The Story Behind Every Song On Car Seat Headrest’s New Album Making A Door Less Open
After spending his teenage years woodshedding on Bandcamp, Will Toledo and his DIY-project-turned-band Car Seat Headrest arrived in the middle of last decade with the one-two shot of 2015’s Teens Of Style (a rerecording of selections from his DIY days) and 2016’s instant classic Teens Of Denial, both released by the indie institution Matador Records. Those albums announced the Leesburg, Virginia-born Toledo to the world as a wunderkind with a nine-album deep discography at the age of 23, one with an ear for fuzzy riffs and the ambitious storytelling chops to write something like “The Ballad Of The Costa Concordia,” an epic that uses the real-life story of a sunken cruise ship as a metaphor for a generation left stranded by useless adults. (An indie rocker with a hip-hop approach to songwriting, he even made room in his millennial lament for a Dido interpolation.)
Toledo was immediately received as the Rivers Cuomo We Were Promised, a hero to those a bit rankled by the “Indie Rock Is Bad And/Or Problematic And/Or Dead” think pieces proliferating at the time. Car Seat Headrest — which now includes bassist Seth Dalby, drummer/singer Andrew Katz, and guitarist Ethan Ives — followed the Teens albums with 2018’s Twin Fantasy (Face To Face), a full-band rerecording of one of Toledo’s most beloved Bandcamp projects. Toledo had long felt that Twin Fantasy wasn’t complete the first time, but once he’d finally realized his vision he knew it was time to move on.
“The original Matador contract that I signed had the three specific albums listed on it, which were Teens Of Style, Teens Of Denial, and Twin Fantasy,” Toledo says via Zoom from his house in Seattle, where he’s busy self-isolating. “And so it definitely was time for a fresh start once we finished with the third of those records. I think if we had continued to do something that was self-reflective or revisiting the past, it would have been hard to keep people’s interest — or keep my own interest, for that matter.”
Making A Door Less Open finds Car Seat Headrest dramatically breaking from the past, and any conception about what a Car Seat Headrest song can sound like, or who it can be sung by. Produced by Toledo and Katz, it was the product of constant revision and free-form inspiration. It still features the sardonic lyrics and guitar freakouts that drew fans in the first place, but he also incorporates a greater hip-hop and dance music influence while keeping one foot firmly planted in classic pop songwriting. If Car Seat Headrest’s most recent releases were comparable to a movie or a novel, Toledo says this one is more like a collection of poems. It’s a free-ranging, dense but thrilling curveball of an album, one that seems destined to get an initial mixed reaction only to grow into a fan favorite over time.
“Car Seat Headrest started off as just kind of a totally open field for me. Just song by song making experiments with sounds, and not really having any limits on where they came from, or whether it was guitar, computer or whatever. And then recently with Matador, we were doing these more band-centric, guitar-centric records, which I enjoyed because I like that type of music,” he says. “But to me, it was never the quintessential Car Seat Headrest sound, it was just what we were doing at the time. This record was a chance for us to start doing again what I’d already been doing at the start of the project, which was building stuff up on the computer and just trying not to have any limits on how the songs were constructed or what sounds they were made out of.”
A few minutes before our interview, Toledo was informed that his upcoming tour dates had been cancelled. He was understandably down, but perked up when given the opportunity to explain the ideas behind each song on the album, to which artists inspired him, why he thinks two (or three) versions of a song is better than one, why each of the release formats features a different tracklist, and what’s up with his masked alter-ego. Now that you can hear the entirety of Making A Door Less Open for yourself, read along with our track-by-track guide below.
WILL TOLEDO: This was the first song that I wrote for this record, and this opening noise was kind of the first thing that came out of it. We were on tour sometime in 2015, or 2016, and we were just driving through somewhere, pretty desolate. I think there was a bunch of snow on the ground, and I just had my laptop out and I was just holding this note on Logic with a synthesizer, just bending it up and down. Somehow, I wasn’t driving everyone crazy, so I thought it was good music to use somewhere. And that ended up being the foundation for this song.
STEREOGUM: Do you personally lift weights?
TOLEDO: [Laughs] No. When I first started writing it, it was a total fantasy I guess. It was kind of envisioning it, without actually executing it. But ironically, I did start exercising a little more as things went on and I was kind of thinking about the song while I was working out. But I just do full body stuff. I have this Nike Training app, that I use for short exercises. I’m still a beginner, but it’s better than where I was.
I think originally I saw this album as sort of trying to break into the physical world. The song “Weightlifters” was about the starting point of moving from a more mental domain to a physical one. I don’t know, maybe the album still follows that track, but it got a little more varied as it went on. But the chorus especially, “Thoughts can change your body, your body can change your mind.” I was pushing myself to both think physically, and live more physically as well, but I think I re-wrote the lyrics after a certain point, so maybe we’d be a little more pessimistic about my prospects of living physically.
This song makes me think of Bowie. I was thinking about the record Let’s Dance, and sort of his reinvention as this big, digitally enhanced pop star, but still having these interesting songs on the record. I was diving into Bowie a lot during the process of making this record. He has a sort of varied song-by-song aspect to it, I think, where he just kind of dives in deep and tries to make something unique each time.
I like the idea of this as an opening track. It kind of feels like you can go anywhere from here. It’s just such a strange song, but it’s really fun to play too. I wanted to get that balance of it being artsy and fragmented, but also having a straightforward drive all the way through where the lyrics are just always pushing you towards an endpoint. That was another reason why I was rewriting stuff a lot.
I was kinda listening to a lot of early rock ‘n roll too, like Chuck Berry. Somehow to me these lyrics or this vocal performance, it feels like a mix of Chuck Berry and David Bowie. Chuck Berry was… everything he did was to move the song forward and his guitar playing and his vocals were just really linked in a fascinating and very musical way. So I rewrote lyrics so that I could channel more of that energy. I think the original drafts were a little more big words and artsy thoughts and then I tried to hone it into something a little more universal.
STEREOGUM: You’re incorporating a lot of different elements into your sound, from doo-wop to EDM. If anything, you’re being more open-minded, not less. So what does the album title mean?
TOLEDO: Among other things, I was listening to a lot of jazz, and I like the aesthetic of jazz records where you have kind of this abstract thing on the cover. And you have a title and you don’t know quite what the title means, and then because all the songs are instrumental you’re never gonna find out. You kind of have to accept that it is just a strange title, like Mingus Ah Um. It just struck me as something that was ambiguous and didn’t have a lot of context to it. It’s hopefully something that raises more questions than it answers and it doesn’t tell you a lot about the genre or the content of the music and that pushes you to actually listen to the music and find out what’s going on.
2. “Can’t Cool Me Down”
STEREOGUM: I saw you guys do this song at Madison Square Garden last year while opening for Interpol. People can get really attached to early versions of songs that get tried out live. I know there’s a lot of Radiohead fans who still complain about “Videotape,” and prefer the early live version with the long outro.
TOLEDO: It’s funny, because we’ve put this song out already and now people are saying, “Well, I really liked the live version, then they ruined it for the recording.” I mean, we were putting the recording together before and during when we were working out the live performance of it. And to me, the live version of it is sort of the ultimate form where you can go all out with it and make it eight minutes long. That, to me, was never the point of the album version or the original recording.
The good news is if anyone’s disappointed in the record, they can come see us live whenever that’s a possibility again and we’ll be playing it the live way. As someone who grew up listening to alternate versions on B-side records and outtakes and etc., I’ve grown to just think that two versions are better than one. If one isn’t hitting you, then the other can. And we try to execute our own music in that way.
STEREOGUM: When that video started circulating last year, some people zeroed in on the lyric, “We’re not supposed to be here,” as in, “Here’s this scrappy DIY band opening at this giant arena show.” What did that lyric mean to you?
TOLEDO: Maybe that’s why people are trying to put this impostor syndrome thing on to it. Well again, there’s this sort of combination of being straightforward and being arty about it. There’s no narrative, but it is supposed to put you in this emotional, visceral state of being in a not normal place and being in an extreme place, and every lyrical choice was meant to create this sort of fever dream idea in your own head. I really wasn’t thinking about myself or my back story in writing this song.
So “We’re not supposed to be here” is meant to be the peak of this physical existential crisis where you’re still on the edge, that the whole physical world feels wrong to you. All the colors are wrong, you’re burning hot when everything else is just fading out around you and then you follow that up with “My blood is dirty water, cut it, bleed it, wash it down the drain.” That’s very extreme, and to me, that reminds me of Nine Inch Nails a little bit. I definitely grew up on them, and they were really good at putting lyrics together in this sort of montage fashion that didn’t necessarily make a lot of sense when you looked at them on the page, but the music had such energy to it, it was all of one piece and it made you really feel that way when you were listening to it. I don’t think anyone would necessarily make that connection to Nine Inch Nails, but it’s there for me. I’m basically always trying to make “Closer,” but I never quite get there.
STEREOGUM: Maybe one day you’ll get closer to “Closer.”
TOLEDO: To me the sort of production code for this was keep it simple and keep it in the domain of hip-hop, beat-focused, bass-focused and don’t be afraid of using melodic instruments that clash with each other and sound strange. I listened to a lot of hip-hop just because I got in the habit of just listening to the top of the Spotify charts. And over the past several years, it’s been pretty dominated by hip-hop and trap and stuff of that nature. I wanna see what other people are listening to right now. I think that there’s a lot of interesting elements to it in putting the focus all on the performer and what they’re saying, and just keeping it very simple and hypnotic in a way. That inspired me for a lot of this record, I think. And I try to incorporate elements of that into the songs.
STEREOGUM: I remember when I interviewed you a few years ago, you said that structure-wise, Teens Of Denial was really inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.
TOLEDO: At the time, he was definitely one of the top artists that felt like they were keeping music vital and keeping the album format alive. Since then I feel like hip-hop has stayed big, but the album format maybe isn’t as big as it was. People aren’t making records the way Kendrick made To Pimp A Butterfly. It feels like the environment has changed a lot, and I think the record I made, it reflects that as well. MADLO is more made piece by piece, song by song. And then Radiohead, I think, is the other influence for this song that was driving me. “Idioteque” and Kid A. Keep it simple with this sort of mysterious minimalism to it.
3. “Deadlines (Hostile)” (Streaming Version) And “Deadlines” (CD And Vinyl Version) “Deadlines (Alternate Acoustic)” (CD Bonus Track)
TOLEDO: We had this song, and it was sort of half rock, half disco. And we got stuck on it a little bit, I guess. It wanted it to be the rock version and then also the dance version separately. We went to LA and got the vinyl mastered. And then actually that session took way less time than we thought it was going to. So me and Andrew, we ended up just getting drunk in our hotel room in LA and going back to work on the record — which was Andrew sitting at the computer, and I was lying in bed yelling at him that it was not working out, but then we ended up with the pieces for these two new versions of “Deadlines.”
This was kind of like Weezer or like the Police to me, where it’s got that classic rock arrangement of its rhythm section, vocals, and then you get guitars bringing in all the dynamics to it. And we recorded this towards the end of the album process. Obviously, the vinyl had already been done, and it kind of seems like we had avoided doing this, basically the entire record. We had gone in and tracked stuff as a band, but we weren’t really using that without chopping it up first and combining it with digital elements. I remember recording the backing track to “Deadlines” and having it be this sort of more minimal band version. I kinda quickly chopped up these pieces and arranged the new song. And then we went in and re-recorded elements of it in the studio. But it’s still more or less the four-piece band playing it. Which, I think it’s good that we got at least one of those on the record.
STEREOGUM: I bet fans of yours that love your rock songs but that might not necessarily love the more experimental stuff will start bugging you to “release the rock version” of the album.
TOLEDO: Yeah, and that’s gonna be a problem because there really is no rock version of the album. I could probably piece one together like I ended up doing for “Deadlines,” but it was not like we had a fully existing separate version of it and then a fully existing computer version of it. We were trying both methods at the same time… and then, looking at the pieces and deciding which was stronger in which category and combining them together.
I winced when I realized that that went out in the press release that we had recorded it in two different versions. Because I feel we definitely recorded in two different ways. But, I don’t know, there’s no secret version of MADLO, that is all just, you know, us, playing it live. Maybe there will be someday, but it will have to be created.
4. “Hollywood” and “Hollywood (Acoustic)” (CD Bonus Track)
TOLEDO: Oh, next is “Hollywood”. That’s pretty much the same on all versions. The vinyl has a version with me singing the lead, but I think for everything else we used Andrew singing the lead. Andrew has a writing credit on “Hollywood.” I had a set of lyrics written out, and we were in the studio and I ended up putting him in the vocal booth to just try it out. And he started screaming all the lyrics, and then we got him to just start improvising and ended up chopping out some of those improvisations and including them in the final version of the song.
I actually wrote this on mandolin, which is funny, but you kind of get this piercing sound whenever you play a note on it. It just sounds good and chime-y on that. And there are few mandolins that show up on this, but for the main part it’s actually just one note on an electric guitar chopped up sampled into this melody.
STEREOGUM: What was behind the decision to let Andrew sing lead?
TOLEDO: It seemed like his time to shine on this song. Me singing it, I just didn’t feel like I could carry it all the way through, I guess. And this whole song was probably one of the hardest to get all the way done in terms of the writing taking the longest. For a long time all I had was the initial lines to it — the “I’m sick of violence, sick of money, sick of drugs/ Hollywood makes me want to puke.”
It started out actually as a much simpler song, as a sort of barebones rock song, with not a lot of lyrics in it and then that was not really exciting to me. So I decided to make it closer to a rap song basically and just have this continuous flow of vocals throughout that meant something lyrically. And obviously that’s hard to do, because you have to write a bunch of words and have them make sense and sound good. But yeah, because of that, I was just going through a lot of different drafts of this. And it’s especially hard with songwriting because if you’re writing a book or writing a poem you can just put it down on the page and if it looks good then you have that, but with writing a song, it actually has to sound good with your voice as well, and I feel like I’ve written a lot of stuff where I like it on the page, and I like what it means, but it doesn’t really work well with my voice.
And so, using Andrew on “Hollywood,” we were able to use some lyrics that I think I sound a little silly singing, I mean you can hear that on the vinyl if you want. And I do the best that I can, but I really like his take on it, where there’s just a lot of energy to it and a freaked-out performance that I couldn’t really give. I used to scream a lot on the early Car Seat Headrest stuff, but I never really had the voice for screaming. Now, people describe my voice as being very chilled out and apathetic, or whatever, but that’s just my natural voice. I have a low register. And it sounds really weird when I push it up and get to the top of it, and a lot of times it just breaks without really getting to a point where it sounds extreme, or sounds cool. Andrew on the other hand, can really just scream and it just absolutely sounds like someone who is insane, so that was perfect for this song, I think.
STEREOGUM: Do you spend a lot of time in Hollywood? Because if you have any famous friends, it’s not well known.
TOLEDO: No, I’m pretty isolated from the culture. And really, this song is from the perspective of the outsider. It’s about being exposed to Hollywood’s defecations, their excrement that they throw out to the public every now and then. And just being assaulted with advertisements and whatever while I’m just living my daily life being miserable. And then I’m supposed to get excited about these movies that just feel like they have nothing in common with what I’m doing. They don’t even really communicate a fantasy very well. They’re just these poorly done, but very expensive and lavish narratives that just feel completely hollow to me.
I’m not opposed to the Hollywood fantasy at its core of going somewhere or rags-to-riches, or making the kind of movies that you wanna make, but I think that is totally dysfunctional right now. It just doesn’t live up to whatever “golden days of Hollywood” that we’ve had. And then we have the dark underbelly to it, where people are getting abused and exploited, and the people in power are clinging to power desperately. But I think even those people are not happy, because they have this intense fear of losing power. And it pushes them further into inflicting pain on others. And that’s what the end of this song is about. Where you have this rant from the perspective of the abuser, where it’s just this paranoid freakout of, yeah, having this unstable fantasy that just depends on the exploitation of others and trying to do anything that you can to grab ahold of it and stay in control.
5. “Hymn (Remix)” (Streaming and CD Version) and “Hymn” (Vinyl Version)
TOLEDO: So we’ll start with the original “Hymn.” This was by far the quickest thing that came out. It really wasn’t written. It just emerged. And what happened was we were in the studio and we had the record about 70 or 80% done, in the sense that we knew what tracks that we wanted to be on it. We were struggling in the studio to try and figure out that last 20%. Another song or two. And just messing with different material, not really getting anywhere and just getting stressed out. And so I left the studio, left and had this long commute home. And was just totally miserable and stressed out.
I don’t really do well in a studio environment, I’ve found. Because I really feel like I’m on the clock when I’m in the studio. We’re paying a daily rate for it, and I wanna be able to get stuff done while I’m there, and think about it later. So it really stresses me out when we’re just fiddling around in the studio. Even though you do have to do that sometimes just to get material that you wouldn’t have otherwise. But it is a balancing act with how stressful it becomes if you don’t feel like you’re generating enough material. So I fell off that balancing act. And on the drive home, I started having chest pains and immediately thought, “I’m having a heart attack.” I went to the hospital. And then as soon as I was in a hospital bed with an IV in me, I stopped having pains and figured out it was probably just an anxiety attack.
But then I was stuck there for half a night or whatever. And I was supposed to go back into the studio the next day. But messaged the group and said, “Well, I thought I had a heart attack last night. So I’m not gonna come in today.” But what happened instead is we had been messing around with the organ in the studio. And actually, Seth just had this field recorder that he was sticking right next to the speaker of the organ and I was playing these big, mysterious church chords. And so we had this audio recording and I ended up grabbing it and just singing these semi-improvised vocals over it. I very quickly wrote out these spiritual lines of desperation and put that song together pretty quickly. I had been listening, before that point, to cantorial music and Jewish temple music, where it’s just the organ and the singer.
And it’s just it’s a total other world where you just get overwhelmed by the beauty of the singer and these phrases that they’re singing. It’s not gentle music. It’s not reassuring music. It’s very “fear of God” type music where you get really overwhelmed with it. So I was taking cues from that and putting it together in my own amateurish way. And that’s what “Hymn” ended up becoming. We put that on the vinyl. But I felt because it’s in that other domain, I felt it would be weird to put it on the streaming version. When you put it on vinyl, people have to sit through it. They have to engage with it. I think that that puts them in more of a mindset to engage with that something that’s more of a gradual spinning out of emotion instead of just an instantaneous “here it is” presentation.
But for streaming, you do have to have that instant hit. So I got the idea to remix it. I was listening back to some of the earliest demos that we had for this record, where it was just me putting together stuff on the computer. And there was one song that had this freaky breakdown beat and this intense pulsing feel to it, which I liked. I had never developed it. So it wasn’t on the table for a long time. I thought, what if we put that together with “Hymn.” Originally, it was more dance. But we added guitars and we added Ethan playing to it. And became almost an intense surf rock song like Dick Dale or something, and the opposite of the original “Hymn.” Just something else where I don’t know which version is the ultimate version. They’re just very different. And you can pick which one you’re more into.
TOLEDO: My plan to work on the digital version until the last second was full of holes because I found out that anything we put out as a single, that was gonna be the final version. So I panicked for a second and then I was like, “OK. Well, we have a few songs that I think are done. And then there are some songs that I wanna work on more. So we won’t put out those songs as singles. We will pick from the batch that I think are done.” So, “Can’t Cool Me Down,” “Martin,” had been locked in since December. And they just kept sounding good to us. So we rolled with those. But yeah, “Martin” really has been one of my favorite songs that I’ve written since it got to an endpoint. It just feels unique in my catalog because it’s so simple and so minimal in its lyrics.
It’s one of a few songs, of my own songs, that can make me cry when I listen to it, particularly when I look at the lyrics to it. But I think that that just makes it a successful song to me. It originated with acoustic guitar, and this weird beat that just got auto-generated by accident in Ableton. I was dragging stuff where it shouldn’t have gone and ended up with this weird arrhythmic beat and put this guitar on top of it. And it felt nice and light in a way that a lot of the other stuff on the album didn’t.
And what guided me in making this from the partial demo to more the full song was listening to a lot of Dion And The Belmonts because I got a box set of them on a whim, and the first disk of that ended up being the one CD that I could have in the car and just put on repeat and not get tired of. I think Dion is a genius of minimalism, where there is so little going on in his songs, and it’s just all about the vocal energy of it. But what’s happening is that the song is constantly changing. He’s constantly going from a verse to a chorus and if he did that last verse, then this time he’ll go to a bridge instead. And he’ll just make a whole song around these pieces, which really just violates the whole verse-chorus-verse idea so much that you can’t really label anything after a certain point. It’s just a whole bunch of hooks, one after another.
With that mind, I went and sat down and started working on “Martin” again, very quickly had this structure in place that was very influenced by Dion, where every eight bars, essentially it was changing into something different. Originally, we did the chorus into the third verse, and then the breakdown and then it went into a Prince sample. It ended with “I Would Die 4 U.” And I really like that version, but we really didn’t have much of a chance of getting that cleared.
STEREOGUM: The video features your alter ego, Trait. Where did that come from?
TOLEDO: Well, the whole alter ego thing started… we worked on a whole bunch of different stuff, while we were doing Twin Fantasy and beyond. And one of the things that we had been doing as a band was 1 Trait Danger, which is Andrew’s side project, where he’s coming up with the music. But he would usually be working on it while we were on tour and he would ask us for help and to contribute and do vocals for it. And it became this fun group project to work on.
And then separately, I was boiling up the core ideas for this album on my own and had this big idea of it being sort of an alternate perspective, alternate persona from the previous Car Seat Headrest records, and then those ideas ended up kind of crossing paths with one another where the character, the sort of alternate perspective ended up being this persona of “1 Trait.” That’s sort of influenced and changed my perspective of the Car Seat Headrest album, from being this more mysterious or cult persona, instead it was about energy and humor to an extent. That ended up being the shift in perspective, where it’s a simultaneously darker record and a more humorous one, and hopefully people can make sense of that.
I don’t know. It’s a record that still baffles me in a lot of ways. I would prefer that to one where it just feels totally laid out. I think you get tired of those sorts of records more easily, and one that is a little bit confusing, you can spend more time with and dig deeper into for revelations of those mysteries.
7. “Deadlines (Thoughtful)”
TOLEDO: This is the other version of “Deadlines” that we came up with right after getting the vinyl master done. And what happened was I just opened up this 1 Trait song called “Drove My Car,” and that was kind of a total toss-off at the time. Actually, it was Andrew’s roommate Aaron who sang that song, and that was just a bunch of totally improvised lyrics about being drunk and on molly in the back of your dad’s car.
So I opened up “Drove My Car” and just changed the BPM and changed the chord progression to match “Deadlines,” and immediately it felt good. It felt kind of natural. So we really didn’t change it too much from that initial switch from being a 1 Trait Danger song to being a Car Seat song. I built up a basic structure and added new lyrics to it and musically, it still kind of has that 1 Trait energy to it, the more EDM dance style, which I’m glad — I definitely wanted at least one song on this album that was more or less straight-up EDM, could be used as a dance floor track. Again, I’m always trying to make “Closer.” And this could be it for us.
STEREOGUM: I can shake a glow stick to this.
TOLEDO: Yeah. I think live we’ll probably combine them all into one giant 15-minute track and just let people go crazy with it.
8. “What’s With You Lately?”
TOLEDO: “What’s With You Lately?” came out fairly quickly, and I just wrote it to work in Ethan’s style. It’s taking the advantage of having singers that are not me. So you automatically have a different perspective, and I’m just sort of challenging the thread of the album, I guess, by having this new voice come on and say, “Where the hell are you?” basically. “What’s going on with you?”
I think this album maybe became more about aging as I went on making it. And it feels like that’s something that happens a lot as you get older, is you have a friend group and you have people that you admire that are active, and then you kind of see people giving up or retreating or just becoming embittered and getting ground into the situations that you don’t wanna see them in. And this song is about that and looking at other people and saying, “Where’s the group gone?” basically. But I think there’s irony to it, where that perspective in itself is embittered as well. I think for the first time on the record, it brings up this idea of becoming your own person in a way that is not so fun I guess.
STEREOGUM: How old are you?
STEREOGUM: Alright, so you’ll have plenty of time to make more albums about aging.
TOLEDO: This is maybe the last album where critics can still say that I’m young to be doing what I’m doing. After this, I’m just a normal guy making music, and I’m already a lot less young than I was when I was making music earlier.
9. “Life Worth Missing”
TOLEDO: I think that this song might’ve taken the crown from “Martin,” in terms of being my favorite on the record. And as I said, it did not exist until pretty late in the game. In December, we worked on the album to a certain point. Me and Andrew, we’re just sweating it out in his apartment, putting it together. And we put together what we thought was gonna be a final tracklist on the last day before I left for winter break to go back home and send it out, so that Matador and our friends could take a listen to it. And we got a lot of crickets back in response. There felt like a lack of an immediate response to the record. And so we’re texting each other anxiously, thinking about all the decisions we’d made up to that point in our lives.
Then eventually, it sort of crystallized where people were saying, “There’s a lot of good stuff on here, but the ending isn’t as strong as it could be. It kind of goes off into a different direction.” And there was one song in a question, which is not on the record in any form, which I really liked. But it was like a six-minute song that was more in an acoustic, Neil Young vein, which we will probably rework for a future album, because it just wasn’t working on this one. It felt like it took up too much space and wasn’t in the same vein.
So it’s like, “Well, if we take that song off, what are we going to actually use?” And one of my friends pointed out that I had this early demo from the beginning of this project, basically, that was again in this same vein that I was working on in that time where everything was just maybe built up in Logic. It didn’t have lyrics yet, but the structure was basically there. And then the lyrics came into place pretty quickly too. Everything kind of clicked easily, in a way where a lot of the other material on the album just took a long time to finesse out of nothing into something.
I guess it’s probably the most romantic song on the record. At least in a sort of Car Seat Headrest vein that people are maybe used to. This, to me, is sort of about a struggling relationship. It starts with the line about fireworks. “As if on cue, they lit a firework. The sky reeled black and I ran fast to get to you.” That to me, was just kind of thinking about… I don’t know, this sort of feeling like maybe you’ve gone to an amusement park with your family or with someone that you care about, but you’re just so worn down by the events. And you’re supposed to be having a good time, it’s supposed to be a highlight for you, and you’re just not engaged with any of it. And you’re conflicting with people, and it’s so much that you kind of split off and you’re doing your own thing. And then suddenly, it reaches a certain time, and there’s fireworks shooting off. And then that sort of alerts you, and suddenly you’re running back to the person that you care about.
That was sort of the initial image that I’d started off with in this song. That to me, sort of ties back in with aging as well. Being in a relationship with someone, especially long term, you kinda get pushed and pulled by forces beyond your control. And it’s sometimes the hardest thing to do, to just maintain that relationship and try to keep that initial spark alive.
STEREOGUM: What was that earlier song called?
TOLEDO: It was called “Take What You Can Carry,” and I think we’ll continue to keep it in the stable and work on it because there was really nothing wrong with it. This album wasn’t the place for it. I’ll have to rewrite some of the lyrics now that I’ve stolen them for this one.
STEREOGUM: Maybe you’ll just keep working on that song forever. It’ll be your “True Love Waits.”
TOLEDO: They finished that finally.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it just took two decades.
TOLEDO: Right. Radiohead is definitely… actually while making this album, it was definitely really nice to get those OK Computer leaks. There’s so much material on there that didn’t go on to OK Computer that ended up on Kid A or ended up on In Rainbows, or it ended up even further in the future. And there were so many renditions of OK Computer songs that just don’t work as well or don’t have the same energy. And that was super inspiring for me to hear them working through that album in real time and try to apply that methodology to this album where it’s just keep making different versions and see what sticks and just never be satisfied until the last second, basically.
10. “There Must Be More Than Blood”
TOLEDO: For everything but streaming, “There Must Be More Than Blood” is not the second to last track. Because I wanted to avoid the Car Seat Headrest thing that we always do where the biggest and longest track is second to last, because we’ve done that for 10 years at this point, so we didn’t do that. On the vinyl, we put it on the end of side A, which I think worked well, and then on the CD it’s kind of in the middle, which I think works well for the CD ’cause we kind of expect to have a CD go in a loop. But for streaming it just seemed like there was no other place for it than second to last. It needed to be in that sort of prioritized position where people are gonna take the time to listen to it and then as soon as we put it there, it just felt like it clicked into place. It just felt natural. So we, once again, have the biggest and longest song on the record being second to last, but…
STEREOGUM: What can you do, right?
TOLEDO: This definitely brings out the idea of aging. Maybe not aging, but the physical struggle of continuing to live into the clearest light that it is on the album. It’s a song about questioning whether there is anything beyond this plane, whether and how to exist on this plane in the meantime. To me, it feels like kind of a muggy song. It’s got this warm atmosphere to it. And that to me reflects the small amount of time that we spent going through the southern end of the US. We did our first tour through Florida last year. And the shows were really good, but the environment is just so kind of otherworldly and it affects people to be in this hot, humid bubble all day long.
And so to me it kind became the perspective specifically, of someone who is just living in that sort of environment and struggling. Just typical teen and post-teen stuff of… You’ve been, for whatever reason, alienated by your family and you’re just kind of drifting around, trying to figure out what’s going on in your own life. And, yeah, I think it doesn’t really arrive at any answers intentionally. It just kind of drifts onto these various points in a way that I think reflects sort of the visceral drifts that you get when you’re living in a place like that.
I thought of James Murphy a little bit just ’cause some of these vocals are from those earliest recordings where I was just trying stuff out. The “How could they treat you like a forgotten card” verse was right from the start something I tracked. And yeah, James Murphy kind of has this drawl that can be both melancholy and laid back. And I don’t know if I was imitating it, but it reminded me of him.
TOLEDO: I was still kind of in the “piece it together on the computer” mode, and I put “Famous” together one night on tour. I got the idea for this two-chord riff that would really be kind of a live jam sort of thing, and I tried to start recreating that on the computer, and did not capture the vibe at all. I don’t even remember now what I was trying to capture, but instead I got this totally different thing with these chopped up vocals and this weird house beat.
And the vocals come from… we were recording the multi-tracks for the live shows every night, and I grabbed a hard drive and grabbed a vocal performance off of one of our previous nights of performing and when I dragged it in, it kinda got warped and fucked up and sped up and I kept a lot of those bits in. I think you can hear me singing “Bodies” and “Cosmic Hero” in the background through the song.
STEREOGUM: I don’t know if I caught that.
TOLEDO: I think if you pay attention to some of the more audible phrases you can hear that coming through, but for the most part, it just sounds like frenetic gibberish. And so, then I had this song that was very strange, and I didn’t know quite what it meant, and I liked that. So I tried to match the writing to that style and almost the stream of consciousness, coming up with something on a very natural level.
The lyrics seem like sort of cross between Lou Reed and David Byrne, who as artists are very different, but they both have a sort of tendency to try and strip stuff down to a very basic human level. Lou Reed kind of just blurts stuff out, and the more awkward and un-melodic it is, the better. And I guess you could say that David Byrne does the same thing. But yeah, it kinda reminds me of “Once In A Lifetime,” just these weird thoughts boiling around in the context of a dance song. And then it also reminds me of stuff like “Junior Dad,” which is the last track on Lulu, which is the last album Lou Reed did, with Metallica.
That’s sort of the ultimate anti-closer to me, where it just — it’s a confrontational puzzler or something. You know, it has these lyrics that seemed direct, and yet what is it about? There’s some sort of confusion in what’s going on. I always liked the idea for this record, of closing with a song that kind of felt anti-climatic, I guess. But originally I had a different song, and the title comes from this other song, which I guess I had all written out but didn’t get too far on in terms of putting it together musically. And that was much more relevant to the title. I think the chorus was, “I knew you before you were famous,” or something.
And then I kind of drifted away and didn’t wanna do that anymore. So I just kept the title and attached it to this completely different song where I think it gets a bit of a more ironic context, where you have the perspective of someone who is the opposite of famous. No one’s looking at them, no one is caring for them, and they’re just sort of on their last rope and running short of it rapidly. It just disintegrates from there, drifting off to sleep with these unresolved thoughts. In a way, I kind of think a lot of this album is like, late-night thoughts or maybe early morning thoughts, but ultimately, you know, there’s no resolution to them, they’re just sort of represented as honestly as I can.
Making A Door Less Open is out now via Matador.