From Smug, vol. 2 no. 2 (February 1996):
Light as a Lead Dove
The gaseous coldness of Helium’s music may have an aim to disturb.
By Paul Boraros.
I was ambling about the hell-ride that is America Online when I happened upon a musical discussion in a certain chat room I have been known to frequent. The topic was Helium, and the discussion centered on Mary Timony, the band’s songwriter, singer, and guitarist.
All I did was type “Helium: never really moved me.” And with that, a certain AOL member began to ask me why. I wrote something about how I’d only heard their last record once or twice, but that it seemed like Timony wanted to be someone’s heroine. And that she wasn’t mine.[pullquote]”Music, for me, is about images of things and putting them together, and remembering things. I like to point things out, to be subversive, even to piss people off, and use that as an edge. I think if I thought about a target audience, it would turn into, well, bad music.”[/pullquote]
The questions probed on. Eventually I typed a line about how my view of Timony hadn’t really changed after having read an interview or two with her, and how maybe she seemed a little self-absorbed. My correspondent typed, “I heard she likes girls.” Somehow I began to really mistrust my communicant. “Don’t believe everything you hear,” I wrote.
“Yep, that Mary’s pretty self-absorbed,” asserted the voice. “Wait, I thought you were a fan of hers.” “Well, actually, the reason why I’m so obsessed with Helium is that I am Mary.” Oops. If it was really her.
She continued. “I suppose I don’t do interviews very well.” Har. I remembered my trump card.
“I suppose I don’t conduct interviews very well.” Pause. “Do I know you?” she inquired.
I arrived, notebook in hand, in time to catch Timony before soundcheck. I’d done my homework and become more familiar with her work. Although I’d definitely been impressed, if not quite converted, I was still unsure enough about her mission in music to feel inquisitive. Our conversation wasn’t long, but once we go to chatting she had plenty to say.
Since we’d come into contact under unusual circumstances, and I’d already admitted to being a little underwhelmed, or confused, by Helium’s music, I first asked her whether she writes for a target audience.
“Oh, no. I never think about that. Occasionally I might think about someone listening to it, but it’s really not part of the creative process for me. Music, for me, is about images of things and putting them together, and remembering things. I like to point things out, to be subversive, even to piss people off, and use that as an edge. I think if I thought about a target audience, it would turn into, well, bad music.”
“Yeah, exactly. I think I might conceive of someone listening to it, though. But see, this is all about while I’m writing. I think when it comes time to recording music, you want to make it sound good, and I think it’s important to record it with someone who will do that. I’m usually the one who wants to put lots of distortion or effects or something. But it’s important to me to work in a way that it’ll be understood. Like writing anything… books, lyrics, articles….”
I asked where she thought her writing was headed, and what musical forces were affecting her right now. “I think I know what our next record’s going to be about. I haven’t written all the songs yet, but I think I know what it’s going to be like.”
So what’s that? “I really can’t tell.” OK. So what’s it going to sound like?
“I think I know, sort of. Actually I’ve been reading this book about the life of Marc Bolan.”
She began to seem fairly excited. The thrill of musical discovery was written all over Timony’s face.
“He was so cool. He, like, invented glam-rock. I just think he was awesome.” I have spared you the exclamation points, but I think you get the idea. “I couldn’t really say why. I don’t think I could put that into words for you right now.”
I believe I asked the right question at this moment: “Because it hits you on such a gut level, which is unselfconscious?”
She gazes into the air for a moment and twists on her barstool. Then she cracks a wide grin, and begins to appreciate my daily battle.
Follow LaBradford’s atmospheric opening set, Helium hits the stage around 10:30. With hardly a hello, they launch into “Trixie’s Star.” The friendly, talkative woman with whom I’d spoken a couple hours before has transformed into a coldly meditative character, playing almost mechanically through a set reaching back no further into Helium’s history than the “Pat’s Trick” 7″.
Only when a musical miscommunication causes one song to drone a little too long for Timony’s taste is there levity onstage. She emits a suppressed chuckle, away from the microphone, and exchanges glances with her bandmates, who have been in good form all night. Bassist Ash Bowie tends to crouch a lot, with the neck of his bass poised over his left shoulder, bobbing rhythmically and gently. Devlin pounds away in a unique, spare style that fits the well-chilled songs.
They have a go at “the other one,” a strangely danceable excursion that my friend Tom calls “the A Flock of Seagulls song.” Then they cap their set with the lengthy “Baby’s Going Underground,” and finally, no longer so curiously, a T-Rex cover.
Only Timony seems terribly interested in playing the T-Rex song, and the results are a little disjunct. What should be fun, at this point, is instead as coolly detached as the rest of the set, and the band really doesn’t cut loose enough to make it sound convincing.
Is there something unsettling about Timony’s glam-rock tangent? The gaseous coldness of Helium’s music is part of what I actually like about them, but I wish they’d be a little more human onstage, as opposed to inventing any more characters to assume. Helium may have an aim to disturb, but dehumanized art can be [sic] just as easily be harmless. Whether Mary Timony wants to be harmful or not is the question.