Adult of Style: Car Seat Headrest's Teen Confessions Took Him from Bandcamp Stardom to a Real Band

Meet the 23-year-old Seattle transplant who released 11 albums on Bandcamp before landing a record deal with Matador.

Sep 11 2015, 2:00pm

Ethan Ives, left, and Will Toledo, right, of Car Seat Headrest / Photos by Cecilia Corsano-Leopizzi

Will Toledo’s story is the kind of internet-era fairytale everyone wants to believe in, which I learned about sitting in the dark with him on some stumps behind a Shell station in Seattle’s Central District. I was there to talk about Toledo’s band, Car Seat Headrest, with Toledo and his bandmate and guitarist Ethan Ives (Andrew Katz, the drummer and third member, was absent). They weren’t too eager to relocate after the photo shoot we’d finished. “The only reason to go there would be if we wanted to eat something,” Toledo responded when I suggested we walk to a bar. And so we stayed in garden plot we’d been shooting in.

There are a lot of artists who drape themselves in the trappings of estrangement, introspection, social anxiety or self-doubt, but Toledo is for real. He came off dubious and reluctant during the photo shoot, and it wasn’t until we were sitting on the stumps talking about his work, interests, and “theories on artistic forms” that he seemed engaged and at ease. “He doesn’t talk very much,” Ives told me when I asked him about Toledo, “which is cool because I don’t either. It’s nice to have comfortable silences when you’re working with people. He reminds me of Brian Wilson a lot, from the Beach Boys, how he has the whole thing in his head from the start and it’s just a matter of getting it there in real life.”

“As a young person, I was kind of a loner,” Toledo told me. “Or, if not a loner, then someone who never really connected on a level that made sense with the people my age, and I think that ended up with me not wanting to write universal songs because I didn’t feel like I knew what the universe wanted or what young people wanted… I was and am self-conscious about a lot of stuff, and down on myself about a lot of stuff, and music was a way to have an outlet for that besides silent mental consternation.”

The band name itself comes from that self-consciousness combined with a need for an outlet. When he first started making music on the family computer’s Windows Media Recorder, he was too embarrassed to record vocals in the living room. “So I started recording vocals in the car,” he said. “I’d drive one of the old family cars to a quiet parking lot. I did a lot of stuff at Target Super Center, or a church parking lot on a weekday, and I managed to avoid ever getting caught in one of those places, just screaming and singing into my computer. The name came from that idea, of starting in this claustrophobic space and building a world around it.”

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Toledo told me at one point that everyone builds a house around their unhappiness, and I got the impression that Toledo’s house has many windows but no door. “I think the best thing I can offer is a realistic portrait of myself,” he said, and it’s funny that thousands of other people have wound up using his self-portrait as a mirror for their own lives.

Toledo’s ability to draw the universal from the personal has made him a sort of bedroom genius luminary, with a fan base built from the Internet’s huge small world of forums and social media. Over the last four years, Toledo has released 11 albums on Bandcamp, becoming popular enough to catch the music industry’s attention. Age 23 as of last week, he’s been signed to Matador Records, which will be releasing the compilation of re-recorded tracks Teens of Style October 30 and the new studio album Teens of Denial in 2016.

“It’s the sort of thing that you dream about from the moment you start out,” Toledo said. “I remember getting my first Bandcamp page after reading about how the band Cults got big off of a song that they put on Bandcamp, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll do that by the end of the week.’ And instead it took six or seven more years.”

When Toledo moved to Seattle last summer (a friend’s couch in Kirkland was all the reason he needed to leave his college town in Virginia), he hoped to find a permanent cast of band members. He met Katz, a drummer, through Craigslist by posting a “musicians wanted” ad, and met Ives when Ives played an acoustic set at an open mic. During our interview, Ives let Toledo do most of the talking. “Even with him writing most of the stuff right now, I’m just happy to be in the band,” Ives told me. “Before this, I was in an endless stream of Led Zeppelin cover bands—no one wants to be there.” Car Seat’s nationwide tour and record deal are as new to his bandmates as to Toledo.

As a poster child for the democratization of media in the digital age, the best part of Toledo’s story is that he really is that good. His songs are lo-fi indie rock at its very best: He’ll often put droning, psychedelic, and heavily-distorted 12 minute songs next to two-minute weirdo ditties. He’ll have crisp, strong vocals devolve into chaotic choruses of self-harmony. It’s weird to see a mélange of such disparate influences wind up making for such a fully actualized sound—Toledo draws from Swans, the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, They Might Be Giants, and Daniel Johnston, and he winds up sounding kind of like Why? as styled by Animal Collective. His natural musicianship manages to pull it all off—his ear was good enough when he was a kid that he was able to fake reading sheet music with his pianist father.

“My dad thought I knew how to read music, so he kept giving me pieces to play,” Toledo told me, “but what I was doing was just listening to him play and then trying to imitate it myself, and that got harder and harder as the pieces got harder and harder until eventually I just broke down crying one day at the piano, and it all came out that I didn’t know how to read music… I think it’s indicative of my personality that even as a child I would hide my weaknesses from everyone as long as I could.”

Ironically, baring his weaknesses is now the basis of Toledo’s career. He is an excellent musician but an even better lyricist. The emotional intelligence, wordplay, and atypical structure of his un-obnoxiously confessional lyrics are stunningly mature for someone so young, and these are certainly the main draw for most of his fan base. On his Bandcamp, each song is linked to its lyrics; they’re good enough to read even without the music. His super long, emotional Arab Strap-style monologues are the highlight of his discography, though unfortunately none made their way onto Teens of Style.

Teens of Style is a decent Car Seat Headrest primer, but the compilation doesn’t capture the full appeal of either his touchstone 2011 album Twin Fantasy or 2014’s How to Leave Town, which have the best gems of Toledo’s depressive quips, such as, “I don't hate myself / I tolerate myself / I wish I was someone else / but it seems too stupid to mention / I know I'll be ripped in heaven,” and the most compelling musical composition.

Teens of Style definitely seems like a retrospective, not a “Best Of,” but it still has the Car Seat sound and lyrical quality that will (hopefully) beguile a wider audience for Toledo’s past work and the forthcoming Teens of Denial. In the past, Toledo drew upon his teenage angst, and it’s exciting to anticipate work that will come from a place of post-college, adult angst.

“I don’t think it’s that I have fewer negative emotions now, but that my negative emotions are more complex and rich now,” he told me. “You grow out of a phase where you’re like, ‘I’m feeling angry cause my parents told me to turn the music down,’ and you’re in the phase, ‘I’m signed to a record label and I have thousands of dollars in my bank account and I need to make an album that sells thousands of copies…’ It turns into all this complicated stuff in your life and you can’t possibly feel one way about any of it, so you just sort of become an observer of your own emotional state rather than being entrenched in it.”

Toledo’s world has gotten larger with every album, and Teens of Style will be the biggest expansion yet. And if the house he built around his feelings and ideas can’t support this high-profile label leap, Toledo’s already written the perfect Car Seat Headrest epitaph in Twin Fantasy’s “Cute Thing:” “He died in an explosion / Of mixed media and poorly written reviews / And some stammering drunk who tried to tell him how good his shit was.”

Cate McGehee is a writer living in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter.

Cecilia Corsano-Leopizzi is a photographer living in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter.