The Heavy: Interview with Joey Toscano from Dwellers

Salt Lake City trio Dwellers made their debut at the end of January in the form of Good Morning Harakiri (Small Stone), an album that takes its name from the Japanese suicide ritual—otherwise known as “seppuku”—that involves one cutting open one’s own stomach while a trusted compatriot waits to strike a decapitating blow. It’s an ugly thought, if a dignified and determined way to go, and as a title for a record, it speaks volumes about Dwellers’ approach, which is direct, honest and crisply executed within the bounds of its purpose.

Comprised of guitarist/vocalist Joey Toscano, bassist Dave Jones and drummer Zach Hatsis (both of SubRosa), the band grew out of the slow fizzle of Toscano’s former outfit, Iota, whose 2008 album, Tales, was full of heavy and spaced-out jams that inspired much underground devotion. Dwellers moves in a different direction, however, bringing the vocals more forward and blues and Americana fluidly amid thickened riffs and the clear production of Andy Patterson (who also drummed with and recorded Iota).

With East Coast tour dates in the works for later this year, Toscano recently took some time out for a phoner, the results of which you’ll see below.

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 [the Stoner Hands Of Doom festival] 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 [Hamilton, label head at] 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.

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.

Good Morning Harakiri is available now on Small Stone Records. For more on Dwellers, check out

JJ Koczan still has his Iota shirt. It’s got holes in it.