Want to become Riot Grrrl luminary, perennially underrated guitarist and American underground icon Mary Timony? Follow these steps:
Manage to make your parents do the nasty so you come kicking and screaming into this world in 1970, and make sure they’re living in Washington, D.C., when it happens. Start dressing weird, since the new-wave bands on MTV dress weird, which you’ll admit later “was a weird way to get into music.” Your friends at school will get you into Joy Division, the Cure and the Smiths.
By the time you’re old enough to go to shows, immerse yourself in the ongoing and soon-to-be-mythologized D.C. hardcore scene that will birth the likes of Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Youth Brigade. Rites of Spring and Beefeater will play the first hardcore show you attend. Go see Fugazi multiple times. Hang around for a bit, pick up a guitar in your early teens, and attend an arts high school for a couple of years.
The next logical step will be to start your own group. Call it Autoclave. Your timing needs to be impeccable, because Bikini Kill and Bratmobile and the Riot Grrrl movement are going to crash through D.C. in the next year. Recognize it as the reaction to the hyper-masculinity of hardcore that you’ve been craving. Become friends with the women in that scene.
Break up Autoclave within a year of forming the band, but not before releasing two EPs — on Ian MacKaye’s Dischord Records, naturally.
Work a lot of odd jobs: secretary, office temp, gardener, packager at a toy factory.
Meet the members of Helium while studying English at Boston University. They need a new singer, and hey, you can do that. Join the band and drop a couple of seven-inches, three EPs and two full-length records on Matador Records. Gain an audience that connects with the justified rage of your Riot Grrrl sensibilities, experimental guitar work and rubbed-raw production. Make enough of an impact that Beavis and Butt-head critique two of your music videos. Spend the better part of the ’90s in Helium, but decide you could probably release something under your own name, too.
Before the ’90s are over, link up with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and release an EP under the name the Spells. Make sure to include a delightfully bizarre lo-fi reimagining of the Who’s “I Can’t Explain." When the new millennium hits, release two records under your own name. Take three years off, then release two more solo records and another Spells EP. Further establish your trademark penchant for grim themes, modal melodies and alternative guitar tunings.
Only this time, don’t. Hit the wall. Stop recording and releasing music. When people ask you about this period later, tell them, “I got bored and depressed, and I was like, ‘This sucks.’ But I’m only happy when I’m doing music, so I had to go back to it.” Reconnect with Brownstein and form Wild Flag with her Sleater-Kinney bandmate Janet Weiss and the Minders’ Rebecca Cole. Release exactly one marvelous album with the group.
Suddenly, you’re not feeling so at home in the heavy emotion and bleakness that often defined your playing style and lyrics for the past twenty-odd years. You’re turning forty and you've been through the wringer. It’s a new decade, and you’re feeling a bit lighter. Call your new project Ex Hex and release a debut album called Rips that's chock-full of marvelously fun major-key riffage. It needs to be fun and smart enough to get that Best New Music designation from Pitchfork, mind you. Tour like your life depends on it — “about twice as much" as you need to. At the end, you will be “completely creatively burnt.”
But you’re not ready to move on from this project just yet. Get some rest. Start feeling better. Start writing.
Five years after dropping Rips, return with It’s Real. You spent the last two decades of the twentieth century in the worlds of alternative and hardcore, skipping over the excess and hairspray of that era’s arena rock. It’s time to make up for that on your own terms — maybe reclaiming cock rock in the process? — and use It’s Real to do so. Touchstones include Def Leppard’s Hysteria, mainly because you are obsessed with Mutt Lange’s maximalist and “phenomenal” production job. Find yourself less interested in the diaristic approach that’s defined the better part of your pre-Ex Hex career and drawn to music that is a delight to play. If you have done the previous steps correctly, the result will be windows-down, volume-up, balls-to-the-wall, devilishly fun, condescension-and-irony-and-cynicism-free capital-R rock music.
At this point, leave others to contemplate your legacy; you simply haven’t got the time. When music journalists ask you about exactly that, tell them, “I don’t try to see myself through other people’s eyes, because it’s going to make you weird if you do that. I don’t like being the kind of person who’s really proud and cultivates a story about my past. I’d rather just keep doing more stuff.”
Congratulations! You’re Mary Timony!