Punk-pop-prog-rrriot grrrl Mary Timony was born in Washington and based most of her early rock-out career choices in the Boston area. Yet to hear her tell it – along with her one-time drummer Shawn Devlin and former producer Adam Lasus – Timony’s record-making start happened in Philadelphia, as her ensemble Helium recorded its first EP, Pirate Prude, and first album, The Dirt of Love, for Matador at Lasus’ Studio Red in the early 1990s.
“I’m not just saying this because we’re talking about her, but Mary Timony and Helium were my favorites,” says Lasus, a Philadelphia expatriate in Los Angeles, but home for a spell recording the toast of New Hope, Dean Ween, for an upcoming project. “Helium launched my career beyond making records with local acts. She and the rest of Helium was my first big label band.”
This week, Timony – who has gone on to a solo career as well as fronting other acts such as Ex-Hex – presents the twisted alt-rock music of Helium at Boot & Saddle, along with re-releasing the entirety of the band’s catalog (remastered and on vinyl) through Matador. “It took me forever to find some of the initial masters, some things even on cassette and DAT [Digital Audio Tape] – remember that – but it was worth sifting through everything to find the raw materials,” says Lasus.
Born out of the late great Dumptruck (another Lasus-recorded band) with Devlin, Jason Hatfield (Juliana Hatfield’s brother), and Brian Dunton, Timony was quick to pick up the front-woman mantle with her femme-first lyrics, her slashing guitar style, her deconstructed twist on indie-rock, and a husky, monotone singing style not unlike Debbie Harry’s. “I was writing from a really personal place early on, at least the first two records,” says Timony of 1994 sessions that found Dutton gone and Polvo guitarist Ash Bowie joining in on bass (and becoming Timony’s boyfriend at that time).
“I remember Adam’s studio was called Studio Red, in the basement of this rowhouse on Second Street near South Street,” says Timony.
“It was right around the corner or down the street from this club we wound up playing with a big ‘D’ behind the stage,” says Devlin, recalling the back wall of the old J.C. Dobbs and its neon lettering.
“We loved recording that first EP with Adam and decided to do The Dirt of Luck with him too,” continues Timony. “By that time, however, when we came back down to Philly, Studio Red had moved into this huge space on Cherry Street and North Third. We stayed for a few months that summer. Ash and I ended up sleeping on the floor of the studio, while we stayed on to do overdubs in Philly, so I spent a lot of time on Cherry Street and walked around a lot in that neighborhood. Old City? Cherry Street was not that busy, so we all played badminton in the street. I remember eating a lot of Chinese food and cheesesteaks. We hung out at the Khyber Pass, too, when we had time, but mostly we just recorded for hours and hours.”
Unlike its more whimsical second EP of 1997 (No Guitars) and Helium’s second album (the Pet Sounds-meets-Close to the Edge-like The Magic City), both produced in North Carolina with Mitch Easter, Lasus’ albums with Timony’s trio were gutsy and raw without being inelegant.
“Elegant, yeah, that is a great way to think of her songwriting,” says Devlin. “I still can’t get her songs out of my head like 20 years later.”
Honing those torrid tones was Lasus’ job and pleasure. “I totally looked forward to having them come back after that first EP,” says the producer, who famously went on to produce albums from Yo La Tengo, Anders Parker and the first, best, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album 10 years after that debt Helium album.
Timony throws the compliment right back to Lasus and his level of inventiveness. “Adam is a real genius at getting sounds,” she says. “I feel very lucky to have had his help with getting the guitar sounds on the record. He really hooked that all up — all the tones were his work. Also, he was amazing to work with because he was willing to try new ideas and ways of recording, and really get to what the heart of the songs were about.”
Lasus breathes a happy sigh and says, “There was an undeniable, undefinable magic to Mary Timony’s songs and voice as Helium. She still has that in her solo work, but, Helium, man — they were something special.”