Mary Timony-singing, guitar, bass, drums
Brain Dunton-bass (1992-1994)
Ash Bowie-bass (1994-1998)
Shawn King Devlin-drums
Helium started in 1992 with stepbrothers Brian Dunton on bass and Shawn King Devlin on drums. The rhythm section had previously played in the band Dumptruck, and briefly played with Mary Lou Lord before becoming Helium. (According to some interviews with Mary Lou Lord she was kicked out of Helium, which was called Chupa at the time. According to some interviews with Mary, she was never in the band at all.)
Early Helium was poppy, and each song was filled with hooks and Mary’s trademark cooing sounds—oohs, ahhs, wooos, et al. They released their first seven inch single pretty soon after forming, American Jean b/w Termite Tree, and saw quick rise within the scene. This trio’s sound did not stay straightforward, hook-laden for very long, as Mary’s songwriting takes dramatic turns and shifts, even to their next seven inch, Hole in the Ground b/w Lucy. This incarnation of Helium would put out an EP, Pirate Prude, which was even further away from their early pop leanings, and they would go on tour for this record with Pavement, among others. Their video for “XXX” made an appearance on Beavis and Butthead, and was played on 120 Minutes, too. Critics praised this album. However, as the sounds on Pirate Prude fight with each other, it does seem in hindsight a mirror of sorts to what was happening within the band.
Because of some, shall I say, creative differences in the band the lineup changed once more after Pirate Prude. Accordingly, Helium’s sound changed too. Mary wrote and played nearly all of the parts and songs on Helium’s first full length record, the Dirt of Luck. However, it was the addition of bass player Ash Bowie (of Polvo then, and still of Polvo now) who’s guitar prowess in his own band lead a unique bass style and sound to Helium. This sound and addition of Bowie would lend a certain musical tension to the band that seemed well beyond anything the previous trio was capable of.
Touring, appearing on Beavis and Butthead again, playing Lollapalooza, and more touring was Helium’s 1995 journey to promote the Dirt of Luck. They released three videos that were aired on 120 Minutes, “Pat’s Trick”, “Superball”, and “Honeycomb”; the latter of which was directed by Brett Vapnek who would go on to collaborate with Mary in more visual and film projects.
Over analyzation combined with poor quotes taken out of context led to a frustrated songwriter. Writers who were looking for an angle for a story would craft Mary’s Helium persona into something entirely else. The Dirt of Luck‘s sublimely subversive feminist lens either intimidated these writers, or perhaps they were simply lazy, but the articles that came out during this period frustrated Ms. Timony so much it is obvious that this scrunity of her lyrics and herself (or Helium persona) led to a retreat from the public eye and a major musical shift in Helium’s focus again.
Both No Guitars and the Magic City are undeniably Helium records, but both of these post-Dirt of Luck records show how far away from their first full length the band was, both musically and perhaps mentally. No Guitars gave us a preview of what was to come with the Magic City: at least one killer catchy number, the new focus on medieval tunings or their influence, lush instrumentation, and perhaps an even broader range musically than was shown on the Dirt of Luck. There may have been feminist leanings on these records, but they are surely more secretive than their first LP; in comparison they make Dirt of Luck seem like a Bikini Kill record, content-wise.
A fair amount of touring was put in place for 1997 to promote the Magic City. They did make one video to promote the album, the super catchy “Leon’s Space Song”, but MTV wasn’t into it and it was not aired. Helium toured Europe with Sleater-Kinney for a long period in 1997 before continuing their grueling tour in the states. For these tours the band brought along Kendall Meade to play keyboards, sing back up vocals, and presumably offer moral support on (and off) stage. This line-up continued their touring in the spring of 1998, again sharing some dates with Sleater-Kinney. The band played one new song on these tours, with Mary on keyboards and Kendall on guitar.
Helium would play a short tour supporting Sonic Youth in May of 1998, playing two new songs. Reviews of these performances hinted at trouble within the band; one review mentioned how Ash played with his back to the audience and bandmates for the entire show. The band would not surface to play any more shows until December that year, playing one show in NYC and one in their hometown Boston. These would be their last shows, and no known recordings or videos are known or have surfaced of these shows.
The band may have ended quietly, but their musical footprints remain loud and clear. To find fault with their catalog is difficult — each piece is solid, well-crafted, and unique. While they left their fans wanting more it is a testament to their sound and vision that their back catalog is so strong, and with the attention of Mary’s new band Wild Flag, Helium will only keep adding more fans to re-discover this brilliant band.
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Leon’s Space Song