Dwellers Interview with Joey Toscano: Singing Odes to the Rituals of Inversion, OR: Tales Yet to be Told
With his former trio, Iota, beginning to fizzle out, guitarist/vocalist Joey Toscano began Dwellers as a duo with SubRosa drummer Zach Hatsis. The Salt Lake City natives worked together when they could until Toscano, frustrated at missed practices and a band that seemed to be stagnating — practically if not creatively — said it was time to really make Dwellers happen.
Iota had released their Small Stone debut, Tales, in 2008. The album’s blend of space rock jamming and heavy riffs, combined with Toscano‘s far-back vocals and the thick production of Andy Patterson (who also played drums in the band), was well received and became over the next couple years something of a stoner rock cult classic outside of Salt Lake City. Interest endured in finding out how the band would follow it up, but when word finally came, it in the form of an avant garde Dwellers EP that preceded the now-trio’s own first Small Stone outing, Good Morning Harakiri.
The album (review here) takes its name from the Japanese ritualistic suicide by disembowelment and decapitation otherwise known as “seppuku,” and in terms of being honest about their influences and crafting what they want their music to be, innards are suitably spilled. Recorded by Patterson, Toscano‘s vocals are less drenched in effects and farther forward in the songs than they were on Tales; the direction of Dwellers has more in common with swampy marshes than Californian deserts. Hatsis and bassist Dave Jones are a complex but accessible rhythm section, providing stylistic depth and adding to Toscano‘s riffs more than just tonal weight.
As compares to the Peace and Other Horrors EP that came before it, Good Morning Harakiri is more straightforward and song-based, which Toscano says is on purpose. Along with discussion of blending the two sides of the band in the future, he also spoke about transitioning from Iota to having Dwellers as his main project, the growth of the heavy underground in the last several years, Iota‘s misadventures at SXSW, Dwellers‘ recent show with YOB, and much more.
Full Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
Excellent. Amazing. I fucking love Mike’s band. I saw them when they came through for the 4th of July, when they were last here. They played at a bigger – it was a bar, but it was a lot bigger and had a big high stage and a big sound system and all that stuff, and unfortunately there weren’t that many people there. It was 4th of July, and it was great, but this show was a lot smaller. It was a little hole-in-the-wall dive bar. No P.A., just miked the kick drum and the vocals, and it’s basically like being in the practice space. It was just packed, and there was so many awesome metalheads there enjoying the show. The other bands on the bill were solid, and it was just a fucking good time. Awesome.
I’ve noticed around where I am, there’s people at those shows now. It used to be that you’d go and see a heavy band and it would be empty or there’d be 10 people there. Now I go and people actually show up. Have you noticed that out by you?
I have, absolutely. I’ve been going to shows since I was able to get out of my house without my mom coming along (laughs). And yeah, when I was a teenager, I think that maybe a lot of the shows I went to and stuff, they were aimed at being more people there. Then, for some reason, I graduated high school and college, and there seemed to be a big dip in live show attendance. I don’t know what was going on with that, if it was just my city or what, but ever since I hit 18, I was still going to shows, and the bar shows were just totally dead as shit. I remember seeing Spirit Caravan and Alabama Thunderpussy, and there were like, I think, maybe six people there. It was like that for a really long time, but yeah, over the past maybe two or three years, I’d say, I’ve been noticing a steady increase of attendance at heavy shows and psych shows. I think the heavy psych stuff has made a good comeback, for sure.
At the same time, it’s not commercial. It’s not like these bands are selling out arenas or anything, but put to scale, it’s a big difference.
Yeah. I can’t believe YOB is opening for Tool. I would’ve never thought that. For me personally, I’ve always felt a little bit of ownership with the bands that came out around early 2000s. Man’s Ruin and the breakup of Man’s Ruin. I was at the shows and nobody was around then. You can’t help but feel like, “Well, shit, I guess there’s not that many people that dig this stuff.” You can’t help but feel a little bit like it’s all yours – especially when you’re one of the only motherfuckers in the room (laughs). So I thought it would always be like that, and now you’ve got YOB going on tour with Tool, which is awesome, and bands coming out and doing really well like… there’s always controversy when I mention this name, but The Sword came out and did really well and I was just like, “What the shit is happening?” Depdning on who you ask and whatever someone’s opinion might be about bands like The Sword who appeal to younger kids coming up just open up the door for those kids to check out other music like that.
Take me through what happened with Iota and going from Iota to Dwellers.
Well, Iota was… well… “in the beginning,” Iota was friends from high school all playing together and not really anything anywhere near us trying to do anything outside of our basement, and no real even thought put into anything like around good musicianship. It was just fun and that was it. And then over time, we played out of state a few times, and then one year we went and played SHoD out in Arizona, and I just got the bug from there wanting to play on a level with some of my heroes. Just like, “Well, why can’t I beef it up a notch?” So I started to look for other people to play within the band that would help me improve. I dropped my first drummer. Great guy, but not a very good drummer, and then Iota went through a series of different drummers. We went through at least three or four drummers before Tales came out, and we actually recorded Tales at least once with a different drummer in my house. And that’s what we sent to Scott Small Stone, was that recording. He liked that enough to want to release it, so we worked all that out and we were getting ready to go in the studio and record it for real, go on tour with this guy, and he dropped out on us, so then we got Andy Patterson, and pretty much taught him the songs in probably about a week, and even one of the songs on Tales, we taught him right before we recorded it (laughs). That was it, and then he was in. He was like, “I like this band so much, I want to be in it full-time, not just the studio guy.” Did a couple tours with him, and then after we got back from one tour, it was just really hard to get everybody together in the same room, and just typical shit with someone… You know, everyone has different lives, and people are in different bands and stuff too, and that was getting in the way of writing. So in the meantime, I started Dwellers with the drummer who’s there now, Zach, and we were just jamming on the side as a two-piece, doing the same thing that early Iota did, recording demos in my house. Simultaneously, Iota was not practicing, and people just couldn’t get together. So really, there was no blowup, no breakup, just that fizzle-out-type of thing, and nobody could find the time to get together, so I just said, “I’m going to make Dwellers my main thing,” and that’s what I’m doing. Then we got Dave Jones, the bass player. He was also playing bass for SubRosa, and he came down one day to try it out and it worked out good. That was about a year and a half ago that he came in and tried out and he’s been with us ever since. More or less the gist of it.
How did you and Zach start jamming?
Just playing around Salt Lake City. He was in a bunch of different bands and I think Iota had played with one of his other bands. He’s in a band called Laughter, and played a couple shows with them, and I really liked his drumming style, so me and him just started talking and we decided to start jamming together. We jammed a couple times here and there, and then six months would go by, then we’d get together and jam again, so it was just an ongoing friendship, really. Then one day, I think I might have been pissed at yet another Iota rehearsal cancelation, and so I just picked up the phone and called him and said, “Dude, let’s start a fucking project. Let’s do it.” And we started hitting it on a schedule. You know, you gotta stick to a schedule. As long as you’re on a schedule, you’re in a band. So that’s pretty much how it worked out.
Was there something different you wanted to do stylistically with Dwellers than with Iota?
Yeah, for sure. I wanted to try out different tunings. I wanted to try to be heavy without trying to shoot for “brutal” or “epic” or whatever word of the day was being used at the time to describe heavy, slow music. Stylistically, I was going for something that was anti-what was expected of me. Anything that would make people go like, “Oh, I totally thought you’d kick on the distortion pedal and just do some crazy psychedelic, long, epic song, or some loud-as-fuck doom-style type of thing.” Whatever was the opposite of that is really what I wanted to do. Maybe add some more honesty to it in terms of the representation of the songs. I wanted the playing to be a little less hidden by compressed distortion, and the vocals to be a little bit more upfront and honest without being drenched in some sort of theft or something. That was all definitely a conscious decision, and hopefully we got there.
The vocals on the Dwellers record are much more prominent and less effected, but it’s still heavy. I guess maybe I’m not sure what you mean by “the opposite of doomy” and that kind of thing, because it’s still pretty heavy.
Yeah, I guess. The record came across probably even heavier than I had interpreted it. Whenever you’re playing, you’re just playing, and you have something in your mind, you interpret your own stuff. For me, I was probably thinking this was probably a little less heavy than the guitar work that I’d done in Iota, and the vocals certainly aren’t all grit, I guess. Maybe it all just comes down more to state of mind, but to me, Dwellers is definitely not as heavy as Iota, and maybe I’m just coming at it from knowing that the guitars are tuned up a bit and they’re playing more in standard styles. We’re doing some open tunings and stuff, and to me, that probably equates to something less heavy, but the listener probably hears distortion and stuff like that and equates it to heavy. To me it sounds less heavy. That’s just me.
How was recording with Andy?
Awesome as always. He’s got a great ear and he’s super-casual. When you go to record with him, you don’t feel any pressure or anything. I would love to go – in fact, I think we’ll do the Mad Oak thing next time around, just to get out of Utah and see what that’s all about. But there’s also the added pressure with that, too. You have to have your shit down and you’re on a very, very tight schedule with them. Andy’s local and down the street and he’s your bud you’ve known forever, so it’s real casual and it’s fun, laid back environment. But then the recording process with him, we just did it all live, like usual. All just set up in a room and went for it. I think we tracked the album in probably an afternoon, and the rest of the time we spent on vocals – we did vocals a few weeks later – whatever overdubs and stuff we wanted to do.
Andy did some mixing and split it with Benny Grotto at Mad Oak?
Yeah. Scott [Hamilton; Small Stone Records honcho]. You know the deal. His Small Stone stuff is starting to more and more come out of the same studio. A lot of the stuff is the same mixer and that stuff. I can’t speak for Scott, but I’m pretty sure he’s going for that. He wants stuff to be consistent on his label and he’s found the right mixer. Benny’s awesome. We did have to fight a little bit to go to Andy – not because Scott doesn’t think Andy’s good – he thinks he’s awesome, but he’s definitely going for that consistency with things.
You’re doing SXSW this year. Did you ever go down there with Iota?
Yeah, I’ve done it three times with Iota. The second time was a disaster. We were on tour and Andy actually got arrested. I called Scott and said, “Yeah, we’re not gonna make it.” “What’s going on?” “Well, the drummer’s in jail.” Well shit. I thought for sure – I mean, what would you think his response would be? “Well shit, that sucks, I guess I’ll have to find a replacement.” No. Scott’s response was, “Get your ass down here, I’m gonna get a drummer to play for you guys” (laughs). So, I mean, I’ve told other musicians that story before, and they’re just like, “You’re fucking kidding me, right? You can’t play without your drummer!” But Scott said, “Come down, I’ve got a drummer that’ll play for you guys. We’ve got a studio we’ll get you set up in.” So me and Oz [Yosri; bass] cruised down there in the van and had our rigs with us and we rehearsed with Rick Ferrante from Sasquatch in – I think Dixie Witch were sharing a room with SuperHeavyGoatAss (laughs). And so we rehearsed in their space that afternoon and yeah man, fucking Mr. Ferrante from Sasquatch learned “Dimensional Orbiter” in about an hour and we just played that song for our set (laughs). Probably from the listener’s perspective, it was more like a space jam, which, you know, “Dimensional Orbiter” pretty much is anyway – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, jaaaaaammm, come back into verse, chorus, verse, chorus, end – so that’s what we did. That was the second time. Third time, Andy came down and we played. Great time, did all that stuff. It worked out pretty good. This’ll be the fourth.
Will you do a vinyl release of Good Morning Harakiri?
I hope so. I really want to. We have all the information laid out in front of us, the artwork ready to go for it, and it’s just a matter of when the CD comes out, Scott just said wait for the CD release first since you guys are brand new. See how people react to it and then you make your decision. It’s basically up to us. He was just like, you don’t want to be $1,000 in the hole on something you’re not gonna recoup, but if you’re feeling good on the record and all that stuff, then let’s do vinyl. I think that’s fair and that’s what we’re waiting for, pretty much. Vinyl’s expensive man. It’s ridiculous.
Have you gotten any sense of how the response has been to the record?
Yeah, a few [reviews] I’ve seen have been positive, and it’s hard to tell right now. I don’t really think I can say one way or the other. I definitely have been seeing a lot of comparisons to Iota and Tales, which is totally fair, because it’s not like anything I’ve been in has done anything that would garner the same recognition like Tales or anything, so it’s totally fair that it would be a comparison. And it’s in our bio too. It says that if you dug Tales, you’ll probably dig this. I’ve also been seeing a lot of grunge comparisons – like Layne Staley comparisons and stuff too.
I said that in my review. Facelift-era Alice in Chains, I said. For the vocals.
I’ve heard that before, and I think the first time I did was with Tales. That’s cool. I have honestly never tried to do that. The first time I ever heard it, it was a surprise. Now you hear it so much you just expect it. But that’s cool, because I love Layne Staley and Alice in Chains is fuckin’ awesome.
Any other shows in the works? Are you writing new material yet?
Oh yeah, we are. We have about half the new album written and we’re hoping to have it all done by the middle of the summer and be making plans to do an East Coast tour. We’re gonna tour through the Midwest on our way to Boston. The plan is to tour on our way up there and hit as many cities as we can, just so we’re nice and greased up and have the songs road-tested before we record them. That’ll be probably – I’m hoping it’ll be fall, but we’ll see how it goes. The Dwellers album was recorded 2010, October, so it was quite a while ago it was recorded. We do have a whole crapload of new stuff, and we’ll probably do some more surprises like when we released that free EP right before Harakiri was officially released, the digital release and all that stuff. We recorded a four-song EP that we put on Bandcamp for free. It was a really weird, experimental album that I think a lot of people that listened to it and then listened to Harakiri were probably like, “What the hell is this? This isn’t even the same band!” I think we’re gonna try and do more stuff like that. Maybe every release we do, we’ll offer up a free pre-release EP that’s the experimental, free creative session type of stuff that we do before we get down to really hashing out the songs for the next record. But to finish the tour thing, we’ll be out for almost two weeks for SXSW. We’ll do the Northwest loop. We’ll be going up to Seattle, Oregon, going down to California. We’ve got a show out there with Sasquatch and Backwoods Payback, and then the Southwest to Austin. I think we’re gonna play three or four shows with Backwoods, so it’s almost an accidental tour with them. It just kind of happened. We were hitting the same cities and rather than get on different venues, we just hooked up with them.
About the weirdo EP: Would you ever want to bring that side of things more into the straightforward songwriting?
Yes. The answer is absolutely yes (laughs). We probably wanted to put more of that kind of style into the record that we recorded, but at the same time, over these past couple years, we’ve really just been experimenting with the songs and what we’re doing. Each of us probably has something a little different in our heads as to what we’re trying to do. That EP, combined with what we’re releasing on Small Stone, is probably a good insight into what’s going on in our heads and what kind of stuff we want to move forward with doing. The ambient, spaghetti western stuff. Slide guitars and creating stuff like that. Absolutely, yes. A lot of the songs that we have written right now are, I’d say, a combination of that EP and the rock stuff that’s on Harakiri.
Tags: Dwellers, Salt Lake City, Small Stone, Utah