Will Toledo didn't christen his musical project Car Seat Headrest because he wanted to prove his tunes were strong enough under the burden of the world's worst band name. No, the moniker alludes instead to early recording sessions during which the high-school-age Will wailed into a computer while sitting in a car — sometimes while parked outside a SuperTarget in his hometown of Leesburg, Virginia — because he was too embarrassed to sing in his parents' house.
A lot has changed since then. Toledo, now in his early twenties, is signed to Matador Records, which recently released Teens of Style, featuring new versions of songs culled from the whopping eleven albums he made on his own and shared on Bandcamp. Now, in advance of Teens of Denial, a new album cut in a proper recording studio that's due in the coming months, he's on the road with a four-piece combo, playing shows — like the one slated for January 15 at the hi-dive — that will find him singing to actual human beings, as opposed to upholstery.
Car Seat Headrest's music is catchy, hooky and rough-hewn in the classic indie-rock tradition, and his lyrics are simultaneously funny and poignant — a difficult trick Toledo pulls off with casual aplomb.
While Toledo is now a resident of Seattle, he spoke to us from his folks' place in Leesburg. In conversation he comes across as somewhat formal, carefully shaping his responses in a way that no doubt pleased his professors at the College of William & Mary. He tosses off casual pop-cultural references (Frank Sinatra, director Stanley Kubrick) amid discussions of his formative years in suburbia, his attempts to find a lo-fi sweet spot without recording on cassette, his love of refining his songs even after they've been released, the reasons he likes questions more than answers and his suspicion that he'll move on to other areas of the arts soon, because most musicians are at their best when they're young.
That makes the best time to catch Toledo right now.
Westword: I really enjoyed the new album and I'm looking forward to the next one.
Will Toledo: Thank you. I am, too.
It's good you're looking forward to the new album, since you've got to make it.
Well, it's made now, so I'm looking forward to it coming out.
What's the timetable for the release?
We're thinking about April, but that's kind of a short deadline now, so it might get pushed back to May.
But it won't be pushed back because there's still work to be done?
Not work to be done on my part. It's just legal situations. I quote a couple of songs on my songs, so we've got to get publishing stuff cleared, and that's taken a while. But everything's done, music-wise.
Would the lawyers be unhappy if you mentioned which songs you quote?
I don't want to spoil it yet. I hope people will listen to the album.
In the meantime, I'd love to get some background about you. Where did you grow up?
Leesburg, Virginia, which is where I'm at right now. I lived here my whole life until I went to college in Williamsburg, Virginia, and this past year was the first time I spent much time outside of Virginia. I moved to Seattle, Washington.
How would you describe Leesburg?
Boring. I think it's a pretty typical suburban area. I guess it's middle or upper class. Most of the times I went to friends' houses, they'd be pretty big, nice houses. Ours is a little smaller. But there's just not too much to do around here. There's not a big arts culture, or any sort of culture. Basically, there are a lot of suburbs that have sprung out of Washington, D.C., and this is one of them. There's not a big history here. When my parents moved here, it was pretty unpopulated, and it's only in the last thirty years or so that it's grown into its own town.
[The video for "Something Soon" is below.]
What do your parents do for a living? And was there a lot of music around the house as you were growing up?
My dad played a lot of music. He could play the piano and he would also play stuff on speakers a lot. He worked for the local county government for most of his career. He retired a few years ago. My mom, when I was in elementary school, she started working as a teacher's aide in an autistic classroom, and she's been doing it ever since. But this year's her last.
You mentioned a lack of culture in Leesburg. Did you create your own culture in a way by making music from an early age?
Yeah, I guess. It was a reaction against my surroundings, I suppose. But I started out doing it online, because I think that's a good alternative. That's one of the reasons why the online art community is growing so fast. There are a lot of young artists living in towns that don't really support the sort of art they're into. I was too young to move, so I started putting stuff on the Internet, and that paid off in the long run.
How old were you when you first put music online?
The last couple years of high school — junior and senior year. At first, I was putting it online in addition to trying to circulate it locally, but I didn't get very far in trying to appeal to the people here. So I started focusing on the online aspect of it.
I understand you quickly came to realize that the lightning-strikes scenario that happens when some people put stuff online would take a little longer when it came to you.
(Laughs.) Yeah, that's right — which I'm grateful for now, to have had a longer incubation period to get to know what I'm good at and what I'm not good at. But it was a very slow build-up the first year. I can't really say I had anything you'd call a fan base. But that started changing when I began to make more accessible music — and also after I started going to William & Mary and joined the radio station there. Then I started having a bit of a local fan base as well as an online fan base. And over the next four years, it slowly accumulated.
Before you began putting music online, were there songs you created that weren't quite up to the standard you wanted to share? Are there tracks from way back in which you're really teaching yourself how to make music?
There's a lot of older stuff. It's not up right now. There was an earlier Bandcamp page that I took down. It's not terrible. Obviously it was a learning phase, and I'm happier with the stuff I'm making now. But I'm sure someday that stuff will all get released in a bundle.
["No Passion" is another Teens of Style standout.]
So it's not as if you look back on that music and you're mortified....
No, especially since very few people have heard it. But I look at it as a reasonable accomplishment for a young high schooler.
The term lo-fi gets attached to you all the time, and when that phrase was originally used, lo-fi really meant lo-fi. In many cases, it was people recording music on cassettes. Do you see what you were doing even when you were first starting out as lo-fi in that sense, since it was computer-based and the technology is so much better now?
I'd say so. I was certainly influenced by lo-fi music, like Guided by Voices. But that's an interesting question, because I was using lo-fi computer equipment: a cheap computer microphone and free computer software, Audacity. But I was also trying to achieve the older lo-fi sound — more of the tape sound. It's sort of a blend between digital lo-fi and a pastiche of old lo-fi music.
Those distinctions frequently get lost. Even with a cheap computer, the sound it could achieve is miles beyond what you could have captured on a cassette in the early '90s. So did you have to diminish the sound quality of a cheap computer to achieve the sound quality you were shooting for?
Kind of. That's just what I found preferable to it sounding like it came from a cheap computer. I don't have a lot of affection for the cheap digital sound. Maybe people from the next generation will attach themselves to it. But I didn't want it to sound like that. The older lo-fi sound was preferable to me.
How did you find your way toward that era's music?
I slowly worked up to it. I heard a lot of that in the house. My dad has a variety of very eclectic tapes from radio programs he listened to. Sometimes it would be like medieval music or church music. A wide variety. So I grew up listening to that, and not so much modern music. Going into school and especially into high school, I started listening more to bands that were in the '90s and 2000s and some more contemporary bands. But I found myself getting attached to bands that sounded a little more like the old stuff I was used to.
Have you explored why it connected with you? A lot of high schoolers would run from that music as opposed to running toward it.
I guess it was a reflection of my musical background. For whatever reason, I never really liked pop music with that clean sound. For whatever reason, I liked the older stuff, so that was part of what I was trying to achieve — new music that sounded older somehow.
You've put out an astonishing number of albums — at least eleven of them. A lot of people today don't really respect the album format. They seem to think songs are meant to be heard one at a time as opposed to being part of a larger collection. What is it about the album format that speaks to you?
That's another thing I grew up listening to. If you don't listen to the radio much, that's what you have to go toward, so most of my first exposures to my favorite bands were through albums, full albums. Buying Beatles CDs or Who CDs and listening to them and sort of experiencing it as some sort of a narrative — more like a book or a movie. So I grew fond of albums that worked as a coherent whole, that made something more than the sum of their parts. I always tried to keep that in mind when I was writing music.
So as you were developing your songwriting skills, you were also figuring out juxtapositions and creating a mood through combining multiple pieces?
Well, it's not something you can necessarily consciously do as you're writing the music itself. It's more of an editing process, where once you've got the music in place, before they're totally complete, you can look at it and say, "What would work best where?"
You've often rerecorded and refined songs over time. Do you consider a song to be a living organism in a sense — something that continues to develop even after you've put it out in the world?
For sure. I think any art is like that. I guess that's kind of my definition of art: something you create that takes on a life of its own. Once I've created something, I sort of become a listener or an audience to it. In that way, I can continue to engage with it and understand it in different ways, and ultimately put it together with the new music I'm making. Or redo it so it is new.
How long does it take to get enough perspective to be able to step back and say, "I like that, but it'd be better if I did this"?
The general rule of thumb is that the farther back something is, the better perspective I have on it. Hopefully over the course of making an album, I can gain that perspective. In maybe a month-long recording process, I'll be close to done and then I'll go back to the first stuff I recorded and I'll be able to tell what the problems are with it and fix those up. But looking at an album from years ago, if I put my mind to it, it's pretty easy to figure out what works and what doesn't and what I can do to make it better.
You're clearly not someone who gets so wedded to what you've created that you can't go back and fiddle with it. It sounds like that's actually fun for you.
I am attached to what I've created, but I don't think of it as needing to have the form it took the first time. I feel it exists beyond those bounds, and if I am engaged with it, it's better to go back and try to interact with it in a new way rather than solidifying it forever and refusing to engage with it.
[Get a feel for Toledo's earlier approach via one of his eleven self-released albums, Twin Fantasy.]
Teens of Style is made up of songs from various albums. Did you enjoy putting those songs in a different context to see how they interacted with songs from different periods?
It was interesting to see that. But it wasn't actually super-fun, because some of those things, I felt they got a little stuck in their previous forms. I wasn't able to work them into something that felt as new as I wanted. But overall, I think it worked out. It was something I'd planned to do beforehand, to revisit those songs, and it was kind of a stressful experience, because it was the first thing I'd done with Matador and I was anxious about the expectations being placed on me. But when I listen to it now, I think it all sounds good, so I'm happy about that.
Was the idea that this album would be a way of introducing you to the wider public — the people who hadn't heard the music you put on Bandcamp — and the second album would be the next stage in your development?
That was my idea. I was reading a biography on Frank Sinatra, so I was in this sort of commercial-performer mindset. In the old days, he'd have lots of albums being released that was sort of junk being thrown at the public to see what would stick. It's like with Elvis. How many albums did he put out that didn't have any original material on them? So I kind of wanted to do a self-conscious version of that, where the people in the know understand there's nothing new there, but there's also something that seems new to people who don't know it yet. But I tried to make it so even if you were familiar with the songs, there'd be enough in there for you to get some enjoyment out of it.
And the recordings were different, too, right?
Actually, the process of recording wasn't that different, because, for the most part, I was recording and mixing in my house. I did get our drummer and our old bassist to contribute their parts. But those were just in-and-out sessions basically, and other than that, I was on my own. That was a choice I'd made — that I'd gotten this far doing production on my own, and I wanted to kind of show off that side of it. But I think that'll probably be the last album I do like that. We went into the studio for the next one, and it was a lot easier and more enjoyable experience.
It was easier going into a studio than making something at home?
Yeah. Maybe it's surprising on an emotional level, but it makes sense given the way a studio is built — for the purposes of recording music. And a house is not built for that. So there was no burden to create a place to record in. To just be able to go in and get straight to recording took a lot of pressure and irritation out of me.
Some people find the studio intimidating because the meter is always running, and if they stop and try to come up with something on the fly, the tab will get bigger. Did you make sure the songs were set before you went in? Or did you allow yourself to extemporize?
I was definitely concerned about the cost beforehand. We practiced everything we thought we were going to record pretty extensively, so we could nail it right away. But once we got into the studio, it didn't really feel that way. For one thing, we were at relatively cheap studios. I didn't feel that it would break the budget if we needed to book another day. So we ended up spending more time inventing parts than I actually expected. We recorded in two bunches: We recorded for a week in July and for a few weeks in August, and in between those periods, I actually wrote a new song, just being inspired by what it sounded like in the studio. I tried to write a song that played up those strengths. So we definitely loosened up a bit. It's not an experimental album; everything was set and practiced. But we spent more time than we were expecting messing around
On Teens of Style, one of my favorite lyrics is "Times to Die," in which you combine biblical references to Job with the line, "Hey man, we listened to your demos." In some ways, do you see the music you made on the way to getting the world's wider attention as sort of a Job-like task?
If I were being dramatic, I might say that, but I don't feel like I struggled like he did. When I originally wrote that song, I was studying Jewish history, and when we talked about the story of Job, there was a lot in there I hadn't realized was going on, and that interested me. It just worked out that I was writing a song that was partially about me and then I threw in a reference to something else I was interested in at the time, and they just sort of blended together in that way. That's how I work a lot.
[Check out "Times to Die."]
So you don't see yourself having gone through the trials of Job to get to where you're at in your career now?
No. I went through some trials, but I think I had it pretty easy, all things considered.
Another song that stands out for me is "Bad Role Models" — and I love the way you ask big questions in a lively way, as you do when you say, "What's my gender?/ Or are we above that?/ Or are we beneath that?" By asking those kinds of questions, do you feel like you get closer to finding answers? Or are the questions the most interesting part for you?
I think the questions are the more interesting part. I think art is all about questions. You can get answers from art, but I don't think art should be didactic in presenting those answers. That's symbolic of my mindset about writing — that you should write more questions than answers.
An incredible number of bands get mentioned when people try to describe your music. Are there references that make sense to you? And others where you wonder, "What are they thinking?"
I've been surprised that most of them do seem pretty on-point. I can definitely hear Guided by Voices and a lot of stuff that gets thrown around pretty commonly in describing my work. But I do have a pet peeve when people compare me to the Strokes. I've been hearing that since 2011, and I never really listened to them. It was just sort of a commonality of influence. But it doesn't bother me too much, because I think they're a good band.
Is one of your goals to get to the point where people won't be able to say, "He sounds like a cross between this band and that band?" To where it just sounds like you.
That would be the goal — that in twenty years, when a new band comes along, people might say, "That sounds like Car Seat Headrest." But I think that naturally happens if you work long enough as an artist. People will stop comparing you to other work that they know and take it on its own merits.
Do you hope to create music for a long period of time, many decades into the future?
I don't know about music. It seems like most people make their best music when they're young. But I do want to be creating some kind of art my entire life.
If not music, what would be the next form you'd like to try?
I like film and television. Ideally, I'd be able to jump from music to that at some point. It might be a long shot, but I think in film, artists can have more longevity. I think some of the best films are created by older directors rather than young directors. And if not film, some form of media where old people are still respectable at their game.
What form of films are you drawn to?
I was drawn to independent stuff for a while, but I try and watch everything that's recommended to me now. When I was talking about old directors, I was thinking of Kubrick. I've probably only seen the movies from the last twenty or thirty years of his life, but I think they're all excellent.
I stumbled on an old interview before you signed with Matador where you talked about living hand-to-mouth and not making a whole lot of money. Back in the day, people thought signing with a label would change all of that. But given today's music industry, I'm guessing you haven't bought your first SUV yet.
No, but signing definitely did change things for me. I'm still living in the same spot I was, but I was able to pay off the property taxes in 2015, whereas the year before that, I wasn't even paying rent. Matador is an indie label, so there are no cars being bought. But it definitely makes it easier to live.
How has living in Seattle changed things for you? Unlike Leesburg, there's a great music scene there.
It awoke my passion for playing live a little more. I've seen a lot of interesting bands and young bands, sometimes playing for very small audiences — but there's a lot of enthusiasm and interest for getting together and being in a band. It's exciting to be one of the people who's doing that.
Car Seat Headrest plays the hi-dive on Friday, January 15. with Tjutjuna and Space Suits for Indians. A version of this interview appears in this week's print edition of Westword.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.