At the heart of this mini-movement was Mary Timony, fresh out of her time in much-lauded ’90s indie rock act Helium, who released her first solo album, “Mountains,” in the spring of 2000 to a less-than-stellar reception.
“Mountains” was a sonic left-turn from Helium’s swan song, 1997’s “The Magic City,” a big studio rock record thick with layers of synthesized strings and guitar overdubs. In contrast, “Mountains” was spare and skeletal. Timony says she was tired of being in the music business and “was really focused on my inner world. The whole thing was basically like a diary.”
This year’s reissue of “Mountains” is an expanded edition that includes alternate versions of songs and an orchestrated version of the record’s bleak centerpiece, “Valley of 1,000 Perfumes” — which Timony, speaking by phone from her Washington home and no relation to the author of this article, calls “the saddest song I’ve ever written. I had to stop performing it because I was having these things where I started crying onstage.”
As a raw narrative of female pain, the deeply personal “Mountains” was the emotional progeny of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” but aesthetically it was closer to the intersection of cerebral prog and traditional British ballads than anything in indie rock. Timony augmented her electric guitar and piano-driven compositions with ancient-sounding instrumentation such as bells, viola and flutes, and wrote lyrics packed with fairy tale imagery that cast the artist’s internal struggles with depression as epic battles waged under poison moons in grim valleys ringed by the rising mountains of the title. Unable to tour in support of the rerelease due to the pandemic, Timony will present “Live at St. Mark’s,” a streamed concert filmed in D.C. that will be available for 24 hours March 4.
While occult themes are common in genres such as hard rock and metal, the indie rock world at the time was far less open-minded. Genre distinctions were still very much in force, and while “indie” could mean anything from the puckish indie pop of Belle and Sebastian on the softer end to the righteous post-riot grrl rage of Sleater-Kinney on the other, it definitely didn’t mean Renaissance flutes and traditional folk songs.
To say the critics didn’t understand “Mountains” would be an understatement.
“Listening to Mary Timony’s twelve-sided die and aromatic candle companion piece, ‘Mountains,’ is like eating every meal at Medieval Times,” Brent DiCrescenzo wrote in a scathing Pitchfork review, taking the opportunity to make as many sneering “Dungeons and Dragons” puns as possible. The Washington Post was a bit kinder, calling the record a “well-realized, cleverly updated example of the rock-and-runes genre” but adding “when Timony sings lines like ‘a demon lured me to his bed,’ you have to wonder just how seriously she takes all of this.”
She took it completely seriously.
“I was having a really hard time in my life,” the 50-year-old musician recalls. “And music was the only thing that was helping me through it. The songs are a map of the depression. Almost every song is a description of what depression feels like.”
Timony was stung by the criticism and confused by how she could have been so misinterpreted. The metaphors she used on “Mountains” may have been superficially fantastical, but the underlying meanings were always straightforward, at least to her.
“ ‘I Fire Myself’ is me talking about how I have this voice in my head that’s really mean,” she explains. “It’s basically a description of what it’s like to beat yourself up all the time. And then ‘a demon lured me to his bed’ is about meeting some . . . guy and feeling even more alienated.”
The record’s poor reception led to Timony feeling “extremely insecure” about “Mountains” in the ensuing years, so much so that it took her until she began working on the reissue to be able to listen to it without feeling embarrassed. “I don’t know if it freaks people out when you talk about your feelings, or if it was that it was so coded that it didn’t make any sense, which is sort of what I thought happened,” she says.
“Mountains” doesn’t sound as out of place in a world where artists such as Joanna Newsom — who emerged just a few years after “Mountains” — has made it palatable for women to express their emotions with old-fashioned instruments and fanciful metaphors.
More importantly, the advent of streaming platforms has also dissolved once-fortified genre distinctions, whereas “at the time, genre lines were thicker. Now all music kind of exists at the same time, all genres and eras on the Internet,” Timony says. “People’s brains are just more open to stuff. Now ‘Mountains’ doesn’t sound as weird. And it’s not that weird really, but at the time it was not cool in our little indie rock universe.”
While the “Mountains” reissue offers a chance for the record to be reassessed by listeners with more adaptable ears, there were other artists in Timony’s orbit who were making similarly “weird” music in the early 2000s whose records, in the absence of luxe vinyl reissues, still remain relatively obscure.
Closest in form and spirit to Timony’s music of the time was Garland of Hours, led by Timony’s close friend Amy Domingues. A formally trained cellist, Domingues played on records by punk standard-bearers Fugazi and Ted Leo. Domingues formed Garland of Hours to express her own musical interests, which included both punk and new wave along with the Renaissance and medieval music she fell in love with after taking music history courses in high school.
“When it came to writing Garland of Hours music, I was harking back to that sort of old modalities, as well as more atmospheric and ambient stuff like Eno and Talk Talk and meditative qualities of heavier stuff like Lungfish,” she says. Timony and Domingues were friends and eventually bandmates, and Timony’s influence can be heard in Garland of Hours songs.
Domingues stopped recording as Garland of Hours in the early 2010s, when she entered the Peabody conservatory to study an instrument she had fallen in love with: the viola da gamba. “I was just focused on mastering this archaic instrument, which was popular from the 16th to 18th centuries,” she says. You can hear the viola da gamba in action on the group’s last record, 2012’s “Lucidia,” on which Timony plays guitar. Domingues has recently made the Garland of Hours discography available on Bandcamp; she will also be a part of Timony’s band on the March 4 live stream.
Another notable group from the time was Quix*O*Tic, formed by Christina Billotte, Timony’s former bandmate from her pre-Helium band Autoclave. Joined by her sister Mira Billotte and bassist Brendan Majewski, the band formed in the wake of the dissolution of the much-loved punk band Slant 6. Quix*O*Tic played creepy post-punk mixed with jazz and ’60s R&B, and they leaned hard into their otherworldly aesthetic.
“I wanted to try to create a band that was genre-less, and I wanted it to sound original,” Christina Billotte says. “Other than that, the music was a blending of our influences at the time. It may have been an unconscious reaction to the heavily retro thing that was kind of going on in D.C. and everywhere else, too.”
Billotte names Sun Ra, Duke Ellington (specifically the song “Pyramid”), Black Sabbath and the Gories as musical influences on Quix*O*Tic but ascribes the band’s overall aesthetic to Baltimore, where they practiced at Mira’s place on the third floor of an old rowhouse in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood. “[Baltimore] felt ghostly to me back then,” says Christina. “It wasn’t safe to walk around after dark. And there was the Edgar Allan Poe feel — I had read his stories as a kid.” The group released their debut, “Night for Day,” in 1999 and a sophomore record, “Mortal Mirror,” in 2003.
Much in the way critics were puzzled by Timony’s turn into the medieval, they struggled to describe Quix*O*Tic’s sound, lazily falling back on “goth” as a shorthand. Mira remembers getting comparisons to primitive-rock progenitors the Shaggs. “I took it as a compliment because I like the Shaggs,” she says. “But they might have been trying to insult us.”
“It was funny — it seemed like every band that came to D.C. asked us to open for them for a while, expecting a Slant 6-type band, which was probably disappointing to some,” says Christina. “Mudhoney asked us to play with them, or maybe it was their booking agent. The singer made fun of us onstage during their set. It was kind of funny.”
After Quix*O*Tic broke up in 2003, Mira brought some of that band’s melancholy and supernatural subject matter to her new project, White Magic. “The ‘mystical’ or spiritual was and is an inspiration for me aesthetically,” she says. “It felt like something that was and is lacking in music, and I wanted to fill that void. It felt like it was going against the grain to write about this because it’s not something that’s immediately accessible. It requires more meditation and connection than, say, a love song or an anthem.”
The band’s meditative, lightly psychedelic sound would be categorized as “freak folk” due to its inclusion on Devendra Banhart’s “The Golden Apples of the Sun” compilation, but Mira says that she felt more musical kinship with free jazz and experimental artists than “my fellow freak folks.”
Though trendiness of tools such as tarot cards, crystals and astrology has added a capitalist bent to spiritualist practices, Mira still sees the integration of spirituality in music as a way of “connecting with that inspiration that’s more otherworldly, to the other side of human nature that’s overlooked, that’s invisible to most people. It could be any genre of music, but it still strikes a certain chord within. It’s not about image or style — it’s literally one human connecting to another, connecting to a higher force.”
There may be hope yet for these groups to get their due as pioneers with a “Mountains”-style reassessment. Christina Billotte says she plans on reissuing the Quix*O*Tic records on vinyl, once she’s done working on reissues for her other group from the period, Casual Dots. Mira Billotte recently contributed a White Magic track to a “living score” for an art project called KAHL, presented like a mix tape and available only on double cassette — no streaming. Domingues is exploring making Garland of Hours records purchasable on Bandcamp. In lieu of being able to tour for the “Mountains” reissue (though one is tentatively planned for June), Timony is learning to play the lute. She says when she told a friend she was learning to play and showed them the instrument, they laughed.