Photo by Brian Lui
MT surrounded by Devin Ocampo (left) and Chad Molter (right)
Interview by Robin Cook
The Shapes We Make is the title of Mary Timony's newest record, and it's a fitting title for a musician whose oeuvre is ever changing. Since her first album with her band Helium, she's created a sound that draws equally on harsh, serrated musical textures and the lyrical, otherworldly aspects of—surprise!—art rock. Without, of course, songs about elves or side-long album suites. For her new album, she joins forces with drummer Devin Occampo (who also played on her last album, Ex Hex) and bassist Chad Molter.
PSF: One thing I noted with the new record: it sort of combines the jagged, edgy sound, like with the last record, Ex Hex with the more lush aspect that you might hear with your earlier solo material. Was this intentional?
MT: Yeah. A lot of it had to do with the way we recorded it and the people who were playing on it. I stayed with Devin, the same drummer, so they sound similar because of his influence, and we had more time, so we got fleshed out a lot more and more orchestrated.
PSF: I noticed that the record was credited to the Mary Timony Band and with the last record, the promo photos had you and Devin Occampo. Are you more comfortable as part of a unit than as a solo artist?
MT: Right now, it just feels that way because it is a band that's making the record. It's not as much as a solo project as it was for the first two records.
PSF: How did you first hook up with Devin Occampo?
MT: I just met him through a friend, this woman named Amy Dominguez who was playing cello on The Golden Dove and the Golden Dove tour.
PSF: I saw you at South by Southwest during the Kill Rock Stars showcase, and you were fronting a trio again—guitar, bass, drums—like you did in Helium. Do you feel that you've come full circle?
MT: Yeah, I feel like I'm part of a unit that's working pretty well as a band. I guess for a while I was tired of being in a loud rock band…. I feel like I've just really found some good people to play with. It sounds more similar to the Helium stuff since it's a bass, drums, and guitar.
PSF: Why did Helium disband? I know that right after Helium you did the solo albums and you've continued with different musicians, not under the Helium name. Why the different direction?
MT: Well, I started playing with different people I guess. (laughs) I couldn't call it Helium because there were two people and they weren't in the band anymore. It was a different band. Actually, it was solo projects for a while and now it's turned into more of a band.
PSF: What is it you look for when you're looking for musicians you want to play with?
MT: To be honest, I've never looked really hard for musicians. I'll just randomly meet people. I've never interviewed bandmates or anything like that. The reason I like playing with Chad and Devin is that they're just really, really good musicians and good players. There's not a lot of sloppiness going on.
PSF: You play keyboards as well as guitar. Do you consider yourself mostly a guitarist or a multi-instrumentalist?
MT: If I'm thinking about what instruments I play, I'm a guitar player. But I can play a bunch of other instruments to get sounds that I like. I play keyboards but not a schooled way. I think my main instrument that I'm able to play well is the guitar.
PSF: I think you're actually a very underrated guitarist. You have any guitar heroes?
MT: A guitar hero would probably have to be Jimi Hendrix. There are probably other people, but if I had any guitar hero, it would definitely have to be Hendrix.
PSF: Do you identify yourself as a feminist?
MT: Yeah, I would think so.
PSF: Since The Magic City, I know people have brought up prog rock. I wanted to know: Is Mary Timony a closet progressive rock fan?
MT: Yeah! I don't even know if I'm a closet progressive rock fan! One of the albums that's been one of my favorite albums of all time is Fragile, by Yes. I'm not super-into different kinds of progressive rock. But yeah, I do really enjoy that stuff. I enjoy the musicianship of it. I really like Rush. It's not like I listen to them all the time, but I do like them.
PSF: Were you always a fan of that kind of music, or was it something you got into later on?
MT: I always have been, ever since I starting getting into music.
PSF: On the other hand, there's a tongue-in-cheek aspect to your lyrics, which you don't find in a lot of progressive rock songs. Would you agree?
MT: Yeah. I don't think my vocals come from that type of music. I don't know where my vocals come from, to be honest. My vocal style is more influenced by Lou Reed. I wasn't born with the type of voice to really able to sing melodies that I like. It's not a voice I can really use; it's not very versatile.
PSF: What were your primary musical influences? Was there any artist or record that made you want to become a musician?
MT: Well, I started getting into music 'cause my brother was into music. He got me into the Kinks and Neil Young and stuff, and the Beatles. And then, growing up in D.C., in the ‘80s, there was this amazing music community here, so I went to a lot of shows and was really influenced by the energy of the hardcore scene.
PSF: Didn't one of your first bands, Autoclave, put out a record on Dischord? How did that come about?
MT: It was a pretty small community or scene, so everyone kind of knew each other and played at the same shows. And Ian expressed interest in wanting to put out our record.
PSF: You returned to Washington, DC after spending several years in Boston. What's the big difference between the music scenes in those cities?
MT: There is a big difference. I think D.C., it's an interesting town because nobody really moves here to get into the arts. So the people that into the arts aren't really here to make it big like in L.A. Even Boston has more of a feel of that. There's a lot of people who move here to work for the government or be lawyers or whatever. So it's a pretty square town. But I think the music community really sticks together. It's really small. It doesn't have a lot of bullshit, basically. There's not a lot of people who are trying to make it at any cost. People have a lot of integrity... It all comes out of the '80's hardcore scene that happened here. Boston has a lot of cool things going on and maybe a little bit more artsy. It didn't have quite as cohesive a scene as D.C.
PSF: When you write songs, which will come first, the music or lyrics?
MT: The music, usually.
PSF: Do you feel you have to be in a certain frame of mind when you write?
MT: Yeah. For example, I don't think I've written a song in a year. If I know I have to write songs for a record, I'll do it, but it's not something that I'm doing constantly. If I get into a creative phase, it's musical ideas and melodies that I think of, but literally, I will go through a spell of not being creative in that way for a whole year. It's not something that I'm always doing.
PSF: For your next project, do you think you'll work with Chad and Devin again?
MT: Yeah, definitely.
Mary Timony's favorite albums:
- George Harrison All Things Must Pass
- Richard Hell and the Voidoids Blank Generation
- Yes Fragile
Also see Mary Timony's official Web site
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