The Joy of Ex Hex: Wild Flag's Mary Timony on pastures new

When indie rock supergroup Wild Flag went on hiatus, Mary Timony didn’t exactly rest on her laurels. The moonlighting guitar teacher returns this month with Rips, the excellent debut by 'party band' Ex Hex

Feature by Will Fitzpatrick | 01 Oct 2014
  • EX HEX

“I just didn’t have it in me any more.” Mary Timony pauses, reflecting on the solo career that she effectively brought to an end in 2009. “I think things end up better when there’s a lot of people making decisions. When you’re on your own it’s kind of a vacuum – I just find it hard to stay motivated.”

The Shapes We Make, the last album to bear the former Helium star’s own name, hit the shelves in 2007. Since then, she’s played in a series of bands – most notably the acclaimed supergroup Wild Flag – but today we’re here to discuss the debut release by arguably her most exciting band in years. Ex Hex, a trio completed by drummer Laura Harris and bassist Betsy Wright, are about to release Rips, the most deliberately fun record Mary has made so far. Tipping its hat to the classic powerpop of The Nerves and the glitter-stomp urgency of glam, this new collaborative experience certainly seems to have reawakened the fire within her. “It’s like we’re a sports team,” she explains. “We’re all like, ‘try and make it really good!’ When you know there’s other people involved you know you have to do better and it pushes you. It just works better.”

This confidence is well-founded. Whereas her previous projects have tended towards the cerebral, the angular or the heart-stoppingly intimate, Ex Hex is openly less complex. “I’ve been through a lot of different phases; it’s hard for me to stay consistent with a particular style of music for some reason. But this band feels less of an art project and more like fun. We just wanna make music that we really like, and we feel really excited about it. I’m less focussed on stuff like artistic expression.”

If that latter point makes Mary seem like she’s living for the moment rather than shooting for the stars, it’s worthwhile considering that Ex Hex is entirely consumed by a sense of all-conquering joy. This is music made for its own ends, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable for that. The songs themselves, however, were originally intended for another project entirely. “I had been writing for Wild Flag,” she says, referring to her collaboration with Sleater-Kinney alumni Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss. “I was writing really straight-ahead pop songs, and then I’d take them into the band and they’d become deconstructed, but since that band wasn’t doing another record I had stockpiled about four. I just kept writing in the same style; it’s a really different kind of music than I was doing before – I put my guitar into standard tuning, which I hadn’t done for a while, so they sound a lot more traditional.”

"I don’t like the style of teaching where you’re making kids into these little robots that can do everything you can do. Music was where I found my own identity" – Mary Timony

Although recent indications suggest that Wild Flag is over, with just one well-received album to their name, our heroine is scarcely fazed by the process of starting out with another new band. “It’s good! It doesn’t even feel that new 'cause we’ve been playing for a year, I guess. We’re still learning but we’re in a little bit of a groove.”

How does it differ to playing in Wild Flag? “Hmmmm. The biggest difference is Ex Hex all lives in the same town. With Wild Flag, I live here [Washington DC] and the other guys lived in Portland, Oregon – Ex Hex are able to play a lot more. But every band is different – every person is different, so every group of people is gonna have a different feeling to it. I would say Ex Hex is just a little more of a party band.”

Was it strange working with Carrie and Janet, given that they already had an existing musical chemistry?

“Actually that made it really good – they really have a powerful connection from playing together for so long. It was a blast; we toured all over the place… it was really exciting and fun to be in a band where the emphasis was on the live shows. I don’t know if we’ll do another record; I have a feeling that they’re just too busy now.”

When Wild Flag’s hiatus period began, Mary began looking for new people to jam with, and the pieces all fell together when Laura and Betsy jumped on board (“As soon as we played together, there was a really good energy,” she affirms cheerfully). Their choice of name followed swiftly, although eagle-eyed observers might be keen to point out that ‘Ex Hex’ was also the title of Mary’s third solo LP back in 2005. “Back then I was thinking of changing the name of my band. I thought Ex Hex was a cool band name, but then I was like, ‘Ehhh, I’m not gonna do that, I’ll just call the record Ex Hex.’ When we were brainstorming names for this band, everyone kind of gravitated towards it; there’s no real connection to the solo record at all.”

Having used the phrase to mark two significant career points, do those words have any particular significance? “Well, originally the meaning was a hex that you don’t have any more – like moving away from the bad times, or something.” Mary laughs. “But mostly I just think the words sounded cool together.”

As regards their forthcoming album itself, it’s clear that she takes a great deal of pride in the fruits of the trio’s labour. “I feel good about it! We worked really hard, and I’m pretty happy with how it came out. It was good fun, you know? I’m not sick of it yet, which is good!”

Talk turns to her other life as a guitar teacher – since that role lends a very specific perspective to musical understanding, does it influence the songwriting process? “Maybe, it might make me try to simplify a little bit, or be more conscious and aware of everything that’s happening. Yeah, I could see in a sense that it might be true, and it might be part of the reason why these songs are stripped down. That’s a good way of looking at it.”

How does the experience of teaching compare with that of performing? “It’s really different. I really love performing – that’s just the most fun thing ever, but teaching is a really different part of my brain and personality. I love connecting with the kids and watching them get excited about music. I don’t like the style of teaching where you’re making kids into these little robots that can do everything you can do. Music was where I found my own identity – I want to facilitate them having that too, if they want.”

And what of Helium, we wonder? With many of her contemporaries reforming their old bands, fans could be forgiven for wondering whether Mary has similar plans for her much-loved guitar-manglers. She hesitates. “I wouldn’t really play Helium songs. I’m trying to get those records reissued cause I’ve heard it’s hard to find them… but in terms of revisiting, it doesn’t interest me, to be honest. I just like doing new stuff – I don’t wanna just chill out and be like ‘I’m fine with that stuff I did before.’ I feel like I’m constantly figuring out how to do it better. When I really run out of ideas, I’ll feel OK about going back and playing the old songs. I don’t wanna slow down yet!”

Rips is released on 13 Oct via Merge Records