Car Seat Headrest’s frontman is doing it his way
Will Toledo is a funny guy, quick to joke about his Bandcamp roots, fast to tease that his future projects include an “album of cover versions of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’”
Jokes and jibes aside, Toledo—the onetime one-man-band behind the fully fleshed-out Car Seat Headrest—is a serious, considerate scribe and complex thinker. He’s a concise, cutting writer whose wise, economical words and parenthetical thoughts give his crunching guitars, lo-fi synth skronk and laudable melodicism the textual, abstract feel of Michael Stipe meeting playwright Eugene O’Neill. The former even gets a shoutout on “Strangers,” a song that, like “Something Soon” (which namechecks short-story author Raymond Carver), appears on his mish-mash debut, 2015’s Teens Of Style, just months ahead of this spring’s next Headrest project, Teens Of Denial.
“I was attracted to the vague, the unexplained, the unlabeled side of art,” says Toledo of finding solace in the Carvers and Stipes of the world. “Overwrought, explicit symbolism was antithetical to me as a teenager, so I ran toward artists who shied from the explicit, who left more unsaid than said. In the end, Stipe maybe left a little too much unsaid. I have no idea what the fuck ‘idle hands all orient to her’— honestly a worse line—means, and that makes me feel a little jilted for having it exist in my head as a known lyric for almost a decade. Lyricists of the future, please think of the children.”
A Williamsburg, Va., native who majored in English in college, then left home for Seattle (“It’s creepy to stay in your college town after you graduate”), Toledo crammed the Bandcamp artist/fan site full with so many uniquely Car Seat Headrest witty tunes and wonky songcraft that Matador Records stood up and took notice. “I wouldn’t say nobody gets anywhere from Bandcamp,” he says. “Very few people get anywhere, but I think that’s true for any method of career-building as a musician. I was posting songs on Bandcamp for six years before the industry noticed, but all through that time individuals were coming to my page and finding something they liked, and that built up into its own thing after a while.”
Re-recording those Bandcamp tracks for Teens Of Style wasn’t a matter of hiding or even accentuating, but more like eliminating. “I felt that most of these songs were 80 percent great, and the other 20 percent was filler lyrics, bum vocal takes or just insufficient cover for lousy performances,” he says.
When it came to Teens Of Denial—more conceptual in message and tone than that first compilation—you can hear immediately that these were songs written for a single project rather than scattershot great tunes, an album that was self-contained but not necessarily self-referential. “I tasked myself with creating distinct, all-new songs that borrowed nothing from older, recognizable Car Seat Headrest songs,” he says. “I almost succeeded, but cheated a bit by stealing from some old material that actually predated CSH.”
For example, the ending of “Connect The Dots (The Saga Of Frank Sinatra)” came from a song he penned in 2009 that followed the Frank during his dead-end period in New York after he quit Tommy Dorsey’s band, but before doubling down and coming into his swinging Rat Pack success. Toledo felt very much the same as Old Blue Eyes. “After moving out to Seattle with no contacts and no friends and trying to make things work for myself, Sinatra’s story resonated with me,” he says. “The character is determined to go it alone, to do it ‘my way’ and forgo all comforts of human companionship as a result.” Another Denial tune, “Cosmic Hero,” is more fragmented and conversational, the most stream-of-consciousnessy song on the album, meant to capture the feeling of a semi-sleeping state where all chatter exists between crucial and goofy. “I try to combat the tendency of sounding authoritative by undermining myself whenever possible,” he says. “An aside or two is helpful in conveying that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.”