In the age of the Internet, an artist’s growth can be traced back to their fledgling days on Myspace, but few artists have had their early digital presence remain as large a part in their lore as Car Seat Headrest. 23-year-old Will Toledo’s once-solo recording project got its start in his family’s car, but has slowly evolved to become a champion of the Web 2.0 generation after his self-released material on Bandcamp gained a cult following. Toledo’s songwriting is the kind that lends itself to hardcore fandom thanks to its dense web of references to art, other bands and songs, and even his own music in the vein of Destroyer or the Hold Steady. With massive albums filled with recurring lyrical and sonic motifs, Toledo all but invites listeners to connect the dots, or even fill the blanks in themselves.
True to the mythology that Toledo’s music inspires, he himself has gone on a hero’s journey of sorts, from one of the many musicians self-releasing music online to being plucked from relative obscurity by Matador Records. Home of Sonic Youth, Sleater-Kinney and Pavement, Matador is a label whose commitment to producing fully-realized provocateur rock serves a fitting home to Toledo and the full-band incarnation of Car Seat Headrest. Teens of Style, the band’s studio (and Matador) debut, rearranged a selection of Toledo’s Bandcamp tracks for a higher fidelity, but it’s on Teens of Denial, the first studio album of new(ish) material, where the new band’s lineup is able to fully introduce itself, with statement of intent after statement of intent.
There’s always a sense that Car Seat Headrest is fighting against something–emotional turmoil, the onset of ennui, heartbreak–and now that the project’s scope is bigger, so have the problems it now encounters: mere weeks before the album’s release, a request by the Cars’ Ric Ocasek forced Toledo to re-edit the album’s “Just What I Needed/Not Just What I Needed” to remove all reference to the Cars’ iconic “Just What I Needed,” which was heavily interpolated throughout. While Toledo reworked the track in 48 hours to keep the album’s digital release date set for May 20 (the physical is due some time in July), it’s a shocking reminder of how far the project has come. This never would’ve happened on Bandcamp.
We spoke with Toledo over the phone while he was grabbing food at a diner in Nashville, and he graciously postponed his meal long enough to talk about influences, concept albums, annotating his lyrics on Genius, and the resulting positives of the last-minute album alteration.
Several of your albums, including 3, Twin Fantasy, and How to Leave Town, feature recurring lyrical, titular and sonic motifs. What inspires these album-wide narratives and bringing these big overarching ideas to your music?
That’s how I see a good album, really. I really like concept albums and trying to penetrate a narrative from it. Probably Pink Floyd was influential with that. But even albums that weren’t necessarily concept albums I was still coming up with narratives for. I remember listening to the They Might Be Giants album The Spine with some of my friends and trying to come up with a story that linked all of the songs. It kind of makes it into a better album to me, creating something beyond the songs that sticks with you emotionally.
What is the biggest surprise for you having evolved into a full band?
It’s hard to say. It definitely kept the new album fresh. It took a long time, I started [writing it] in 2013 but we only learned it like a month or so before we started recording. And so it ended up making the album feel like what it should feel like, which is this live-feeling album. I wrote those songs to feel that way, but it wasn’t clear when I was writing that I was going to record them that way or if they were going to end up sounding more like the other Car Seat Headrest stuff. Playing with the band made it feel like the sort of record that I wanted it to feel like.
On the record, two song titles mention the character of “Joe.” Who is Joe and what does he represent?
It’s mostly me. The idea of it being a separate character is something that came up more or less toward the end of the writing process. At first it was just the titles, but I guess I was sort of interested in that sort of conceptual album feel to it where it had a character, and some sort of narrative going on. It’s more or less my experiences over the past couple of years but the main difference is that Joe is only there on the album, and he can’t really advance in terms of beyond what’s there, I’m free to go beyond that. It’s just my character when I was writing the album.
When you were writing Teens of Denial, was the concept already fully formed in terms of the sequencing and bigger themes?
No, those elements usually fall in last. I start with the material and I have a vague idea of what the music is going to be, and I knew it was going to be a live-feeling album, but beyond that, I don’t actually work out the actual song sequence until I have a conceptual structure to it, and that’s more like what ended up happening. By the time we went into the studio, the tracklist was solidified, although we did add “Cosmic Hero” after we started recording, but it was… I don’t remember when exactly the tracklist really fell into shape. I think I knew that “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” would be second-to-last and that “Fill in the Blank” and “Connect the Dots” would be bookends to each other, and that “Joe Goes to School” would probably be the bonus track or secret track, conceptually. But everything else was up for grabs.
So what is the central narrative behind Teens of Denial?
Well there’s not so much of a narrative in terms of actions or experiences, it’s more I guess a mental arc, or maybe a mental lack of an arc, of a college-aged protagonist, i.e. me, moving through life, moving through social circles in a bad space, not really feeling engaged with the society around him. But I’m able to break away and do something with himself, the way something like “Cosmic Hero” might. The album is about struggle with that and what can be done about it. This album might not make a particularly happy conclusion on that front.
The album’s centerpiece is the 11-minute “Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” inspired by the capsizing of the cruise ship. How did this big, public event directly inspire you to create this song?
I saw a news article, and it was really the photo that inspired me was the ship capsized in the water. It’s really a beautiful photo of a bad situation. And I kinda wanted to capture something that was sort of epic and beautiful and batshit at the same time. So I had the idea to create a longer form ballad and stretching it around this idea.
There’s another cool moment in “Cosmic Hero” where you have the foreground vocals singing “It’ll be alright,” and the background vocals yelling “Fuck you!” What inspired the juxtaposition in such a crucial moment in the song?
That was actually when we were finishing up with Teens of Style and I wanted to produce it by myself. And Matador was trying to get me to team up with a producer and a mixer and I didn’t want that to happen. And it was a harder thing, y’know? Me being me, and having never worked with a label before, and now I’m on a label as big as Matador, to say that I wanted my own mixes, they weren’t happy with it, and that was stressing me out.
How else has the transition to working with Matador been?
I think that was the rockiest point in our relationship, trying to figure that out. I did work with a couple mixers to see what they could do on that record but I ended up feeling like that I did the best job out of any of them. I went into Teens of Denial knowing I was going to be working with a production team in the studio, and the more I’ve given, the happier they’ve been. Everything is going well at the moment, so I can’t complain.
You use Genius annotations to unpack the many references within your songs. How did you get involved with that platform and why?
Before then, I was always looking at stuff on Song Meanings growing up, looking up lyrics to other bands. It’s not usually written up satisfactory, the explanations that people came up with for the songs I was listening to, and I didn’t want that to happen to my music where there’s no explanation for it. And then I came along Genius which seemed perfectly suited for what I was looking for, which is not so much song meanings where the song itself is explained, but where individual moments are explained in a way that makes the song itself more accessible.
Who are the biggest influences on your sound currently?
I guess Swans are influential in reminding me what I like about longform songs, and especially influential on my live show. There’s this restless curiosity in stretching songs into different things every time we play them live. In terms of contemporary artists, they’re kind of our major influences. I’ve been listening to a lot of funk and rhythm stuff lately. James Brown is one of my favorite artists and he’s also got one of the best live presences in history. So I guess it’s mainly artists who do have that sort of live element to it, where they’re just focused on making music and making it new every night. And I guess that makes sense because of that sense of being a live act and getting inspiration from artists who do that really well.
How do you feel about the situation with Ric Ocasek? [Editor’s Note: A sample from The Cars was not approved at the last minute, so all of the physical and digital copies of Car Seat Headrest’s debut had to be recalled and reissued with the song reworked.]
I ended up being okay with it. It actually reminded me of what my position is and what I’m capable of doing, because it was the kind of situation where I was the only one who could come up with the solution, as far as to remake the song. So it was empowering to feel that way, where a lot of steps were bypassed, and I was able to make the edit very quickly and push it through to the album without any sort of interference between me and the album, which it kind of felt like there were when we were making the album in the first place. There’s a lot of hoops to go through and layers of production to go through, and layers of decision-making, which are never fun and can stifle the creative process, so that was something where those things fell by the wayside.
Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity.
Teens Of Denial is out today via Matador Records. Get it here.