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Ex Hex at the Ritz

In Music
GUITAR & DRUMS: Simplicity and sincerity are the key ingredients in Ex Hex’s powerful rock & roll.

GUITAR & DRUMS: Simplicity and sincerity are the key ingredients in Ex Hex’s powerful rock & roll.

It’s best not to read too much into the fact that eclectic musician and songwriter Mary Timony’s band Ex Hex took its name from a solo album she made back in 2005. “Honestly, I just saw Ex Hex as a cool name for a band a long time ago, and since I didn’t really have a band at the time, I just named the record that,” she says. “It’s not really that deep.”

But there is a sonic thread that connects the two. When Ex Hex—initially Timony plus bassist Betsy Wright and drummer Laura Harris—launched their project in 2014, they sought to write bare bones, no frills rock songs. Their sound has since been described using terms like garage rock, punk and power pop. Ex Hex sounds very little like the music Timony made with her best known previous band, Helium; that mid-’90s group trafficked in ambitious, arty noise rock.

“I had an intention when [Ex Hex] first started to approach music from a different place than I had in the past,” Timony says. “I had [previously] approached music from this really raw, sort of ‘diary entry’ kind of place for a long time, and I was just kind of done with that.” She says that with Ex Hex, she aimed for more of a craft perspective: “crafting songs that I would want to hear,” she explains.

Timony’s experience in short-lived indie supergroup Wild Flag helped steer her in that direction. “I found that I had to keep writing stuff to bring to the table for that band,” she says. “Wild Flag was super straight-ahead and poppy because everything got deconstructed so much. And if I started with something weird, it just didn’t work.”

And with Wright—who recently moved over to guitar as the touring band became a quartet with Michelle Mae on bass—writing songs as well, Ex Hex is more focused on its mission than ever before.

“Betsy is naturally aligned to that kind of songwriting,” Timony says. “Really good pop songs just come out of her without much effort, which has never been the way for me. So, it’s a good combo.”

But Ex Hex’s music is far from lightweight pop. It’s better described as a mix of catchy melodies with sharp hooks and sharper teeth. The band’s latest release, It’s Real, boasts a fuller sound than Ex Hex’s (excellent in its own right) 2014 debut, Rips. And that musical heft—with a bit of good-natured aggression—comes across both on record and onstage.

“I think the band is sounding bigger because now we’re a four-piece,” Timony says.

Because Wright had been playing a lot of guitar on record, the trio realized it made sense for her to put down the bass and switch over. “So we knew we needed to get a new band member to fill it out,” Timony says. “It’s nice to have more possibilities for sounds and not be so locked in. When you’re a three-piece, there’s not a lot of room.”

Another reason for the “big” sound of It’s Real is a tool that Timony has owned and used for years: the Rockman. A small device invented by production wizard and Boston founder Tom Scholz, the Rockman lends an arena-sized vibe to any guitarist’s sound.

“When we were writing this record, we were kind of hearing the songs have this mid-’80s production,” Timony says. “I had that thing lying around from [my] high school [days], and it just seemed appropriate, because it just really captures that blend of chorus and distortion that people used a lot then.”

Timony has been playing music for a long time; in the process, she’s learned what works for her. She admits that in the past, she tended to be a slacker about band-related things that didn’t appeal to her:

“Making sure we were touring enough or making sure that the record is mixed well, just following through,” she says. “But now, as a 50-year-old, I’m staying smart about touring, and trying to put on a good show. And I actually find that I enjoy those things when I’m trying to do better at them.”

Ex Hex
September 18, 7 p.m. $20
The Ritz, San Jose

 

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