There’s nothing worse than finally catching a band you’ve been digging live, only to realize they’re just going through the motions.
In New York, the trust-funded vanity projects of famous sons and daughters often materialize overnight, and this epidemic hits hard. There’s a difference between looking cool while you perform and looking disengaged—frequent enough shows in the city and you’ll be able to see what that difference looks like.
Car Seat Headrest stuck out to me at CMJ last fall for precisely this reason. Out of all of the acts at that three-day cluster-fuck of college radio showcases, Car Seat Headrest played with the most energy, the most eagerness and the least sense of entitlement.
Despite the band being entirely his creation, frontman Will Toledo walked on stage without posturing, picking up his guitar and wasting no time to dive into the songs. If there was an effortlessness to his demeanor, a relaxed laissez-faire attitude, that stopped once those tunes began. Mr. Toledo has an urgency and immediacy to his playing that you don’t expect from the lanky, quiet kid, an energy that makes perfect sense once you discover how he got there, and how he wooed esteemed independent label Matador Records into signing his band.
Unlike these other jokers, Mr. Toledo wrote, played and recorded all of the Car Seat Headrest music on his own. Ten albums, in fact, before Matador signed him (Mr. Toledo begged the CMJ crowd to not listen to the earliest batch of albums named only by numbers.)
Releasing them on the independent online music platform Bandcamp, his sense of craft got tighter and tighter with each album, and Matador eventually took notice. They remastered and released the last record he self-recorded, Teens of Style, last October to critical acclaim. It’s a hook-laden, masterful collection of slacker-pop, simultaneously a love-letter to ’90s grunge and indie-rock and an evolution of that sound.
Comparisons to Pavement were inevitable, strengthened by the shared legacy of Matador, which also signed Pavement and still releases albums from frontman Stephen Malkmus. But if Mr. Malkmus’ songs told stories that cynically derided the mainstream cool kids while still hanging out with them, decrying the party scene while still partying, Mr. Toledo’s music finds him across the street, removing himself from the party entirely.
‘You’re able to be content with the idea that everything is going to change, and you’ll always be struggling with some future that’s not quite before your eyes yet. That’s just what life is, really.’—Will Toledo
Later this month, Mr. Toledo unleashes his second Matador release in less than a year, Teens of Denial.
It’s the first album he’s ever recorded in a studio, with his band, and its production allows the blunt, talky prophecies he delivers to hit you full on. Religious allegories pepper stories of Mr. Toledo’s growing up, his learning about the empty fulfillment of decadent living and not getting any wisdom from his psychedelic experiences.
“Destroyed By Hippie Powers,” an early highlight on Denial, is a summer jam for the kid who never jams, a banger for the ones who’ve never banged. Denial is packed full of similar scenes and fleeting epiphanies, moments of growing up and growing out of the “archetypal party scene,” a phrase Mr. Toledo alludes to in his insightful but not too demystifying annotations on Genius.
If Style was a pastiche of the sounds and influences that shaped Car Seat Headrest, Denial is Mr. Toledo’s manifesto. No sooner than you debate replaying each riffy, infectious pop track over again does a narrative start to emerge, an arc that encourages you to digest the record in one sitting despite its many singular moments of revelation.
The Observer met Mr. Toledo at Matador’s new Soho office, where we talked about his whirlwind year and his new music. He described the transition from his band’s intentionally innocuous, context-free name into a project infused with meaning—the lessons that art, theology and human interaction have taught him along the way. It’s all a document of growing up, he says, and when so many moments on Denial cause you to nod in recognition, we can’t help but feel like we’re growing up along with him.
It dawned on me when I got over here and got to the “Cosmic Hero” song on your new record that there’s an arc to the new album. Is that fair to say?
Well you have this character on your record, Joe, which led me to think of those Genius annotations. You mention Job from The Bible in “Times to Die,” I think? Any parallels there? Or are you Joe, kinda sorta?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s safe to say that the character in Teens of Denial is me. The Joe thing arose semi-coincidentally. It started with the “Drugs With Friends” song title, which just came off of an About.com article about teens that are in denial. Joe gets kicked out of school for using drugs with friends was an example in that article, so I just took that word for word. Then later on a friend mis-remembered that song title as “Joe Goes to School,” so I used that as the last song title. But I intended it to become this alternative character, to unite the album more conceptually.
I always try to build my albums to have an arc, not a direct story. I think most concept albums that border on rock opera or whatever, they kinda struggle to keep that narrative going. There ends up being some stuff on there that isn’t as strong as individual songs, so I prefer to focus on the songs first but have a sort of narrative going on behind the scenes, where you can kind of hear it progressing throughout the songs. The second half of the album is definitely more narrative than the first, which is sort of a collection of ideas. There’s sort of this mini-plot later.
‘There was the most drama in communities that were focused on that, on peace and love vibes.’
For sure, I mean there’s these themes of the failed dream of the party culture and the hippies that keep coming back, too. There’s this whole idea of communal evolution, of peace and love, that we’re all going to evolve together and attain utopia. But most of the people who preach that, their own individual shit is still a mess. So I kind of see you or Joe or Job or whomever just sort of hanging out and being present with those people, but still questioning it.
Yeah, that’s fair to say. I sort of got burned out on the peacenik image, just because what I saw in college is that the people who are most vocal about this way of life or the anti-establishment way of life, the people and communities that were most vocal about that were also the ones where strife was the most common. There was the most drama in communities that were focused on that, on peace and love vibes.
I think it’s just a matter of people ranging on a spectrum between not having a lot of emotional struggles and having a lot of emotional struggles, feeling like you’re kind of “out” of the system. For a lot of people who feel that way, the hippie scene is an alternative. But then you end up with a bunch of people who are emotionally extreme, sort of butting heads with each other, and it ends up with something that is a lot dirtier and more aggressive than it should be.
How does the idea of personal transcendence fit into that? Because there are some religious themes on the record, too, and I guess our character’s seeking that through tripping out at first. He says, “Last night I took acid and mushrooms, I did not transcend” very bluntly. But the religious themes creep into the hero’s own narrative, you getting signed to Matador and singing about “the divine council.” Is that just you kind of having fun with your upbringing, and these values taught to you growing up?
I like tearing the idea down of religion as this relic of the past, and trying to bring it into modern culture as something that’s very much alive. For me personally, I was seeking transcendence, not necessarily putting a label on it, but in terms of writing the songs these religious images kept popping up. The source material for most art comes from religion, throughout the ages, and so I was in that camp, sort of working out of that tradition.
Not just Christianity, you had this annotation about Darshan. Talk about that a little if you don’t mind.
Yeah, I took a course on Hinduism among other things, and I like this idea of Darshan, a Hindu form of prayer where the idea is not seeing god, but god seeing you. The Christian word would be communion. An exchange where you’re both on the same level momentarily…that was a powerful idea for me. It engages you on a much more personal level.
It’s not hierarchical anymore.
Right, yeah, it’s not just prayers to no one, it’s a conversation. I liked going to that idea from the rest of “Times to Die”, which is a lot more Christian based, with the idea of Job who is crying out to someone who is just not answering him you suddenly get the break into this Hindu idea where it’s possible to attain this level of enlightenment where you’re on par with god in some way. That ends up just being a parallel to this idea of struggling to break through in my own life, break into some sort of mainstream success with my music, feeling it was completely out of reach and then abruptly, suddenly, the goal is within reach.
You’re having fun with that too, now.
Yeah, I am having fun with that.
Not just the success, but the whole surreal reality of it. I talked to Joe Keyes, who runs Bandcamp’s new editorial section, and it wound up being all about you, because you’re an example of someone who’s really benefited through the human element of their platform. How do you feel about the way that your music is shared and discovered?
For me, it’s mainly about getting it out to as many people as possible, and for that I’m grateful for where we are in culture presently, which is being awash in media. The struggle then becomes, for the audience, discerning what is good and what’s just sort of ephemeral and “of the moment.”
That’s the struggle with creating a narrative, too, creating something lasting. I mean, the idea of Job, talking to God and God not listening, that’s the idea of the kid trying acid and waiting for something to happen on the next record. It’s almost like the means of how you get there, whether pharmacological, technological or spiritual, the end game is all the same—you want communion with something outside of yourself.
Yeah, I’ve always seen Car Seat Headrest as a documentation of the process of growing up, which is also a process of struggling for inner peace, whatever you wanna call it. I think there’s an idea that is never quite going to be reached, but there is room for play and peace within this lack of peace. You’re able to be content with the idea that everything is going to change, and you’ll always be struggling with some future that’s not quite before your eyes yet. That’s just what life is, really. If you’re not doing that then you’re probably about to die, and that’s not good!
Right on! It’s funny to me too, because when I saw you at CMJ you told us not to listen to your older records, start here, but creeping on your Genius annotations again you’ve taken bits and images and lyrics and themes that you really like to recycle them. There’s some, not ego-death happening here, but you’re kind of repurposing your personal history. Not denying where you’re from or how you’re raised, but saying, ‘I’m older now and all this shit has happened to me, what do I still believe, and where am I now?” I kind of see that happening in these songs, the characters are able to look back and reflect. What’s the arc there, and how does it work into the two album titles, Teens of Style and Teens of Denial?
When Matador first approached me I was able to give them the demos for Teens of Denial and the possible track list for Teens of Style. I had it all worked out in my head. The first half of 2015 I recorded Teens of Style and then went right into practicing for Teens of Denial with the band.
‘One of my goals was to make a record that you could put on at parties, so that the kid who doesn’t really wanna be there could at least have some good music to listen to.’
The all-too-easy reference point for you guys is ’90s rock and ’90s music. It’s still called that but the ’90s are long gone, and people are still making music that has loud electric guitars. I feel like if Stephen Malkmus in such hallowed company was talking about technology and our disassociation from it, he was doing so from the ranks of the skateboarders and the slackers but still hanging out with those he decried. But I get the sense that you’re very much standing across the street in some way. I guess I’m curious as to how you reconcile those sonic references with your own lyrical styles, which are very different and your narratives are a lot more lucid and clear.
Yeah, the Pavement comparison comes up a lot.
That’s O.K.! It’s good to address it, and I can see where it comes from, but I was drawn from bigger ’90s bands like Nirvana and Green Day, just because that’s what I grew up listening to. And also older rock stuff, The Who and The Clash. I’d been going through to try to make a playlist of influences for the record and a lot of that stuff is popping up. I can hear a lot of moves on Teens of Denial and remember where they came from when I listen to those older albums.
So yeah, I think people are latching onto Pavement because a lot of people still care about Pavement, and I’m on Matador so it’s kind of a clear lineage. But I think we’re both operating off of earlier influences, and it was definitely in some ways an anachronistic record to make, but I didn’t intend it as a statement like that. Maybe I did, but it was less like, “fuck you to computers” and more, “this is the record I’ve always wanted to make because I grew up listening to these records.”
It’s more subversive to me that you’re calling out the things you see as someone making music that could easily be played at those parties, as rock ‘n roll.
Yeah, one of my goals was to make a record that you could put on at parties, so that the kid who doesn’t really wanna be there could at least have some good music to listen to.
“Finally, a drunk driver PSA!”
[Laughing] Yeah, well maybe not that song so much, but “Hippie Powers.”
One of your annotations mentioned you originally had to record in a car, is that where the band’s name comes from?
Yeah, it came from that practice of recording in the car early on, but it also was a very anonymous-sounding name, there wasn’t a lot of connotation that came up, and that’s what I was looking for. Because it did start off as a pre-Vapor Wave concept. Vapor Wave is all about the anonymous nature of the internet. It’s this small genre that’s popped up, kind of broadly defined. Some of it is slowed-down pop from the ’90s, not big pop songs but disposable hits. The idea is to create the atmosphere of shopping mall muzak, but with the ghostly feeling of nostalgia rather than being there in the present moment.
So you’re almost trying to sound innocuous, and then the lyrics push you out of that.
Well that’s where Car Seat Headrest started from, and it definitely moved away from that. An attempt to make music that had no context. That’s why I picked a name that didn’t have context either, and now it’s a lot different for me. I feel like the name does have context because I’ve been working with it for so long. But when other people come in and hear it for the first time, there’s still a befuddled reaction.