When I call Will Toledo, the new 22-year-old Matador Records signee known by his musical moniker Car Seat Headrest, I wake up earlier than I usually do. I’m on the West Coast, he’s somewhere closer to the Atlantic, but it was an interview I was more than happy to lose a couple hours of sleep to. Mainly because, for a lo-fi power pop junkie like me, Car Seat Headrest is a project you spend a lot of time hoping will come around. Toledo’s melody lines are the sort of stuff that you want to stay stuck in your head for a long time, so it’s strange when he says that’s not coming as easy as it used to.
“Growing up, it [melody] was the most important thing,” he explains. “Lately, I’ve started to have a different sense of how to write a song. I’m focusing on the rhythmic elements and lyrical stuff but it’s less melodic. Melody is more difficult now than it used to be. I certainly like it when it happens and I try to make it happen as much as I can.”
Maybe it’s a “strike the iron while it’s hot” situation, but it certainly seems like the iron he’s striking is a little more fiery more often than most people’s. His Matador debut, Teens of Style, is packed with material electrified by lyrical vibrancy, knockout instrumentation and overall songwriting chops anyone who’s followed his new label since the ‘90s should be able to recognize as familiar territory displayed from a new vantage point. When I bring up ‘90s to current bands I hear traces of in his sound, such as Guided by Voices and Animal Collective, he’s ready to concede and qualify the statement.
“Those are both bands I was into in high school and they definitely influenced the way I approached music,” Toledo says. “But the first seeds of how I approach melody came from The Beatles. I’ve been listening to them again recently and thinking about how influential they were as I was growing up. That’s probably their primary strength: their sense of melody. A lot of the Paul McCartney songs, nowadays, I find pretty simplistic but they’ve always got a ton of great hooks in them.”
His reverence for the Liverpudlian monoliths doesn’t catch me too off guard. Anyone keen on writing earworm tracks with a sense of authenticity can trace their lineage back to Abbey Road. They’re far from the only band on his radar, though. He even references R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe on one of the new album’s songs.
“R.E.M. was a band I listened to a lot,” he remembers. “I liked how cryptic it was, and the music as well. Even though I spent a lot of time listening to it and bonding with it, it never really ultimately sank in as being emotionally worthy or whatever. I eventually realized a lot of the lyrics were just nonsense. It seemed like a waste of time to read those lyrics sheets and return with nothing. Some of Michael Stipe’s lyrics are fantastic. I think ‘Losing My Religion’ is a fantastic song but I didn’t really process what that one meant either to the level he was writing at back then.”
His own lyricism is just as likely to have been influenced by the writers he’s found himself enamored with over the years. He was an English major, which he laughs about as “the best way to become tired of literature,” and the words to his songs showcase his abilities as a writer in general as much as they prove him a good lyricist. Raymond Carver and James Joyce are two of his favorite authors.
“In high school,” Toledo says. “Raymond Carver appealed to me because there was a lot of literature with overly flowery prose and surface-level symbolism. Raymond Carver was the brutal realist. That appealed to me more because he didn’t explain anything, he just sort of laid it on the table. Later on, Joyce was my top choice. He might still be. His short stories, with Dubliners, have that same exactness to them. Nothing is revealed beyond what needs to be. He grows out of that and starts doing more enthusiastic, all-over-the-place writing. I liked the progression of that. He encompassed a development in character I felt I was going through as well.”
Joyce is perhaps the more apt comparison to his own musical pedigree. Teens of Style is an album where relentless creativity is based on the foundation of someone who knows all the basic building blocks. You don’t get to Ulysses without knowing how to write Dubliners. The songs themselves need to be good before they can be experimented with. I wondered what the process of constructing these songs from the ground up was like.
“It’s changed over the years,” he explains. “About half these songs, I’d go on to the recording software without having a set goal or ultimate plan for the song. Instead, I’d just be building loops and melodies, stacking up guitars over scratch drums. I’d just sort of write songs through loops. ‘Sunburned Shirts’ [a song off the new album] is definitely that way. As I moved on, I started to have more of a complete idea of what I’d want a song to be before I started recording.”
It may seem odd for someone with a “debut” coming out to talk about how things have changed over the years. It’s worth pointing out that Toledo’s first record on Matador is far from his first rodeo. He’s been writing, recording every instrument and producing records for his Bandcamp for the last four years. Up till now, he’s finished 11 albums and sold more than 25,000 copies of them purely by word of mouth without any outside help from labels, agents or PR people.
“It certainly wasn’t an overnight thing,” he admits. “It just eventually spread out and came when I was making music as ambitious as I could be to the extent of my abilities. The first Car Seat Headrest stuff was just me sort of fucking around and experimenting but, once I started giving it my all, the few people who did hear it responded. After that, it just became a word of mouth thing.”
Given the type of music he recorded for Bandcamp, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like for Matador to get in contact with him. For an indie rock songwriter, wouldn’t it almost feel like getting the Holy Grail delivered to your doorstep?
“It affirmed a lot of what I’d been working toward,” he says. “It was something I’d wanted for a long time and I’d finally given up on the idea of being picked up by a big label like that. I was finally starting to get used to the approach of self-releasing and self-promoting. When this came along, it was completely unexpected. It came at the right time because I’ve got a much more independent approach to it than I did at the start. I feel like I can do more of it on my own and don’t have to give up agency on everything because I’m part of a larger network now.”
In fact, Teens of Style is a collection of re-recorded songs from those initial Bandcamp records. Considering a major label debut is a pretty big deal, Toledo’s decision to release older material again may seem a little perplexing at first. His explanation for why he made this decision, however, sounds like an act of friendship more than an artistic decision.
“I already had the idea I wanted to do this first,” he says. “People had to dig to find these songs and I wasn’t happy with the way they all sounded. I’d already wanted to go back and revisit those. That was tied, in my mind, with signing to somewhere and working with a wider audience. I had no expectation it would be with someone as big as Matador. When that happened, though, I told them this was what I wanted to do first. I wanted to present a more curated compilation of what I’ve got to offer before I do anything new so people can kind of get up to speed on Car Seat Headrest.”
Just because he assembled his own musical exhibit as a first outing doesn’t mean he’s comfortable staying in the same territory though. He’s not looking to just be known as a Bandcamp-to-Matador success story. In fact, the music he’s been drawing inspiration from lately isn’t even close to the bedroom recording variety the word Bandcamp may conjure up for some.
“I’m looking more at sonic elements and artists who really have it together in terms of arrangement and performance,” he says. “James Brown has been a constant inspiration in the last couple years in terms of him being incredible every time he went up on stage. It’s just been stuff where the live performance is way more of a big element than it had been for me in the past. I’ve been really into Swans too and really like Michael Gira’s workman-like attitude toward performing. It’s something that’s a craft you can practice and stay solid at.”
Although it may be hard to see Toledo pulling any James Brown antics on stage soon, Gira’s attitude certainly seems like something that’s already bled over into his own work ethic. The Swans frontman just got done crowdfunding for the band’s new album and Toledo’s basically been crowdfunding for his own project exclusively up to this point. Plus, you don’t release 11 albums in four years unless you already know how to treat music like a full-time job.
“A lot of indie rock seems based around the idea music is this intangible act of genius or an act of intense emotion that can’t be replicated,” he observes. “That’s a very powerful idea but it’s hard to replicate that model if you want to be a musician long-term. I think it’s helpful to look at it from the opposite perspective. You get good at the craft so, even if you’re not in the emotional state, you can still get it together and play a good show.”
Judging by Teens of Style, Toledo already knows how to get it together really well. With determination and a disposition like his, it’s safe to assume Car Seat Headrest is a name we’ll be hearing around for a while now.