“No One Creates Art in a Vacuum”: An Interview with Car Seat Headrest

One of the most promising indie songwriters in a generation, Car Seat Headrest's Will Toledo talks about revisiting old material, living a modern life abutting Colonial Williamsburg, and the way that artists have always built on each other's ideas ... or at least until now.
Car Seat Headrest
Teens of Denial

Will Toledo has been writing songs since middle school, famously holing up in the family car to home-tape his earliest tunes and facing down the car seat headrest from which he took his band name. Between 2010 and 2015, Toledo wrote, recorded and released a dozen albums on Bandcamp, cranking out a spate of infectious, literate indie pop. Matador signed him in early 2015, on a tip from an intern, and he has already released two more full-lengths for them: last year’s Teens of Style (which reworked older material) and this year’s Teens of Denial, a breakaway album that realized Toledo’s work in punchy, scrappy, full-band arrangements.

Stripped Down and Closer to Live

Toledo’s touring band — that’s Seth Dalby whom he’s known since college on bass, Andrew Katz on drums, and Ethan Ives on guitar — bolster his songs on the newest record. Toledo says he’s never had the chance to record with a group before, a process that has significantly shifted his sound.

“When I would self-record, I would record pretty much as soon as I had a song written,” he says. “I wouldn’t have much time to practice it beforehand, so stuff would still be pretty fresh when I recorded it.”

“This time we had about a month of practice before we recorded, and that really helped us bring a better delivery to it,” he adds. “We did one song after we had toured for about a month with it, and that also helped.”

“The basic concepts were the same, in terms of doing basic tracks and then building through overdubs,” he explains. This time, however, because of the practice and extra players, there was less need for overdubs. “I used to mass a lot of lo-fi elements in production, but with this one, I didn’t have to. It’s more stripped down.”

Seeing the Past Through the Present

Most of the songs on both Teens of Style and Teens of Denial date back several years and Toledo continues to dig back through older material to fill out his live set. Asked how he feels about songs that reflect on events now well in the past, Toledo says, “When I get into the right mood, I think they still sound good and that’s why I want to revisit them. There’s definitely a mixture of thinking they’re good work and feeling that they could be better, which is why I want to revisit them.” He adds, “I try and think about what needs to be improved when I rewrite it and rerecording. But I like the songs which is why I want to revisit them.”

Part of the process involves updating the material so that it’s relevant not to Toledo’s college years, but to the life he’s living right now. That is partly why the lyrics often seem at odds with his upbeat, roughly celebratory arrangements.

“I was going through a down time when I wrote most of these songs,” he explains. “I was in my last year of college and didn’t know what I was going to do after that. I was feeling like one phase of my life was over or ending and I didn’t know what the next was going to look like and that made me anxious and depressed. But once I got out of that phase, it kind of dissipated.

“So, I was in a bad mood at the time, and you know, I felt obligated to write about it because that’s what I do,” he adds. “But I didn’t want it to be something that was only a dark album because that’s not what I like to listen to. I don’t like to visit something that only offers the depressive side or the dark side of things. So I struggled to make it as comprehensive as possible and encompass a wide range of moods. A lot of times that meant making music that was energetic and melodies that were punchy in a way that the lyrics didn’t necessarily reflect.”

The album opens with “Fill in the Blanks”, which asserts, “You have no right to be depressed,” a phrase that Toledo says is part of an internal dialogue. “I was in a struggle to not be depressed. The question was of should I give in and allow myself to feel what I’m feeling or should I fight against it and try to see the upside of things and try to not take it so seriously. You know, it’s just a question of having these negative emotions and wondering what to do with them and whether to act on them.”

Many college students feel out of step with their surroundings as they finish up their education, but Toledo’s situation was exacerbated by the fact that his school, William and Mary, is close to the historic re-enactment park Colonial Williamsburg. “During my last year at college, I had rented a house and stayed through the summer. Where I was living, the colonial district was between my house and the school, so I ended up spending a lot of time passing through the Colonial district,” he says. “It was kind of surreal to be going through the old-time-y things and then seeing all the tourists at the same time.”

Just What No One Needed

In a fairer world, the story about Will Toledo in 2016 would be about the emergence of a major new artist, a young Pollard, Malkmus, or Darnielle rising inexplicably from the Virginia suburbs. Instead the narrative has largely focused on a song that borrowed a lick and a verse and a half from the 1977 Cars song “Just What I Needed”, that was thought to be cleared for use, but that later had to be pulled on threats from Ric Ocasek.

Toledo is philosophical about the difficulties, saying “The Cars thing — it wasn’t really anybody’s fault. There were mechanisms happening that were beyond anyone’s control. I didn’t blame anybody for that. I just tried to work past it.” He was more annoyed that the label at first put up the wrong version of “Unforgiving Girl” on Spotify. “That was somebody’s fault, so I was mad about that.”

Still, he recognizes that actions like Ocasek’s have a chilling effect on creativity, not just his but other artists across mediums like music, visual art and literature.

“No one creates art in a vacuum. There’s always been a lot of exchange going on among creative people,” he reflects. “That really wasn’t viewed as a bad thing until it became so commercialized and monetized and corporations started wanting for stricter laws about who could use what. At that point you develop a new sort of artistic culture, which is a lot more stifling and, I think, will appeal to a lot less people.”

And he says he would be open to it if other artists reinterpreted his music, too. “I wouldn’t mind. I would listen to it. If it was good, I’d reach out and give them kudos. If it was bad, I wouldn’t necessarily be as happy about it, because bad art never makes me happy. But I wouldn’t say anything about it, because I don’t think it does do any harm to me,” he says. “I’m not sensitive to my reputation enough to feel like I need to control the environment in that way. I’m not greedy enough to see it in terms of dollar signs. I think it’s just someone being inspired by someone else’s work, and more often than not, I would be happy to hear something like that.”

Looking Forward

From his use of old home recordings as source material to his tussle over a song written before he was born, it may seem that Toledo is stuck in the past. But he says that his favorite song on Teens of Denial is “Unforgiving Girl”: the one that was written with his band and right at the end of recording, and that he can’t wait for what’s next.

A massive show at Primavera Sound gave him a glimpse at what might be ahead, with hundreds of people, some chanting out lines from his songs. Yet a few weeks later, he and his band were playing to crowds of less than 20 in European cities that hadn’t quite gotten the message yet.

Toledo takes both kinds of experience in stride, saying “I think it’s a good back and forth to have, because we’re still pretty young as a band in this line-up. We’ve only been touring for less than a year. So the smaller shows definitely make sense and keep us humble. If we were only doing bigger shows we might lose perspective on where we are, and we’re definitely not out of the stage yet where we’re playing to 20 people, and that’s fine with me.”

But he bristles when media coverage centers on his youth and says he wishes he were in his 30s already. “It’s not like it’s wrong to point out that I’m young or I look young. But obviously I’ve been struggling to do stuff well for a while and in terms of that, I feel like I’m more mature than I’m depicted as,” he says. “I think I’ll be happier with my own self representation when I’m older, maybe in ten years or so.”