Ex Hex and Their New Work Hinges On Creativity and Trust
Ex Hex is making more than waves this year. They’re testing their own creativity with their new album.
Washington D.C. trio Ex Hex couldn’t have picked a better title for their 2014 debut album, Rips. The power trio—comprised of vocalist-guitarist and indie rock legend Mary Timony (Helium, Wild Flag), bassist-guitarist Betsy Wright (Bat Fangs), and drummer Laura Harris (Aquarium)— assembled a collection indebted to the Ramones and Def Leppard as much as each member’s own time-tested creativity. The band’s cohesion is an act of trust: “If somebody [has] a really strong opinion, everyone [gets] on board,” Timony says of their songwriting process. And you can hear that faith all over their adventurous second album, It’s Real, released in March via Merge Records
Like Rips, It’s Real was inspired by the group’s love of Mutt Lange and Heart, but was a more exploratory endeavor, resulting in a collection representative of everything the group likes to listen to. But they aren’t just polyglots when it comes to their sound influences—speaking to She Shreds, Timony and Wright recounted that the group was just as voracious when it came to gear. “At one point, we had literally 10 or 12 amplifiers lined up in the studio: Gemini, AMPEG, Orange Rockerverb, a Fender amp,” they explain, almost in unison. But it’s that curiosity and willingness to try new things that makes Ex Hex, well, rip.
She Shreds: It’s been almost five years since Rips. Why was now the time for a new record?
Mary Timony: We toured Rips so much, it was hard to get right back into writing songs. It took a little bit longer than we would have liked.
I’m glad you mentioned songwriting, Mary. In a lot of the press you did last year for the Helium reissues, you mentioned that being in that band forced you to unlearn a lot of traditional guitar techniques. Betsy, you are a guitarist who plays bass specifically in Ex Hex. How do you both refocus yourselves creatively when it comes to writing these power pop style songs?
Timony: We try to write songs that we want to listen to. It doesn’t sound that complicated but, to me, that’s actually one of the hardest things to do. The easiest thing to do, for me, is just pick up a guitar and feel my feelings.
Betsy Wright: You have to be critical and edit a lot. We would all come to a consensus about things that were up in the air. And usually, weirdly, we would all agree on things.
Timony: I’ve been in other groups where there’s a general sense of distrust. With this band, you trust that if somebody doesn’t like something, even if you do, you believe them.
I’d love to know more about the evaluation process, as well as the earlier phases of the Ex Hex songwriting process. Are you bringing things from home that you’ve demoed, or writing together live?
Wright: Mary or I would have either a seed or a fleshed out song and then we would bring it to the group: me, Mary, and Jonah Takagi, our collaborator and producer of the record. We would get together and jam on it—playing guitars, somebody would be playing drums. We’d switch instruments, record a demo and rearrange things, pick everything apart, move parts around and add parts. I had songs without lyrics in certain places, and Mary would come up with lyrics, which was really cool because I’ve never actually worked on songs like that before.
Timony: I try not to freak out about lyrics. I really freak out about writing the music because, to me, it’s harder.
Wright: I feel the opposite.
Timony: That’s why we’re a good match. Betsy comes up with super catchy melodies really easily. It all balances out.
What kind of guitars are you using? What ended up on the album?
Timony: Let’s see if we can list all of them… I have a guitar made by Saul Koll over in Portland. It’s the best-sounding guitar I’ve ever played. That’s on the album a lot. It just sounded great all the time.
Wright: I have a newer [Gibson] SG that we used a little. We also used a 2002 Gibson Flying V.
Timony: I found it so hard to play because the body shape is so weird.
Wright: It sounded good, though [laughs]. If I ever wanted to play it live, I’d have to really figure out how you’re supposed to do that. The body is so narrow.
Timony: I ended up using, finally, my Paul Reed Smith guitar. I’ve had it forever. It’s pretty embarrassing. I never play it live anymore, although I did at one point. We used it for some dive bomb stuff. I was pretty excited that it finally worked out that I got to use that thing.
Betsy, are you still using your 1978 Fender Mustang bass that you talked about with us last year?
Wright: Yeah, I love it. It reminds me of the Beach Boys. But I’m actually going to be playing guitar now when we tour. There are a lot of guitars on this record, a lot of layered stuff. There are actually a lot of guitar parts on the last record and when we play live we omit them because we’re only three people on stage. We’ve decided to bring a bass player on tour, so I’m going to play guitar.
Timony: There’s really a guitar focus in the band. We’re both playing on the record, so it made a lot more sense to have Betsy play guitar live. We can do so much more as a four-piece.
Wright: It’s kind of like a fun experiment, too. It’ll be fun to try this.
Mary, you’ve said before that Ex Hex is the most fun band you’ve ever been in, so it sounds like you’ll be adding another element of fun to your tour. It’s such a stressful time, so to speak, and if you have an outlet where you can express yourself and feel good, be with your friends, and do something that’s meaningful to you, that’s kind of ideal.
Wright: We’re not a political band, but having a voice and trying to spread positivity and give people some relief from their everyday lives—I feel good about that.
As with some of the writing, are there parts that are harder or maybe aren’t as fun?
Timony: Well, we made one version of the record that we threw out.
Wright: We tried a weird technique that we thought was going to make things sound really cool. We recorded everything isolated. We tried to do isolated drums and it was a really bad idea. One track was only the snare, one track was only the cymbals, and so on. It didn’t work.
Timony: It took a lot of time and effort and it sounded bad. We put so much work into it that we didn’t want to admit that it sounded shitty. Finally, we just were like, “You know what? This makes us feel very uncomfortable because it sounds so bad.” Then we had to start over.
What inspired you to record that way?
Wright: Jeff Lynne, Mutt Lange. I think we read that Jeff Lynne did that on Tom Petty’s records.
Throwing work out is so difficult and so painful. How did you cope?
Timony: It took a lot of time to record that way. Then Jonah spent hours and hours and hours trying to move things around and edit it and get it to sound good. You know when you’ve heard something a million times, and you can’t tell what it sounds like any more? Betsy and I hadn’t really heard it. He sent us some stuff and we were like, “Oh, this sounds kind of like a demo.” It was scary and it felt horrible. We spent a bunch of money and time on [it]. It was intense, but I’m glad we decided to do it.
Did you have a new relationship to any of your songs when you were doing it the second time around?
Wright: It just felt better. It was more fun because the drums were live and they sounded really good.
Outside of Mutt Lange and Jeff Lynne, were there any other inspirations for the album?
Wright: It’s such a mixture of music that we really love a whole lot. There are some things that sound sort of psychedelic. “Cosmic Cave” reminds me of an early Beatles song. But then you’ll have another song that has more of a Def Leppard feel. The last record was a little bit more uniform, more of a punk, Ramones sound.
Timony: What I like about this record is that we weren’t trying to force it. It was more like, “What do we have? What do we like?” The answer to, “What do we like?” was definitely late ’‘80s Heart, but we also had a bunch of songs that definitely didn’t fit into that. We also used this headphones amplifier called the Rockman. We read somewhere that Mutt Lange used it a lot on [the Def Leppard album] Hysteria. Tom Schultz from Boston invented it.
Wright: If you listen to the guitar sound on “More Than a Feeling,” it’s the same guitar sound on our song “Good Times” [laughs]. It’s just this little box you plug into and it goes straight into the computer.
Timony: And it’s got that great blend of chorus and distortion that’s so ’‘80s.
Wright: It’s so satisfying.