BYT Interviews: Ex Hex
phil runco | Mar 5, 2014 | 9:05AM |

“I could never bring myself to stop playing in bands,” Mary Timony told online publication Rookie in November.  “I tried for two years before Wild Flag started, but I missed playing so much. Now I know I will always play, and I will never stop. It makes me feel human.”

This statement shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s heard Wild Flag’s 2011’s debut.  With Timony’s invocations to “come on and join our electric band” and her promise to “let the good times roll,” that album is the sound of someone – a lifer, a rock idol – recommitting to the simple joys of drums and guitars.  Timony said as much to the A.V. Club at the time of the album’s release: “I began to realize almost every song was about returning, maybe having lost music and returning to it and making the decision, ‘I can’t leave it, and I love it, and it’s my life.'”

But with Wild Flag drummer Janet Weiss confirming last year that the band had “run its course,” you had to wonder what Timony’s next move would be. The “supergroup” wasn’t just her most popular project – playing prime festival slots, selling out major venues – it was also her most straightforward.  The riffs were clean. The hooks were huge. Lyrically, she was dialing back fantastical elements for something more plainly communicative. Where did that leave her in the wake of the dreaded “indefinite hiatus?” What was the next chapter in her storied 24-year career?

The answer turns out to be Ex Hex, a new trio with drummer Laura Harris and bassist Betsy Wright. And the band’s “Hot and Cold” 7″ – out on Merge Records in a few weeks – pretty much finds Timony picking up where she left off. It’s an absolute blast: a succinct eight minutes of ass-kicking, hook-heavy songs that will serve ably as a calling card for the band in the lead-up to a forthcoming debut – much like that “Future Crimes”/”Glass Tambourine” 7″ did for Wild Flag a few years back.

BYT called Timony last week to talk about her new project.  The Glover Park resident was recovering from a cold, but in good spirits, as usual.

Ex Hex is conquering March, starting with Black Cat’s Backstage tonight. Tour stops include Baltimore’s Ottobar tomorrow, Brooklyn’s Glasslands on March 20, and the Lower East Side’s Mercury Lounge on March 21. The trio will also be appearing at Austin’s little known SXSW Festival.

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What’s Ex Hex‘s origin story?

I was jamming a bunch with Laura Harris and we were looking for bass players, and I heard that Betsy Wright was moving back to town and visiting. She’s an incredible musician – both of them are incredible musicians – and we got it together and it all kind of happened. It’s not an exciting story.

Had you intended to start a new band or just jam?

I was looking to start a band. I had a bunch of songs. Some were songs that I had written in Wild Flag and some were just around, and I wanted to start to playing them out, so I was trying to get a band together, I guess.

Why keep it to a trio?

It just seemed like the right thing for the songs that I had in the beginning, and now we’re writing songs together. Betsy is writing songs for the band. I don’t know – I just like the trio thing. I’ve done it so much. It’s easier to have less instruments. Everyone has way more of a job to do that way. When you get more instruments, it’s almost as if your focus becomes what you’re not playing. With three people, there’s a good balance. Everyone has a job to do and it works out.

Why did you pick the name Ex Hex – something you already called a solo record of yours?

Ok, so, I actually didn’t name it after that record. I think I liked those two words together originally, so I was like, “That would be a cool band name!” Then when we were trying to think about band names, I was like, “Well, what about this?” I mean, it’s really not a good story. [Laughs] It’s not very complicated. I just always thought it would be a good band name. It wasn’t named after the record at all. I think originally, I was like, “Maybe I should just choose this band name instead of calling it a solo record.” I just like the two words together.

You cite Sweeney Todd and Roxy Music songs as touchstones for the group.  What about glam rock appeals to you at this point in your career?

With this group of songs, I was thinking a lot about what music sounded like when I was in fourth or fifth grade and getting into songs on the radio. I was trying to write songs that would fit on Casey Kasem’s Top 40.

Betsy is also writing tunes for the band, but we seem to be on the same page of music. We’re approaching the band with a clear idea of what we want songs to sound like and what we’re referencing, rather than just making music and not knowing what it sounds like. Some bands that I’ve been in, you just focused on playing and what you were doing.  But we’re focused more on the product and the output. We keep recording and listening back. We can record in my basement, so we’ve been recording our practices and listening back, and then rearranging our songs, and then recording them again. Recording has been a big part of the songwriting.

You’ve said to expect a full-length is 2014. How far along are you?

Here’s our deal: We’re going on tour in March, and we’ve been working really hard this month finishing up all of the songs and getting ready for recording, because when we finish the tour the first week in April, we’re going to record with Mitch Easter in North Carolina. We want to knock out the record fast. If all goes as planned, it should be out in the fall. It’s possible that it might take longer, but we’re hoping to get it out.

What led you to Mitch Easter?

I’ve actually recorded with him before, when I was in this band Helium in the ‘90s. We recorded a few things with him. I’m also a huge fan of his music – I loved Let’s Active. He’s just a pretty insanely talented genius guy, and he’s the kind of guy who people always say they love recording with. And he built a new studio.  I’m really excited to record with him.

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Had you initially thought that some of these songs would go to Wild Flag?

A couple of them, yeah. Actually, one of the songs was a Wild Flag song, to be honest. [Laughs] We never recorded it, but I wrote all of the parts, so I think it’s ok. [Laughs] I actually told Janet [Weiss] about it, she was like, “It’s cool!” Wild Flag was typically completely collaborative, but that was one song that I wrote.

Actually, when I wrote it, I had thought, “I think I’ll use this song for another project,” and then I was like, “What the hell? I’ll show it to those guys and then maybe they’ll want to do it.” And then Wild Flag did perform it a little bit, but at that point I think we knew that we wouldn’t make another record, so I didn’t think it would ever be recorded by them.

Why was there a feeling that Wild Flag wouldn’t make another record?

Well, to be honest, I wasn’t sure, but Janet and Carrie [Brownstein] are really busy with other projects. I just knew that it was the sort of thing where they had a lot of other stuff going on.

Is there a sense that you’ve left the door open?

I don’t think it’s closed at all. If we wanted to do it, we’d do it. Carrie is just really busy with stuff, so I don’t think it’s happening anytime soon, but, sure, I would definitely do it again.

Even if Wild Flag never comes together again, what do you take away from your experience in that band?

Wild Flag was incredibly fun. I learned a lot from being in that band, like how to be a better songwriter. I started playing in standard tuning on my guitar again, which was kind of informed the direction of this band. I used to always play in a Drop D tuning, with the B string – the second string – being tuned down, which gives you chords that sound a little different. It gives you a lot of nice chords and stuff. But now I’m playing in standard tuning, so all of the chords are pretty normal, I guess. [Laughs] That came from my time in Wild Flag. It’s made me approach the guitar neck in a different way.

And I think that Janet is a really talented kind of producer. That was her role in the band. I was really trying to write songs for Wild Flag that would work for the band and she help me think of songs that were catchier or whatever. Some of these [Ex Hex] songs come out of that mainframe, for sure. They’re more poppy than stuff I was doing before Wild Flag.

I saw a recent interview where you discussed the music scene that you encountered growing up in DC. You mentioned the mohawks and shaved heads and ripped jeans of the audience, and how that appealed to you.  When you look out at your own audiences now, what do you see?

Oh my god, I don’t know! That’s a hard question! I’ve never been able to figure out if there’s a general kind of person that my music appeals to. I’m just glad that there are people there, honestly. I can’t figure them out, but I’m glad that they show up.

Ex Hex will be performing at Black Cat. What do you think when you see how that area has changed in recent years?

It’s pretty crazy, because that area was pretty dangerous. I remember going to visit my friend who lived on 12th Street, and it was just a really different neighborhood. My parents always thought I was crazy. I mean, they still don’t want to go the Black Cat! [Laughs] They’re still freaked out by the neighborhood. They have no idea that it’s become so different.

When I first started becoming familiar with that area, I was going to Dante’s, which was the restaurant that [Black Cat owner Dante Ferrando] owned before the Black Cat. It was kind of bombed out around there – kind of deserted. I don’t know if it was better or worse! It’s just what’s happening to city’s everywhere now.

The weirdest thing was when the Black Cat moved two doors down. I didn’t live in town, so I would always be so confused, because you would think you were going to the same club, but then it was totally different on the inside. It was really confusing. [Laughs] I liked the old Black Cat a lot, but I like the new Black Cat a lot. I’m just glad that Dante did what he did. It’s a great place and it represents DC to me in a lot of ways.

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You did some acting in a video for Mikal Cronin. What was the experience like?

That was really fun. I’m friends with Laura [Gallagher], the woman who directed the video. She did a Wild Flag video. I was going to be in Portland anyway, because I’m doing a project with Rebecca Cole from Wild Flag. We’ve just been writing songs over the past year. So I was there anyway, and she asked me to act in it. We did it over a weekend. It was actually really fun to act in a video that wasn’t my own, because I wasn’t worried about anything and just was an actor. It’s fun not having it represent you.

Laura’s great. She dees such a good job. She actually directed the video for “Hot and Cold”. It’ll be out once the 7″ is officially out.

Mikal’s a labelmate of yours – first as part of Wild Flag, and now for Ex Hex. How did you land on Merge? I saw you had initially put “Hot and Cold” online yourself, but then it disappeared.

I approach Mac [McCaughan] about it, and luckily, he wanted to put it out. And I actually did not release “Hot and Cold”! What happened was that I posted on my Twitter account that I had a new band and we were playing a show. And I had made a Souncloud page because I was sharing the song with some people, just privately, but I hadn’t made it private, because I didn’t think anyone cared. And then one of my friends on Facebook – this guy who’s a DJ in Boston – posted it online, and literally within five hours, it was on Spin. It was insane. I think people just get really excited about new bands and three days later nobody even remembers it. But it was completely out of control. I didn’t release it at all – it just happened to be on Soundcloud. Then I was like, “Ok, I guess I should make it private.”

From the outside, it seemed like savvy marketing.

I know! It’s crazy.