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Dual Lead Action: Ex Hex Discuss The Mighty Retro-Rock Power of 'It's Real'

Wednesday, 20 March 2019 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Michael Lavine

Millions of words are spilled every year in the hope of capturing something profound or true, or profoundly true, about music, or movies, or books. But, at least part of the time, it’s all a ruse designed to dress up the most basic tenets of fandom: I hate this or this rules so fucking hard.

Here’s something true: ‘It’s Real’, the second album by Ex Hex, rules so fucking hard. And, at its heart, that’s all it really sets out to do. It is a bold, rafter-shaking rock record decked out in searing twin leads and addictive, teeth-rotting melodies. Its emotions are rendered in primary colours and pyro. “We just wanted to make it sound big and epic and right,” vocalist and guitarist Mary Timony says.

Here, Timony has found an excellent songwriting foil in multi-instrumentalist Betsy Wright, with rock-solid drummer Laura Harris also back in the saddle. In the five years since the trio put out ‘Rips’—they’ve never tried to hide their intentions, in fairness—Timony took a step into the past with some reissues by her old band, Helium, while Wright dialled up the riffs in the exceptionally fun glam-rock duo Bat Fangs. These side gigs helped breathe a bit of life back into road-weary limbs.

“We actually toured a little too much, probably,” Timony says. “I was pretty burnt out and I didn't have any song ideas. I kind of needed a year to just try to create again. The Helium thing just fell into my lap, it was actually Matador who decided it was time to do that. That was a nice project and it's good to do different things. You come back to your band and you feel like you have new ideas, I guess. But, honestly, I was a bit creatively blocked and I just didn't have enough songs. So it took me a while.”

‘It’s Real’ is a more collaborative affair than its predecessor, with Wright’s buzzsaw energy playing beautifully off the louche, drawled cool of Timony’s vocal and guitar lines. Songs like Rainbow Shiner have the brawny physicality that made Bat Fangs tick, while opener Tough Enough is a sleek, sharp garage-rocker that has one foot in the ‘Rips’ camp and the other on the accelerator. “I feel this summer coming on,” Timony sings prior to its lacerating solo.

“On this new record, we really felt like much more of a team,” she says. “We worked on all the songs together. It's really great to work that way, I really, really enjoy it. We're kind of a weird combination of being very loose, but very exacting in some ways. I think Jonah [Takagi], the guy who produces us, is really, really careful, and then we're really not careful. It's a good combination, but we really just try and focus on writing good songs, whatever form that takes.”

Received wisdom suggests that experimentation should take the form of deconstructing existing templates, but here Ex Hex have gone 100 miles per hour in the other direction in pursuit of the best straight-ahead rock songs they could find. There will be some who roll their eyes at the grandiosity of Wright’s arena ballad Another Dimension, and others who find each multi-tracked vocal a step too far. But 'It's Real' doesn’t seem to care. It feels like an honest attempt to build a record that can weather trends and the passing of time.

And yet, Timony wouldn’t have been the first name on your lips a decade ago when dreaming up future retro-rock titans. Her discography, through the creeping angst of Helium, the mathy weirdness of Autoclave, and even the punchy garage-punk of Wild Flag, a group also starring Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, has long suggested a more challenging, introverted approach.

“That pretty much sums up all my music until I was like 35, right there,” she laughs. “I just had different values. I wanted to be creative in a different way and I kind of burned out on that. I stopped playing music for five years and then when I came back to it, the only thing that I wanted to do was write songs that I liked, or that were fun. It's hard to write good songs, and it's not about expressing my anger anymore as it was when I was a younger person. Also I've found it's really great to collaborate with people. I'm just not as much in my own world.”

When it comes time to play these tracks live—as they will on a UK tour in May—Ex Hex will expand to a four piece. Wright is set to shift from bass to guitar, all the better to trade licks with Timony in some sort of back-to-back, behind-the-head configuration, and that decision betrays the in-studio approach that underpins ‘It’s Real’. The punk in anyone will tell you that you should be able to walk songs from a record to a stage and bash them out, but after a while that can grow stale.

“After we finished recording we were like, ‘there's no way we can play this record as a three piece’,” Timony says, noting that Mutt Lange’s work on Def Leppard’s ‘80s monster hit ‘Hysteria’ was an inspiration while they were locked away working. “There's a lot of dual lead action. I'm really excited to go on the road.”

Ex Hex are back, rested, and ready to melt some faces.

‘It’s Real’ is out on March 22 through Merge Records.

Ex Hex Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu May 23 2019 - GLASGOW Stereo Cafe Bar
Fri May 24 2019 - LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
Sat May 25 2019 - MANCHESTER Deaf Institute
Mon May 27 2019 - BRISTOL Exchange
Tue May 28 2019 - LONDON Village Underground
Wed May 29 2019 - BIRMINGHAM Hare And Hounds

Click here to compare & buy Ex Hex Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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