MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Helium’s “The Magic City”

The Making Of Helium’s The Magic City

By A.D. Amorosi

To hear Washington, D.C.-born Mary Timony tell it, she could’ve easily wound up a viola player or classical guitarist. Instead, she wound up becoming the deviously clever punk-feminist writer and surrealistic prog-pop icon of Helium and, in particular, the band’s finale and masterwork, 1997’s The Magic City.

“My parents had that 1950s mentality where all they listened to was classical, and my brother is this super-great, diverse musician and writer—his hands fly like Stanley Jordan—so that level of musicality was definitely a thing for me,” says Timony. “Then I saw a Fugazi show in our hometown of Washington, and everything changed. I moved to Boston soon after that in 1989 and never saw them again, but Fugazi left a real mark on me: their energy, their lyrics, the whole Dischord thing. It was really the start of a whole social network for me. I was an outsider and my brain was confused by all I had taken in, but I was psyched.”

Timony could make hard-edged music, even if nothing she did sounded quite as blunt or furious as Fugazi. In 1990, she co-founded Autoclave, a group whose music was released on Dischord but sounded more complicated than contemporaneous punk or riot grrrl. Partly due to Timony being in school at Boston University and the band being located in D.C., Autoclave was short-lived. Timony recalls that there were few women on the DIY punk scene when Helium started in the summer of 1992.

“Back then, there was nothing but guys, these angry little punk dudes,” she says with a laugh.

So she navigated the Boston scene, dated Juliana Hatfield’s brother Jason (who had a band, Chupa, with Mary Lou Lord) and joined Chupa for a nanosecond when Lord left.

“We knew Mary Lou Lord, a busker in these parts at that point, and started a side thing with her and Hatfield,” says drummer Shawn Devlin. “But Mary Lou really wasn’t used to singing with a band, you know, so Jason says, ‘Well, there’s this other Mary that I know … ’”

When Hatfield left Chupa, bassist Brian Dunton said, “Hey, let’s play your songs, Timony.”

“I was neither confident nor motivated enough to do it myself, so that’s how Helium started,” says Timony.

Dunton became Helium’s bassist/manager, started a label to release debut seven-inch “The American Jean” in 1992 and, eventually, got under Timony’s skin. (“Brian being our bassist and manager made Mary real uncomfortable,” says Devlin.) Not long after Devlin joined, the band played several party gigs and signed to the Matador label.

“I was writing from a really personal place early on, at least on the first two records,” says Timony. “There was nothing that I was consciously being influenced by, nothing that I wanted to sound or seem like, though looking back at it all now, sonically, the frequencies of gangsta rap turned me on.”

Timony credits the low-slung production techniques of Dr. Dre and the maple-syrup bass lines of Snoop Dogg as something that caught her ear: “Super-low to super-high stuff. (Producer) Adam Lasus and I loved that stuff. And video-game music. That was huge with me. Stuff like Sonic The Hedgehog.”

Timony also mentions that topics and issues from her women’s studies classes at college would sometimes play out in her song lyrics.

“I wasn’t writing from an angry place in general unless it affected me deeply and personally,” she says. “Even though I was around what became the riot grrrl stuff of its time, that wasn’t the music I was making, either. I think it sounds like an alien coming down to Earth and looking at issues. A Cindy Sherman thing, acting out different roles.”

“I got to Mary very early on, and I have to say that everything she did was so spot-on and inventive,” says Lasus, who recorded two Helium releases: 1994’s Pirate Prude EP and 1995’s The Dirt Of Luck. (He currently lives in Los Angeles but spoke to MAGNET from New Hope, Pa., where he’s recording a Dean Ween album.) “I’m not just saying this because we’re talking about her: Helium was my favorite band at that point.”

After the dazzling-but-dark Pirate Prude and the feminist, spacious The Dirt Of Luck, Timony embarked on something much different from Helium’s uncomfortable, unconfident start. In 1995, Dunton dropped out of the band and Polvo’s Ash Bowie (also Timony’s boyfriend at the time) joined as bassist and helped usher in an ambitious change of course.

The Magic City is abstract yet contagious, cheerful yet caustic, and more impressionistic than Helium’s early work. The album is a Pet Sounds chamber-pop-meets-progressive-rock indie masterpiece, created long before any lo-fi-loving cretin would ever admit to loving Yes’ Close To The Edge, Genesis’ Nursery Cryme or watching Keith Emerson throw daggers into his eight-foot-high synthesizer. At a time when mumbling vocals, loud guitars and grunge machismo were all the rage, Timony’s freaky fable lyrics—even the fussy melodies and arrangements—were thoroughly complex and as overwrought as anything Brian Wilson and Phil Spector could dream up.

“I love that fucking album, and Helium is the best band I’ve ever fucking been in through my life,” says Devlin. “Some of her drum part ideas on The Magic City made me cry, because they were so labored. She knew drums because she played drums, too. I mean, I did my part over and over, then looped it four times over. And that’s how we started the sessions, which made the whole thing crazy. Plus, Ash and Mary were a couple by that time. I felt like a joke. They’re in the bedroom having sex, and I had to hang out by myself. I hung out with the guy selling merch.”

Some of Timony’s inspiration for The Magic City stems from her time with Shudder To Think guitarist Nathan Larson and his side band with violinist Joan Wasser, Mind Science Of The Mind. Timony played guitar and keyboards on the fantastical and Bowie-esque 1996 album Mind Science Of The Mind.

“I knew Nathan from high school, he dated a girlfriend of mine,” says Timony. “We were buds. He came to visit Joan—who was another pal of mine—and me in Boston, and we jammed. That was a strange record all around. Jeff Buckley was in the band for a minute. He played bass on that tour. Weird, right?”

Timony’s headspace going into The Magic City was also one of music-biz burnout. After The Dirt Of Luck, she moved to North Carolina and took a series of temp jobs. One such gig had her placing stickers on VHS tapes at a video duplication warehouse.

“Real mindless stuff,” she says. “I mean, Helium could’ve been on tour, but we didn’t feel like it. We never toured enough. I got sick of indie rock and tired of hearing distorted guitars, which is funny considering that that was what Dirt Of Luck was. I just wanted to run away from all that.”

She goes through these phases in her life even now: burned out on guitars, not feeling like touring.

“I’m probably lazier than I should be,” she says with a laugh.

Another way that Timony retreated from the indie-rock grind was listening to classic rock: King Crimson, Yes, Black Sabbath, the Zombies. Her auditory diet was odd for its time, as bloated, complex rockers in the prog or dark metal spectrum were foreign to the average indie kid.

“Nobody was really listening to prog rock back then,” she says. “Not in our scene. So what came out of my listening to those records was that, ‘Here’s Helium doing this weird thing.’ A lot of what I did then, I think, stemmed from me retreating—a real stock reaction of mine to what was considered cool or even a reaction to being a successful musician. That in and of itself is scary and tiring.”

Listening to prog rock may explain Magic City songs such as “Lullaby Of The Moths,” “Aging Astronauts” and the soulful, trippy “Medieval People.” But it doesn’t quite account for Timony’s playful, brooding fairy-tale lyrics on the album. Was Timony the sort to grow up with bedtime fables?

“That goes back to the whole retreating thing, my childhood, listening to my parents’ classical records, playing the viola,” she says. “I definitely went into my brain for The Magic City, back into my memory banks.”

The other thing that Timony recalls about The Magic City and the change in writing duties after The Dirt Of Luck is how things grew more collaborative between her and the rest of Helium. Ash Bowie, in particular, made an impact on the album.

“There’s much more of his input, us just jamming and seeing what came out of it,” says Timony. “Ash was totally supportive, pushing me in that direction—a total influence. In the middle of ‘Medieval People’ there’s this cool bomb-drop sound, an explosion sound just made by him going ‘pow’ into a microphone with the reverb turned way up. Then there’s his bass on ‘Walk Away.’ That’s where he amped up the feedback. Pretty cool. Anything to be way more out there. He’s a genius; incredible ideas, very different. Totally bizarre, but super poppy and engaging. I wish he was out there doing stuff, but he’s got a kid, a dog, a family.”

Along with having her mind blown, Timony wonders out loud if it was hard for bassist Bowie to be in her band (“As it was mine,” she says) and be a support person rather than having his own thing. Yet Bowie would go on to be a major part of Timony’s equally spaced-out, lullaby-like 2000 solo album Mountains, and he created one solo recording, Yesterday … And Tomorrow’s Shells, a collection of four-track home recordings under the name Libraness.

“I think I had something to do with the shift,” says Bowie matter-of-factly. “Helium’s sound became busier after I got into the group, for better or worse. I think the band became more creative and musically interesting over the years, but the earlier material had an immediacy and simplicity that I probably would appreciate more now … Helium generally had most of the arrangements worked out prior to recording, but would spend some time trying out various overdubs. From what I remember, most of the songs evolved during lengthy jam sessions and routine band practices. Pretty typical approach.”

Just as telling, at that point, was Timony’s move from the blunt, sharp safety of Philadelphia-based producer Lasus to the South’s whimsical jangle-pop overlord Mitch Easter for The Magic City.

“Adam is so talented and so driven and knows what’s just right,” says Timony. “We had an aesthetic on The Dirt Of Luck and wanted it to be more extreme, but he helped us bring it to a point with these really cool guitar sounds. That record could not have happened without him.”

Still, Helium knew about Easter’s reputation for the dreamlike and had heard that his Fidelitorium studio in Kernersville, N.C., was like a playground of unusual sounds and vintage instruments (harpsichords, sitars, vibraphones, Mellotrons), the likes of which fit in with Timony’s prog-classical bent.

“That’s what guided us to Mitch, who was awesome,” she says. “Our albums are influenced by our producers and where we recorded and what instruments they had lying around. Easter’s place really was The Magic City. I got a lot of use out of that Chamberlin of his.”

Preceded by the weeklong recording session with Easter for the No Guitars EP, The Magic City took its time to marinate. Timony admits it was not the easiest album to get onto three-quarter-inch tape.

“There were casualties,” she says, giggling. “I made lots of mistakes and wish I could go back and re-do a lot of it—so much for your favorite album. Maybe I should not have made 10 guitar tracks on ‘Aging Astronauts,’ or don’t play all those keyboards on ‘Leon’s Space Song.’”

Devlin jokes about the complexity and complication of many a Timony Magic City track with a pragmatic laugh.

“Some of it was wack, but I could always find something tasty to put on any song,” he says.

In the end, The Magic City stands as a wall-of-sound, baroque classic worthy of Pet Sounds and Odessey And Oracle status.

“I kept pushing Mitch to add more tracks, which he had no problem doing,” says Timony. “He loved topping it off.”

Timony recalls a then-rare recording trick, which was a no-no on ’90s indie-rock records: taking drum tracks, throwing them into Pro Tools with a new, clipped edit, then dumping it back onto the tape.

“That was pretty jazzy, probably done all the time on big rock records then,” she says. “We just wanted more sounds and then some more. If it was an ordeal, we went for it. We spent a lot of time tracking that album. Maybe if we had practiced more … ” she trails off, giggling. “I think that now I practice my bands until they’re tight, but that just wasn’t my thing back then.”

So Helium was lazy?

“No, it was me,” she says. “We didn’t get super anal about what BPM was this, what transitions did we make or about taking a week off, but it was mostly me.”

Another aspect of The Magic City that Timony loves and values as opposed to any other work in her catalog is how each tune sounded different from the one before it.

“Each track was its own little thing,” she says. “That made it listenable and lasting; timeless in that you can never get sick of one sound or vibe.”

She stops to mention how Magic City’s opening track, “Vibration,” and “Walk Away” are still favorite songs that she couldn’t wait to play live again on this spring’s Mary Timony Plays Helium tour and how “Cosmic Rays” and “Revolution Of Hearts, Pt. 1 & 2” feature a Chamberlin and rainbow arrangements that never fail to amaze her.

“It’s a weird record,” says Timony. “No, really. Every song is its own little story. I’m sure it confused everyone when it first came out; that it was even uncool. Even Matador admitted that it was a record that no one would get at the time—which they didn’t—but totally would in the future. It’s more normal now, which is why it connects, but then, it was weird. Not what was going on at the time. Not real weird. Just … weird.”

The Magic City was so weird that Helium splintered afterward. Timony recorded her first solo album, 2000’s Mountains (with Tortoise drummer/vibraphonist John McEntire producing), which sounded more like a logical chamber-pop predecessor to what came immediately before it.

“By that point, after The Magic City, I just wanted to read books and do my own thing, while Ash had pretty much had enough of that rock bullshit,” says Timony. “Plus, we were a couple and broke up around then. We both retreated from the real world. The Magic City was the start of that retreat.”

Now that Timony and Matador are celebrating Helium with the band’s remastered catalog on reissued vinyl and CD, and with a full disc of rarities and demos (Ends With And), she’s ready to go back into the world she retreated from 20 years ago. Devlin is not so keen on the fact that he isn’t part of Helium 2.0, as Timony wants to try out the old material in smaller venues with her name above the title before committing to something grander.

“I kept telling Mary, ‘We could do it without Ash, that I’m totally ready,’” says Devlin.

Timony—who’s since recorded as Ex Hex and with members of Sleater-Kinney as Wild Flag—says she thought a tour would be odd with just her and Devlin playing Helium tunes without the elusive Bowie.

“He’s a family guy now; he’s not coming near us,” she says. “It’s been a fun project, even though finding the master tapes wasn’t so easy. That was an intense treasure hunt. Learning the songs, however, for the tour—Magic City, in particular—has been one really cool treasure chest to go through.”