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How Car Seat Headrest Became Indie Rock Heroes

This heavily hyped Seattle band may seem to have come from out of nowhere, but 23-year-old frontman Will Toledo has been honing his craft since middle school. Here's how you become an overnight success with your 10th album.

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Matador Records

It has truly been the best of times and the worst of times for Car Seat Headrest. The Seattle band have enjoyed unanimous acclaim for their new album Teens of Denial but ran into a legal snag with the Cars’ Ric Ocasek that forced their label, Matador Records, to recall and destroy initial pressings of the record on vinyl and CD just as they were about to ship out to stores. Luckily, this hasn’t damaged their momentum too much, and the physical release will be out this weekend, just ahead of their appearance at the 4Knots festival in Manhattan and the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.

This interview with band leader Will Toledo was conducted just before the recall, so that isn’t addressed. Instead, we talked about how Car Seat Headrest evolved from a high school solo project to a full-fledged band, the relevance of rock music in 2016, and how Toledo approaches writing about depression, anxiety, and drugs.

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom over the past several years that young people don’t care about rock music, and it’s over and only for old people now. But that’s clearly not the case, as there’s a lot of good bands full of people around your age or even younger, and people your age go out to see the shows. What do you make of that, as a 23-year-old guy who makes rock music?

I can see where it comes from. I think it true that less kids care about rock now than they did 20 or 40 years ago. I was kind of an oddball as far as my musical taste went growing up. I listened exclusively to older music; I started out with a lot of ’60s stuff and then gradually started checking out more recent stuff, like ’70s and ’80s.

Did you just move chronologically forward in time?

Basically, yeah! Elementary school, early on, it was like Beatles, Beach Boys, the Who. And then in middle school, I had a Pink Floyd phase, and then in high school it was Nirvana and Green Day. I was just slowly moving towards the present. I think that’s atypical — more people grow up listening to pop music. But at the same time, all the people around me had this awareness of the older music too. I was in a band in high school and the guitarist was also a big Pink Floyd fan. For most kids it was not ignored, but part of a larger picture along with contemporary music — but that wasn’t so much the case with me.

By the time I started really making music, I had this basis for understanding music that was probably different from what is usual for someone my age. I was always blending more contemporary elements into Car Seat Headrest, like synths and drum pads and stuff like that, but Teens of Denial is the first record where I really didn’t do any of that. It wasn’t really an intentional statement as far as being anti-mainstream; it was sort of a homage to the records I grew up hearing.

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You’ve been releasing a lot of music on Bandcamp for a few years now — you’ve built up this large back catalog. What was your introduction to that platform?

In high school I had heard of a few bands that broke into the mainstream with Bandcamp, and that’s the first time I knew of it. In high school and middle school I was looking for some sort of interface that was good for sharing music, and there really weren’t any at the time, especially if you wanted to arrange things in album format. Back then you couldn’t really get on iTunes or any of the streaming services if you didn’t have a label deal. The user-friendly interfaces were more like SoundCloud, things that are very song-based and not very high quality streaming. When I found Bandcamp, I knew I wanted to use it because it was album-friendly and user-friendly. So I started putting my stuff up there, and that was a year before Car Seat Headrest.

How far along were you as a songwriter before you started organizing your songs into albums?

I kind of always thought in that way. Growing up, I’d make fake albums with fake song lists.

Just like Bob Pollard from Guided by Voices!

Did he do that?

Yeah, he’s still using that stuff, and that’s how he got into collage-making.

That makes sense. There’s also this artist, Mingering Mike, who never made music but they found all these fake vinyl covers with fake track listings he made, and real bands have used that art for their own records. But it started out like that before I could write songs fully. That was always my goal, to actually make those albums, and as soon as I got a guitar and was able to record on my computer in middle school, I just started making demos. The first real album I made was when I got a laptop and could record a full band setup because I had a drum set and a bass and everything. That was halfway through high school. I wish I still had a lot of that early stuff — a lot of that is lost on an old hard drive somewhere.

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What was the first thing you made where you felt confident that you’d written a good song?

In high school I wrote a song called “Boxing Day,” which ended up resurfacing on a Car Seat Headrest record, and feeling like it was really good. But performance-wise I never really felt confident really until the past couple years. That was one reason I tended towards lo-fi aesthetics — you kinda had a barrier between the performance itself and how it sounded.

It modifies the listener’s expectations.

Yeah, and I focus more on the arrangement and mixing of the song. It wasn’t until How to Leave Town that I was happy with everyone on an album including my own performances. I try and make records I want to listen to, so I consider it a success if I enjoy going back and listening to it.

When did you start playing live as Car Seat Headrest?

In college I had some lineups, but it didn’t work fully because there’s a limited number of players available in Williamsburg, Virginia. Everyone’s in each other’s bands so it’s hard to get anyone committed to your act. As I said, I wasn’t super confident about my performances back then, so we played shows but nothing much outside of Virginia and nothing extensive. It wasn’t until the end of 2014 when I moved to Seattle and found these guys that we really started playing. Them being this sort of musical backbone for the band ended up helping my performance a lot — I kinda jumped up a step. For the first time I could play without worrying about what the other players were doing. In college I was always like 20% focused on my performance, and the rest like, “Why is he doing that now? We’re not supposed to do that yet!” But now I don’t have to worry about that.

Did you audition them?

No. It was pretty fortuitous. I met my drummer on Craigslist; he had an ad up. That was the first random meetup I did and it just worked out. We were playing with his friend on bass. At the first show we did — and the opening was Ethan, who is now our guitarist — he was just doing a solo act.

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I’d like to ask you about depression, if you don’t mind. You write so eloquently about it on the album. Was that a thing you decided was going to be a theme, or something that just emerged?

It’s definitely not something I’d ever decide to write about, and I was kind of frustrated that it was presenting itself as a theme. I feel like I write about white-collar depression and I don’t like romanticizing it. It’s really closer to anxiety and neurosis on my own part, but it’s harder to make a song out of those things.

Really? That’s interesting. I would think anxiety lends itself to lyric writing.

There’s definitely a lot of that in my work, but I end up romanticizing it so it moves towards a more straight-ahead definition of depression, which I don’t really think I was suffering. It was just an anxious time for me. The album took shape when I was in my last year of college and I just don’t do well in transitional periods, when I don’t know what the next leg of my life is going to be like and I’m still stuck in the previous leg. It was a frustrating time and a lot of my friends had graduated and moved away, so I was just stuck in this ghost town. That’s why the album takes the emotional tone that it does.

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I like how you write about alcohol and drugs in this way that deflates all the romance out of it. Have people asked you about “Drugs With Friends”?

Like, what do you want to know?

I was curious if you were worried about the audience taking the chorus of that and taking it someplace you might not intend, like how people misconstrue a song like “The One I Love” by R.E.M. and think it’s a real love song.

That song in particular I approach it knowing that is going to happen. I was more worried about “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” because I really don’t want to be seen as endorsing drunk driving. I don’t want to see a tweet of someone being like, “I’m really drunk and I’m listening to ‘Drunk Drivers’ and driving home.” But “Drugs With Friends,” you know, “drugs are better with friends, friends are better with drugs,” it’s like a Coke jingle. It’s very tongue in cheek in that way, and I won’t mind people singing along to that. It’s about my personal experience with drugs, which is not positive, but also looking at the wider experience of kids on drugs. There’s a sort of communal feel to it in the end.

I played Teens of Denial for a good friend of mine a while before it came out, and she immediately connected with it and was tearing up at points. I asked her about it, and she was talking about how it made her think about feeling disillusioned about how people communicate. Does that ring true to you?

Yeah, I think that’s definitely a big theme on the album. The last song, “Joe Goes to School,” sorta encapsulates that. A lot of how we communicate is just based on wanting something out of each other and sometimes it just feels better to withdraw from that entirely. At my most bleak, that’s how it seems. I don’t think I feel that way now, but that was a sentiment on the album. Like, what do you people want from me? And at the same time, I’m engaged in that system, and engaging with other people and trying to draw something out of them. It’s definitely a negative view to take of humanity, but at the time it felt like there was a lot of truth in it.

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