Will Toledo might be the voice of a very restless and agitated generation. Under the moniker Car Seat Headrest – so named because he recorded his demos in abandoned parking lots whilst locked inside the family whip – Toledo’s hit upon the kind of ennui and alienation that plagues shy suburban twenty-somethings via a steady stream of angst-ridden, confessional tracks posted on bandcamp. Since he began sharing his music in 2010, he’s self-released no fewer than eleven albums of melodic musings on the emotional limbo between childhood and becoming a full-fledged adult. By his own description, some of those are “not very good,” but even if that’s true, the scope of his prodigious talent didn’t go unnoticed; when an intern at Matador played some tracks for label founder Chris Lombardi, he was intrigued enough to follow up, eventually signing Car Seat Headrest and agreeing to release Toledo’s first studio-recorded LP, Teens of Denial, next year, as well as a compilation of older songs called Teens of Style that comes out October 30.
“A lot of my favorite bands in high school and a lot of stuff that I really like now has come out on Matador. I was a big fan of Guided By Voices and New Pornographers and Pavement, so it was definitely a big deal when I heard from them,” says Toledo. Those influences show; Style is chock full of snappy lo-fi melodies, its opening bars a chorus of fuzzed-out loops before Toledo’s nonchalant strumming kicks in. “Chris Lombardi came down to see a live show of ours and ended up signing us on that. At the time we hadn’t had too many performances together as a band so I wasn’t sure about either the performance or the audience – we didn’t have much of a following in Seattle at the time. But it turned out okay and I think they were mostly interested in the recorded work and understood that the live thing was a work in progress.”
Toledo, who grew up in a musical family with a pianist dad, had just moved from Virginia to the West Coast, enlisting guitarist Ethan Ives and drummer Andrew Katz to help flesh out the sound of his home-recorded albums. “I already had songs written that were intended for a band, so I knew that I wanted to do that when I moved,” Toledo says. Together, they spent the first part of the year reworking material for Style from songs Toledo released between 2010 and 2012; they just wrapped recording for Denial, which will hit record store shelves sometime early next year. As a trio, they’ll make their CMJ debut this week with a grand total of eight shows (!) before headlining a North American tour.
It might seem like Matador is making a huge bet on Car Seat Headrest, but Toledo doesn’t feel much pressure; the double release was actually his idea. “I knew that I’d wanted to do a sort of compilation thing if I ever got signed, just as a way of presenting an easy-to-digest version of the history of the music,” he says. “There was a bit of talk of trying to find a way to release all the back catalogue on Matador and I think they just agreed with me that it was easier to do the compilation as a new recording.” And the bet is turning out to be a relatively safe one for the label. The video for Style’s first single, “Something Soon,” amassed over 20,000 views within 24 hours of its posting. It features Toledo, Ives, and Katz smashing a staticky TV with a golf club and taking a sledgehammer to a bookshelf, a snapshot of youthful aggression boiling over like something out of Graham Greene’s 1954 short story “The Destructors.” A lot of the songs on Style tap into that same loneliness and frustration with desperate urgency, the album’s darkness tinged with irony and wit.
“I think it’s common [to feel those things], particularly for people my age and into their later twenties,” Toledo says. “I was looking back on these older songs and sort of reflecting on how much things have changed and how much of it I can’t go back to anymore. There’s a lot of reflection on what’s been lost but I think there’s a humorous side to it, too, or at least ironic distance, so I don’t think it’s overly bleak.” The writing process offers a way for him to parse those emotions, while the finished work provides perspective for the 23-year-old. “Eventually, when I can listen to the whole thing, there’s definitely a sort of catharsis — that I was able to convey my emotions and that I still understand them now, even when my feelings have changed.”
Toledo’s razor-sharp lyrical insight and knack for crafting catchy hooks guarantees prolonged buzz about Car Seat Headrest, but he says he really just wants the project to connect with people like himself. “Music has meant a whole lot to me,” he says. “I want to give something back to people who care about music and consider it the most important aspect of their life, in a sense, [because] I was one of those people.”
Car Seat Headrest is playing approximately nine gajillion shows over the course of this week. For their full CMJ itinerary and additional tour dates, , click here.