

Rips is out now on Merge Records