Dec 9, 2016
On the Edge of Our Seat: Shadowing Car Seat Headrest at SXSW
We followed everyone’s favorite new rock band Car Seat Headrest around SXSW 2016, just as they broke through. This is an adaptation of this earlier article.
The first time I saw Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toldeo, he was lying flat on his back. It was the fall of 2015, when Car Seat Headrest you were just starting to hear a lot about, even if you hadn’t actually heard them.
Toledo was playing this show – a pretty important one for a bunch of industry people during CMJ – just after going from an unknown posting on the internet to a signee of ‘major indie’ Matador. His label saw big things in his future, and took him and the rest of the band out to dinner beforehand, foisting steaks and red wine on him.
This is in strict violation of Toldeo’s pre-show ritual. He gets sick to his stomach easily, and he’s paranoid about the effects of alcohol on his voice, so it’s his rule to eat or drink basically nothing before a performance. I have personally seen him wait hours before a concert and have nothing but two plastic cups of water. In this one instance, though, he gave in and indulged with everyone else.
A few hours later, he was playing his big concert lying on the ground with his guitar balanced on his (very sensitive) stomach. At the time, I didn’t know why he was doing it, just that it was happening. I thought it was an intriguing artistic choice.
When I tell him that, he laughs, before saying, “It was very hard to play the guitar, because I couldn’t see the fret board.”
Car Seat Headrest has had an breakout year in 2016, playing both The Tonight Show and The Late Show, reaching #3 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart with its debut album Teens of Denial, getting legal notices from The Cars, and playing more than 100 concerts. The band seems poised to rank near the top of every year-end list. Toledo is even famous enough now that people write about him writing an album review. As someone who’s written lots of album reviews, I can promise you that usually no one notices.
In the spring of 2016, I followed the band around the annual Austin music festival South By Southwest (SXSW), just as they were on the cusp of breaking through, but hadn’t quite made it.
SXSW, started in 1987, is still one of the country’s most important music events. It attracts 30,000 official registrants and more than 2,200 bands, as well as many more of both who attend the large events not technically part of SXSW, like Fader Fort, Spotify House, Hotel Vegas, and Hype Hotel. Locals like to say 200,000 people come to town for the festival looking to see new bands, eat BBQ, and get blind drunk on weak beer, though there’s not really any official support anywhere of that number.
When I meet the band in Austin on the festival’s opening day, Toldeo is getting ready for his first show of the festival at Barracuda, a bar near 6th Street that seems cavernous not so much for its size as for its dark dampness. It’s over 90 degrees, and he paces around the room drinking water as The Inventors, the day’s first band, sets up and sound-checks. Car Seat Headrest is on second. We go stand outside to chat.
Toledo has been recording and releasing music under that name since 2010, partially in the back seat of his car (or so the legend goes). His lyrics are self-deprecating, full of alienation, and generally sound like something a teenager would record by himself (undeniably part of his early appeal). Part of Toledo’s myth is that he’s done it all for himself: he released his music through Bandcamp, where he built a fan-base and eventually found a record deal. His story gets trotted out often as a new media success story, an instance of Millenials Doing It For Themselves.
There’s some truth to this myth, but, as ever, it leaves much out. Car Seat Headrest owes as much to the seedier corners of the internet — Reddit and 4Chan’s music board /mu/ — as to somewhere as relatively sanitized as Bandcamp. Toldeo has been anxious to distance himself from those places, saying they’re “very negative” – one recent thread on /mu/ ostensibly decrying the decline of music subcultures was immediately derailed by a poster writing, “I’m a part of what some people call the ‘alt-right’ and it feels punk as fuck,” only to be roundly ridiculed. And it wasn’t like Toledo was philosophically opposed to mainstream success – he’d been hunting for a regular record label contract for years, mailing demos out to every one he could find, without ever getting a reply.
In 2015, finally, his music caught the attention of Chris Lombardi, the co-founder of Matador Records, a major indie label that also releases music from Belle & Sebastian, Kurt Vile, and Queens of the Stone Age (I spotted Lombardi in the crowd of several CSH shows as the week wore on). He personally reached out to Toledo over email.
“When I first saw the email, I just saw “Chris@MatadorRecords.com” and I thought it might have been an intern or something, because sometimes you get that,” Toldeo told me. “I think I got an email from Capitol Records, but it was just somebody who did not have any power there.”
Matador released a compilation of Toledo’s early work, Teens of Style, in preparation for this year’s collection of new music. This deal is the subject of the song “Times to Die,” which CSH played at each of their SXSW shows. In it, Toledo sings:
Got to have faith in the one above me
Got to believe that Lombardi loves me
It’s a deal I want a deal
Let’s cut a covenant
Lombardi finds this song very embarrassing.
Toledo didn’t just find fame by posting online. He embodies an update on the shy rockstar myth – someone who’d much rather be posting on 4Chan than talking about his ‘process’ to a stranger in the alleyway behind a bar. He’s obviously a little uncomfortable talking to me, often trailing off or answering shortly. He speaks in a low mumble at all times, as if he’s hoping you’re forget that you’re having a conversation and just leave. Later, when our photographer does a short shoot with him, he shuffles around and moves his hands so awkwardly that I worry it might be causing him physical pain to be paid attention to so specifically.
Car Seat Headrest was initially a recording project, full stop, with no concerts. This seems to be primarily because performing made Toldeo nervous and he wasn’t sure he was any good at playing the guitar. Like a lot of people, however, he invented a philosophical reason to account for his physical feelings. He wasn’t just nervous, he explained to me, he objected to the whole idea of live music performance.
“I felt that it was akin to making a film director hold plays of his films,” he said.
Coincidentally, these strict dictates of doctrine relaxed just as Toledo became more confident performing and found a band he trusted.
Several years on, his band puts on a great show without necessarily performing – but their set builds from a slow start to a frenetic, heavily rock climax. It’s emotional and transporting to watch. To pack two clichés into one sentence, Toledo is clearly coming into his own as a performer, but is still much more at home making music than making small talk. He usually lets drummer Andrew Katz (who’s confident and good-looking) tell jokes between songs or lead the sound check.
This isn’t to say hasn’t escaped the idea that shows are work. It’s just that he’s hopelessly dedicated to work. His band would go on to play a punishing ten shows during SXSW. That works out to two a day, with one day off (though Toledo will tell me later that he hates days off). They’ll take place at a variety of parties and spaces that run the complete gamut of SXSW, from a tiny corner in a record store far from downtown Austin to the backyard of an Urban Outfitters to several bars, and a large corporate daytime party. His default position, he tells me, is to do any show he can. Why?
“Usually the money we receive for doing a show is more than it costs to go do it,” he says. “And it is a job, and that’s how the band members see the money from this thing, The advance money goes to me, and to the recording and everything. So, this is our day job, basically.”
This attitude very much pays off during the festival, when Toldeo’s band gets a lot of exposure, playing to huge crowds (and some smaller ones) over and over again. In way, getting opportunities like this are easy for a band like Car Seat Headrest; as I said to Toledo, he’s a white man making songs about being a teenager. It basically doesn’t get more classically rock and roll than that. That’s what people want from a certain kind of music, and despite all the haltingly idiosyncratic parts of his personality (or indeed because of them), Toledo is more than happy to just make a traditional rock song people can enjoy.
“I think there’s something about being part of a tradition that people don’t like, they try and distance themselves from that,” he said to me. “I definitely never felt that way. I was always more seeking out a tradition that I could be a part of. Even the more experimental Car Seat Headrest stuff, the early stuff where it was just very embryonic and not a lot of solidified ideas, I still very consciously had some artists in mind that I was emulating, like Jandek. . . when you’re trying to figure out a way to live your life, that’s what my mind jumps to—how people have already lived it, how they figured it out, and to not venture too far from models that work, basically.”
What do you do all day at SXSW? I slept later than I have since I was a teenager, not because I was out especially late (the bars close at 2, so even your afterpartying is probably done by 4), but because of the stress of standing around at shows for 8 or 12 hours. And because drinking beer for 10 hours straight makes you feel bloated and drained at the same time, and more than ready to lie down for an equal amount of time. You eat tacos, text your friends to try and hang out, and then try to do a few organized things.
If you’re in a band, it can be largely the same. Car Seat’s punishing schedule meant they were basically always either setting up or tearing down their gear. The only real leisure I ever saw them engage in was checking out chambray shirts and sunglasses in an Urban Outfitters after a concert. More normal was when I saw Katz, the drummer, and the band’s guitar player, Ethan Ives, standing on a street corner in blazing sunlight several hours before their show at Spotify House, clutching their gear, worriedly texting, and looking lost. The first night of the festival, they had to run back to their hotel room after their last show to get the phone that one of them had accidentally left in their Lyft. None of their nights were especially late, they told me when I caught up with them on SXSW’s final afternoon. “We don’t really party,” Katz said, sounding apologetic.
The wild enthusiasm of the first few days quickly wanes; by the festival’s final night, I walked past couples fighting and at least three women, crumpled onto curbs or with their foreheads pressed into chain link fences, openly weeping. According to The Austin Monitor, SXSW generates more than 250,000 pounds of trash, which costs the city of Austin $142,565 to clean up each night during festival. For their last show, Car Seat Headrest played End of An Ear, a small record store far south of the main SXSW activities. The audience was small, as the show was actually inside the store—the audience drank from some free beers arranged next to the cash register in a pyramid. As it happened, the store didn’t have enough amps to play all of CSH’s instruments, so Will Toledo just sang, and didn’t play guitar as he usually does. He looked extra juvenile in this setting, under fluorescent light and close up. The whole band seemed young; it looked like this is where they should be in their careers, playing afternoon shows for hip parents and their small children in gigantic purple ear protection. But they’re already so much further. After the show, I asked them how the festival went, but they just shrugged good-naturedly and said something positive but non-committal. They had other places to be.
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