TOLEDO is the indie rock duo of Dan Álvarez de Toledo and Jordan Dunn-Pilz, who grew up in Newburyport, Massachusetts and are now based in Brooklyn. Their first two EPs, 2019’s Hotstuff and 2021’s Jockeys of Love, shone through for their heartfelt, emotionally nuanced songwriting and glistening production, both qualities they bring to their debut LP, How It Ends, out this Friday via Grand Jury. Recorded in an upstate New York cabin as well as a church they rented in their Massachusetts hometown, the album finds the duo looking back on their upbringing to examine how the dynamics of each other’s family environment and history continue to seep into their present lives, flicking through memories of childhood innocence, trauma, and separation in search of catharsis and empathy. With additional production from Jay Som’s Melina Duterte, it’s a stunning record that benefits from the pair’s intuitive approach to collaboration, which gives How It Ends the feel of a worldless conversation between friends who have lived through so much, and who, when given the chance, could speak about it in the same breath. There’s a lot to unpack beneath the surface, but the beauty and resonance of what comes out is simply undeniable.
We caught up with TOLEDO for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about their upbringing, their approach going into How It Ends, working with Jay Som, and more.
What comes to mind when you think about your upbringing? Does it bring up similar memories for each of you?
Jordan Dunn-Pilz: We spent a lot of our Newburyport time as friends. And it’s such a small town, so imagery-wise, it’s a lot of the same stuff. I feel like all we did was walk around by the water.
Daniel Álvarez de Toledo: I feel like before we knew each other, when we were like 11 or so, those were formative years of childhood, and we probably had our own different paths. But then once we were friends with each other, everything intertwined a bit and it kind of felt like we were going on the same path. Until we separated again when we went to college, and then we’re back on the same path now. So I feel like our experiences would be kind of similar – I mean, they’re literally different in terms of household things, that’s what the album is about. But I feel like we kind of understand each other’s experiences, and we’re there for a lot of them.
JD: We had a band together in high school, too, so a lot of what we did was play music together.
DA: Music was always a part of it. But I feel like we both think of Newburyport in the same way or think of our upbringing in the same way. It’s just that mine had, like, the Spanish spice to it and yours had some divorce spice.
What were your impressions of each other when you became friends?
JD: That’s fair. I was definitely quieter than, and angrier than –
DA: Angrier than?
JD: I remember when we first met to play music together, Dan was playing piano and I was playing guitar. And he started playing Sara Bareilles’ ‘Love Song’, and I started playing the Cure’s ‘Lovesong’.
DA: I mean, that’s literally the epitome of the album, though, if you think about it. Because we always try to bring that back, like our upbringing, with music.
JD: Because there’s moody guitar line, slide-y stuff, but then there’s also singer-songwriter-y choruses.
DA: We always try to combine all that together. But I think our impressions of each other were– I don’t really remember too much, but I was intimidated, my parents were intimidated by Jordan. Jordan was a scary character. And I was like a goody two shoes little boy, dressed up in my button-up shirts. I was, like, a neck-beard loser. I had a Jew-fro, I had a fedora, Jordan was like, puffy jacket and a chain…
JD: [laughs] In like the whitest, safest town.
DA: Oh yeah, in a literal tourist town.
Jordan, how about you? I guess you weren’t intimidated by Daniel, but…
JD: No, he was wearing a fedora. He was very Jason Mraz energy. But also, I think it was really exciting to me because I had been playing music before with people – this was like middle school –and they were just hobbyists, and then I met Daniel and he was actually already really good as a 12-year-old. I remember in high school I would be like, if nothing else, I’ll just ride Daniel’s coattails to the Grammys.
DA: And that’s what we’re doing. Jordan’s just riding my coattails.
Do you think if it weren’t for music you would have connected in the same way?
JD: [laughs] Probably not.
DA: Well, maybe, but it wouldn’t have sparked the connection.
JD: We had the same mutual friends, was how we got set up together anyway.
DA: And when we were in high school, there weren’t a lot of people doing music. It was kind of in the background of our social life, but it was there. We had weeks where we’d go to the local Chinese restaurant with our friends on Saturday, and then Sunday we’d have band practice. It was very integrated into our lives in a pretty seamless way. But it was there in the background, it’s not until now that it’s really the forefront. You live with your girlfriend in Manhattan, I live with my girlfriend in Brooklyn, and we have our studio in Brooklyn that we meet at. This is like, we’re in month two of us not living together for the first time in like four or five years.
DA: Yeah, withdrawals.
When you came back together after college and started playing music together seriously again, what was that transition like?
JD: I feel like there were a few stages, because Daniel was going to school for music and I was going to school for acting. So I feel like you always knew you’re going to do music; I thought I was going to do acting hardcore. We were meeting during our winter breaks in college to write and record music, and ‘On My Own’ and ‘Crane Song’ were written during those breaks.
DA: We still pine for that era.
JD: Right. [laughs] The naïveté. Right after school, I did theatre for like eight months, like a tour.
DA: And I was a year behind, so I was still in school.
JD: We were doing the thing where we would meet during breaks, and I think we were realizing I was liking that way more than I was liking theatre. And Daniel’s probably like, “I like this music way more than I like white neo-soul.”
DA: The Berklee music. I hated it.
JD: He graduated right when I was finishing the theatre tour, and then we recorded our EP and we’re playing shows in New York. Then we were committed to it, but we still had side jobs and stuff. And then after, when the pandemic hit and we were just doing music during the pandemic, it felt so good. We were like –
DA: “We got to just do this for work.”
JD: And then we quit our side jobs, and now we just do TOLEDO and production stuff.
DA: For other people, which is kind of great.
Do you look back on a specific moment during the pandemic when that became clear to both of you?
DA: It was clear when we got to New York that we were like, “This is what we want to do with our lives.” But then it was clear with the pandemic that we were like, “I think we can do this now.” It wasn’t a pipe dream anymore. It was more, we’re doing it, we just got to keep doing it and commit to it. So now we’re in that stage, I can’t even imagine going back to nannying. [Jordan laughs] We were both nannies for a couple of years. That was formative for us.
When it came to reflecting on the relationships you grew up around on How It Ends, was that something you spent quite a bit of time talking about before you started writing about it? Was that part of the process at all?
DA: Not really, because it was something we kind of just knew.
JD: We probably knew that there was a lot of material about that kind of stuff.
DA: And the opening song [‘Soda Can’] kind of introduces you to that conversation that we have about it. The lyrics are Jordan talking about the escapism of going to spend time with me and my family, specifically my mother. And I feel like that starts the conversation for the listener, but for us, it was natural in the sense that the way that we talk about emotional things is just through song.
JD: On a personal level, I was doing a lot of talk therapy before we were writing that album, so I feel like that was bubbling up. My grandfather had just died, and that got me thinking a lot about my own father. And then it all just came out.
DA: And that kind of launched me to – I was like, Jordan’s writing about his upbringing, I had a very privileged upbringing. I had to kind of step outside of that and see what I have learned from those relationships, whether it’s positive or negative. It was good for me to be able to hear Jordan writing about these themes, and then think about them for myself and be like, “How does this apply to me? Where can I put myself in this?” We came up with songs like ‘Ghosty’ and ‘Climber’ out of the relationships that I had. I feel like it just naturally happened, and the conversation that we would have about it exists within those songs. There’s no paragraphs describing the songs – the deepest it goes is in those songs, and I feel like that’s what’s most important to us, is that people get a window into that instead of closing them off from any information.
At the end of ‘Soda Can’, are you saying “double it”?
DA: Oh, yeah. Meta, because we’re doubling each other the whole album, I think, is us singing in unison together. It’s like four voices, because it’s Jordan doubling himself and me doubling myself all at the same time.
JD: And we like to keep little snippets in.
DA: We like to have a little bit of that organic – you feel like you’re there when you’re listening to it. We don’t want it to feel like it’s some polished thing, because then it just feels kind of impersonal to the listener.
JD: And because it’s not.
DA: It never is. We never do the big studio thing. We want people to know how bad we are at it. [Jordan laughs]
It makes sense to leave that in too, because I assumed it’s something you say or at least do a lot throughout the process.
DA: I didn’t even know that was in there.
JD: I love the hyper-specific questions.
DA: That was a winner question.
I feel like the album is less about like the formative experiences themselves and more about how you carry them in the present, in how you express yourselves and in your relationships with others and with yourselves. And I feel like a lot of that tension is kind of released on a song like ‘How It Ends’, but I don’t know if it’s ever fully resolved.
DA: I mean, I feel like ‘Fixing Up the Back Room’ gets into some resolution – or less resolution, more confrontation. But we talk about this all the time, we never want the projects to feel like they wrap up in a nice bow too much, because those conversations that you have about those topics – about divorce, about learned love, about relationships – they’re kind of a never-ending conversation. And you don’t really want to say there’s a solution or an answer to any of it, but there’s always a question. I feel like we don’t really answer any of our own questions, we more just kind of land to the point by the end where we’re forgiving and understanding of the situations that we were in. But we’re not letting them go. They’re not gone.
JD: The way the album ends was kind of weird. It was also one of the first songs written for the album. ‘Soda Can’ definitely starts like, present day, this is how I feel about it, these are the unresolved feelings that I carry around. And then the last song travels back to when my mom had her first kid and was a single parent with me, and trying to put yourself in her shoes and understand where she was coming from. I like that it goes from this really angry place at the start of the album to kind of like lullaby kids song. Because that’s where the trauma comes from, is when you’re too young to even understand what’s going on.
DA: It kind of creates this loop of, we’re at the age our parents were now when they were having kids and getting married, and we’re not that. So, going in the loop and then ending it with your mom having her first kid kind of puts it in this cycle of generational, like, “What’s next?”
Do you feel like you’ve learned how to be more empathetic towards not just the people in your past, but also the people around you, as a result of this?
DA: I think so. I think that’s the goal. I think it’s less about us learning to do it – I mean, we obviously need to, but it’s kind of about other people and listeners trying to get that out of it. But I think for us, it’s been pretty cathartic. It won’t feel as emotionally impactful to me until it’s readily available for everyone else, I think. Right now, it just feels like it’s still in our heads because it’s not out there in the world yet.
JD: It did push me to have necessary talks with my family, which was good. So on a personal level, it was good, and if it does that for other people, that’s when it would be really meaningful; if it sparks those conversations or helps someone who is going through a family divorce or something to feel like they’re not alone in this situation. We want it to be pretty clear that it’s about that, because as a kid I felt like, I don’t know if many albums were about that overtly. I think that’s a cool thing that, like, half the people in the world will understand. I have a lot of friends that I was talking to during the process, too – feelings about your self-worth, how you engage in other relationships because of watching what your parents were like. It was just coming to a head in our personal lives, so it felt like a good time to address these patterns and experiences.
Because you’ve put out stuff in the past, I’m sure you’ve had to have difficult conversations with people in your life that you address in some way in your music. Does it feel different with this album?
JD: It feels more personal.
DA: It definitely feels more personal. It feels like it’s as personal as we’re going to – not as we’re gonna go, I don’t know – but it feels like we wanted to get that out there to make sure that the story is there, so that we can have a little more fun in the future with music and feel like there’s not as much of a weight of feeling like we need to write about certain things or not.
How did the collaboration with Jay Som come about, and what do you feel like she brought to the album?
DA: She’s a friend of ours, and we work on a lot of other artists together with her. So that was kind of a cool experience of being like, “Hey, I know we have you mix our clients all the time, do you want to come and spend a few days with us at a cabin and work on some stuff?” And it was a small role, she just came in and oversaw some of the things we were doing, added a few sounds. We weren’t ready to have someone produce a TOLEDO album, but we were ready to have someone come in and add their ideas. And I think that Melina was the perfect person to do that, because we were already friends and we knew that there was this understanding about each other’s music that we had. It was really fun, but it’s such a small thing on the album sometimes, where it’s like, this synth sound on the last song, the album ends with Melina laughing. All these little pieces that bring you into a little bit more of a world was some of Melina’s doing.
JD: She showed us some cool production techniques that we’ll probably use in the future too. Like in ‘Ghosty’ and ‘Back Room’, there’s some piano, you can barely hear it. And she was like, “We should put spoons and rocks and little knickknacks on the strings of the piano,” and it gets to a weird, jangly –
DA: And that’s the sound of a lot of How It Ends. A lot of How It Ends is Melina and us just having fun with percussive instruments and things. And I think that’s kind of the best way to make music, is be less heady about it and just do whatever sounds cool and is fun and throw shit at the wall and see whatever sticks.
Can you share one thing that inspires you about each other?
DA: Oh… That’s emotional. I think one of the things that inspires me about Jordan is his poetry. We always rely on Jordan for a lot of lyrical stuff, and I think that’s something that we realize if we weren’t a duo and we were separate things, it wouldn’t really work. So I kind of know what Jordan’s answer is going to be, but what it inspires me about Jordan and what makes me look up to him as a songwriter is his ability to create a story with sometimes artistic imagery. Especially in the new stuff, but a lot of older songs, too, that are more poetic, have linear motion and have a story – and it might be written in a creative writing type way, but it comes through.
JD: Now, what do you think my answer is?
DA: I don’t know… Music?
JD: Well, I do always tell people that Dan the most talented musician, but that’s not, like, inspiring. But it is true. But I think he’s really, really dedicated. Sometimes too much.
DA: Yeah. Backhanded compliment?
JD: The work ethic is inspiring – I mean when he’s in a studio, like in a production mode, you could throw things at him and he wouldn’t even notice because he gets so focused.
DA: In it to win it. I’m going for like a Brian Wilson type. I genuinely want that. I want, like, psycho music savant one day. That’s a little heady, but we’ll see.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
TOLEDO’s How It Ends is out September 23 via Grand Jury.