Now That's Magic: the Ex Hex interview
"Thank you so much," says Mary Timony, as our interview comes to an end. "I really appreciate you doing it." There was a time when your pop stars lobbed tellies out of hotel room windows for fun and signalled the vastness of their own inarguable self-importance by generally snarling their way through life, gleefully snatching at every opportunity to inflate their egos and make life for those around them nothing but a trial. These modern well-adjusted types, though, they’re ruining the whole rock 'n' roll spectacle for those of us who still chortle at the thought of Bill Grundy being called a "fucking rotter" on live TV by the four horsemen of the punk apocalypse. Mary Timony, the leader of 90's alt mavericks Helium, genre-hopping solo artist, Wild Flag alumni and now leader of the irresistible Ex Hex, clearly has some good parenting behind her. And, hey, what's cooler than good manners, right?
We speak as Timony tours in support of Ex Hex's debut Rips. A dizzying concoction of bubblegum with brains, it's an artful distillation of the restless creativity that's defined her career for the past two decades. With her latest album receiving approval across the board, life is sweeter than ever. "I'm really excited about how people seem to be enthusiastic in a genuine way about it," she says, as the tour bus rolls into Portland, Oregon. "It's nice to see that – it makes me really happy. We worked our asses off, so it feels good. It's been really fun. We played last night in San Francisco and now I'm staying with a friend in Portland. We just did LA and we've had this crazy drive across the country, like a nine hour drive, and then we had to play, so that was a little rough, but it's hard to complain right now."
Sounds like the stuff rock 'n' roll dreams are made of – traveling across the country on the tour bus, never really knowing which city you're in from one day to the next. What on earth could be better than that? "Well, it's kinda easy to romanticise and I get that, but it's tough, too," she says. "We were supposed to arrive, after this nine hour trip, in time to collect some t-shirts from the UPS but we missed them, so that was great. And then we get to the venue and there's prostitutes hanging around outside. It was like in this really weird, horrible strip mall neighbourhood. So, yeah…it's not as you might imagine it to be. You know, we really enjoy the shows when they’re on the west coast and the east coast but sometimes in the middle of the country it's fun but you have a lot of people who don’t see bands quite as much, so…"
Talk turns to the album. An unashamedly pop record, it pitches Timony's guitar against the groove and industry of her excellent new bandmates - bassist Betsy Russell and drummer Laura Harris. For an album from a spirited survivor of the 90s US underground, its divergent influences signal striving and an animal hunger. When Timony leads with those flattened bar chords, Rips brings to mind the extremely uncool likes of Cheap Trick and The Cars. Ex Hex could cover Split Enz' 'I Got You' without changing gear. Timony likes the reference points: "Oh, thank you! Um. Oh, I don’t know… I kind of… I know what you're saying. It's kind of its own little beast, I think, this band and this album. It's its own thing. It feels super-connected to what I was doing before but it feels new. I just don’t wanna keep doing the same stuff. It's just that when I start playing with new people, it's always the case that something new happens, so you know, yeah…good. I'm glad you think that. It's cool you've seen it in that way.
Timony started out young and has gradually built a rich and varied body of work. A talented multi-instrumentalist, she's been dogged in her pursuit of a vision untainted by trends or the whims of the marketplace. She was signed in her early twenties to that exemplar of American indie pop, Matador. "Those were just really exciting times," she recalls. "I was obsessed with Slanted and Enchanted and I was like listening to it four times a day. So it was incredible to suddenly find myself on the same label as Pavement. It was really cool. I remember one tour we did that was called The Extra Cheese Tour, that was with Railroad Jerk and Bailter Space. I did hang out with other bands on the label. It was a cool time, a lot of bands doing some really cool stuff at that time."
With the business now virtually unrecognisable from the one she grew up with, it must take guts and guile to stay true to artistic and not commercial drivers. Timony is unwavering on that score: "Oh, I don’t really know how to do it any other way. I mean, I was never that great a business person, probably. I always feel way more inclined towards the artistic side of things. I'm not even that good a band leader! No, I'm way more of an artist. When I was younger I definitely…maybe I did some…" She pauses and stops herself. "No, I don’t know. No – I was way more the artist, even then. Now I've been doing the band thing for so long and I understand the business more so… I wouldn't even think about trying to sell albums. I've never lived in that type of world. And there's no reason to sell out. Every label I've ever worked with has been respectful of its artists and not interfered in the artistic process."
Many of her peers remain fully focused on the here and now rather than reflecting on past glories. Steven Malkmus, Kristin Hersh, the reformed Sleater-Kinney: all still maintain a following that trusts them not to lazily re-write the past. Does she share that philosophy? "Absolutely. It would be pretty boring to keep doing the same thing over and over again," she says. "If you’re in the business of making art, you usually, or at least you should, want to find some new things to think about, things to say, sounds that are interesting. Otherwise, it would be really boring. The musicians that I like do do new things, I'd say. But you gotta balance it because people can get confused if you change things too much."
The current US tour is a healthy mix of established and merging, with Ex Hex sharing the bill with Speedy Ortiz. Timony is a big fan: "They are just really awesome. Sadie (Duchamp) is a really great guitar player and singer and just getting to see her play and get to know her, that's been so good. You know, when I first heard them I was almost like, oh I don’t know, my brain was just really fried because I felt like it was 1994. Their music sounds so much like it's from that era. I couldn't figure it out. It was like I'm back at the Middle East club in Boston in the early 90s. I really love it and it's really cool to see that style of music being played in this very fresh way."
As we wind up, we return to Timony's early work, in particular Dirt of Luck, Helium's exquisite 1995 debut, and a semi-forgotten dream-pop gem that still houses a level of ambition way beyond many of the more readily féted albums of the era. She laughs and groans at the mention of its name: "Oh, jeez…" If challenged, would she still be able to play them? She laughs again and considers for a moment. "Not very well," she decides. "I'd really have to do some homework for sure."