From Man To Auto Accessory To Indie Success, Car Seat Headrest Has Come Miles

7 November 2016 | 3:54 pm | Steve Bell

"Things are definitely different now, mainly in that I have a direction in which I'm going and things are going fairly well."

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For five years, young Virginian native Will Toledo had been making music and releasing it onto the internet under the moniker Car Seat Headrest in virtual anonymity — despite fostering a small but devoted fanbase — before he was discovered by US indie mainstay Matador Records and catapulted firmly into the spotlight.

After releasing one record for Matador that cherry-picked (and re-recorded) songs from his dozen Bandcamp albums (2014’s Teens Of Style), his first full album for the label — this year’s Teens Of Denial — touched a public nerve with its image-laden quest for identity set to anthemic rock’n’roll and couched in innovative arrangements, changing his life irrevocably in the process.

While his seemingly effortless amalgam of indie-rock attitude and spirit with more classic rock tendencies is so readily accessible it was bound to strike a chord on some level, Toledo concedes that the roller-coaster ride of the last 12 months has still proved nothing short of surreal.

Matador was the only label at all that was interested in the band … no one else in the industry had picked up on us at all.

“Yeah, absolutely, there’s never been one like it before this in my life,” he laughs of the past year. “But it’s good; it feels like I’m finally living to my fullest.”

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Was hooking up with Matador as big a game changer as it seems from the outside in terms of taking Car Seat Headrest to the next level?

“Yeah, what it looks like from the outside is more or less what it was because there was no outside before Matador came along,” he reflects. “It was a very grassroots thing before then, as far as popularity was concerned, but things really took off in the past year. Matador was the only label at all that was interested in the band — they just kinda found out about us online and no one else in the industry had picked up on us at all. Between then and now has been a hugely radical shift.

“I hadn’t necessarily pictured it being so extreme — I’d hoped that it would happen; it just seemed that I’d spent so long being on the outside that I’d just gotten used to it, and then everything has really happened exactly as I would have wanted it in the past year, to the point where it does seem like the product of six years’ work even though the majority of the momentum has really only come into play in the past year. But I think that it’s really been building towards it for a long time.”

The bulk of Teens Of Denial was written a few years ago, when Toledo was finishing his studies at the esteemed College Of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, facing the inevitable fork in the road when it came to the next phase of his life.

“It was actually the last year of college, just coming up on moving out and not knowing what to do,” he remembers. “I finished it up and it was a year after that by the time we went in to record it, but the emotional content of everything was mainly about that last year there.”

Is there an emotional resonance in those lyrics he can still relate to, or is it more a snapshot of a particular time?

“It’s a snapshot,” he states without hesitation. “Most of my records I consider to be snapshots, and that one in particular I was hoping that it was something that I’d move past, and it was. Things are definitely different now, mainly in that I have a direction in which I’m going and things are going fairly well.

“Back then I was doing Car Seat Headrest but I didn’t really know where it was going or how long it would take before I could make a living off if it: they were all things that concerned me, but now there’s a lot less worry from me about that — I think that things are going well at this point — but I’m still the same person and I still go back to those states from time to time.”

Making a living from Car Seat Headrest wasn’t always an important consideration: the first four albums Toledo put online — made towards the end of high school — are more songwriting experiments with stream-of-consciousness lyrics than fully formed songs, hardly a grab for longevity.

“Yeah, that was just when I started out,” he tells. “It was something that I took seriously from my first year of college onwards, and that was the bulk of the self-recorded years. At the time, I was still in college, so I wasn’t really pushed to try and make a living off of it, but it was certainly what I wanted to do after college — I didn’t really have a skill set beyond music, and I was worried, if I couldn’t make a living off of music, what I was going to do.

“So that’s one of the reasons I was always hoping that people would start taking notice, and it kind of happened at the exact right time: about a year after college, I’d burned through most of my savings and was ready to start going for some other job when Matador came along.”

Some of the major changes ushered in by the new Matador alliance related to how the music was recorded rather than the music itself. Having spent years self-recording — the band name itself famously stemming from his penchant for recording the vocals in the back seat of his car for privacy — Teens Of Denial found Toledo in a proper studio for the first time, his fledgling relationship with producer Steve Fisk (Nirvana, Low, Beat Happening) also a first for the young artist. He explains that, while he was initially out of his comfort zone in this new environment, it was an experience he’d been working towards for a while.

“It was a different process for sure, but it was something that I’d intended for the record — writing it and demoing it out, I knew that I wanted to do it with a band and do it in a studio,” he recalls. “It was something that I’d been thinking about for a long time, it’s just that for most of the Car Seat Headrest days I just didn’t have the resources to go into the studio and do it — it was always just something I was doing for free for fun, and I didn’t have an income to take it to the next level.

“So I was working on this record basically hoping that once the demos were done that I could solicit some label support to get it made in a studio and, like I said, it was just perfect timing that Matador came along right as the record was wrapping up. And at the same time I’d met the people who would end up playing in the band an on the record: Andrew [Katz — drums] and Ethan [Ives — bass] I’d met a couple of months beforehand and we were playing regularly, so we just practiced the material for a month and took it into the studio and it played out pretty much exactly as I’d intended.”

Is the presence of the full band one of the reasons why Teens Of Denial has more more of a full-blown rock vibe than his previous fare?

“Well, yes, but that was also intentional — when I was writing the music I wanted it to be in a certain way,” Toledo explains. “Car Seat Headrest had been around a while and had a lot of songs, but there weren’t a lot of songs that were easy to play live, and that was one reason that I hadn’t toured much. I didn’t have much usable material to go on, so I wanted the record that was physically full of songs that could be easily played live, and would work well in that setting. So that’s the main reason for it, and then it got filled out by the other band members once they joined in.”

Toledo tells that, in that regard, Teens Of Denial was definitely a success, as the album’s songs — which veer from punchy rock tracks to meandering epics — have for the most part translated perfectly to the live realm.

“The only difference now is that we’re a four-piece and Ethan is on guitar now and Seth [Dalby] is on bass, but with the older stuff we had to alter it a bit more to get it onstage but with the songs on this record I don’t think there’s a lot of alterations,” he says. “Maybe there’s some extensions or room left for improvisational play, but the core of the songs are the same from record to stage.”

Toledo found his new Car Seat Headrest bandmates in Seattle — where he’d moved after finishing his studies — but explains that this happened more by good luck than good management.

I grew up writing lyrics really before I had an instrument to play even ... if I didn’t have a musical instinct I probably would have been a writer instead.

“Like I said, I knew that I wanted to do music and it just seemed like a good place to do that,” he shrugs of the move. “I didn’t have a lot of places to go after college — most of my friends had moved to New York which I didn’t want to do, it’s too expensive and I’d never liked living in a city very much. But I had a friend living outside of Seattle so I moved in with him for a while.”

The most powerful weapon in the Car Seat Headrest armoury is without doubt Toledo’s aptitude for penning fascinating lyrics, tracts which veer from topics such as depression, self-doubt and police brutality to studies of the modern malaise and the frailties of the human condition: big topics for any scribe, let alone one so young. The songwriter explains that in his view the lyrical side of the creative process has always been of paramount importance.

“I’ve always considered [lyrics to be] a key aspect of a song,” he admits. “I grew up writing lyrics really before I had an instrument to play even, and it’s been a lifetime of practice basically. I did learn a lot about literature and about writing when I was in college studying English but it’s always been a focal point for me, and if I didn’t have a musical instinct I probably would have been a writer instead.”

So he’s always enjoyed playing around with words?

“Yeah, I think that’s how I sort of create a world within the music,” Toledo continues. “There’s two aspects to it: there’s the music, which creates its own atmosphere, but I’m always interested in creating a world of ideas in the listener’s mind and I do that through wordplay and through the lyrical images that I present. I think that that’s important to me, because with just the music you can conjure up a certain sort of atmosphere but you can kind of get at a more specific idea through words, and that’s what interests me about making art.”

Toledo airs some pretty heavy themes throughout Teens Of Denial — many concerning the quest for individual identity and how confusing that journey can be — but the songs always end up feeling uplifting rather than dour, largely due to his deft use of humour and levity to brighten things up.

You’re laughing even when you’re suffering sometimes, and I try and be conscious of that in my art.

“I value sincerity and I don’t like artists who are just entirely ironic about things, but I think that it’s a useful tool to use in moderation,” he ponders. “And it provides a more realistic picture, I think — it’s not like I’m always suffering or whatever; there’s some self-deprecating humour involved just because that’s how it works in life. You’re laughing even when you’re suffering sometimes, and I try and be conscious of that in my art.”

Toledo admits that these musings are inherently personal, dealing with his own travails rather than troubles or torments witnessed being suffered by others.

“Yeah, it’s all personal,” he says. “I’ve written songs that were more sort of third-person fiction, and it just never aged as well with me — I never ended up liking those songs just because it seemed a little bit pretentious to be writing like that, and I couldn’t engage with it in the same way. So, after that, I always stepped to writing something that was personal to me and truthful to myself, and just of pursuing a persona through art really.”

Even the Joe character that pops up on occasions throughout Teens Of Denial is an amplification of Toledo himself rather than a purely fictional construct.

“Yeah, it’s pretty much one and the same,” he chuckles. “It’s just a way of contextualising the identity presented on the record, specifically as opposed to my wider self, so that that particular identity is associated with that name.”

So is the songwriting process cathartic if he’s working through all of these private issues to mould them into song form?

“The process of writing these lyrics is a process of trying to learn about myself,” he muses. “Finishing it up, it’s more about making the endeavour successful — fighting through it so that I’ve made something good. That’s what was important to me about this record, because it came during a hard time and I didn’t want it to just be a low point in my discography as well — I wanted it to shine through. So it was cathartic at the end, seeing the pieces put together and feeling that it was a solid effort despite the turmoil at the time it was originally conceived. That was meaningful to me.”

There’s also a lot of drinking and drugging throughout Teens Of Denial, although Toledo is quick to confess that he’s far from a reckless hedonist himself.

“No, that’s a little exaggerated in the lyrics, although I’m using the few experiences I have in a highlighted way,” he offers. “I was just sort of sensitive in college to that culture — I was sort of in the ‘alt-culture’ there — and I was witnessing a lot of that drug-taking and drinking and that sort of thing going on. It was never something that I engaged in very much but it was always there on the border and it felt like something that I had to address in my own life and that’s why I had to address it in my music as well.”

And, given that Teens Of Denial was written a while ago, is it fair to assume that there’s a new stockpile of Car Seat Headrest songs that Toledo has been working on in the interim?

“Yeah, there’s not much finished work but there’s a lot of pieces definitely that have been growing,” he enthuses. “I’ve been recording and mixing when I’ve not been on the road, so there’s definitely material forthcoming that I’m really excited about.

“I think it will kind of advance on Teens Of Denial both lyrically — it will be a little less self-involved and warmer, I think — and then musically; it will sort of combine what the last record sounded like with my previous self-produced efforts. It will have more of a production angle, where Teens Of Denial was more straightforward. In the future, I’ll be going back to making stuff on the computer a little more.”