Hex Education: Mary Timony’s Life in Music

Tobi Vail

By Tobi Vail

on 04.15.14 in Features

Mary Timony has been an active participant in the US independent music scene for decades. While she may be best known for her stellar guitar and singer/songwriting work with the Boston-based ’90s avant-indie band Helium, it’s her first group, Autoclave, the all-teenage-girl band she founded with high school friend Christina Billotte (Slant 6, Quix*O*Tic, Casual Dots) that was arguably her most influential. One of the few bands in the long history of Washington, D.C.’s Dischord Records to include females, Autoclave set a strong feminine example for young women in the post-hardcore era to start bands and make uncompromising music on their own terms.

Timony’s most recent band, Wild Flag (with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss), explored a less-arty, more-straightforward rock ‘n’ roll tradition with both her and Brownstein playing simple chords in standard tuning. Timony’s new group, Ex Hex, carries that energy forward, crafting radiant power-punk songs that are bright and potent.

Tobi Vail talked with her longtime friend about their early bands, the status of Wild Flag and Timony’s goals for Ex Hex.

What’s the first show that you remember going to see?

I think it was 1984 and I went to see a punk show — Beefeater and Rites of Spring. It was pretty epic. At first I was just like, “I don’t know, some kids are going…” and it turned out to be this cool show, you know? My friend told me about it. That scene [in Washington, D.C.] was really exciting and active. There were all-ages shows happening all the time. And it’s still happening here, with mostly different people, but all-ages shows still happen. So I just kept going to see D.C. hardcore shows for the rest of high school.

In what ways were you influenced by hardcore and underground music?

It made me want to play music. It took me a really long time to figure out how to combine myself with the world of music I was seeing when I was going to hardcore shows. Because I was a girl — there’s that side of it — I just felt like a fan. But I was pretty into guitar at that point. I was practicing a lot, I went to an arts high school and I was studying guitar, and the music I was learning how to play was classical or jazz — it took me a really long time to figure out what kind of music I wanted to make. There was Autoclave, but it took me until after college to feel like I could start writing songs. I didn’t really know who I was I guess.

Was Autoclave your first band?

Pretty much, yeah. I met Christina Billotte from going to see shows in the ’80s in D.C. We tried to put a band together for a while. We had given up and [when] I moved away to go to college and then she found Melissa Berkoff and Nikki Chapman and was like “Hey, wanna come join this band?” It took a long time. The scene here was all boys basically. There were no girls at all. Actually there was one band, but it was real male energy.

I remember this one guy asking me if I would play drums in his band and I said, “No, I don’t know how to play drums.” But I did know how! Then he asked my friend, who was a year younger than me, and she actually hadn’t played drums before. She said yes, and it was totally fine. So I was like, “OK, next time I will say yes.”

I totally get that. Did you have really high standards for yourself? Were you maybe just shy?

Well, I don’t know. That’s why I’m curious about your experience. You and Christina are both actually really good musicians. Bikini Kill started right after I heard Autoclave. Not that Bikini Kill was similar to Autoclave stylistically, but suddenly hearing creative and visionary bands from D.C. with people my age, it was like — OK, now is the time!

Yeah! It was a good time period. And you guys were just such a huge, huge influence on me too. Seeing you play just blew my mind. It was just so great. You were the best live band I had ever seen.

Why did it take us so long to start our bands?

I think it’s at least partially because there weren’t as many girls playing in bands, and we had to figure it out. Maybe it took a little bit more maturity.

You played most recently with Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss and Rebecca Cole in Wild Flag. What’s the difference between the way you approached songwriting there, and what you’re doing now with Ex Hex?

Wild Flag was completely collaborative. I like when bands are collaborative — it’s more fun for everybody. With Ex Hex, we’re really just trying to write music that we like. My head is in this place where I want to write music that I would like to listen to. I’m trying to focus on what the final product is. In the past, writing songs has been a process that has been enjoyable in and of itself. Thinking about what it was going to sound like came afterwards. With Ex Hex, I’m thinking of that as we go.

So playing in Wild Flag influenced the direction you’re going in now musically?

Yeah, definitely. Also, with Wild Flag there was a certain style of songwriting, and I just kept going with that style for Ex Hex. I think I originally wrote some of the Ex Hex songs for Wild Flag.

Did Wild Flag break up or go on hiatus?

Carrie and Janet said they wanted to take a break a while ago, because they are really busy with other projects.

And how does Ex Hex compare to your work in Helium?

With Ex Hex, we’re really focused on making short pop songs that sound like they could be — or, we’d imagine that they could be — on the radio in 1982. Helium was similar in a way, but we spent more time improvising and were into a more minimalistic and new sounding style. Ex Hex is kinda relaxed and fun. Betsy Wright and Laura Harris and I are all good buddies, and I think that translates into the music. I’m having a blast playing with them.

Are you the primary songwriter or do you write songs together?

Up until really recently I was the primary songwriter, but Betsy is writing for the band now too so it’s becoming much more collaborative, which is really fun, I’m excited

Tell me about teaching music. Are you teaching kids?

Mostly kids. Right now I have 20 students. It’s been pretty full-time. I also do this thing where I have a show, I put them all in bands and then we have a show. I teach out of my studio. I have between two and five lessons every day and then a couple days off. It’s mostly kids — they range between six and 15 years old and right now I have one adult.

What instruments do you teach?

Just guitar. I do have one bass student.

Do you learn anything in teaching that you apply to your own music?

I’ve learned how to teach better. It’s just great. I definitely keep my fingers in shape and that’s one really good thing about it. It reinforces what you know, to teach it. I did have to go back and relearn stuff. I have some kids that are really good and I have to practice for them — I have to learn stuff to teach them, and stay really on top of it.