Going The Distance | An Interview With Dorota Szuta Of Heavy Gus

Dorota Szuta has taken it all in stride in the fleeting moments of chaos she’s found herself in. When waking up on the August day we had planned to chat over the phone, Szuta was surprised to have a lengthy dialogue with someone featuring items that would be other than the issue. “It’s one of those days where everything that could be a little normal thing is like a big, longer thing that it’s supposed to be, but I just had a great lunch and just had a minute before you called too. I knew this was happening, so I sat down, ate my sandwich, listened to some music, and I’m feeling so much better than the chaos sprang from earlier.”

Residing in California these days, Szuta and her husband, Stelth Ulvang (The Lumineers), have peacefully built a little life around her work as a freshwater biologist. Outside that field of work, the duo and drummer Ryan Dobrowski (Blind Pilot) have created the musical group Heavy Gus. The project was, in many ways, formed unceremoniously. The trio has already established a rapport through their personal and professional connections. But during the pandemic, the idea came with the trio being able to work on making music during the trying times of the coronavirus pandemic. Having the opportunity presented to them to lay down some music, Heavy Gus packed up a van and headed two thousand-plus miles to Nashville, where the band’s debut album Notions.  

The tracks to Notions inhabit a blurred line of grungy garage band fare, hazy desert surf, and dreamy, sun-soaked indie rock. Along with distortion within the guitars, a compelling blend of rhythms coincides with Heavy Gus’ intuitive approach to recording. The trio didn’t allow themselves to overthink the production, which allowed the tracks within Notions to be as accessible and loose as they needed to be.

How did you get involved in marine biology?

Well, it’s been a long time coming. I went to college for marine biology and grad school for marine science. I’ve also worked in a lot of field biology positions. I lived in a tent in Antarctica for several months, studying food webs. I lived in, well, not even a tent, but a hammock on an island in Baja for a while studying turtles.

I love how nonchalant you are about what you just said that you have done.

(Laughs) It’s pretty cool. I’ve been like living two lives at the same time, which have been field biology and music. I split them, you know, 50/50, 70/30, or 30/70, depending on the year. That led me here because this is technically remote field science, too, although it doesn’t feel super remote to me. We live in a house with electricity and a toilet. But yeah, that’s how I wind up here, being on this kind of funny remote field science path I’ve been on.

Do you find it difficult at times to keep both worlds going? Do you feel like sometimes you’re being pulled in one way or the other?

Definitely. I try to keep both plates spinning because music is really important to me, and I really enjoy being outside in remote places. So I try to keep both going. We only have so much time to fill, and so much of my time is now filled with kid stuff that I can’t keep two careers going for much longer, but we’ll see.

So what got you into music?

I’ve always just loved music. In high school, I would just listen to all sorts of different stuff and have like a real, visceral, emotional response to it. I feel like there’s a different part of your brain that opens then. Before that, I was always drawn to music when I was a kid. I have a sister who’s six years older and she wasn’t interested in music, but she played the recorder in school. So I immediately stole her recorder and then learned the entire Lion King soundtrack. And then she had a keyboard, which I stole, and learned how to play sad Jewel songs. Then I started playing violin and eventually branched out into guitar, bass, and other things.

Were you in bands in high school?

Yeah, in high school I played in a metal band briefly because I was, like, what was available. In college, I played in a lot of folky bands and then what you might call a folk metal band. 

I started writing music in college, then have had bands here and there with my material, and then I’ve backed other people. This band right now is the first time in a while that I’ve been in the driver’s seat about most things with writing. I write some of the music and my husband writes some of it. But we like to work on it together. But I write at least half of the music. I also get to be decisive about the sound, which is fun. I got really bored of folk music and wanted to be in a loud band. I am very happy to be doing it.

Is there any conflict between you and your husband regarding writing?

Of course, like any two songwriters, but for the most part it’s pretty cohesive. He leans a little funkier and I lean a little grungier, so there’s a little bit of a push and pull there. Lyrically it’s funny because we’ll write songs and show them to each other. We’ll be like, hey, what do you think of the song? And sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s amazing. It’s great.’ And sometimes it’s like, ‘Wait, is this a breakup song?

There’s one song on the record that I sing that he wrote that is explicitly a breakup song. When he played it for me, I was like, Is this okay? Can I sing this that you wrote? Like, of course… it’s based on a true story, but it’s not like taking some liberties; it’s not like he did pack the trunk up on a Friday night, as the lyric says. For the most part, we’ve gotten to a place where it’s pretty cohesive. It was harder in the beginning, but it feels pretty easy now that we’ve just been doing it together for so long.

Going further into this, what have you learned musically from writing within yourself and your husband? What have you taught him?

I don’t know if I’ve taught him anything, but I’ve learned a lot from him. I’m sure he would find something nice to say that he is a really prolific creator. During the pandemic, I started a club; we called it Song Club. It was a bunch of women I knew who all songwriters were and we met once a week. I gave everyone a prompt and then we had a week to write a song. We then shared our songs and we kept it going for months and months. You might say that that’s a quick rate of songwriting, but Stealth during the pandemic was writing a song a day. He’s an extremely prolifically creative. One thing that he’s really good at is not editing while he’s writing. He’ll write a song and not think too much about the lyrics or what he’s doing and then he’ll write another one, and then he’ll write another one.

Consequently, he’s written hundreds of terrible songs but also many, many, many incredible ones. I’ve taken that attitude from him, where he can write and it doesn’t have to be good. But the more stuff you get flowing out, the more likely you’re to capture something good.

I’m guessing, especially after significant life events like moving, starting a new job, and the baby – has your focus on writing changed, or do you still keep up with how you’ve gone about it for so long?

It’s the same. I could improve at thinking about what I’m going to write about before I write. I usually am just like, Oh, here’s a minute of time. I’m just going to sit down and start playing guitar and something will happen. I’m not like much of a planner at all. I think it’s like taking an honest representative sample of what’s happening.

When everyone came together as far as you guys were jamming together at the beginning, I read that you didn’t know this project would flourish into what it is today.

So myself and my husband – we just write a lot. We have like backlogs and backlogs of songs that we could record. We had been writing a lot in the first few months of the pandemic, and when everything shut down, a friend of ours who runs a studio in Nashville said that since everything’s canceled, if we want to come make a record. We said why the heck not? What else are we doing? We have all the songs we have this time, so we called up Ryan. 

The first two songs we recorded where were with The Lumineers. They were on tour, and Ryan and I were along for the ride because his wife is also in that band. We on a day off went into the studio and just recorded two songs. We didn’t know what we were going to record, and it felt really good. So then our friend was like, Oh, do you want to do a full album? We’re like, sure. We sent him voice memos of some of the songs before we went out there. We had some of them pretty fleshed out. Some of them were just sketches. Some of them he hadn’t heard and we hadn’t decided on until we were there. And so yeah, those recordings are our first rehearsal.

Was there ever talk and doing this project beforehand?

There was talk of a project, but it wasn’t necessarily this but became this between Ryan and me. We would spend a lot of time walking around different festivals or sitting in backstages when we tag along on Lumineers tours to visit others. We would always sit there and be like, we should start a band; we should just start a band so that on days off we could play shows because it’s fun watching music and it’s fun watching the people you love playing music. It’s been a lovely unraveling, unfolding of events.

The story about the road trip – I’m not going to lie to you that from what it sounded like, it sounds like all of you were in pure hell; no A/C and no one talking throughout the trip.

I mean, we could sometimes talk when it wasn’t a super windy stretch, and then we’d chat and it was fine. We would look on Google Maps for bodies of water that looked swimmable and not full of toxic algae. We just risked it, and we spent a lot of time at swim stops which I think made for a more pleasant experience. We had a spray bottle full of water with some essential oils, so it smelled nice. We would spray each other to keep cool; that was our makeshift AC. We call it the Mr. Manager.

How has this project reinvigorated you in some ways?

Definitely. I felt like I was in a bit of a funk musically. I had recently accompanied quite a few people in a full gear setting. It was very fun, but I just was getting bored of folky music. I had been writing all these songs and would have loved to hear them in a bigger, dirtier way than just the version that exists of me playing an acoustic guitar at home. Going into the studio, seeing what sounds we actually could make, and what sounds we can make happen, coming out of it, coming out of it feeling like wow, this is really good. I would listen to this!

I feel more excited about playing music than I have in a while. We just started playing shows in the spring as this band and I haven’t played shows for most of two years. I forgot how fun it is to play music with your friends. And then to have people be like watching and enjoying it and the give and take between the performer and the audience – it was just so exciting. There was one point where I was singing kind of a sad song, and I just had to be like sad and loud. I just closed my eyes because I started crying on stage. I was just so overwhelmed with emotion. I forgot how magical it is to play music and express yourself through music and then get to do that with your friends. And then to get to do that, for people, is just such a gift. So yeah, I’ve been reinvigorated. You could say that.

Notions is out now.

Photo Courtesy: Lauren Jacobson