The arrival of Car Seat Headrest was a gift to a certain strain of indie-rock enthusiast—not least because they'd already made a dozen records before you ever heard of them, so there was always plenty to argue about. Will Toledo, the project's founder, spent five years posting increasingly accomplished solo recordings to Bandcamp while living with his parents in Virginia. Then last year, Matador released Teens of Style, a compilation of that material, followed in May of this year by Teens of Denial, a staggeringly good, alluringly dense record of smart, melodic guitar rock that withstands comparisons to the label's golden age.
Having since relocated to Seattle, Toledo has spent most of this year on tour with the newly constituted full-band iteration of Car Seat Headrest, which headlines the Neptune on Saturday, November 26. I spoke to him at The Stranger offices shortly before the record came out, a more innocent time all around.
After having made a dozen records on your own, Teens of Denial was your first experience in a proper studio with a pro. How did you come to work with Steve Fisk, and how did you find the experience of not having total control?
The plan was always to add someone else in that role for this album, partially because it was something I wanted to do, and also because it was something the label wanted to do. They were sending me names of various people to check out, and some of them seemed kind of pie in the sky, but I knew I wanted to work somewhere here, somewhere local.
I started checking out the stuff that he had produced, and I really liked all of it. Not just the way it sounded, but the types of artists he was working with. I thought he had good taste. Recording was actually much easier than I anticipated. It was definitely different, but there were a lot of factors that helped ease it. Recording with the band for the first time, I had that support system and it wasn't just me doing everything. It was easier to have someone else pushing the buttons so I could just focus on performance.
People talk a lot about the 1990s indie-rock element of your sound, and I'm sure it's a big part of your appeal for people of a certain age (myself included). How conscious, or self-conscious, are you of that influence?
I think it's a little different for me because it was sort of 1990s influence via 1960s influence. I grew up listening to a lot of the same records and artists that '90s artists had listened to. I was in high school when I heard Guided by Voices and Pavement. Pavement took a little longer for me to get into, but Guided by Voices I remember instantly connecting with—but that's because I grew up listening to the Beatles and the Who and a lot of records that obviously Robert Pollard really liked growing up as well. I already had a backbone of musical influence when I started listening to the '90s records, and the '90s records encouraged me to be able to do my own thing, in the moment. It was more the inspiration to do it rather than the inspiration behind the songs.
I imagine that aside from home recording, this must be the thing you get most tired of being asked about.
Yeah, well, that's why I'll have to make a record that doesn't sound like the '90s.
You were born in 1992. What was your relationship to popular culture growing up?
I was oblivious to it, I guess. I couldn't find much that I connected with, but it was just strange. I never had a system for finding music, it just had to come up and surprise me. I was never able to find any sort of website or connections where they were reliably giving me stuff that I really liked, so it was just kind of coming out of nowhere. I definitely was influenced a little bit by the pop radio in the early 2000s before I stopped really listening to the radio, but the late '90s and early '00s pop stuff left its mark, and then I forgot about it, and now I'm being surprised by it. I've been listening to Cher's "Believe" recently.
Interesting leap for your next batch of music.
Right, yeah, but I drifted away from that once I wasn't exposed to the radio anymore and forgot about that aspect of things. I just fell into the indie scene more or less. But even in there it was kind of random, what I was finding and what I was ignoring. It was just what was on my radar.
I mean, do you believe in life after love?
It's such a weird song, because the chorus is really solid, and it has this really solid idea behind it, and then the rest of it just isn't about that. It's just a self-help, outlandish pop song, and then the chorus really hits hard.
I do, I do.
Sorry, I don't mean to press you.
I had to think about it.
What made you choose Seattle to move to?
There wasn't a great reason. I had no options in Virginia as far as places I wanted to live, and I had a friend here who offered their place at the time and said, "You don't have to pay rent until you've got a job." And it worked out that just when I was starting to need to pay rent, Matador came along. Obviously I knew it had a good reputation for music and I knew I wanted to start a band, a permanent band, so I took a chance and came out here.
Has the attention of a larger audience changed your relationship to the stuff you've already made? Is it affecting your songwriting?
I don't know. It's interesting. The stuff I've already made, subconsciously I feel like no one's really checking it out anyways, even though there is a wider audience. It's only people who are already interested who are going to look at the older stuff, so I'm okay with that. There's definitely some rougher material back there, but it's hard to get people to listen to it, so I'm okay with it being out there in the first place.
I always write far ahead, so the stuff that I'm writing now is not going to be out for a while. I was always writing, more or less, with the hope that it would reach a wider audience, so I tried to keep that in mind. I guess the main difference now is I stress out more about the overall picture of things. Writing individual lyrics or individual progressions—you either like them or you don't, but I think the key once you have a wider audience is presenting it in a way that is interesting and new. The struggle is to conceptualize that in a way that can translate. I think I've got some good concepts going.
When I write something, I try to look at it from the perspective of an audience, but the size of the audience doesn't matter so much to me because I'm always trying to see it from an individual viewpoint. It seems to me that when you have a really big audience, chances are there is still only a small percentage of them that are really focusing closely. I try to get in that mind-set rather than thinking that thousands of people are listening, because that's definitely overwhelming. I try to write for myself and for a select number of people who I share the music with and let them critique it [in advance]. I think that's the key: to keep your vision limited to a select number of people who care, whether real or imaginary.