We’ve Got A File On You: Mary Timony

Chris Grady

We’ve Got A File On You: Mary Timony

Chris Grady

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

In some ways, Mary Timony was predestined to be a rock star. The Washington, DC based musician first learned about punk rock from her neighbors, who just happened to be Ian and Alec MacKaye. Since then, the musical polymath has consistently redefined what the future of rock can sound and look like.

In the early ’90s, Timony introduced righteous female fury into an overwhelmingly male DC music scene as one half of Autoclave, whose lyrics dealt with the constraints of patriarchal preconceptions over unwaveringly intricate melodies. After relocating to Boston to attend college, she again carved a new path in a city dominated by indie rock with Helium. As the band’s guitarist, lyricist, and vocalist, Timony garnered a reputation for her pop-forward punk, which combined dense guitars with her inimitable voice, a crackling mix of honeyed falsettos, tossed off sneers, and guttural roars. Their 1995 debut album The Dirt Of Luck catapulted Timony to a level of indie stardom she hadn’t previously thought possible, with music videos and relentless press tours to match. Her follow-up, 1997’s The Magic City, was an ornate departure from their debut, layering harpsichord, pedal steel, and a Chamberlin Mellotron over lyrics about queensdragons, and creatures of the dark

Somehow, Timony found time to perform in multiple side projects — like the Spells, with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein — star in independent films, and even drop into a few Priceline commercials with William Shatner. Since the dissolution of Helium, her output has only further diversified: There’s her work in the supergroups Wild Flag and Hammered Hulls, as well as Ex Hex, whose debut, aptly titled Rips, reintroduced a new wave of aspiring female musicians to Timony’s ecstatic pop-fueled shredding.

On her first solo album in almost 20 years, Untame The Tiger, Timony sounds just as ferocious as she did in her teenage bands, if all the more wizened with time. It feels like a natural fusion of her entire musical career: The deadpan disses of excellent first single “Dominoes,” the melancholic loneliness of “The Guest,” a reflection on solitude transformed by contemplative, mournful guitar. On the album’s title track, Timony combines swelling cymbals with chiming guitars that recall medieval harpsichords. It’s no surprise, at this point in the musician’s legendary career, that she continues to write songs that speak to the depths of the female experience: How can I regain my power in a world dominated by misogyny? Is isolation the only way to protect my peace? It’s incredible to hear her combine her past and present so naturally into an album that still pushes the boundaries of what one person can do with a guitar.

In our conversation, we discuss her experience growing up down the street from Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins, her many collaborations with musicians ranging from Carrie Brownstein to Chino Moreno, and what it was like acting next to William Shatner.

Growing Up With The MacKayes (1970s)

Ian MacKaye said that he’s known you since they took you home from the hospital as an infant. And you’ve played with Alec in Hammered Hulls. What was it like growing up with the MacKayes as your neighbors?

MARY TIMONY: I actually still live in the same house. I moved back in when I was 30, but this house is where I lived until I was five. Ian and Alec lived right down the street. And their dad just passed away, but he used to live there; now their sister lives there. Alec actually lives a couple blocks away. We were friends when I was little. My brother was really good friends with Alec and we used to play on the block. Then my family moved a mile in the other direction, but our parents were acquaintances, and they would come over for dinner occasionally.

I was aware of what Ian and Alec were up to, because I’d hear about it from my parents. That’s how I found out about punk music. I had seen Amanda MacKaye, and she was like, “Alec just dyed his hair to look like leopard spots.” I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” Then I heard about this band. I think my dad showed me in the paper about Minor Threat. I found out that their bands were playing around DC and then I started going to shows and stuff. Another interesting thing is Henry Rollins lived two blocks away in the same neighborhood. That’s how I found out about punk rock.

Direct from the source. Did you grow up thinking that scene was just normal? Or did you realize that it was the counterculture?

TIMONY: Oh no, that’s why I thought it was cool. My family was pretty straight ahead. My dad was a judge and my mom stayed at home. And then she was a second grade teacher. DC has a lot of squares. My parents were very square in terms of what they thought one should do with their life. I suppose that’s what attracted me to the whole punk thing in DC. It was just these kids like rebelling. My parents didn’t really get it, although in their hearts I think they were both really artists too.

Autoclave (1990-1991)

TIMONY: In a way that’s my favorite band I’ve ever been involved with. I think Christina Billotte is a genius songwriter. That band was her songs, and then I just wrote my guitar parts. I loved that band. Sometimes I just feel sad we didn’t do more with that band, because I think it was really cool and weird and different. Then I moved to Boston, because I went to school up there. In DC I just never felt like I fit in because I was a girl and it was a real male-dominated rock community. Even when no one would really make you feel that way. It was very specific music that was happening. So, I actually felt more at home in Boston, because there were more women involved in the music scene. I got to know indie rock people and it just felt more comfortable for me. I knew more women up there.

The Spells (1999, 2008)

You’ve worked with Carrie Brownstein across a few projects. How did you first come to work with her?

TIMONY: We met when she was in this band Excuse 17 in the early ‘90s, maybe 1994. Then Helium and Sleater-Kinney did this tour in Europe around 1995 or 1996, and it was totally the most wacky, crazy tour ever. We really bonded on that tour. I got really close with her and Janet [Weiss] and then I would go out to Olympia and hang out, and she would come visit me. And then we started that band the Spells.

How was the scene in Olympia compared to what was happening on the East Coast at that time?

TIMONY: I really liked it out there. I grew up in DC. The Dischord [Records] thing was happening, and it was really loud and aggressive. And mostly dudes. The bands were almost like these gangs of dudes who were playing this really aggressive, loud music. What really drew me to what was going on in Olympia was there were way more women, and it was quieter. And people really cared about songs. It wasn’t like this show of male aggression. There was something really feminine about it — maybe not feminine, but a different energy that was not aggressive. I guess riot grrrl had that aggressive energy. I was just attracted to what was going on in Olympia because I felt like I fit into that more than here. In DC I always felt like a fan; girls weren’t involved as much. There were women that were on Dischord, but you just don’t even really hear about them, which is weird. There’s Fire Party. Slant 6 is one of my favorite bands of all time and nobody talks about them. It’s very strange. I don’t understand what was up with that. I was really into the Olympia scene, and that it seemed more open and inclusive. And I just felt like I fit in to that aesthetic more.

In interviews, Carrie Brownstein has called you Mary Shelley with a guitar. Compared to riot grrrl who sounded like bloodletting, as she put it, you were making these beautiful, intricate compositions. Do you think your compositional style is at all related to your formal musical education?

TIMONY: I’m just a creative person. I’m sure I would get really careful and intricate about anything I was doing, whether it was making macrame wall hangings or whatever. I’ve always gravitated towards guitar because I realized it’s something you could write songs with, and I like making stuff up. It became like an activity that I could do on my own. Everybody gets into music for different reasons, and I didn’t come from a place where I really cared about performing or being in a rock band. The performing thing was always something that I liked, but nothing I was very good at. I was really shy. I did study music a bit and I’m sure that that contributed to my playing.

Do you feel like the dynamic in your band was different for a band with all women versus a band that’s mixed gender?

TIMONY: It just depends on who the people are. When I was younger, I really felt that but it’s mostly that’s because there just weren’t that many women involved in rock bands at the time. So it really felt so different. It really felt like everything was just amped up. Especially growing up here and going to all these shows where it was all dudes, it was such a different feeling. Telling people you played guitar, it just felt like it took a lot more courage, and people were way more sexist. At that time, it felt like a real political statement to play with other women. It felt like a big fuck you. It sounds so crazy to say now, because it’s just not that way. Now I just play with musicians who I like, regardless of their gender. Even when I did the Wild Flag project, and that was only 10 years or 15 years ago, it still felt different. I think things have changed a lot in the last 10 years.

Being Snail Mail’s Guitar Teacher (Early 2010s)

I think you’re a big part of that change, frankly, I think that seeing you play allowed women to imagine being in rock bands… Speaking of inspiring a new generation, can you talk about what it was like teaching guitar to Lindsey Jordan [of Snail Mail] and seeing her star rise?

TIMONY: I met her at the Black Cat. She knew another student of mine, Anna Wilson, who’s actually going to be playing in the band with me, which is really exciting. She’s just incredible. Anna was friends with Lindsey and maybe she knew my music, I don’t know. But she’d heard that I taught guitar and so she came over. I think it was the last year of her high school, and she was already a really good guitar player at the time. I did some guitar technique with her. We divided up the parts on Television songs, like from Marquee Moon and Adventure and just learned those guitar parts, so that was really fun. We did lessons for a while, and she’s really good at reaching out and talking things out. She would just be like, “I think I’m gonna play a show.” I just helped support her aspirations and gave her tips. She blew up super fast, within a year or something. She asked me, “Do I go to college?” I didn’t want to say that actually in my mind I was like, “Oh gosh, you should probably go to college.” I didn’t want to get involved. Then she started playing shows and I was like, “She’s really good.” She’s like a wise old soul.

Then suddenly the next year, I started getting people who wanted to come to lessons with me because I taught Snail Mail. They wanted me to teach them Snail Mail songs. That was really exciting. I actually think I may have another of those that I’ve been teaching; she’s so fucking talented. It’s actually Brendan Canty’s [of Fugazi] daughter. He lives here and is a good friend of mine. His daughter, Mabel is crazy good and she started this band. We’re touring with them; they’re called Birthday Girl. I actually have gotten down to this thing where I just teach women now. I don’t know why, but there’s something about it that really, for me, has to do with undoing things that happened to us culturally, undoing our experience of thinking we’re not allowed to do things. There’s just something about the way as women that we’re trained to live in the world and it’s not right. If there’s anything I can do to help support someone else undo some of those things, I’m so on board with it.

Helium – The Magic City (1997)

Magic City was a really different direction for Helium, much more ornamental and almost prog. What were you listening to at the time? What was the impetus for that change in sound?

TIMONY: I think on the first Helium record I was still channeling a lot of anger. It felt more feminist. That one was straight ahead pop, although the sounds were really crazy. It was about self-empowerment. When you put out your first record, it’s a really vulnerable place to be. You put it out in the world, and then people talk about it, or they don’t talk about it. In any case, it makes me feel really vulnerable. So I was like, “This is really weird.”

I remember doing interviews after the first record, and I would talk about feminism, and it would really rub male journalists the wrong way. It was so strange, because I came from this really nice, supportive riot grrrl community where you could just talk about these things. I quickly found out that I just came off as like a crazy person to these journalists at the time, and that really freaked me out.

After the first record I really retreated, and I think I just wanted things to be more layered. I wanted to hide on that second record and go into more of a fantasy space. So I got into fantasy and fairy tales. That’s where that came from. I wanted to hide at the time and I wanted to be in a dream world, so a lot of the songs sound like that. It was that, combined with us recording at Mitch Easter’s studio, and he just has so many cool instruments. We had time and a little bit of a bigger budget. I blew the budget by doing a ton of overdubs, and he had an actual Chamberlin [an early Mellotron], which is this instrument from the 70s that has tape loops at the keyboard. He had an actual harpsichord. Things got really layered because of all the cool instruments that he had.

If you wanted to make yourself less vulnerable, the next move, to me, would not be releasing a solo album under your own name. But did it feel like starting fresh in a way, to not have the Helium name when you released Mountains?

TIMONY: It did. Helium broke up because I was in it with my partner, and we broke up. So I just wanted to start fresh. I found that being in a rock band was stressful, because tour was stressful. So I wanted to do something really not stressful, which was just hanging out with my friend Christina in her loft and record casually. I didn’t want to plan things out and have it be like a whole rock’n’roll business record where I’m trying to sell records and go on tour. I just liked writing songs. The whole music industry just seemed so gross to me after a while, trying to make this product that people buy. I was just like, “Fuck it all, I want to be freaky and make this casual weird record.” So that’s what that was going from.

Team Sleep With Chino Moreno (2005)

You provided vocals on Team Sleep, a side project from Chino Moreno. Moreno also did a We’ve Got A File On You, and in that he said that he asked you to be on Around The Fur‘s “Mascara,” but it didn’t work out. Do you remember that?

TIMONY: I don’t remember. I really didn’t know that that happened. All I know is that he emailed me, or somebody at the label told me he wanted me to sing on something. I think it’s okay. I always felt like I did a weird job on it, but it was really amazing to be included. I was so honored. I don’t remember that about Around The Fur, but I believe him.

Mind Science Of The Mind (1996)

Can you tell me about the project Mind Science of the Mind? I can find very little about it. The rumor has its been lost to time.

TIMONY: That was really fun. It’s my good friend Nathan Larsen, who is in this band Shudder To Think. I think we’re trying to get it on Spotify. You didn’t see it anywhere online?

There’s a YouTube video, but I couldn’t find it on other streaming platforms.

TIMONY: I’ll tell them. I’m really close with him and with Joan Wasser from Joan As Policewoman, who was on the record. And Kevin March was the drummer who’s now with Guided By Voices. It was really Nathan’s band. Nathan has gone on to do a lot of soundtracks. They were just really good friends at the time. And we had a fun time making the record. Actually, Jeff Buckley was in that band when we toured, on bass. They just sent me these photos of us playing at this radio station. Jeff Buckley, Joan Wasser, Nathan Larson, Kevin March. We did one tour on the East Coast and then that was it.

The 6ths’ “All Dressed Up In Dreams” (1995)

You sang with the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, for his band The 6ths on the song “All Dressed Up In Dreams.” How did that come about?

TIMONY: I lived in a group house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Claudia Gunson, the drummer of the Magnetic Fields and his collaborator for many years, lived there too. So that’s how that happened. Stephin Merritt lived two blocks away, so I just knew them. One day, Claudia said, “We’re doing this record where people sing Stephin’s songs. Do you want to sing one of the songs?” So I literally walked to Stephin’s house, he told me the song, and we sang it. So it was very casual. We were just roommates.

All Over Me (1997)

You’re in the film All Over Me performing in a band. How did you get involved in the movie? What was it like playing a fictional band?

TIMONY: The director Alex Sichel had seen a Helium video and called me up and was like, “Come on down to New York and act in this movie.” It was really fun. It took a day and I loved it. It was an all women crew on that set, and I thought they were so badass. I remember it being like, a super good experience. But it really was like a day out of my life a long time ago. I don’t remember a ton about it other than I was really impressed with them.

Backing William Shatner In Advertisements For Priceline (1998)

You did a series of commercials for Priceline in the nineties. How did you get involved there?

TIMONY: My friend who directed those, Phil [Morrison], just stayed here! He was traveling through on his way to North Carolina. That was really fun. Phil is a filmmaker — he made this movie Junebug, and he has done a bunch of different things. He makes a lot of ads, because that’s what filmmakers do to make money. He was doing a cool thing by getting his poor musician friends involved in his ads in the ’90s. I got to be in this Priceline commercial. It was me and Carrie [Brownstein], and William Shatner. It was the most money I had ever made at the time. It really helped me out a lot. I was very grateful to Phil for having me in that, because it paid my rent for a while.

Did you interact with Shatner at all on set? Was he nice?

TIMONY: I wouldn’t say nice was the right word to use. You want any dirt on him?


TIMONY: He had a diva freakout and threw out all the sushi the chef made for him in the trash can. He was like, “Fuck this shit.” He had done a lot of TV at that point, so he didn’t feel like he had to be on his best behavior I guess. It was very professional, other than that.

Untame The Tiger (2024)

How was it working with Dave Mattacks [drummer for Fairport Convention] on Untame The Tiger? I heard you were nervous to work with him.

TIMONY: I was talking to my friend Joe Wong, who co-produced Untame The Tiger with me. Joe does his podcast where he interviews all these great drummers. He knows how much I love Fairport Convention, so he suggested, “I just interviewed Dave Mattacks, why don’t you get him?” I was just like, that would never happen. He would never want to play with me. It scared me to try to even think about playing with someone who’s that good. He’s played on all these records that I love from the 70s.

And then I sat on it for like a month and then suddenly I was like, “What the hell? Why would I not do that?” So Joe called him up and within an hour, we’re planning it all out. He was so cool to work with and such an incredible drummer and such a nice guy. It was really a dream come true for me. Probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life was play with him. It was awesome. Also working with David Christian, he’s also equally just as good. It’s nice to do solo stuff. I like the freedom of being able to collaborate with lots of different people.

A lot of your lyrics throughout your work are set in the realm of high fantasy — dragons, castles, dungeons. Is there a reason that’s where your mind goes when you’re writing?

TIMONY: I think of it as a retreat for me. It’s a nice place to hide. They’re all metaphors for what’s happening in my life. It’s not intentional. I sometimes will have to revise and say, that may only mean something to me. I want to connect, so can I just say what that means? And then I’ll add a line that’s like, “You left and I’m sad,” rather than whatever weird thing about a cave that I was talking about. Because to me, with the cave, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I know what that means.” But what I found is other people are like, “Why are you sitting in my cave? That is weird.” So I tried to not do that as much.

I also just really like early music. I’ve been studying the lute. I have a friend who’s an early musician who plays viola da gamba, and I really admire her a lot. I play classical guitar. I just like music from different time periods. I think it’s fascinating. I like reading books that were written in different time periods. There’s so much that’s happened in the world. I’d like to try to connect with people from the past in any way possible. Whether it’s reading something they wrote or listening to music they wrote, something feels really comforting about it to me.

Untame The Tiger is out 2/23 on Merge.

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

more from We've Got A File On You