Interview: Mary Timony on reviving Helium and Boston’s ’90s alt-rock scene

Every Allston musician experiences the not-so-endearing grime of Rat City in their own personal way: Some in dank old PBR cans and pizza boxes in their flatmate’s room, others via the inevitable rodent infestations that gave the city its nickname.

But Mary Timony of Helium got the bona fide Allston experience when she returned home from tour to find the band’s practice space covered in a foot of fluffy white mold. “I remember we got home from this tour and there was the most insane kind of mold covering the entire practice space… it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” Timony says, laughing as she recalls the incident with a nostalgic fondness. Needless to say, no one makes it out of the Boston neighborhood unscathed.

To say Timony’s career has been all over the place would be a disservice to her varied projects over the past two decades; from starting Helium in 1992 to spurring on Wild Flag, Ex Hex, and her own solo project, the singer/songwriter has remained active in her own niche of toned-down alternative for more than 20 years. In the annals of ’90s rock history, she completes the holy trinity of female lead singers alongside Carrie Brownstein and Shirley Manson. But after focusing in on whip-smart rock outfit Ex Hex for the past few years, Timony’s turning back the clock and going on tour to play old Helium tunes in tangent with the Matador Records re-release of the trio’s two albums (1995’s The Dirt of Luck and 1997’s The Magic City) and the release of rarities compilation Ends With And.

The past 12 months have been especially kind to fans of ’90s Boston-based gems; Pixies, Belly, and Letters to Cleo have all toured, and Buffalo Tom held court last month at Boston Calling. The new Helium resurgence solidifies the trend as the ’90s creep back to reclaim the scene.

In advance of Timony’s Helium show this Saturday (June 10) at The Sinclair in Cambridge, Vanyaland phoned the musician to talk about selecting songs for the new compilation album, Helium’s beginnings in dingy Allston practice spaces, and releasing songs from her relatively unknown project Led Byrd.

Victoria Wasylak: You went to Boston University, and Helium of course formed in Boston. How do you feel about coming back to Boston to play the music of Helium?

Mary Timony: I’m looking forward to it. Boston is like a home to me. I was there from 1988 to 2003. I lived there for — I don’t even know how many years, a long time! So yeah, it feels pretty familiar.

Do you remember where you would play and rehearse in town originally?

Absolutely, yeah! When Helium first started — it was in 1992 — we practiced in a group house somewhere in Brighton in someone’s basement. And then after that we had this space in Lower Allston — there was this practice space, I’m sure it’s not there anymore, but I actually lived right down the street, I lived in this group house. It was kind of like this really shitty room, it was super junky. Then we ended up having a space at the Sound Museum. We actually used to share a space with a band and it flooded. I remember we got home from this tour and there was the most insane kind of mold covering the entire practice space. It was crazy! It was like this white fluffy cloud and it was a foot tall. It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.

There was another time I was in a different practice space in another Sound Museum — because there were three or four locations — and we had a dead pigeon come in through the ceiling of the practice space. It was like there was some kind of flooding in the gutter; it was so gross. I’m sure the Sound Museum is still going on there, but I don’t know.

Did you have to replace your gear when that [mold] happened?

You know, I don’t know what got damaged. [laughs] We probably just kind of washed it off and just went with it.

It was enough to leave a big imprint on your mind, apparently.

I don’t know why I’m telling you all the gross stories! [laughs] Practice spaces are always totally disgusting. I don’t know why — it just has to do with kids in their 20s and they’re always rented out and no one ever cleans the bathroom. People are just so gross. It goes along with rock and roll.

I mean, that’s the essence of Allston — they call it “Rock City” for a reason. It’s a pretty gnarly place, but that’s where the music happens.

I’m glad to know it’s still called rock city because it was when I lived there too. That’s cool — good!

It’s really interesting that you’re starting to play some Helium music again because Letters to Cleo also started playing music again. It’s like the renaissance of ’90s Boston music.

You know, what’s cool is that we actually practiced a few doors down from them in the Sound Museum, so that’s perfect! It was the Sound Museum location near the Big Dig — I bet that’s not there anymore, it’s probably all fancy down there now. That’s cool, I didn’t realize they were doing shows.

Why did you pick Helium in particular to play on this new tour? You have quite a few different projects you’ve worked on in the past 20 years.

I’ve been working for a while on getting these reissues of the two original Helium records together, and then Matador suggested the idea of releasing all the other stuff that didn’t come out on vinyl, basically, or harder to find, and making another LP. Luckily, it was a good time for them to re-release the vinyl. I’ve been noticing over the last 10 years or so, I’ll hear you can’t find Helium records on vinyl anymore because they’re kind of “out of print,” so I wanted to make sure they were available, and so now they’re coming out. I worked for probably a year with Matador, trying to find a bunch of tracks and compiling it all. It was a big project, it took a really long time actually. So the records are coming out and they’re being reissued on vinyl, so in order to support the record release, I’m doing shows.

I was reading a little about the process of you going through old tapes and rarities, things like that, and having to scour it all together. How did you pick what made it on to Ends With And?

Basically, I just tried to find everything that I could that we’d ever done. The first thing that’s on there is this EP called Pirate Prude, and that’s the first thing that Helium put out on Matador. We tried to go chronologically with the stuff. Some of it was not hard to find because it had come out on Matador. There are two LPs, the first LP is basically is just Matador EPs. The second LP is where I spent a really long time organizing over the past year because it was just stuff that I didn’t even have anymore. There were a few things that Helium did on 7-inches, and I don’t think I had one copy of the 7-inches, and then I spent a long time just going through demos and trying to find live recordings. I chose the stuff that I really liked, and most of the stuff that we actually released on a label is on there. I did leave out three or four tracks and then I later found out that some people that are fans were kinda pissed about it. [laughs] I felt really bad, I kind of fucked up! If I had known people would be pissed, I would have just left them on there. I’ve always felt really insecure about these songs because my voice sounds horrible, so it’s kind of embarrassing, I was hoping people would forget about them. That’s why I left them off.

You can’t please everyone all the time.

You can’t please them all! I mean seriously, if I knew people would be upset, I would have just left them on there. I just thought no one would notice.

The songs on Ends With And — are those only going to be on the record, or will you play any of them live on the new tour?

I don’t think we’re doing too much from the rarities one. Mostly the material we’re playing live is from the two albums. We might break something out — actually we might break out a track from the Pirate Prude EP, and maybe another one, but most of the stuff we’re doing is from the albums.

When you were going through the materials and deciding what was going to make it onto the compilation, could you remember any of the reasons why you didn’t want to release them “officially” to begin with?

It’s not that we didn’t want to release them, it’s that someone might have asked us to put a song on their compilation 7-inch and we’d write something really fast. There are demos [with] Adam Lasus that we recorded… and he saved them — I hadn’t heard them for 20 years, so that was cool.

There’s one demo that I found on a four-track tape that I had — actually two demos — and the rest of them on that one are songs that Ash [Bowie] and I did together, just the two of us, and we released it under a different name called Led Byrd. They really were like Helium tracks so I included those. Those are some of my favorites, the Led Byrd tracks, just because no one really ever heard them even at the time, so I’m really excited that they’re saved on the record now because I didn’t even have them anymore! It felt really good to save them in one place for posterity. In a way, they’re kind of my favorites — the Led Byrd ones — because they’re cool and we just did it really fast and forgot about them.

How many of the songs on the new compilation were written and recorded in Boston?

All of them were! I lived in Boston until 2003 so it was all happening in Boston. I lived in Cambridgeport, I lived in Allston, but actually most of the time I lived in Jamaica Plain. I actually lived in this apartment on Saint Peter Street in Jamaica Plain off Boylston. I spent many years there.

How often do you come here to visit? I know you live in D.C. most of the time.

Not that often, mostly when I’m playing. For the past 10 years, I’ve really only been there to play. I still have friends in Boston. I do miss it, I really do. It’s a cool town. I really miss Jamaica Plain, actually.

Would you say that’s your favorite part of the area?

I don’t know, I lived there for a long time. I really do miss it. I don’t know of the Milky Way is still there, but I used to live right down the street from the Milky Way. It’s a bowling alley and music venue. My friends had this really awesome arts space in Dudley Square for a long time and we practiced there — that’s definitely not there anymore. There’s a lot of art spaces that get shut down in Boston.

Ex Hex has been your most recent project — what’s next for that?

We are in the midst of writing for a new record, and we have some shows this summer. We’re not playing a ton of shows because we’re trying to focus on getting a record together, but we’re kind of halfway there. Hopefully we’ll record either in the fall or January. I don’t know when the new record is going to come out, but we’re working on it! I’m excited about it.

MARY TIMONY PLAYS HELIUM + NOVELLER :: Saturday, June 10 at The Sinclair, 52 Church St. in Cambridge, MA :: 6 p.m., 18-plus, $18 in advance and $20 day of show :: Advance tickets :: Bowery Boston event page :: Featured photo by James Smolka