Throughout history there have been countless legendary figures who have arrived fully formed into the world, a burst of musical brilliance, passion and creativity instantly illuminating rock’s wide spectrum. Sometimes though, musical geniuses take time to seep through to mainstream consciousness, you never quite know which enigmatic visionaries are lurking out there. That’s where indie rock’s new hero Will Toledo comes in.
Will, who records as Car Seat Headrest, has been an underground best kept secret for years establishing a formidable Bandcamp back catalogue of self-produced self-released albums that would make even Bob Dylan seem work-shy. His slow burn success has been born the old-fashioned way through word of mouth and sheer rippling excitement. Having caught the eye of legendary US indie label Matador, Will is now firmly establishing himself as a cult genius ready to transfix a musical nation with his first studio recorded release ‘Teens Of Denial.’
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a man with such an array of music available had been writing and recording for years, however, Toledo’s musical rise has been staggeringly quick. The process of creating songs by himself came at an early age. “I was always writing and recording growing up on the limited equipment that I had,” he explains in a slow, measured drawl from his home in Seattle. “I got a guitar in middle school and started writing and recording on that as soon as I knew how to play it. We had a family computer, so you get new computers and the old ones go up to the kids rooms so I was able to do these simple recordings on there. When I got a laptop, I was able to go onto the next level. By the time I was out of high school I was used to that process as part of daily life.”
That daily life was centred around constantly exploring, researching, writing and playing music. Will’s early loves were the traditional song writing virtues of the Beatles and the expansive ambition of Pink Floyd. Perhaps the influence of these pioneers allowed the nascent Toledo to build his own little, very 21st century vision of creativity. “I was a perfectionist and wanted to be in control of every element I was working with,” he says of his early upbringing. “It was my main creative outlet but I wouldn’t say it was all consuming. I guess I had a lighter schedule than most people because I majored in English. That subject always came easy to me so I didn’t spend much time with homework. I was a little less social than my peers.”
Will’s admitted preference to staying in writing music rather than partying with his peers in college allowed him to build Car Seat Headrest gradually, all the while creating his own self-mythology as this undiscovered genius. He was influenced by the likes of REM’s Michael Stipe in a mysterious approach to his early lyrics and songs but, as music became more of a career and Car Seat Headrest bloomed into a proper project, Toledo’s songs and writing became more literal, all the while growing in prominence. “I kind of moved off that cryptic model the same way they REM did. It’s not super sustainable once you start becoming more of a personality,” he drolly comments.
‘Teens of Denial’ is the first Car Seat Headrest album released since he became a “personality” but it actually isn’t the fresh, shiny product of a newly label signed musician. In fact, the ambitious, broad storytelling rock of the album was written and recorded before Will had any contact with anybody from the industry. Its label readiness, clarity and precision is one of those beautiful coincidences. “I started writing it after ‘Nervous Young Man’ which came out in 2013,” he explains. At the time, I had no industry connections. It was just going to be the follow up at the time. I knew I wanted it to be the restart on the cannon though. I wanted a fresh start and was writing songs with that intent. It wasn’t until 2015 that Matador contacted me.” “It was lucky in anticipating an arc that had not really come into motion yet,” he continues. “I remember reading something about David Bowie Ziggy Stardust and it was kind of a similar thing where he was writing all these songs about being famous and how much it sucked but really it was that album that made him famous and he was just anticipating that.”
For a band about to break big on a potentially global level, Will has no fears about Car Seat Headrest operating within a traditional label structure and abandoning the successful lo-fi Bandcamp model. “There is definitely going to be a difference in the work that I do in the future,” he confidently pronounces. “Part of that is the realistic nature that working on a different scale means adjusting the sound of things. I like that idea on a conceptual level. That’s how bands work. You move onto a different phase and you should sound different. There are things that you want to hold onto and there are other things that you should let go and be a part of your past. I’m happy to let the lo-fi stuff be a part of my past and focus on writing good songs but with more clarity.”
There are many reasons why the music of Car Seat Headrest has connected with so many people but perhaps the main one is Will’s relatable lyricism. I try and write songs that if I was listening to them I would be able to relate to them and my internal meters for that sort of thing are not too far from a viable fan base,” he says. “If I write a lyric and think that’s too whiney I’ll can it. Sometimes there’s stuff that might make sense to me but not make sense to an audience so I’ll struggle and rewrite it in a way that makes it more accessible. It’s not just about writing down a feeling as you feel it, it’s about communicating it to an audience and making them feel it as well.”
Fortunately for Will, there’s nothing on ’Teens Of Denial’ that can be considered whiney; however, there’s certainly a lot of rage on a record he describes as his most angry. It’s an anger that manifested itself in the writing process as a frustrated young musician tried to work out his next move after leaving college, a feeling any kid with rock and roll desires can empathise with: “It was a transitional time for me and I don’t really do well in transitional times. I was leaving college and didn’t know where I would go on to from there. It’s the state of knowing that you’re going to have to move on but you’re still stuck in stasis for the moment. I guess I just don’t like endings of things. I prefer feeling like I’m starting a new leaf. I was ending my career in college and it wasn’t fun for me.”
Car Seat Headrest’s rise is a very 21st century one that suggests the traditional model of a musical career has perhaps changed forever. Will Toledo is ready for the challenge though to further his cult legacy or even rip it up completely and build a new one. “There’s always something lost but when you enter a new phase you need to lose some things. I was getting a little stale with the pattern and social milieu that I was in,” he begins. This is infusing Car Seat Headrest with a whole new energy. I see people referring to ‘Teens of Denial’ as my debut album, while that’s obviously not true there’s an element of truth in it that it’s definitely something fresh and feels like a new beginning. I will trade losing the intimacy with the older albums with the struggle of having to prove myself again. The next couple of albums are going to explore territory that haven’t explored before.” Those promised next records might not be self-released online and recorded in a bedroom anymore but the next phase of Car Seat Headrest promises to be equally as exciting.