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Interview with Wild Flag’s Mary Timony

September 30, 2011

From left: Brownstein, Cole, Weiss and Timony. Photo by John Clark

Dana had a chance to interview Girl Germs favorite–and pretty much her idol–Mary Timony this week for METRO magazine. Timony’s band Wild Flag, which also features member of Sleater-Kinney and the Minders, performs in Minneapolis Monday, Oct. 3. Read the article below or on the METRO site.

Before the band so much as released a single, Wild Flag was the talk of the indie-rock world. To many nostalgic fans romanticizing the members’ ‘90s heydays, the lineup was nothing short of a dream come true: Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Excuse 17, Portlandia), Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks), Rebecca Cole (The Minders) and Mary Timony (Helium, Autoclave, Soft Power and a prolific solo career).

Sold-out shows and jam-packed SXSW festival showcases only added to the excitement over this collaboration (which started when Brownstein, Weiss and Cole composed music for a documentary) and—to no one’s surprise, really—the band’s first album turned out to be much greater than the sum of its parts. METRO recently caught up with singer/guitarist Timony, a veteran solo performer who broke ground with her band Helium in the ‘90s, about Wild Flag’s inception and the band’s upcoming tour, which kicks off Oct. 3 at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis.

Girl Germs: With Wild Flag getting so much buzz before anyone had heard the songs and expectations being so high, was there a lot of pressure?

Mary Timony: Yeah, it was a little nerve wracking. Basically what happened is, after we started writing songs, we decided to play a lot of shows to hone the songs, rather than just recording a record right away. I guess Carrie and Janet kind of had the understanding that there would be people interested [laughs]. I kind of forgot that…I was just kind of shocked at how much interest there was. I hadn’t been in a band, you know, that people have been interested in like that in…maybe ever. It was kind of crazy. So I was really, really nervous to play the first show… people put stuff on YouTube, so we knew it would be…someone was going to be there with a video camera. But I also feel incredibly lucky that people are interested in it, so it was really awesome too.

So you weren’t really prepared for the reaction you’ve gotten?

Maybe, partly. But I’d just forgotten—I mean I haven’t been playing in a band for so long, that I was sort of used to the way solo records worked. I was lucky if there were 70 people in the audience.  It’s really weird to go from that to having 500 people there.

How did you initially meet Carrie, Janet and Rebecca?

I met Carrie and Janet from touring with them [in Europe] when I was in Helium—I think it was 1996 or 97. It was a really fun tour and we just became pretty good friends and kept in touch after that. Rebecca—I liked the Minders a lot, but had never met her before. But [The Minders] also played with Sleater-Kinney a lot.

What do you think it was about you musically that made them ask you to join the band?

I don’t know…I had collaborated with Carrie before [Timony and Brownstein’s side project, The Spells released an EP in 1999], so we had a thing going. And they wanted another singer-guitar player, so…I’m just lucky they asked me!

Has it been weird not being the only singer and guitarist in a band and sharing those responsibilities?

It’s been so great. It’s awesome because it’s really hard to sing, for me. I’m not a great singer, I’m a much better guitar player than I am a singer. So it’s really nice to just be able to think about what I’m doing on guitar and not have to sing the whole time. It just makes it so much more fun to play a show. I love it.

With you still living in Washington, DC is it hard, logistically, to be in a band with Portland-based musicians?

That’s the hardest thing is that I don’t live [in Portland]. So I’ve been traveling out here pretty often, actually. That’s definitely a challenge. Now that we’re touring so much it doesn’t really make that big of a difference. It was hard when we were first getting things together—and expensive, for me for a little while, and then the band started making money [laughs] and pays for the plane tickets now.

Timony in Wild Flag's "Romance" video.

Carrie has said in interviews that, at first, Wild Flag was on a test run, just seeing where it would go. What was the moment where you saw this being a feasible, long-term project?

When we recorded our demos in the practice space and they sounded good and they were all really excited about them—for me that was when I knew. I like recording music and listening back; it’s hard for me to know in the moment what’s going on. Probably listening back to those songs was when I started to get started to get really excited, to be honest. It was hard because Janet was paying in a couple different bands, so we weren’t sure if she was going to be touring a bunch. But it all worked out.

She’s definitely a busy lady—you all are.

Yeah, she likes to keep busy. She’s a powerhouse; it’s really amazing.

This is an aside, but I’ve been wondering about it for a really long time. How did the whole Team Sleep thing happen [Timony guested on an album by Deftones frontman Chino Moreno’s side project in 2005]? I feel like that was odd…

Random? [Laughs]. I don’t know, I mean Chino contacted me through Matador and he just sent me a file on the computer and I just recorded something.

Were you familiar with Deftones at all?

Nope. Maybe a little bit.

It’s cool that it happened, but it did seem a little…I guess the right word is random, as you said.

Um, yeah. I hear you.

Carrie has mentioned in interviews that she thinks you’re taking more risks and having more fun onstage than with your solo work. Do you think that’s true?

It’s so great to play shows with all three of these musicians. They’re just amazing live performers, so that kind of rubs off on me. I think it’s really awesome not to have to sing the whole time, so that frees me up. I think we just have a chemistry that works pretty well, and I just really enjoy myself while we’re playing.

Have you fallen onstage yet like Carrie?

[Laughs] She did! And some guy put it up on YouTube. It’s so rude that they did that. I’m sure I have, I don’t know. It’s usually pretty messy up there. You never know what’s going to happen. I’ve knocked into Rebecca’s keyboard many times. Good thing I haven’t knocked it over yet. I try to stay away from it but it’s hard.

Helium is considered a relatively underground band—depending of course on what circle you’re in—but do you see Helium fans coming out of the woodwork now that you’re doing this project?

No, no. The awesome thing for me [with Wild Flag] is reading [that] people liked Helium. We really just didn’t tour enough. So it’s been really nice to see that people liked that band.

Is Wild Flag helping people who only knew about Sleater-Kinney to discover Helium, or vice versa?

That would be cool. I don’t think vice versa really, because Sleater-Kinney was much, much more popular. But that would be a great thing to come out of…it’s cool to see that people liked the band. It makes me happy.

How did you decide to go about recording everything live except for the vocals?

We really wanted to have the sound be kind of like…maybe the way bands would have recorded in the ‘60s or ‘70s. We didn’t want it to sound overproduced. We basically wanted it to sound like we went in the studio, played everything…the way people used to record. I’ve worked at home on my computer so much, I’m used to being able to edit anything, fix stuff. It was really challenging, but rewarding because all the live energy is totally captured that way.

You’ve covered some classic rock songs on tour. What’s been your favorite?

My favorite is the Patti Smith song. It just works really well with the band. And Carrie completely gets so into it and it’s really fun. I never know what’s going to happen or where she’s going to end up on the stage. It’s really fun to play that one.

You’ve said before that you’ve never really made music that is similar to music you personally like. Do you think Wild Flag falls into that category now?

I think [that was in reference to] psychedelic or ‘60s music. I was saying that maybe our influences show in the music we’re writing. I think with my own music, I haven’t really made that happen as much in the past. But this band, that definitely comes through. I don’t know why. It just does. So it’s good—that means I like listening to our music [laughs]. 

In that case, maybe you don’t want to overthink it.

Yeah, I don’t want to think about it too much, probably [laughs].

Wild Flag performs Monday, Oct. 3 at the Varsity Theater, 1308 4th Street Southeast, Mpls. Details here.


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