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Mary Timony on reviving Helium, a band that’s finally ready to fit in

Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

On May 19, Matador Records will reissue Helium’s two full-length albums, The Dirt Of Luck and The Magic City, alongside a new compilation of B-sides and demos titled Ends With And. This is more than just the now-standard repackaging of ’90s nostalgia, more than just a boon to fans who have seen these records languish, long out of print and fetching exorbitant prices. It’s something of a corrective—a chance to revisit and recontextualize a band that emerged during those years when Matador was synonymous with indie rock, when the press fawned over its label mates Liz Phair and every music geek worshipped Pavement, yet could never slot the group comfortably alongside them either. It’s a long-overdue reappraisal of one of the most inventive, transportive bands of its era, one that defiantly resisted easy definitions.

Helium’s leader, Mary Timony, was a classically trained guitarist who actively suppressed her training to camouflage herself within a scene that equated amateurism with effortless cool—though her tendencies toward fluid, virtuosic riffing and zeal for baroque composition couldn’t stay dormant for long. Likewise, while Timony shared Phair’s smirking form of empowered, sexual frankness, and her personal politics were decidedly feminist, her lyrics were too blurred by impressionistic imagery, ironic detachment, and novelistic fantasy to be lumped in with riot grrrl (not that critics didn’t try). Helium was a band that wasn’t slack enough for the slackers, not angry enough for the activists, in other words. It was a meticulously musical group that reveled in mystery, at a time when neither of those things were exactly cool.

“I definitely never felt like I fit in, no matter how hard I tried,” Timony says today. “I didn’t fit in with the punk thing, I didn’t really fit in with the indie rock thing… Sort of because I was a girl, but also because I was a music school person.” Although Timony has since amassed an impressive, decades-deep discography that spans several solo records, as well as albums with Ex Hex and Wild Flag (the latter alongside Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss, and Rebecca Cole), her earliest forays into the D.C. punk scene came at a time when female rock musicians, particularly in the underground, were still regarded as novelties.

“It definitely doesn’t feel like that long ago, but things were a different world,” she says. “It’s like you were a female auto mechanic or a female truck driver. It felt like you were a weirdo, or it felt like a statement—like, ‘I’m going to fucking do this.’ You felt like you were breaking the rules a little bit more.”

For Timony, that world coalesced around the Dischord scene, where she would form the short-lived yet fondly remembered Autoclave with Christina Billotte and release a single, self-titled album before almost immediately disbanding. “I feel like it broke up too soon,” Timony says. “But in D.C. at that time, everybody would just form a band and break up, like, six months later. It was pretty normal.” The fact that Timony was attending college over in Boston certainly didn’t help: “My semester at [Boston University] started on Monday and Autoclave had a show on Sunday, so it was like, ‘Uh, guys, I’m just going to take the train and be late for college,’” she says. “And my mom’s like, ‘Hell no! We’re driving you up to BU on Saturday, and there’s no way you’re going to play Sunday. Forget about that!’ So they dropped me off, then I got on an Amtrak and came back on Sunday morning and played the show.”

Eventually, that distance put a strain on Autoclave, and the band came to its natural end, though Timony would soon connect with Boston musicians Brian Dunton and Shawn Devlin to form the nascent Helium. In Boston, Timony would also find a burgeoning indie-rock scene she felt a little more closely attuned to—even if it would still require some searching for her identity within it. “I was going through a phase where I was trying to just find a voice,” she says. “I was trying to get away from the classical guitar that I studied and approaching the guitar in this simple but destructive way. I was basically trying to unlearn things.”

The result was a sound marked by an ethereal dissonance reminiscent of Sonic Youth and British shoegaze, elevated by Timony’s alternately laconic and airily beautiful coo. Helium’s debut EP, 1994’s Pirate Prude, had a sly, simmering fury that was matched in Timony’s lyrics about vampiric sex workers. And Timony’s aim to deconstruct her way of playing received its visual equivalent in the video for “XXX,” in which Timony, clad in a negligee pinned with a Superman “S,” literally tears her guitar apart.

“It was angry music, and I was using the guitar in this way that felt kind of aggro,” Timony says. “I was intentionally trying to play sloppy on that EP, which is why I couldn’t listen to it for forever. I still don’t like it. I was in a really dark place, super depressed. I’m playing a guitar all sloppy and I’m all angry. It feels bad for me to listen to it.”

Part of that anger, Timony says, could be attributed to her natural proclivity toward depression. Some of it also had something to do with living in Boston, a gloomy city paved with gallstones. “The streets are really narrow,” Timony says, “and everyone’s really angry.” But however confined her own rage—and however much she couched it within lyrics that offered a more personal, poetic spin, rather than a polemical one—music criticism demanded that every woman’s vaguely angsty lyrics be analyzed, first and foremost, as a grand feminist statement.

“I never liked talking about it,” Timony says. “I was definitely a feminist, and a lot of my lyrics were—especially when I was in my early 20s. But it’s not like, ‘This is what I think about feminism and all of us women together.’ It was more like what that meant for me in my world. I kind of got sick of it being talked about in a way that wasn’t accurate. So I stopped writing lyrics about that stuff. I just hated getting labeled as this crazy, angry girl… I’m too much of a weirdo to be a full-on political person.”

With 1995’s The Dirt Of Luck, that anger was still there, though it was increasingly sublimated behind imagery that borrowed from mythology, gradually subsumed by that weirdness. Most of the press at the time homed in on “Superball”—in which Timony makes the wryly delivered threat, “I’m fragile like an eggshell, I’m mad as hell,” amid an abstract rendering of domestic abuse—as a thesis declaration about simmering feminist rage.

To be sure, there are other songs on that album that wrestle with the eternal Madonna-whore struggle, usually with a wickedly sardonic bite. “Did I tell you that you can’t get to heaven / In high-heeled shoes?” she asks in the creepy “Skeleton,” rife with “pretty baby candy” and giallo atmosphere. There’s the “dirty trick” left wandering in her nightgown in “Baby’s Going Underground,” while the subject of “Honeycomb” is a veritable man-eater who “combs her hair over and over in the mirror, oh / And she spits and swears until she can’t swear anymore.”

But the record is also rife with dreamy abstractions—angels, doves, and demons—that would become full-blown fantasy by the time of 1997’s The Magic City, where Timony openly cavorted with unicorns, rainbows, and dragons like a Lisa Frank notebook come to life. She created her own dizzying universe of spacemen and sorcerers that captured heartache and alienation in a way that made them deeply, supernaturally felt.

“I was never into Dungeons & Dragons,” Timony says of this transition. “It’s just that the music was so escapist to me. It was like a retreat away from the rock world. It’s the kind of music that you write sitting in your bedroom by yourself, rather than the kind of music that you write when you’re thinking about playing a show and being in a successful rock band.”

Musically, Helium no longer squelched its prog-rock ambitions either, as the addition of Polvo’s Ash Bowie on bass brought out Timony’s tamped-down technical skills. “He’s just so creative in a really weird and eccentric and awesome, inspiring way, that it really pushed me to try to be better,” Timony says. Bowie would obsessively map songs out on a four-track, and then the band would try to replicate its sounds in the studio, extreme frequencies and all.

On The Dirt Of Luck, Timony says, “We were listening to a lot of that one Snoop Dogg record that was really big at the time. Doggystyle. We were really into that and Dr. Dre, consciously trying to copy the sounds on those records, and also we were super into video game music.” For the Mitch Easter-produced Magic City, that meant playing in medieval modal scales and even adding in sitars and harpsichords. “It was not a very cool thing to using a flute on your song at the time,” she laughs. “I actually wrote this really funny thing in the liner notes on the [reissue] about how we have this medieval influence, and that’s what broke up our band. ‘No self-respecting rock band could survive that.’ It’s kind of a joke. I mean, sort of.”

Cool or not, it certainly differentiated Helium from the pack of thrift-store-clad mopes bashing out self-consciously lackadaisical rock songs. You’d be hard-pressed to find two stranger, more bewitching, more willfully singular records from that decade. What it didn’t do, unfortunately, was make them huge stars—even by indie-rock standards—though Timony attributes that to a very indie-rock apathy about it all.

“It takes a certain amount of drive to want to be successful as a band, and I don’t know if we had that drive,” she says. “We didn’t necessarily make awesome business decisions. Creativity was the number one priority. Between Ash and I, the biggest priority was being creative and four-tracking. Records were a copy of the four-track songs, and then performing was a shitty, shitty copy of the record. That’s a weird way to structure your band. It’s not a very effective one for being in the music industry and making money and supporting yourself and having people find out about your band. We definitely ran the band like artists. When Brian Dunton was in the band, he was the band manager and super organized. When he wasn’t in the band, it was just a different scene. So yeah, we should have toured a lot more. We didn’t like to because it was stressful. That happens to a lot of bands. People that have staying power are usually super good business people or else they have a manager. We made some weird choices.”

Nevertheless, Helium had a few breakthroughs. It won new fans touring with Sonic Youth and Liz Phair. Its videos regularly popped up on MTV’s 120 Minutes, and Timony was profiled for a Janeane Garofalo-hosted segment of the network’s short-lived Indie Outing, in what may be the most 1997 moment of television ever created. Perhaps most memorably, Beavis And Butt-Head chortled about their schlongs and Timony’s apparent horniness while watching the videos for “XXX” and “Pat’s Trick,” thus introducing Helium to millions of teens—this writer included. (“I couldn’t be happier about it,” Timony says when I tell her this not-uncommon story. “It was really super helpful. I’ve seen it recently, and it’s pretty funny. The thing is, you end up kind of liking it.”)

The Magic City was accompanied by 1997’s No Guitars EP, followed by some shows with Sleater-Kinney in early 1998. But eventually, the band’s lack of career motivation dovetailed with the end of Timony and Bowie’s romantic relationship, which led to an indefinite hiatus and, finally, the end of Helium.

“It just felt too heavy, and we wanted to do other projects,” Timony says. “It was never officially like, ‘We break up. We hate each other.’ It was more just, like, ‘This is too hard. Let’s just do other stuff for now.’ And then it was like, ‘Oh yeah, I guess now it’s really weird.’”

Plans for another Helium album were scrapped, and although Timony spent some time in the immediate aftermath “working shitty temp jobs,” she soon rebounded with a solo album, 2000’s Mountains, partly culled from songs she was writing around the time of Helium’s demise. Timony has long since moved on, becoming a full-time guitar teacher in D.C. and amassing a discography that collectively dwarfs the output that Helium managed during its six-year run. But for many, Helium remains the best rubric for understanding Timony’s unique musical language, and its relatively small body of work still ranks among some of the most distinctive and adventurous ever produced, in the ’90s or since.

And now many have the good fortune to be introduced to it for the first time. For Matador’s retrospectives, Timony spent months listening to old four-track demos, tracking down long-lost 7-inches, and generally revisiting a past that she hasn’t touched on in decades. “It was like reading your diary when you were in high school or something,” Timony says. “I was pleasantly surprised, and I was also embarrassed—all those feelings that you have when you’re reading stuff you did a long time ago.”

Even better, although she couldn’t convince Bowie to rejoin her (“I tried, tried, and tried to get Ash to do some shows, and he just doesn’t want to do it—which I understand”), she’s taking those songs out again for a brief run of tour dates as Mary Timony Plays Helium, backed by Hospitality’s Brian Bettencourt and David Christian. It’ll be fun for the original fans, of course, who are only getting older and more given to getting misty-eyed for ’90s indie rock, of all things. But more importantly, it’s a chance for a younger generation, weaned on the sort of “weird, arty music” created in Helium’s shadow, to discover this long-lost, never-quite-fit-in piece and finally put it where it belongs.