Helium—Lost in Space and Time
Story by: Matthew Vandenbroek
A couple of years ago, I was first exposed to Helium (can you believe this?) on MTV’s Beavis and Butthead. The two spokesman for today’s youth (don’t look at me, I’m 25) were watching the video for “XXX”, the Boston trio’s first single. “Uh, she looks bored, maybe she doesn’t start rocking until after noon.”[pullquote]I’m getting kind of tired of [the medieval thing] because it’s not really a big part of it; it’s been kind of blown out of proportion,” she explains. “We have a song called “Medieval People” and a couple of pictures on the record of a castle and a dragon. But, it’s not like we’re big D[ungeons] &D[ragons] people.[/pullquote]
Jump to Halloween, 1997, to the attic of the Lounge Ax. The atmosphere could best be illustrated by envisioningthe Diary of Anne Frank: Helium has just received a classic Chicago welcome-getting stuck in a dense, inexplicable traffic. As a result, they arrived tired,hungry, and two hours late for soundcheck. Singer/guitarist Mary Timony sits on the mattress generously provided to weary travelers by the owners of the indie-rock Mecca. Bassist (and Polvo guitarist) Ash Bowie and drummer Shawn Devlin have busied themselves downstairs, tending to the T-shirts.
“I felt really stupid at first,” she says of the dubious MTV Exposure. “It’s been out since Pirate Prude, (their first EP) so I don’t care. It’s kind of funny.” She laughs when pressed about the motivation for her wanton destruction of a seemingly innocent overhead projector in the same clip. “That was the video director’s idea.I think there as something, at the time, about the objectification of women in the male eye.”
Not long ago, she and Ash were featured in another magazine dressed in full medieval gear, an obvious allusion to the other wordly tone of the Magic City, their most recent full-length release.
“I’m getting kind of tired of [the medieval thing] because it’s not really a big part of it; it’s been kind of blown out of proportion,” she explains. “We have a song called “Medieval People” and a couple of pictures on the record of a castle and a dragon. But, it’s not like we’re big D[ungeons] &D[ragons] people.”
The first two Helium releases, Pirate Prude (1994, Matador) and the Dirt of Luck(1995, Matador) were earthy, gritty records that examined a seedy underworld of hookers, teasers, and money. In contrast, the Magic City is a bright, shiny record that could easily fit into outer space or the Middle Ages.
“This one is more outer spacey,” Timony explains. “Well, it’s weird, I can’t analyze why. We just changed as a band, it just happened. We recorded in a different studio, and didn’t use as much distortion on the record.”
“The song content on the last record was about reality,” she adds, “this one’s about escape.”
While previous efforts featured minimalist guitar/bass/drums arrangements, Magic City has frequent injections of keyboards and elaborate structures. A formidable part of the band’s evolution could be very well be the addition of Ash Bowie, who was splitting time with Polvo until the North Carolina band chose to abandon touring earlier this year.
“Ash plays a big role,” she says. “He has a lot of complex ideas. Ash and I write together now, I way prefer writing with someone else. That. And working with [producer] Mitch Easter,who had a lot of cool instruments.”
In comparison to the Dirt of Luck, Timony is pleased with the change. “I’m a lot more satisfied with the new one. I like to listen to it a lot more.” She laughs, “It doesn’t hurt my ears as much.”
Nineteen-ninety-seven was, in some ways, the year of the female singer songwriter, which inflicted the likes ofJewel (blasphemy) on the music world, as well as the innocuously folky “Lilith Fair” tour. In general, Timony is not overly impressed.
“I don’t know, it’s kind of cool, I guess,” she says, “but they’re so cheesy, it’s hard to have an opinion on it. I guess if I think of myself as female I support it, but as a musician, it doesn’t make much of an impression on me. I remember, maybe a year ago, that I was reading an article in a magazine about how companies have been doing market research, realizing that they can sell to women. There’s a marketing trend towards women, and I think it goes hand-in-hand with that.”
When asked what groups are collectively rocking her world, she is quick to name Blonde Redhead, Sleater-Kinney (“We just played with them in Europe and they were just great”) and Syrup USA, who also were a part of the Lounge Ax Halloween extravaganza.
“We’re both on the fantasy-rock tip: we’re starting the fantasy rock revolution.”
Originally appeared in Stop Smiling Issue Number 7, reprinted Without Permission.