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.
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