Interview with Car Seat Headrest

Interview with Car seat Headrest, AKA Will Toledo. Allie Volpe caught up with the singer/songwriter

Will Toledo is, arguably, the poster child for Bandcamp.

“I think they’re kind of pegging me for that,” Toledo said. He’s not joking either. There have been talks of taking his involvement with the site IRL. “I think it’s a good sign, not only for me, but for other musicians who don’t have many other opportunities out there.”

Car Seat Headrest, Toledo’s musical nom de stage, has broken in the music hosting site over the course of five years and 11 self-released albums, using it as a DIY platform for his just-as-DIY project. The lo-fi musings of a late teen turned early 20something—he’s 22 now—hit on the emotional fluctuations of millennials of late and Toledo’s deep, allegorical lyricism pierces through hazy garage rock instrumentation. Like secret late-night rendezvous, oblivious to a parent’s discretion, Car Seat Headrest tunes soundtrack a distinct time and place, whose muffled and wailing guitars and slowly unfolding instrumentals play as painfully and indolently an adolescent summer.

Originally retreating to the confines of his family’s car in Leesburg, Virginia, Toledo wrote and recorded tunes about escaping, about parental struggles, about depression, about being nervous. From the car, his operations moved to his dorm room at The College of William & Mary and just recently to his post-grad surroundings in Seattle, serving as personal musical coming-of-age story.

And people started to catch on.

Much like Bandcamp contemporary Alex G., who’s expansive body of work landed him a deal with Domino Records, Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest garnered the attention of execs at Matador Records who released this year’s Teens Of Style, an essentials-only record comprised of re-recorded cuts from Car Seat Headrest’s back catalogue, containing full-band iterations of tracks from 3, (“psst, teenagers take of your clo,” “Oh! Starving”) My Back Is Killing Me Baby (“The Drum,” “Something Soon”) and Monomania (“Times To Die,” “Maud Gone”).

A beginner’s guide to all that Toledo has to offer, Teens Of Style is not the main course. Just now feeling like he’s able to scratch the surface with what he’s able to do musically with a label’s backing, Toledo has already completed Style’s follow-up with Teens of Denial, out early 2016. The adolescent man introduced five years ago continues to come into his own through the one-two-punch of Style and Denial, but that’s really only the beginning.

Toledo (a pseudonym), back at home in Virginia following a defining year reflects with us, sharing thoughts on web-based music, lyrical allegories and more.

Northern Transmissions: It’s funny that people talk about releasing music on the Internet as if it’s a new thing.

Will Toledo: I think every time something happens, people act that it’s the first time that it’s happened. I think that now more than ever though, every year more people are turning to that as a way of distributing their music, so it makes sense that it’s happening more prevalently and coming into consciousness more.

NT: Were there any challenges you felt you had to overcome just in terms of the medium you were working with?

WT: No, it was more a question of resources. Releasing on your own, you don’t really have a budget other than the one you have. So, I was kind of making things as cheaply as possible, usually not spending much of anything on an album, just recording it using what I already had. That’s the main challenge: how good can you make it sound when you have zero dollars. But the digital release itself, that worked exactly the way I wanted it to work. Just put it out there and it’s immediately available for anyone who wants to listen to it.

NT: Now that you’ve got someone like Matador behind you, are you worried it might change your process?

WT: It’s definitely changed my process but I’m not too worried about it. As I said, I was always struggling with not having a budget for the album. Not really struggling, but you can only really make a certain type of album like that. I’ve always been interested in making albums that did have those resources behind them, when you can go into a studio and do it and work with a producer. That’s definitely changed my process. We did do that this year—we did record our first album in a studio and it sounds quite different from the other stuff sonically, but musically everything’s still there. It’s just an opportunity to give it in a clearer and more accessible way.

NT: So Teens Of Denial will be a little bit different than Teens Of Style, which is an amalgamation of your previous work?

WT: When I was talking about it with Matador, I said that Teens Of Style would be the culmination of everything I’d been doing so far and Teens of Denial would be turning a new leaf. In a way, that’s going to be more the debut than the first album because it’s the first one with all new music. It’s the first one to really use the resources that Matador was offering, the higher budget I was able to have on this album. It sounds like a bigger album to me.

NT: Are you worried what the fans who’ve been there from day one will think?

WT: I hope that the fans that were there from day one would know me well enough that they’d know that I’d been talking about doing this for awhile, wanting to record in a studio and do the whole bit and that the low-fi thing was always a matter of necessity more than anything. There will be people that won’t like this as much as the low-fi stuff, but I’m okay with that because they’ve still got the older albums that they can listen to. I just don’t think an artist should do the same thing forever. I think they should develop and respond to the environment they’re in. in the grand scheme of things, the environment is definitely different than a year ago when it was still very grassroots and now suddenly things have jumped to a new level.

NT: Take me back to last year when you were doing your own thing. Was there a time when you thought you’d stop or change direction?

WT: I always had doubts or anxieties about what I was doing. I remember when I was making the album Nervous Young Man, I felt like, “If this album doesn’t take off and do well, it’ll be my last one for awhile.” Realistically, I didn’t really have any plan B other than to keep making music until it finally took a foothold.

NT: Considering the amount of work you’d put out already, did you think you’d run out of inspiration?

WT: I remember early on being frustrated that I was making stuff without an audience to work with and feeling like “What if this is the best that I’ve got and I will dry up?” But then life went on and that didn’t happen and now I’ve got a different perspective on it. Even if I have a finite amount of good music in me, I think I can make use of the back catalogue. Obviously with Teens Of Style, I went back and utilized past material. I have the mentality that, even if I’ve already released a song in the past I can still make it work in the present tense. I still don’t have a feeling that I am dried up. I’m still writing. I think it puts me in a good spot that maybe I won’t be writing music forever but I’ll be doing it long enough to make a career out of it.

NT: How did college shape your writing?

WT: A lot of the stuff I studied in college, particularly the poetry classes I took my first two years, I think they affected my writing style a lot. I learned a lot about how to write songs based on how to write poetry. They’re more or less the same thing. You can learn most of the same tricks from studying poetry. I think a lot of my tendencies to reference and make allusions are definitely a literary thing that comes from my years studying poetry.

NT: Were you ever stuck in a period, maybe in school when you had a lot going on, that you weren’t able to put the right emphasis on your music?

WT: Not really, it was always sort of a free-time activity. It existed separately from daily tasks like schoolwork or the burdens of living. It was sort of a mental process and recording was the end process of that. I always had that part of my mind active. I think that maybe sometimes with musicians once they get successful, the album itself kind of gets sidelined. I’ve found that prevalent, that kind of mentality, this year just experiencing the record industry that being a musician is a full time job even without recording an album. People expect you to be on the road, doing press stuff, doing photo shoots for pretty much most of your time. There’s not a lot of talk about having time to contemplate and write music. I think that some people can get swept away in that and not spend so much time recording their albums once they’ve got this lifestyle, but I hope to avoid that myself. I think that so far I have. I’ve tried to stay active and thinking about not just writing first albums, but thinking about them as well.

NT: Do you think that’s important, to look back on your past work?

WT: For sure. I’ll hear lots of artists say they don’t even listen to their past albums, which kind of surprises me. I check out my old stuff fairly frequently to try and figure out a sensible path from there.

NT: I was reading your annotated lyrics on Genius.com. All of the references in your lyrics are really interesting. Were you worried those things would go unnoticed?

WT: I think that’s the catch with references is that obviously people aren’t going to get them right away. That’s why I really like Genius. I definitely like that it’s geared toward making those things clearer. It’s funny because I’ve got a friend when I was adding the annotations to my songs and he’s like, “Why would you do that? That’s terrible.” A lot of people I think have the sort of David Lynch theory of writing where you should never explain what a work means. But for me, I don’t make a reference so people will not get it, I would rather have them know what the reference itself is. I try not to explain what it means in the larger context in the song, so they can still figure that out. But it helps to have people on the same basic page.

NT: Is it overwhelming to know that all of that information is out there on the Internet, whether it be annotations or your entire catalogue?

WT: I’ve been surprised this year at how little people explore musically. Even though everything’s out there, the amount of people for whom I’m on the radar but they haven’t checked out any of that stuff still. That surprises me. But it makes me think that it is okay to put out everything, that it needs to be exposed, to release that immediately and expect people not to have caught on right away even though it is out there.

NT: Were there any bands that you dug into on the Internet after hearing them on a larger scale?

WT: I feel like I’m someone who’s not very good at that. I guess Nirvana I did that with. I remember looking up all the lyrics, all the fan-transcribed lyrics of live songs, trying to figure out every song. I think that was the band that did that the most with. I think I was about band books than exploring online. I’ve got some REM books and Nirvana books, but I don’t know if people write about bands so much anymore, so maybe I’ll have to change my ways.

NT: The titles of your first two Matador records are Teens Of Style and Teens Of Denial. Do you have a fascination with teenage life?

WT: It’s more just a tidy pair that I wanted to create. I got the title first for Teens Of Denial—that was actually just the caption of the photo that we ended up using on the cover, it’s a vintage photo I got off eBay and that was the caption that went with it. I thought that was a good title. So when I separately had the idea of making the compilation album, I figured it would have the title that bounced off of that.

Interview by Allie Volpe