He Really Gets You:
Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo is the Voice of an Effed Up Generation
“Bloggers– If you want to link to my music, please don’t use the first four albums because they’re not very good.”
–Will Toledo, in a since-deleted Bandcamp message
“But while you’re there, be sure to listen to the two “Teens” albums because they’re very good.”
It’s a Friday morning in Seattle, and Will Toledo is still trying to figure out what he’ll be doing that evening. “We were supposed to play a house show,” he explains by phone from his apartment, “but I just got a call that the house may, um, be unavailable.”
Toledo won’t have many more unscheduled nights to navigate. Once Car Seat Headrest’s magnum opus Teens of Denial is released in mid-May his band sets sail for an extended European tour, followed by some summer US festivals (they’ll return to east coast clubs in the fall). Car Seat Headrest is currently playing as a three-piece while bassist Seth Dalby relocates from Toledo’s original home state of Virginia. But even life as a trio is three times more company than the majority of CSH’s existence.
Between 2010 and 2014 Car Seat Headrest released eleven albums on Bandcamp. Outside of a few limited-run cassettes and 7” singles, the band’s first physical output was last fall’s Matador Records debut, the thrilling Teens of Style. Style found Toledo revamping highlights from CSH’s solo-recorded Phase Two era (more on Phase One later) with the help of a few musicians and an ever-so-slight upgrade in production values. “It still felt more like a solo project,” Toledo shrugs. “I did it in my home studio, mixed it all myself.”
Teens of Style’s retrospective aspect seems like a record label strategy to introduce a “new” artist to a broader market, but according to Toledo he was working on the concept before Matador entered the picture. “I wanted to revisit the more indie rock stuff, to give people a refresh before Denial. It felt like a callback to the simpler stuff I had done earlier, as opposed to the heavily arranged, more compositional tracks I had moved toward. When we first met I pitched Matador on the idea of the two albums coming out one after the other,” he says, adding that he always envisioned Teens of Style as his first label release – regardless of the label. “I’ve always been a fan of revisiting my older material – I’m usually going back and finding little stuff.” How many 24 year-olds can talk about revisiting their “older material” without sounding ridiculous?
By late 2013 Toledo had started working on the songs that would become Teens of Denial, with an intentional shift in sonic territory. Along the way he graduated from the College of William & Mary, relocated to more indie-friendly Seattle, and issued the appropriately titled How to Leave Town, his DIY swansong. “I had a very specific vision for Teens of Denial; it took a long time before I had enough material I was satisfied with,” he explains. “The rejected material just didn’t line up with the vision – I didn’t know what I’d use it for, but a lot of it wound up on How to Leave Town. The songs were recorded in retrospect, after I had already moved from Virginia,” says Toledo, for whom setting up another home studio was the first order of business upon arriving in the Northwest.
If you’re getting the impression that a lot of thought went into Teens of Denial you’d be right. And it pays off – the 70-minute Denial immediately asserts itself among the pantheon of wildly ambitious, wholly personal, and remarkably listenable landmark double albums of the past two decades (think Exile in Guyville, The Lonesome Crowded West, and The Monitor). Even while expanding his palette to include the occasional piano, trumpet and Mellotron, the working band format generates a more vibrant power pop crunch, akin to the Replacements when channeling UK cult faves the Only Ones.
Last time out Teens of Style gave me a distinct Guided By Voices hit. On Teens of Denial Toledo has cut out the middleman and plugged directly into the Kinks source material. “(Producer) Steve Fisk compared me to Ray Davies at one point,” Toledo acknowledges. “I like the Kinks, though I don’t know that they were a conscious reference point. I think the Kinks hit a sweet spot at the intersection between noisier garage rock and a more intellectual, semi-nerdy vibe, so it’s flattering. There’s stuff they did that’s really prissy and fussy but there’s also stuff you can really rock out to – that’s a cool balance.”
The comparison extends to Toledo’s self-deprecating wit and themes of youthful experimentation. Denial’s lyric sheet runs some 4,000 words – more than double the length of this article – spanning topics like clinical depression, illicit drugs, sleeping on floors, awkward interactions with parents and Jesus… in other words, rock ‘n’ roll. Its clever lines will populate Facebook posts for months to come, but the following quip from “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” strikes me as some sort of inverted haiku lifted directly from a Davies notebook:
Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms
I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit
In a stupid looking jacket
Toledo had always conceived Teens of Denial as a double album – in fact, he claims one reason he shied away from physical releases in the past was the difficulty of sequencing vinyl sides (he limited Teens of Style’s track listing so it would fit nicely on a single disc). “The only thing I regret is that ‘Destroyed by Hippie Powers’ starts side two; I feel like it would work better at the end of side one,” he laments. The care applied to sequencing also accounts for the existence of “Cosmic Hero,” the only track that hadn’t been demoed. “We developed that one between recording sessions because there was a sort of a gap on side three we wanted to fill.”
“Cosmic Hero” was originally intended as a vinyl-only bonus, but the band was happy enough with the result to leave it on all formats. However, this tale may explain why the otherwise solid eight-plus minute track is the only one not to fully justify its extended running time. The 11-minute epic “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia sets the standard on that front – it opens with a four-minute piano dirge, shifts to a transitional rant, then explodes into the album’s most blistering groove with its repeated “I give up!” chorus.
“Just What I Needed/Not Just What I Needed” has its own fascinating backstory that Will would prefer you not read before hearing the song (spoiler alert). Originally titled “There Is a Policeman Inside All of Our Heads, He Must Be Destroyed,” Toledo starts by toying with the opening pattern of the Cars’ classic single. That ten-second homage breaks into an unrelated song that includes what may be Car Seat Headrest’s lyrical call to arms:
Hello my friend, we’ve been waiting for you for a long time
We have reason to believe that your soul is just like ours
Did you ever get the feeling you were just a little different?
Well, here’s our web page – you’ve finally found a home
Then after three minutes of glory Toledo appends the opening verse to “Just What I Needed,” stopping cold just as they’ve built to the chorus. “I wanted the ending to be a surprise, but it worked out that we could get it cleared a lot quicker if we called it a medley and changed the title,” he explains. The rights issue is certainly a blurred line; a lawyer friend tells me “the law in this area is a mess and the outcomes unpredictable, so Toledo was wise in playing it safe.” However, if it’s really necessary to credit Stephen Malkmus for a tossed-off six-word nod to “Cut Your Hair,” we’re all lost.
This attention to detail is a far cry from what Toledo now considers Car Seat Headrest Phase One – the four “numbered albums” he recorded and posted in consecutive months in 2010 following his senior year of high school. “Basically I’d spend an afternoon recording (often in the backseat of his parents’ car, to capitalize on its soundproof booth effect) and that became a song.”
The shift to Phase Two coincided with Toledo’s move to college, at which point his output slowed to a relatively slovenly album-every-six-months pace (c’mon kid, get a work ethic, would ya?) “At first it was just a continuation of what I had been doing, but I felt like some of the material was stronger than the half baked, experimental looped stuff on the numbered albums. Then I noticed a blog or two was linking to Sunburned Shirts,” a more song-oriented EP he had put out, “so I combined the EP with the album and cut out the weaker tracks.” He also dropped the idea of naming it 5, opting for a proper title – My Back is Killing Me Baby – and the 2011 release holds up well enough that it contributed five of the tracks on Teens of Style. Suddenly those early dreams of a music career didn’t seem so far-fetched.
Toledo wasn’t exclusively a bedroom popster during his school years. The College of William & Mary is hardly a hipster hotbed (even if it can claim Jon Stewart and Thomas Jefferson among its alumni) but like any self respecting music geek he found a clique at the campus radio station that included a few other aspiring indie rockers. “There were live gigs on the side but it was never a focus. It was more of a collective playing Car Seat Headrest as well as other people’s stuff. There wasn’t much to aspire to – a small coffee shop called the Meridian that did DIY shows, a few fraternity gigs and pizza parlors.” Phase Two never performed outside Virginia, but that crew included Seth Dalby the bassist now heading west to augment the trio that recorded the majority of Teens of Denial.
Car Seat Headrest’s late 2015 Atlanta show was a winner despite the nasty cold that had caught up with Toledo (fans in Nashville the following night weren’t nearly as lucky, he tells me). Quaffing hot tea between songs, Toledo still wasn’t deterred from playing barefoot. “It’s easier to feel the pedals, to have a sense of where my feet are,” he says. “But it takes a certain sort of venue…” Probably like that Seattle house party, which came off after all.
One show he likely didn’t play barefoot was a “humbling” recent return to William & Mary for the annual radio station festival, which was inexplicably held outdoors on a sub-40 degree April Saturday. “They had a heater blowing on me, but it kept knocking my guitar out of tune, making it sound like a toy. There were about 40 super drunk people left by the time we played. It felt like college, that’s for sure,” he laughs.
With Teens of Denial as a calling card, the road for Car Seat Headrest is about to heat up.
Photo by Anna Webber.