Everyone thinks that New York City-based Dan Alvarez and Jordan Dunn-Pilz named their band TOLEDO after the Ohio city. But it’s actually named for Toledo, Spain. “Daniel’s full last name is Alvarez de Toledo, and since he is the self proclaimed leader (?), his last name became our band name. Sorry Jordan,” the duo tells me over email.
That banter is the product of longstanding friendship. Alvarez and Dunn-Pilz, both Jewish, met in their small coastal hometown of Newburyport, Massachusetts while busking when they were 10 years old. Though they parted ways for college, they continued to trade long-distance voice notes throughout and ultimately reunited as TOLEDO. “Individually, we’re a mess,” says Dan. “But as a pair, our strongest qualities reveal themselves.” Supposedly Dan is the wildcard and Jordan’s the sensible one.
The project has found significant success: Their debut EP, “Hotstuff,” released in 2019, has over 4 million streams on Spotify to date. They also recently played a livestream concert for Consequence of Sound alongside Julien Baker, Dirty Projectors and Beach Bunny, among others. But like many musicians, Dan and Jordan found themselves recording very differently in 2020. When the pandemic hit, both went home to Newburyport with most of their studio equipment, which they set up in Dan’s parents’ attic. Dan was starting a new relationship, while Jordan’s was ending. Those feelings swirl around, along with the surreal nostalgia of quarantining in their childhood homes, in their new EP “Jockeys of Love.” They also released two 2020 singles in between projects: “Lovely,” a “tune about settling down,” and “FOMO,” a song which “explores the mental ups and downs of quarantine over a propulsive, time-shifting beat.”
Their latest single, “David,” tries to address the ghosts of family tensions in a loving way. Jordan wrote it for his little brother, and had this to say: “As siblings we share a lot of the same emotional baggage, but we process things differently as individuals. The song came out of a desire for healing in spite of those differences.”
The song doesn’t sound like trauma. It gives lush, nostalgic, summery vibes — like a car ride back from the beach after a bit too much sun with late afternoon light flickering through the window. I heard Sufjan Steven influences in the marriage of indie-folk layers, whisper-singing, and subtle banjo licks. But both affection and pain are palpable in the lyrics:
Hey, what’s with the long one? i’ll be around
When it doesn’t go where you wanted i’ll sort it out
Red, turning your temper in to your heart
Keep your tongue
David it’s my fault
I don’t know this part
to keep it,
i’m ripping around
I’m planting it down…
Mother’s roses and rhododendron now
Dan and Jordan told me more about the process of writing the song, how it was to record like they did in high school again, and their favorite famous Davids.
Tell me about the genesis of “David,” and how trauma makes its way into your work.
We often use writing as a way to process whatever’s going on emotionally. Sometimes the subject matter is more immediate, and sometimes it’s further in the past or more abstract. The first verse of David just came out while jamming on the chord progression. Rather than taking the song somewhere romantic, we chose to speak to a different kind of love.
What’s your relationship with the real David like now?
It’s all good!
How did David respond to the song?
We had an awkward two-sentence back-and-forth over text where it was never actually admitted. Still working on that open communication thing.
Did you (Dan and Jordan) always write music together? Did you ever have Jewish interactions growing up?
We were introduced through a mutual friend, but even then it was with the intention that we would play music together. We sort of cut out the middleman (sorry Ben) and started writing and recording together in Daniel’s family home. We had many different side projects … lots of hip hop, a cover band, etc. TOLEDO as it is today didn’t come about until college, but it’s always been the two of us writing music together. We were both raised celebrating Jewish holidays, but have yet to celebrate together!
How was it to record this last EP back in your childhood home? Did it affect the music? Do you feel like you captured something nostalgic because of how it was recorded, or something about the strange quarantine reality so many 20-somethings experienced?
Recording during the quarantine was a trip. There was a lot to process. It would have been impossible to capture all that we were feeling. We had a few songs that dealt more head on with that time period. There was a song about isolation, a song about communicating over distance, and a song about feeling small in comparison to the world’s systemic challenges. Ultimately the EP was streamlined to be mostly relational, but we hope these songs can see the light of day eventually.
Was there ever any tension with your parents as you recorded? “You’re making too much noise” vibes?
Happy to say that the parents have always been supportive! We are blessed.
How did you handle being in such different emotional places — one newly in love, one just ending a five-year relationship — as you collaborated?
We’ve been friends for so long and that always takes precedence over our working relationship. We spend more time hanging out and chillaxing than we do writing music. It’s probably safe to say that we’re always in “different places” emotionally as we are different people processing different things, and we always work to meet in the middle when we’re writing.
How do you work together as a duo in general? What’s your process like?
We set out to enjoy what we’re doing! We love to experiment with new equipment and recording techniques. Most of the songs that “stick” were written/recorded very impulsively. This keeps things exciting for us, and that excitement brings out the best in us. If something is stale we might work to revamp it, but oftentimes it’s dead in the water at that point.
Any Jewish songwriters or melodies that inspire you?
The inherent musicality in Judaism is beautiful. We both grew up with our parents singing passages from the Torah, and I know that the melody of the Hanukkah prayer will be etched in our minds forever.
Does Judaism play into your writing/storytelling in any other ways?
Our Jewish upbringings put an emphasis on tradition and family in a way that influences how we go about our lives today. This might seep into our writing in ways that go unnoticed by us.
Go-to karaoke song(s)?
We are huge karaoke guys. Dan’s go-to is usually Britney Spears or “Wicked,” and Jordan’s is The Fray or U2.
Who are your favorite famous Davids?
We both love David Lynch. And David Attenborough. And David Duchovny.
What’s your dream for your musical future? What’s next?
After the year+ we just had, all we want to do is play shows. Dive Bars. Stadiums. Festivals. House Parties. Anything sounds good right now. Hopefully the next step is for us to get on tour!