A Long Drive with Car Seat Headrest
We talked high times and high anxiety with frontman Will Toledo, whose studio debut 'Teens of Denial' sees its long-awaited physical release July 8.
There's no place quite like your car for listening to music alone. Even on the most non-tricked out of sound systems, music transforms a drive from an otherwise uncomfortable, isolating experience into a sacred space. We can turn it up loud, we can sing even louder, we can sob. We can flout keys and let our voices crack, watching the world around us from the hermetic comfort of tempered glass, no one the wiser for it.
Which is why, about six years ago, Will Toledo began driving his family's station wagon to the parking lots of suburban churches and Targets, far from the thin bedroom walls that might betray him, to sing into a laptop in the back seat, the car seat headrest the only audience to his attempts. Those experiments would eventually amount to 11 albums he would self-release on Bandcamp in the span of four years, which would in turn lead to a record deal with Matador, which would in turn lead to last fall's retrospective, Teens of Style, and Car Seat Headrest's excellent new studio debut, Teens of Denial—out now digitally, and physically on July 8—versions of which have accompanied me on my drives now for about 800 miles and counting.
I've listened to this album a lot, mostly alone, mostly in my car. It's been a reliable comfort in solitude, self-imposed and otherwise: speeding down Sunset Blvd. at 2 AM to "Destroyed by Hippie Powers," hours from sleep; overlooking a Dodger Stadium vista to "Cosmic Hero," waiting for a text that never comes; crying during the (actually hilarious) opening lines of "(Joe Gets Kick Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends" in the parking lot before work. So it feels a bit weird, and almost intrusive, to find Toledo sitting in my passenger seat next to me, discussing it.
"We're at a point in culture where we don't think of art as life," the 23-year-old says. "It's something that's very separate, sacred, and created out of some social necessity. It's always a reflection of society, and the artist." I wonder who's intruding on whom.
We were originally supposed to meet at Hollywood's Museum of Death, but Toledo's nervous about missing his flight. He's been touring with Car Seat Headrest for the past several months, and now he's tired and anxious to head home to Seattle for a couple of weeks off before the final crunch in preparation for the album's release. Then, it's back on the road again for an international tour through the end of November.
But he won't rest for long: A week before the album's original May release date, The Cars' Ric Ocasek will revoke approval of Toledo's song, "Not What I Needed," which incorporated elements of his band's 1978 classic, "Just What I Needed." Matador will go on to issue a last-minute recall of the album—a first in its 27-year history—forcing the label to delay Denial's physical release, destroy $50,000 worth of vinyl, and Toledo to re-do the song in a matter of days.
"It was mainly frustrating in that I don't think he ever listened to the song, or the album, which I don't feel is right," he says. "These laws do a lot more towards hurting smaller artists than they do helping them. They really only protect big artists who have the system working for them already."
Toledo is already well-versed in the hustle of the underdog: Teens of Style, his first project with Matador, culled 11 songs from his back catalog, a sort of greatest anti-hits of introspective, scuzzed-out bedroom rock that raised his profile from a blogosphere favorite to a contender for indie rock's next great hope—praise he accepts with cheerful ambivalence.
"I'm not trying to revive guitar rock—that's silly, and I'd rather not feel like I'm fighting time," he says. "I'd rather feel like I'm participating in the musical culture as it stands. But if I can change it a little, that'd be cool too."
Teens of Denial is Toledo's first studio album, as well as his first with an outside producer, Steve Fisk (Soundgarden, Low, Nirvana), and a full band—specifically, bassist Ethan Ives, drummer Andrew Katz, and guitarist Seth Dalby. Together, they've stripped away the sonic and emotional masking that marked Toledo's past work for a muscular rock record that, as a friend recently put it, makes you wish you were still in high school so you could write its lyrics all over your notebook.
Denial alternates between power chord-driven urgency and thoughtful piano and horn-laden arrangements, with elements that, in less capable hands, might be written off as indie rock anachronism: reckless mixing, harpoon synth lines, unexpected rhythmic turns, dynamic builds that collapse into total chaos, and guitars that make guitars sound exciting again. Anchoring it all is Toledo's voice, a groggy monotone freed from reverb and capable of breaking into a nuanced baritone, full-throated screams, and falsetto. "My music's always served as a documentation of my progress as a person—not just lyrically, but production-wise," he says. "It was definitely a thematic choice to have the album produced the way it was."
If previous Car Seat Headrest records concerned the loneliness and confusion of being a teenager, Denial, written during his transition to post-collegiate reality, is a snapshot of the growing pains that follow, and never stop.
"If you really want to know yourself, it will come at the price of knowing no one else," he sings on "Cosmic Hero," an uncomfortable truth that, sung out loud at 60 mph, feels more like relief.
Denial captures the epiphany of adulthood's anticlimax: a study, weighted equally by wit and poignancy (though never self-pity), of the free-fall between losing your innocence and reclaiming your self-respect, losing your faith and grasping for something, anything to replace it. Meaning is preferred but not required.
"At what point do you stop being teenage and angsty and start being an adult?," Toledo wonders, the rhythm of the highway lulling us into conversation. "There's no clear answer to that."
On 11-minute album centerpiece "The Ballad of the Costa Concordia," named for the 2012 Italian cruise ship disaster, Toledo laments his inability to stop fucking up. He hurts himself riding his bike. He can't hold a job. He forgets his backpack after playing basketball. He gets wasted "every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and—why not?—Sunday," because no one told him not to. The list grows until he finds common ground with the cruise ship's incompetent captain: "How the hell was I supposed to steer this ship? / It was an expensive mistake."
The song is heartbreaking and hilarious, embodying the sting of realizing that bad things are going to happen to you simply because you don't know any better—and the hilarity of thinking that it would be any other way. At a certain point, naivete has to give way to assuming a sense of responsibility. Whether it's forgetting your backpack at the basketball court or fatally crashing a $500 million cruise ship, your mistakes become hurting the people you love the most.
"I have a love-hate relationship with that song," Toledo reflects. "It's petty and childish, but it also has merit. It was born out of a couple sleepless nights of feeling very frustrated and unable to take action on anything—lying in bed, wishing I was dead, or that I could get to sleep. I was causing more trouble than I was good. Normal people already figured a lot of that shit out, but I was still fucking things up on a regular basis. That frustrated me."
If the album draws its humor and energy from its anger, there's a deep current of loneliness that gives it its weight: the way we fail to connect because of misplaced protectiveness on our need to be understood, the alienation of being not quite crazy enough.
"There's a portrait by Van Gogh / On the Wikipedia page for clinical depression / Yeah, it helps to describe it," Toledo sings on "Vincent," a slow-burning onslaught of horns and feedback that plays like the soundtrack to a midnight panic attack when you have nothing real to keep you up at night.
It's unclear if the line is intended as sarcastic, or whether he even knows—which is kind of the point. "It's difficult to rank pains," Toledo reasons. "You versus a 'crazy' person. Or you versus a homeless person. The only real solution is to be grateful when you have the capacity for gratitude, and to be patient when you don't."
The spectrum of mental unrest has long been a theme in Toledo's songwriting, but he's quick to clarify that he doesn't consider himself depressed, or otherwise mentally ill ("I know people who have had depression. It gets fucking terrible,"). And that's where "Fill in the Blank" comes in: Denial's defiantly buoyant opening track-cum-thesis is both a takedown and celebration of the anxiety suffered by a generation sick of being told by errant Baby Boomers that it hasn't tried hard enough—even if, in some ways, the Boomers are right. "It's an inability to even describe what you're going through, because you want to do justice to it without overblowing it, or turning it into something it's not."
In person, Toledo (not his real last name) bears little resemblance to the disillusioned malcontent at the heart of the record's story. He talks a lot, but not too much, with a wide, easy smile that lilts into a half-smirk when he's listening. His unassuming appearance—black framed glasses, a mop of black hair, and when we meet, a couple of zits flecked across his otherwise smooth cheeks—belies a subtle magnetism that makes things sound just a little more true when he's saying them.
"The good news about that album being finished is that so is that part of my life," he says with a chuckle. "The next thing I do is going to be a lot less cynical. Every album that I write is supposed to convey the arc of an emotional weather pattern I've been having, and finishing the album is what triggers the next emotional weather pattern."
Toledo's next weather pattern looks to be decidedly happier; there are more people in it, he explains, and surprise. He points to the pop jaunt of Denial's "Unforgiving Girl (She's Not An)," a playful, old-fashioned love song whose musical and lyrical optimism marks new territory for Toledo, as well as what his next artistic move might sound like. "This is the end for that character—a frustrated and solitary figure who doesn't have to be me," Toledo says on the chapter that Denial closes. "That's kind of freeing."
I'm embarrassed because a small part of me is disappointed when he says this. Which is kind of his whole point—we're scared to cede our pain to the uncertain reality that follows. Self-loathing and frustration are familiar. We know what to do with them. We take shelter in them. Love, and self-respect, and opening ourselves to others, on the other hand, are risks. The stakes are higher.
If Toledo is already being hailed as the posterboy for the Bandcamp generation, Car Seat Headrest's career is, relatively, just getting started. Maybe he'll next delve into the electronic music with which he's been experimenting. Or maybe he'll ditch music altogether—he'd like to work in film or TV someday, he says, though that probably won't be for awhile. He already has a vault of new songs penned in the two years since he wrote the bulk of Denial. What he does with it, or what's beyond that, is anyone's guess, and for the first time, he's OK with that.
"I saw most life experiences hundreds of times on TV, on the internet, and in movies, before I ever got a chance to experience any of them," he says. "It's intimidating when it comes to just getting started on life, as well as a slow acclimation into seeing these things for myself."
Maybe growing up isn't the realization that life is mostly out of our control, but choosing to love the uncertainty, in spite of it—to invite others into the solitude, and not care if they hear you sing, or see you cry.
After 90 minutes of rush hour tribulations, and more than a few circuitous re-routes courtesy of Waze, we finally make it to LAX. He's got plenty of time. We say our goodbyes, and I'm alone in my car again. I put on some music, and the album picks up where it left off. I drive away, and sing along.
Andrea Domanick is (not an) unforgiving girl. Follow her on Twitter.