Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo Doesn’t Brake for Nostalgia or Hype
We chat to the young songwriter whose 'Teens of Denial' seemingly made every 'best album' list of 2016.
On "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales", a track from Car Seat Headrest's Teens of Denial, Will Toledo suffers from the post-party blues and one too many drinks. It quickly spirals into something deeper. "It comes and goes in plateaus / One month later I'm a fucking pro", he says, before sarcastically suggesting that his "parents would be proud" of his back and forth tussle with anxiety. But with each line, each verse, it gets darker. "It's too late to articulate it / That empty feeling," he groans before desperately pleading, "It doesn't have to be like this". Like attempting to control a vehicle while inebriated, Toledo tries to steer the haphazard direction his life seems to be travelling.
2016's Teens of Denial, echoed my reality like no other indie rock album has been able to. Every track was an ode to young adulthood and the purgatory that it is: not young enough to get away with making bad choices or having someone to tell you what to do, and not old enough to know for sure what life has in store. The album lifted the seal on what it truly meant to be a young person in the modern age—not narcissistic and entitled to what's around them, but disillusioned and disconnected from a world that underestimated them. Teens of Denial tapped into the head of a generation that is hyper aware of the horrors of reality and left with the burden of fixing the mistakes of the past. In a word: lost. It was the first time a piece of music had pinpointed, right down to the molecule, how I and many others felt.
I don't know what I expected Will Toledo to be like. Perhaps, from the stories weaved into the Car Seat Headrest's catalog, a tortured soul, an awkward man with a morbid sense of humour, or even the, 'just a guy who picked up a guitar one day' type of guy.
When I speak to Toledo (or Barnes, as his answering machine on my first call tells me), it becomes clear that he is none of the above. Home for the holidays and "doing just fine", Will Toledo reveals himself to be… Will Toledo: the musician.
He sounds tired—as anyone who's fielded interviews all day would—but maintains a polished professionalism. He is firm, direct, and eloquent, most of his answers sounding primed and ready. Even when I ask him why, of all the songs in the world about isolation and melancholy, his have resonated with hundreds of people, he refuses himself sentimentality.
"They're good songs, I think," he says. "It was a two-year process where I was really striving to make very strong songs about these ideas that could be held up as an ideal of the genre in a way." And 'strived' definitely seems to be the right word.
For years, Toledo had been self-releasing albums on Bandcamp with 11 albums crafted during his time at College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.
Although he's loved and made music since a young age (undertaking the parental introductions of classics like The Beatles and The Beach Boys), Car Seat Headrest didn't arise until 2010. The name is a nod to Toledo's early days when he'd have to record his vocals in an empty car to avoid disturbances while living with his family.
The Bandcamp discography reads like a timeline of his musical, and perhaps, character development: from crackling bedroom drones with titles like "David Lynch versus the moon" to burgeoning tendencies for indie rock self-reflection, before sprawling 14-minute epics with lyrics like, "Sometimes I get so mad that I can't do the few things I usually can / Which is sad." There's a history there, caught in between each fresh Garageband export, and Toledo acknowledges that he "always kinda felt those recordings were sowing the seeds for something greater."
But those days are gone.
"There were very little pressures because there were very little people listening, but I still remember being frustrated at the lack of recognition I had at the obscurity I was working in, and I was always trying to push towards that next level," he says.
"If I'm feeling nostalgic I have to remind myself that this is what I was fighting for back then." Once again he dismisses any loophole for sentimentality. "It's not my station anymore."
His fighting paid off in the form of an email from Matador Records co-owner Chris Lombardi and a record deal and spot on a roster that includes Pavement, Belle and Sebastian and Kurt Vile. It's clear that Matador is only one of Toledo's planned accomplishments, and that, from the start, his goal has been to be a better musician and make better music, music that gives the audience the chance to "lose the world for a little bit and go into that work of art… lose themselves for a little bit," he explains.
As contextualised as Teens of Denial is, it allows us to leap over reality in its own peculiar way. The world doesn't disappear, but it changes, and we start to see it through Toledo's isolated lens. On "1937 Skate Park", when he leaves a party thinking "What am I leaving behind me? / Just a memory / Another body", we find ourselves walking out of that meaningless party with him.
Produced by Steve Fisk, Car Seat Headrest's debut studio album (2015's Teens of Style merely a compilation of reworked material), sinks deeper into Toledo's cynical universe with each cathartic yell and growling guitar riff.
In "Destroyed by Hippie Powers" and "(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn't a Problem)", drug experiences are never life-changing and always blasé. What starts as temporary distractions from feelings of ostracisation instead end up emphasising these feelings. "I took acid and mushrooms / I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit / In a stupid looking jacket," he hums.
Toledo works in stages, each album a snapshot that he moves on from. "The shape of the record is defined by the shape of that phase of my life," he says. But does recording act as a therapeutic procedure? "I think it's therapeutic when you're in the emotional state to contextualise it as art. But the long term process of it is more about just getting it done." His adamant nature only gives him the pleasure of consolation when everything is finished. "I think it's therapeutic to listen to it at the end and have the completed work."
One reason why the completed work is so captivating is Toledo's knack for detailed and self-referential lyrics. Toledo is honest, bogged down in bleakness and offset by snarky remarks. In "Not What I Needed", he flips from amusing to pitiful with "I've been waiting for some real good porn / Something with meaning, something fulfilling / I'd like to make my shame count for something." He balances this world-weary disenchantment with humour, and is more self-aware than he is self-loathing. There are specific memories and allusions to paintings, books, poems, and biblical imagery. His English major and academic background sits behind every word and underscores the importance of language in his music. It all comprises what he calls "a psychological character study," himself the character.
His scholastic standpoint has proved useful elsewhere too, with contributions to The Talkhouse that has included a review of Kanye West's The Life of Pablo. His Tumblr is full of writings about his favourite music, the longer ones all articulated, thoughtful and carving out a broader exploration of philosophical concepts. "I have a collegiate approach to art still. I like breaking down the ways the art that I like works," he adds. Having an opinion and asking why is important to Toledo, but he's careful about it. After last year when media picked up Toledo's blog post criticism of Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell, his apology on Tumblr began with, "God fucking damn it, I'm becoming the next Father John Misty, aren't I?"
The moment is a perfect example of Car Seat Headrest's spectacular rise with Teens of Denial, an album that has secured coveted spots on nearly every 2016 best-of-year list, including Noisey's 100 best records of 2016. Toledo has been championed as a "visionary" and "indie rock hero"; and his social media presence is translated into news articles by publications like Pitchfork. But the attention slides off the hard working Toledo who is concise and stony when it comes to the topic of fame. "I don't have any feeling about it. I don't know what else I could do with it," he says.
At this point in his career, Toledo is tunnel visioned, focusing on making good music while establishing Car Seat Headrest as a memorable name in the industry. Hyperbole, glowing press, and sentimentality are just brief stops on the way to his destination and though appreciated they are unnecessary for the time being. When asked about his ambitions for the next year, Will says that it's "to continue making those types of art that people can continue to enjoy." It's a modest answer, but one that wraps up a big future.
Car Seat Headrest AU/NZ tour 2017:
Jan 25 - Sydney at Oxford Art Factory
Jan 26 - Brisbane at Laneway Festiva
Jan 27 - Melbourne at the Curtin
Jan 28 - Melbourne at Laneway Festival
Jan 30 - Auckland at Laneway Festival
Feb 2 - Melbourne at the Gasometer
Feb 3 - Adelaide at Laneway Festival
Feb 4 - Sydney at Laneway Festival
Feb 5 - Fremantle at Laneway Festival