By Kastle Waserman
Heavy Gus rises from a side project with a dreamy, playful pop
NO MATTER HOW SUCCESSFUL a band is, the musicians’ creative juices still flow for other ideas and side projects. The pandemic shutdowns of 2020 provided many opportunities to try out those callings. When the husband-and-wife team of Stelth Ulvang (multi-instrumentalist with Colorado’s beloved Lumineers) and Dorota Szuta suddenly found themselves grounded from touring, it gave way to exploring songwriting and recording. Under the name Heavy Gus, they joined with their friend and drummer Ryan Dobrowski of Blind Pilot (Dobrowski’s fiancé, Lauren Jacobson, plays violin in
“Ryan and I spent a lot of time backstage on Lumineers tours, just hanging out, eating snacks and saying we should start a band of our own,” says Szuta. The idea led to a couple of recordings on a stop in Nashville during a Lumineers tour, and a dreamy pop sound emerged with layered soundscapes that go
from slow flows to bouncy rockers, like a mix of Mazzy Star meets the Breeders. Then the world shut down.
“We thought, ‘Why not try to record?’” says Szuta. They embarked on a road trip across the country to a friend’s studio that had cancellations from the pandemic. All the time on their hands led to recording an entire album—the debut LP “Notions” released in August 2022.
The band admits they didn’t really have a plan. They gave the songs to a few friends, and the album got attention from record labels, culminating in an unexpected signing with BMG music company.
“We didn’t even think that would happen so quickly,” says Ulvang. “It was a sweet surprise.” As established musicians in their own rights, Ulvang, as a touring member of the Lumineers and Szuta, a singer and violinist who has played and toured with several bands over the past 15 years, Heavy Gus provided a way for the couple to create music together.
Szuta admits much of her songwriting stems from missing her husband when he’s on tour, as well as the time she spends working outside during her full-time job as a freshwater
biologist in Bishop, California.
“When I’m outside and asking questions about the world, I feel like my brain is looser, and I’ll just sing little lines or make voice memos.” She says her songwriting approach is stream of consciousness, but Ulvang’s songwriting practice is more disciplined, writing a song a day. Then they exchange notes and edit each other’s songs.
“I’m not that great at editing my own work, and that’s where we help each other,” says Ulvang. “It’s easier to come at each other’s song without the ego and attachment.”
Drummer Dobrowski is also credited with giving the band its momentum. “If it were just Stelth and me, we would never have the direction that Ryan brings. He grounds us and keeps us going,” says Szuta. In the middle of forming a new band, the couple also had a baby. Szuta’s various stages of pregnancy can be seen in several of their music videos. They confess parenthood changed their perspective on songwriting and touring.
“Since having a baby, my songs are more of a patchwork of ideas,” Szuta says. “I don’t get those long periods of breathing room, time to think through a thought and see where it will go. It’s more like a collage.”
When it comes to playing shows, the couple says that having a nanny backstage with their child is critical, and they take one on the road. “I think it’s good for our child to have parents that have interests and passions that aren’t just him,” says Szuta, who admits it’s hard balancing a job, a toddler and being in a band.
Heavy Gus is looking forward to playing in Colorado in April, so audiences get a glimpse of their personalities.
“We’re still developing our stage dynamic, says Szuta. In our personal lives, we’re both a couple of ding-dongs, so it gets pretty goofy. That can make it hard to sing the serious songs sometimes. But it’s a nice balance. You don’t want to take yourself too seriously.”
Heavy Gus performs at the Bluebird Music Festival in Boulder on April 29 and 30.