Though she’s become known as one of indie rock’s most inventive guitarists, Helium’s Mary Timony says she came to play the instrument almost by accident. “I was one of those kids who took music lessons when they were little, and I didn’t really work very hard on it,” she says from her home in Boston. “Then when I got to 10th grade, I stopped taking viola lessons and picked up my brother’s guitar, and decided I liked it.”[pullquote]”I got really tired of expressing my feelings about sexism in music,” Timony explains. “I just felt like too many people were taking it the wrong way.”[/pullquote]
Over the course of a career that’s included numerous releases, including the just-issued The Magic City, Helium has become as well known for Timony’s breathy voice as for her intricate guitar work. She knows how to make big rock sounds emanate from her amp, but she has enough foresight and restraint to use her talents to bend notes and strings into pretty, truly original sounds.
Timony first entered the indie-rock scene in the early ’90s with Autoclave, a Washington, D.C., punky all-girl band that fizzled after a year. After graduating from Boston University, she then joined an early incarnation of Helium. After a couple of spectacular 7-inch singles, the band signed with Matador and, in 1994, released the EP Pirate Prude.
The amount of attention the record received surprised Timony. “I didn’t understand why people liked it, because I didn’t like it very much,” she says. “Somebody decided that it was a cool thing to like, so the reviewers liked it no matter what. I feel that we’ve done stuff that’s way better musically.”
Pirate Prude was the first time the world at large heard Timony’s feathery and leathery vocals mix with her unique and skillful electric guitar workings. The lyrics of the EP served as a forum, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, for her feminist views. Though her style is more subtle, her views are right in line with those of bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney; but if the riot-grrrl bands roar like lions, Helium hisses like a housecat.
After the release of Pirate Prude, bassist Brian Dunton was replaced by Ash Bowie, on loan from Polvo. The new-and-improved trio, which includes Shawn Devlin on drums, then recorded Helium’s debut full-length, The Dirt of Luck, which fulfilled every promise Pirate Prude hinted at and then some. Bowie’s musical creativity and willingness to experiment complemented Timony’s songwriting style, and the 12 songs spanned a wide range of pop while conjuring an air of mystery and vagueness that has come to mark Helium’s songs. The album was also the last to contain bluntly personal and opinionated lyrics, says Timony. “I got really tired of expressing my feelings about sexism in music,” Timony explains. “I just felt like too many people were taking it the wrong way.”
After reading a couple of articles in which she was described as “losing her mind,” Timony tired of the misinterpretation of her music and the plundering of her diary, so she promptly changed her lyrical direction.
On this year’s No Guitars EP, Timony leads the listener into a land of mystical beings with both her lyrics and her carefully bent and plucked guitar strings. On The Magic City, Helium’s second full-length, Timony jumps into the “Myst” head-first and fully steeps her songs in fantastic imagery; unicorns, rainbows, alien beings and dragons now appear where there used to be prostitutes and frilly girls. Though Timony peppers her songs with images straight off of black velvet glow-in-the-dark posters and sci-fi games, she is quick to point out that The Magic City is not meant to be taken literally. “I have been talking to people who think this is a whole fantasy concept record, and I’m a little confused as to where that is coming from,” she says. “I guess there is a lot of fantasy imagery, but most of it is not serious–it’s sort of a joke.”
Though Timony may not be singing as clearly about lost and dirty little girls, the same theme of disappearing from reality still pervades her lyrics. “That’s a theme I think is in a lot of Helium songs, in the older songs too,” she explains. “Escape or transcendence or going to some place where you can clearly see the truth of the world. Or just going someplace that’s comfortable, and not necessarily a physical place.”
Helium, Quasi, Syrup USA, Aviary
Oak Street Art Center,
9 pm Saturday, Nov. 8
Of Helium and Syrup USA, Timony says, “We
like to think that we’re sort of the
fantasy-rock movement because…there is a
unicorn on the front of their record and we’re
going to be sharing a backdrop.”
On a recent European tour together, Helium’s
Mary Timony and Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss
struck up a friendship, and Weiss decided to
play with her other band, Quasi, on the
Portland date of the Helium and Syrup USA