Talking Technique with Mary Timony
Mary Timony has been lending her dynamic and melodic guitar riffs to the alternative/indie rock music scene since Dischord Records released the debut self-titled album by Autoclave in 1991.
Although the thought of Christina Billotte and Mary Timony sharing the stage is one I wish would never leave my imagination, I’m grateful for the groups that formed after the demise of Autoclave: Timony going on to form Helium and Billotte, Slant 6. While the evolution in Timony’s style seems obvious when following the timeline of her bands––Autoclave, Helium, Mary Timony (solo), Wild Flag, and now Ex Hex–– there’s no denying that each and every band depicted a side of Timony that was, and still is, hugely influential to a lot of people.
In March of 2013––six months before Wild Flag announced an unofficial break up and one and a half years before Ex Hex would play their second show at Shred Fest DC––we got the chance to talk with Timony about the evolution of her style, her songwriting process and how the now indie-rock icon was heavily influenced by classical guitar.
She Shreds: How’d you start playing guitar?
Mary Timony: I started out on viola when I was nine. I started playing guitar when I was 14 or something.
Did you take guitar lessons while you were growing up?
My brother taught me what he was learning, and I took a bunch of different lessons at first from random people. I didn’t really take guitar lessons seriously until I was a year older [than 14]. I tried out for this arts high school here in DC called Duke Ellington School for the Arts, and I went to that school for guitar. I started playing jazz and classical there for the last two years of high school.
Do you think that what you learned in high school affects the way you play now?
Oh yeah, totally! In my playing, everything is drawn from what I learned then. Almost everything. In some ways, I think I might have even been better, technically, when I was in college, because I practiced a lot.
You went to college for music?
I went for one year to a classical guitar program at Boston University. It wasn’t a good fit for me. There was this weird thing in my brain where it didn’t connect; the music that I liked and that my friends were doing didn’t connect with the things I was learning in school. I couldn’t figure out how to bridge the two, and I think that’s what made me stop studying. I had the realization that what I actually liked was being creative with music and not in an academic way.
How do you think classical guitar affected your technique?
It totally affected it. I studied classical music, and I love classical music. A lot of times I kind of want to go back to it. Although, I took lessons a few years ago and was like, “This is too weird!”But still,everything I learned comes from [classical guitar]. You learn technique. I am so glad I did that.
How has your style changed from Autoclave to Helium to Wild Flag?
Well, in Autoclave-and I’m not embarrassed to say it now, although before I would have been really embarrassed-I was kind of into those cheesy late ’80s metal virtuoso players like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. I thought they were cool! I like that stuff because it’s the most extreme technique. So, I was practicing a lot of scales and trying to get really good at my quasi-metal technique. This was before Autoclave, maybe in high school. I really feel like that translated into my playing in Autoclave, which was just a lot of melodic single note lines.
I went through this period after Autoclave where I kind of wanted to unlearn everything I’d ever learned and play really minimal stuff. I didn’t care about technique, I didn’t care about good equipment, I just had, like, a freak out. That’s kind of what was going on with Helium. I just wanted to play noise; I didn’t want anything to sound good. Then I got out of that and started focusing on song structure. That’s kind of my phase now.
What is your song-writing process like?
It’s almost always a struggle, and I have writer’s block almost all the time. I have zero confidence in myself, and it really sucks. I’m trying to get better at that, but it’s hard. I’ve been better lately at not beating my head against the wall and forcing myself to try to write. It helps to get out of town and go live life and not just force myself to be creative all the time. But really, all it is is sitting down with the guitar and hopefully I’ll think of some chords that are exciting.
Do you come up with an idea and build off of that, or do you just jam with yourself?
Lately I’ve been like, “I just wanna write pop songs!”I went through a big phase where I was writing music stream of consciousness-style, and I was really bad at editing stuff out. But I’ve gotten-especially from playing with Wild Flag- way better at editing my bad songs.
What are you working on solo-wise these days? What can we expect for the future?
These days, I have been writing and recording demos of songs in my home studio. I’ve been working on getting good sounds and just bought some fancy new microphones. I’m really focusing on getting some cool guitar tones, and I just also got a new Les Paul Special that I’m stoked about. I haven’t ever owned a guitar with p-90s, I’ve played with single-coil pickups forever, so it’s nice to be able to be growly and loud!
Read the entire interview and more photos with Mary Timony in the second issue of She Shreds Magazine.