Band To Watch: Car Seat Headrest

Band To Watch: Car Seat Headrest

OK, so this one is kind of cheating: Will Toledo (last name pseudonymous) has been making music as Car Seat Headrest for over five years now, so calling this one a “Band To Watch” is probably a bit of a stretch. Toledo’s done a well enough job of his own cultivating a very devoted fanbase through a long series of strong Bandcamp releases. But the designation feels appropriate in some way, because this feature comes on the heels of a big announcement, one that will probably come as a welcome surprise to those who have been following the project since its early days: Car Seat Headrest is joining the esteemed roster of Matador Records, and will release two records in the next few months that will serve as both a reintroduction and a continuation of Toledo’s journey so far.

The news comes at an apt time: Last year, Toledo moved to Seattle from the Virginia college town where the project picked up steam. So, really, the whole “band” part of the equation is new — up until the move, Car Seat Headrest was largely a solo project, with a rotating crew of backing players that accompanied Toledo live or on recordings as needed. And now that the project is becoming more solidified, there’s moves to contextualize the band for the outsiders who will inevitably join in.

First up is Teens Of Style, a compilation of sorts that reworks and fleshes out some of Toledo’s older tracks, primarily from 2011’s My Back Is Killing Me Baby and 2012’s Monomania. It’s still largely a self-recorded affair, so it keeps some of the home-spun charms of CSH’s earlier releases, but it still feels grander on every scale. And that scope is sure to widen with Teens Of Denial, which will be released early next year, the first Car Seat Headrest album to be recorded in a “real” studio with a “real” producer.

So, on this precipice, let’s take one last moment to look back: I’ve been following Toledo’s project from afar for for a few years now, mostly appreciating rather than investing, but I sat down for the first time recently and listened to his entire (long) discography from front to back. It’s a lot to take in. Listening through to the entire Car Seat Headrest output in chronological order is like watching someone grow up, mainly because that’s exactly what it is. There’s awkward growing pains, off-putting discursions, ambitious interconnected concept albums, albums that are barely held together by Scotch tape; EPs-in-name-only that stretch over an hour, B-side collections labeled as “generally just awful shit,” complete with notes about the conception of every song. His entire Bandcamp page is prefaced with a warning: “DO NOT LINK THE NUMBERED ALBUMS BECAUSE THEY’RE NOT VERY GOOD,” it shouts, urging people not to share the earliest work but still keeping it up for posterity and the diehards. “Not very good” isn’t exactly true — you can see the spark even from the earliest songs, but it’s understandable why one would be a little overwhelmed.

But listening through it all is a worthwhile investment, a curious look at maturation in fits and starts. You can view the whole thing through two lenses. First, the more personal: identity struggles and fumbling sexuality, crushes materialized and dissipated, attitudes formed and changed. There’s some ugly, selfish behavior displayed on these tracks; there’s also some very beautiful, very poignant sentiments — it’s the nature of life, I guess, played out one track at a time. There’s also the more linear progression: recording techniques improved, song structures strengthened. You can see Toledo grow as an artist, as he tries to marry together disparate influences. The strongest releases are the ones where he sounds most like himself — namely, 2011’s Twin Fantasy and 2014’s How To Leave Town. If you were to boil everything down to two must-listens, those would probably be it. But the fact that that’s even up for debate shows why someone as big as Matador would be interested in investing in this collection — Toledo’s only 22 at this point, and it’ll be fascinating to see where his mind takes him next.

Toledo’s songs themselves play out on a grand scale, one that will be fitting for a larger audience. All his words are imbued with a sense of Greek tragedy, of an epic, universal nature so easy to grasp that it’s deeply personal. The physical edition of Teens Of Style will feature an Ancient Egyptian poem on its packaging — the style only feels once or twice removed from the hyper-literate, sprawlingly introspective songwriting that Toledo’s been doing for years. In another life, he could’ve been a bard, if only his songs weren’t too much of the 21st century. His songs betray too much of the narcissism of our generation, the self-reflection and self-loathing that’s both a blessing and a curse.

Many of his best tracks are gently unfolding, 10-minute-plus reflections — none of those show up on Teens Of Style, though, which makes it his tightest release to date. And even though it’s more compilation than fully-formed thought, it still plays out like a cohesive enough effort. And it serves a perfect introduction to anyone who hasn’t yet stumbled onto Toledo’s musings.

On “Something Soon,” one of the first re-recorded tracks to be shared from the upcoming release, he lays out the necessity and urgency of his songwriting: “I was referring to the present in past tense/ It was the only way that I could survive it/ I want to close my head in the car door/ I want to sing this song like I’m dying.” Toledo uses his music as a way to cope, a way to contextualize current emotions into something digestible. And he hopes that translates to the listener, as a way to feel some sense of catharsis and relief. It works. “Something Soon” is weighed down by the pressure of expectation — from society, from your family, from yourself. It’s a song about desire, about needing a connection so badly so you don’t get lost within yourself. “Heavy boots on my throat/ I need, I need something soon.” With a move up to the big leagues, more pressure is bound to come. But Toledo seems ready to handle it: Car Seat Headrest is becoming less of a bedroom affair, and more of the punk project it always was at heart.

Check out a video for “Something Soon” below, and read our interview with Toledo.

STEREOGUM: What motivated you to sign to a label after pretty much going at it on your own for so many years?

WILL TOLEDO: It was always kind of a goal; I was able to do what I was doing because there weren’t really any expenses to it – I was just releasing my work digitally, and had no plans for touring. For a while I was happy with that, and it made sense while I was in college, but there’s been more and more people asking me to put stuff out on vinyl and to tour, so I was looking for a way to make that happen. I’d expected to sign with someone much smaller – Matador coming along was a completely unexpected blessing. A lot of bands I was listening to as a kid were Matador artists, so it wasn’t a hard decision to go with them. Self-releasing material is rewarding, but the payoff is super slow. It was definitely an option I could have stuck with, but I wanted to see what would happen if I went down this road – and I needed the money!

STEREOGUM: How did it all come about? Did Matador reach out to you?

TOLEDO: Yes, it was out of nowhere – [label founder] Chris Lombardi emailed me one day to say he’d heard my stuff and loved it, and was coming to our next show. I was living on nothing at the time; I’d been staying as a guest at a friend’s since I moved to the Seattle area, and we’d just gotten the property tax, which we were going to split. We didn’t have WiFi so I walked to a coffee shop to get online and was cataloguing all the ‘help wanted’ signs on the way. Then when I got there that email was in my inbox, and I guess I flipped out. Chris brought his Matador crew to the show, and the show was a bit pathetic because we had zero traction in Seattle other than a few hardcore fans at the time, but they still liked us enough to sign us.

STEREOGUM: That’s an uplifting origin story! Was part of the reason for signing to a label born out of a desire to go and rerecord older stuff, or did that idea come later?

TOLEDO: I’d had the idea for a while, including when I was originally recording them; it felt like the best I could do at the time, rather than something I’d really be happy with forever. That was part of the appeal with digital albums, is that they could feel less ‘official’, and I could mess with them long after their technical release date. I often went back and tweaked stuff on past albums I felt could be better, but I also wanted to do a more comprehensive overhaul of the best of it, to give it new life. And I’d always thought ‘studio’ when thinking of that, but by the time Matador came around I felt I was working well enough in the home environment to do the first album that way, and that’s what ended up happening.

Everything on Teens Of Style I recorded and produced myself. We got a professional, Abe Seiferth, to mix the drums and bass for Something Soon, but everything else is me. I figured this would be my last chance to do something that still sounded & felt like the ‘old’ Car Seat Headrest before we started doing bigger work.

STEREOGUM: How did you go about deciding which of your old songs you’d rerecord?

TOLEDO: That was something else that had been brewing for some time, though the final tracklist and sequencing was up in the air until days before it got mastered. There are some older albums that I want to revisit in full at some point, whether by reissue or rerecording, so for this release I was looking at material off albums I was less likely to focus on later.

The most direct predecessor to this album is I think My Back Is Killing Me Baby, which I consider the first really solid CSH release. It’s guitar-heavy and there’s a lot of warmth to it, and I wanted to emulate that feeling on the new album.

STEREOGUM: Since you wrote & released all these songs throughout college, was it weird going back to revisit old emotions and figure out which ones still speak to you and kind of make sense together as a whole?

TOLEDO: Yeah, and there were some lyric rewrites that reflect that. I was basically happy with anything I’d written that seemed to have some genuine weight and emotion behind it – most of what I disliked enough to change was just bullshit filler I’d written because it sounded cool, or because I couldn’t think of anything better. Some of the emotional states on there do seem immature compared to what I think I’m at now, but I’m ok with it, because it does represent who I was a short time ago, and it doesn’t feel untrue to sing it now.

STEREOGUM: What do you think ties this record together thematically, especially since these were all picked out of 4+ years of emotional development?

TOLEDO: Well, I think it might have some of the feel of a compilation, but I like that – I grew up listening to compilations, and you get to see an artist’s entire arc condensed into an hour; it can be powerful stuff. There’s enough cohesiveness to the production, though, that it feels less like a compilation of songs and more like a compilation of feelings and opinions from 4+ years of emotional development.

STEREOGUM: Going off that, how do you think you’ve changed compared to when you first started Car Seat Headrest? And how much do you think growing up was influenced by having a musical outlet for your feelings?

TOLEDO: When I started CSH I was scared of a lot of things and didn’t have many people I could talk to. My earliest stuff is extremely introverted, but it grew less and less so as people started listening online and connecting with me. So I don’t know about the musical outlet itself affecting me, but its social side effects had a huge impact on me, which was reflected back again in the growing accessibility of my music. Most of the people in my life now, I wouldn’t know if I had never posted or released my music.

STEREOGUM: How has the move to Seattle from VA affected your headspace/motivation in regards to your music?

TOLEDO: It felt more official that this was my life now – making music and supporting myself off it. I’d been struggling with an album for a year when I moved, but I recorded my last release, How To Leave Town, in a month-long run, out of excitement over that shift. It also was definitely a good choice as far as live performance goes. I had a hard time keeping any sort of lineup together in Virginia. There were talented musicians, but there wasn’t much of a band culture, so no one really knew how to play together. In Seattle I was able to find people I could really lock in with and move beyond a rote adaptation of the solo material into something that sounded fresh.

STEREOGUM: What’s next for CSH? Are you still working on the Teens Of Style follow-up/official Matador debut, I guess, or is that pretty much done at this point?

TOLEDO: Well, Style will be the debut, but it will be a one-two punch with the following one, Teens of Denial, which is the album I’ve been working on since my last year of college. We’ve [finished] recording for that, and then we’ve got to mix it, which will probably take longer than it should, because I’m too used to spending most of production time fucking with stuff after it’s recorded, instead of prepping the recording properly beforehand. This time we’re working with a studio and a producer so it’s going to be properly recorded and properly fucked-with as well, so I think it’ll turn out excellent.

STEREOGUM: That sounds awesome! How does it feel knowing that you’re going to have a bigger platform than you did before? Nervous, excited, both, etc?

TOLEDO: I try to keep it in perspective, because every release I’ve done has been to a wider audience than the last. Obviously the gap on this one is a lot larger, but the two albums will kind of split up that process a bit. It’s still just going to be me trying to make an album that will satisfy me and appeal to an audience; there’s just going to be more noise around it now.

Teens Of Style

01 “Sunburned Shirts”
02 “The Drum”
03 “Something Soon”
04 “No Passion”
05 “Times To Die”
06 “psst, teenagers, take off your clothes”
07 “Strangers”
08 “Maud Gone”
09 “Los Borrachos (I Don’t Have Any Hope Left, But the Weather is Nice)”
10 “Bad Role Models, Old Idols Exhumed (psst, teenagers, put your clothes back on)”
11 “Oh! Starving”

Teens Of Style is out 10/30 via Matador Records.

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