Magic Cities: A Chat with Mary Timony of Helium
While 1997 may go down as the year of the Lilith tour, or better yet, the year of Spice, Helium master-mistress Mary Timony was likely too busy in the studio to pay any mind. We saw the release of No Guitars, a six song EP wherein Timony along with cohorts Ash Bowie (also of Polvo) and Shawn “King” Delvin put their instruments through a tense, multi-dimensional six-string workout. As if that weren’t enough, Helium fans were next treated to Timony’s sly re-vamping of eighties guitar and synth pop on the band’s The Magic City, released in the fall of’97. Grip’s Stephen Head took some time out to chat with the shrill-but-smooth voiced chanteuse before it was, well, back to another year of work.[pullquote]well, with the last record, we wrote a lot of them together … ; Ash and I were just kind of messing around on bass and guitar, and we came up with some songs, so that’s how it kind of worked.[/pullquote]
Grip: You once described Helium’s sound as “scary monster cartoon music.” Does that description need any revision now with the release of the No Guitars EP and The Magic City?
Mary: That doesn’t so much apply on the new record. Really that description’s more like the old record, I think.
Grip: The Magic City has a kind of New Wave, eighties vibe to it. What are some eighties bands you were or are still into?
Mary: Oh, I don’t know …I like Gary Numan. I don’t know, though… I like a lot of stuff, but I’m not really allowed to dig Eighties music. (Laughs). That’s a joke.
Grip: The new album took kind of a different direction than what I was expecting after the release of No Guitars, which really seemed to play with textures and time signatures and a dense guitar sound. How did you approach recording The Magic City?
Mary: Well, we wanted to have better acoustics and sounds, so we spent a lot of time messing around with different instruments that all sounded sort of normal enough, like the drums. So that was the goal, and we didn’t want to use distortion as much, so that’s what we did.
Grip: Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Pavement) recorded and produced both the new album and the No Guitars EP. How did you come to work with him and what was that like?
Mary: Ash knew about him because he’s from North Carolina, and he was a big Let’s Active fan. He was really awesome to work with, and we really loved him, so it was a lot of fun.
Grip: Would you work with him again? Do you have any plans to do that?
Mary: Um, I don’t know yet.
Grip: It seems Helium’s new songs are a lot more immediate and visceral than, say, the songs on Pirate Prude. Has there been any conscious decision to make the tunes more accessible or catchy?
Mary: No, I think at that time the songs were kind of written similarly…to sound similar [to the newer ones]. It’s just that the way people in the band played them just made them sound slower and less accessible. It was more the way the band was…the songs weren’t really that much different. But I think that we’ve probably gotten better at playing them; that’s why they sound more accessible.
Grip: What do you think now when you go back and listen to Pirate Prude? It’s one of my favorites.
Mary: Um, thanks. I don’t know it just sounds different. It’s kind of weird actually to listen it, but I don’t really think about it or listen to it ever, so…
Grip: One of the standout aspects of the new album is the cover art and the artwork accompanying the lyric sheets. Did you do all the artwork yourself and how important is that to you?
Mary: I did a lot of it and Ash did some of it. It’s important, but mainly we’ll just need some artwork, so we’ll do some. It’s…I don’t know…It just seems like the thing to do, so I do it.
Grip: I want to turn now to the lyrics. It seems like your songs have taken a new direction lyrically from the sort of angry feminist voice on Pirate Prude or The Dirt of Luck. Now it seems like you’re writing songs with supernatural, fantastical motifs.
Mary: Yeah, I guess the lyrics have changed. I don’t know…It’s different. There are a lot of songs that have to do with outer space and places that are away from the world…That’s true…Magical stuff.
Grip: How do you approach the lyrics? Are they inspired by books per say, or are they more stream of consciousness?
Mary: It’s mainly stream of consciousness. Yeah, totally stream of consciousness…It’s whatever sounds good, and then you find out what that is.
Grip: Ash Bowie replaced Brian Dunton on bass just before the release of The Dirt of Luck. What’s the story with the lineup change?
Mary: We were looking for a new bass player, and Ash was hanging out in the studio with us and ended playing bass on a bunch of tracks. And then he just kind of joined the band.
Grip: How much input did he have on The Dirt of Luck as opposed to the new album?
Mary: On The Dirt of Luck, we co-wrote “Baby’s Going Underground” and the…I can’t think of the name…the piano song…
Grip: “Comet #9”?
Mary: Yeah. On The Magic City, we co-wrote a bunch of them…I can’t even remember which ones, but a whole bunch of them, and even on No Guitars and the Superball EP.
Grip: Isn’t one of the songs on the new album, the instrumental (“Medieval People”)…
Mary: Yeah, that’s all Ash.
Grip: How does the songwriting process work now as far as collaborating with band members?
Mary: Lately…well, with the last record, we wrote a lot of them together…Ash and I were just kind of messing around on bass and guitar, and we came up with some songs, so that’s how it kind of worked.
Grip: You and Ash have a side project Led Byrd…Is that right?
Grip: How does that work? What are the plans with that?
Mary: We’d like to do more recordings on tape, but it’s mainly a four-track band. We’ve just done some compilations, but we’ve never put out a seven-inch alone or anything.
Grip: Maybe you can clear this up, but the rumors have it that Shapes was Polvo’s last album, and that Polvo’s past tour was their farewell tour. Is that true?
Mary: Um, I don’t think they really want to say that, or if it’s true or not. That’s what they said, but I don’t think they’re really sure. I just don’t know, and I can’t say and I don’t think they know.
Grip: So what does 1998 have in store for Helium after the tour winds down?
Mary: I don’t know. I guess just to write more songs. We’re trying to tour Europe in the spring, and then we’ll focus on the music and see where we’re going.
Grip: One last question…Have there been any New Year’s resolutions you’ve broken already?
Mary: No, I’ve kept mine this year pretty well.
Grip: Which were?
Mary: I can’t tell you! (Laughs). No, I’m supposed to read more books, and I’ve been doing that, so I’m glad.
I’m not sure where this interview is actually from. I had it saved as “Virginia Music Flash” but in the opening paragraph it states, Grip talked to…, so if anyone knows and wants to correct me, lemme know!