Mary Timony has worked her way through a number of sounds over the years. From the alt-rock of Helium in the ‘90s to the punk blast of Autoclave to the prettier but weirder sounds of her solo albums, Timony stretched herself in new directions.
Now teamed up with Betsy Wright (whom Charlottesville music fans should remember from the Fire Tapes), Timony turns to more straightforward rock as part of the energetic Ex Hex.
“The thing about Ex Hex is we just try to make music that we like and that we want to listen to,” Timony said. “We wanted the music to sound a little bit more expansive than the first record. The first record was pretty garage rock. We wanted it to have a fuller sound. More variety of guitar sounds; we wanted the drums to sound really big.”
Part of the buzz around this year’s album, “It’s Real,” centered on that bigger sound and possible production influences unexpectedly drawn from Def Leppard.
“We were talking about the production on ‘Hysteria’ and the Cars records,” she explained. “We did a bunch of the recording of the record ourselves. We had an aesthetic for how we wanted the record to sound.”
She notes, though, that she’s influenced by a wide range of music.
“I grew up in the punk scene, going to the hardcore shows,” Timony said. “I come from that world. I really love Fugazi. I like tons of different stuff. I like Def Leppard and African music. I wouldn’t say we were thinking about Def Leppard. The way ‘Hysteria’ is produced is pretty incredible. We had a couple songs where we tried to copy that sound, although it’s impossible to do that, since that record has a zillion different tracks.”
That’s certainly a change from her roots, when she was listening to “punk rock, Blondie, Wire, Hendrix.” Timony thinks she wouldn’t have liked it at the time (though she did like Van Halen), and considers the way that the ‘90s had such a split between “subculture music and mainstream music.”
Fuller production aside, Timony has found a new approach to songwriting in Ex Hex. Despite the shorter, pop feel of the tunes, she explained that “a lot of the music is really worked on and edited and rearranged” — all part of the more collaborative approach to writing in the group.
“We try to keep the parts that are most exciting and get rid of the parts that are unnecessary,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to just write something stream-of-consciousness and just be done with it. If you want to make something that’s simple and really good, it just takes a lot more work. In the past, I haven’t really worked this way. I’ve been more focused on being creative and not being as careful about how things end up when they’re recorded. It’s hard to edit.”
Timony uses the retro-pop song “Good Times” as an example. The band struggled with the track for “at least two years” as Timony tried to come up with another part, giving up on it regularly before it finally came together.
Other songs weren’t such a trial. The driving “Cosmic Cave” “popped out,” and, while Timony hated the song, “it kind of wrote itself,” and Wright liked it and wanted to keep it.
Wright and Timony are different sorts of artists, but that makes that collaboration “fun.” As Timony says, “I bring the weirder stuff and she brings the hooks.”
Across the collaboration, the album has a bit of a theme of perseverance.
“I had a rough year,” Timony said. “I had sickness in my family, a relationship ending, people passing away. It was just one of those years that sucked. Somehow we were able to make the record.”
While Timony thought making the record would be stressful, “it was the best thing ever.”
Timony’s songwriting here completes an aesthetic arc of sorts. In Helium, she played with Polvo’s Ash Bowie, whom she describes as “a genius.” He played in various tunings, and she “landed on one tuning” that she particularly used in her solo albums before she “got sort of burned out with that.”
She went back to a standard tuning in Wild Flag, a supergroup than included Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein. That group also worked by deconstructing material as each member wrote her own parts, so Timony “would just have to bring in something that was pretty simple.”
“After that band ended, I was in that mode of challenging myself to write really simple songs,” she said. “I never did that, so that was a challenge and not something that came to me naturally.”
Natural or not, the timing was great, as she asked Wright to play bass in Ex Hex without realizing that the sort of material that Wright wrote would be a perfect fit.
“It was synchronicity or something,” Timony said, her joy in the discovery still very real.