Wild Flag's Mary Timony, on Cleopatra, Feminism and Guitar Lessons 


The four rock goddesses who make up the band Wild Flag are nothing short of legend in indie lore. When The L finally caught up with one of them, Mary Timony (formerly of Helium), who shares lead vocals and guitar with Carrie Brownstein (formerly of Sleater-Kinney), she was sitting on an unglamorous, grassy highway divider in view of a strip mall in Champaign, Illinois, but eager to gush about the music, her bandmates and guitar students.

Before Wild Flag, you and Carrie Brownstein were in a band called The Spells, and you covered The Who's "Can't Explain."Both you and Carrie have cited classic rock as a major influence. How do you think that fits into the music that you're making with Wild Flag now? And what was it about bands back then that maybe bands now are lacking or unaware of?
I can't really make a judgment on all bands now. I mean, I grew up with that music, and that's probably why it influences me. Rock and roll in the 50s, 60s and 70s was just a newer art form and people were doing new things with it, really creative things. I feel like people haven't done new stuff since like, Sonic Youth or something. I think the computers and editing and sampling—that way of making music is actually kind of new, and people are doing creative stuff in terms of those instruments now. 

There's this interview with Kim Gordon from the late 80s up on YouTube where she talks about a guitar being an extension of a person. How's your relationship with your guitar these days? What keeps it fresh? What keeps it sustainable?
I think a lot of what's kept it interesting and new for me in the last five or six years has been that I've been teaching it, before this band, pretty much full time. So that's sort of allowed me to see the guitar in a new way. From playing three or four hours a day, so that I can do different things than I could do before. And also I had to think a lot about music and share my love of music with kids, which has been a really positive experience for me. I've gotten a lot out of it. And I actually really miss them when I'm on tour. I've been thinking a lot about my students.

What's the most gratifying thing about teaching? Do you have any specific examples of when you know you're really doing something right and they're really getting something out of it?
I know when they start practicing on their own and when they form their own bands that I'm doing something right. That's just so great. Actually, one of the most incredible things—my student, Shauli, I think he's in 7th grade now—he just started teaching.

I know! I'm so proud of him! He tried out for the jazz band at school and the teacher's so psyched to teach with him. I should find out what happened, actually. He just tried out for the national jazz band, like, for the whole country. I was like, "Holy shit, that's amazing."And it's not me—he's just so incredibly smart, this kid—and just goes online and learns all this stuff on his own, you know. He's so great. And he's got a band. They're really great. They're called The Union of Sgt. Teddy, and they're amazing. They write all their own tunes. They're so inspiring to me. 

That sounds like a much better guitar experience than I ever had. I remember my old guitar teacher used to eat hoagies during my lessons. That's so funny, because my old guitar teacher in high school used to eat hot dogs. That's so weird.

He'd say, "So, show me that thing you've been practicing,"and he'd open up a sandwich. And I'd be like, "You're not even listening!”
[laughs] Really? That's horrible. I'm sorry. That's so funny.

I also wanted to ask about the group dynamic. You have four talented women working together who have been at this for a while. Do you find yourself taking on a particular role? Does everyone kind of have a role in facilitating the creative process? Is one person, I don't know, the arbiter? 
Janet is not only an incredible drummer, she's also a really creative and really talented arranger. She's really good at knowing how to arrange parts of songs and makes them work, so that the song really develops. That's sort of her role. And when we're fumbling, she really arranges everything. People will bring in parts, and we all talk about what's working, what's not working. And Carrie is just so talented. She's just got this raw energy, and all of the songs she writes have it. And all of the songs she brings in that we're working on are super catchy, and that's great. Rebecca's, technically, the best keyboard player I've ever seen. Like, she can just do anything on the keyboard. And another thing that's amazing about her is that she doesn't have a problem just doing something really really simple, but she can pretty much play anything on that organ. It's pretty inspiring. 
In terms of writing the songs, we've done it in a bunch of different ways. One person will bring in chord progressions and lyrics and a melody, and we've also written songs when we're all together in a room. Someone will be like, "Hey! What about these two notes?"and then we'll jam on that and take it from there, just completely collaboratively. It works both ways. 

How do you keep each other sane? What is it about that group dynamic that makes it work in just kind of a... mental health way?
I think what makes it work is that we just love doing it so much. It's really so much fun. We love playing shows and, you know, tour's pretty fun. Parts of it are really hard, like driving eight hours a day and, I mean, this bitch of a motel we're staying at right now. I'm actually sitting on a highway, on the grass right now, staring at a—what is that across the street—it's like a strip mall I guess, a Sears. So, that's not so fun. But it is totally, totally more than worth it, because we just love playing together. 

What's the secret to a really satisfying guitar solo or riff? Like, the noodling on "Short Version"gives me shivers in a good way every time I listen to it. You're tapping in that one.
Oh, thanks. Yeah, I love tapping. That's another thing. I just feel like new techniques make you think of new ideas. It's been really interesting coming to play with this band because I've gone back to standard tuning, which I haven't done for a long time in my own music at all. At all, at all. I don't even know the last song I wrote on my own in standard tuning. But everyone has such great ideas in this band that, I don't know, I don't really feel that challenge with it. Because I don't think so much around a fretboard as I do in my head a little bit more thinking about the melodies and then finding them on a guitar.

Do you feel you have to be in a certain emotional state to write a good song? And if so, what's that like?
I don't know. It's so tricky. Yeah, it's kind of like this mystery to me, where good ideas come from. I wish I could control it. The last year or so, I feel like I've been in this terrible creative block.

Yeah, I always feel that way. It's so rare for me, personally, to not feel like I have a creative block. I'm always worried about it. And I'm always trying to come up with ideas and hating all of them. Sometimes I do get into a mode where I'm like, "Oh, that one's going to be okay, and that one's going to be okay,"but that's rare for me. 
How do you get out of that block? Can you?
For me it helps to read a lot, actually. That's the one thing I've noticed really helps me get over it, so I try to do that.

What are you reading these days?
Lately I've been reading about Cleopatra. I pretty much can read almost anything. It just allows me the time to not be doing stuff that blocks me, like paying my bills and wondering how I'm going to make money. All those sort of day to day things put my brain in a different place. I guess just having downtime really helps. Time to daydream and feed the part of my brain that is creative.

What do you make of the phenomenon status attributed to Wild Flag and "all-girl bands”? The Atlantic called Wild Flag the first all-female supergroup. What was your reaction to that?
Oh god, I don't know. I don't have much to say on it. Like, I'm really excited to playing with this band, to be a member of this band, and we do happen to be all women, it's true. But they also are my favorite musicians. So, I don't think I was excited to join this band on the outset because they were all women. It was more because they were like my favorite musicians.
I am a feminist, and you know, women should be treated fairly and all that stuff, but I guess I'm just not—I guess I just don't want to focus on it because it doesn't make me excited. I like playing music. I like playing music with these people. They're women, I'm a woman. And I don't know. That's about as far as it goes at this point, for me.

I think, ultimately, that being in this band and saying "they're my favorite musicians"is probably the best thing you could kind of unconsciously do for feminism. But inequalities do still exist. I mean, what hurdles do you think still exist for female musicians today?
Really the hurdles that are keeping anyone back are just learning how to play an instrument, and leading other people to play instruments. So, it might be, just something that your parents don't encourage you as much to do.. There are so many girl rock camps now that are really great. And I would guess, I would hope, that that's going to make everything more equal, when these girls grow up. 
There are just cultural hurdles. The way people treat their children, the way they're treated in school, and you know, what you see your friends doing as a kid. But yeah, that's where you learn and you learn what you're gonna do with your life. But these are huge questions. I haven't had enough coffee—I'm sorry.

No, it's okay!
Someone should write a book about it, I don't know.

What's one recent news item that's made you angry and one recent news item that's restored your faith in humanity?
I can say the whole Rick Perry thing. That was awful and made me really angry. Actually, I was listening to this crazy, crazy preacher, or, I talked with an apostle I guess, from the new Apostolic Revelation church? Church of revelations or something? And they basically back Perry in the belief that the church should take over the government and they should take over education. They should take over art in this country and that basically everyone in the country should be converted to their religion, so that was fucked up. That was one news item that made me really angry, I guess. Um, I don't know the one that restored my faith in humanity.

What about—what's a piece of music that you've been listening to recently that's just been really good?
Oh, I love the band that we're playing with, Yellowfever.

I've seen them play a couple of times here in Brooklyn and—she is insane. Her voice is crazy. 
I know. They're my favorite. Their songs are so good. The drummer is just crazy, like playing all these different drumbeats and playing basslines at the same time, it's insane. It blows my mind.

What does the future of Wild Flag sound and look like?
I feel like with every song we write we're getting to figure out what works better and better, and what doesn't work. in the future—what does it look and sound like? I think we're going to keep rocking out, to be honest. And, I could say more in the same vein, probably. I don't think we're going to have any gigantic style change with this band. It's not like we're going to suddenly make a funk record or something. That is definitely not happening. Our second record is going to sound pretty similar.


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