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Car Seat Headrest Takes A Lo-Fi Route To Big, Classic Rock Songs

Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest. (Courtesy)
Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest. (Courtesy)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Until recently, Car Seat Headrest, the indie rock solo project of 23-year-old Will Toledo, existed solely within the illusory nethersphere of the Internet. No CDs, no liner notes, no artisanal limited edition cassette tapes. Since 2010, the Virginia-born, Seattle-based musician has been the sole author of Car Seat Headrest, recording songs on his laptop and releasing them on the music-streaming site Bandcamp. At some point Toledo amassed enough fans online that he attracted the attention — via an intern — of the founder of Matador records, who signed him. This month, Toledo released his first in-real-life record, titled “Teens of Style,” which consists of reworked material from his back catalog. An album of all-new material, “Teens of Denial,” is slated for release in 2016.

In truth, it is not uncommon nowadays for unsigned artists to release their songs on sites like Bandcamp or Soundcloud and not bother with the considerable expense of printing physical copies of their albums. And it is becoming more and more possible for musicians to access technology that allows them to record music at home; from Tune-Yards’ lo-fi tape deck musings to Grimes’ electronic experimentations, DIY has become de rigueur among the indie set.

What is truly astounding is the sheer pace of Toledo’s output. Between May and December 2010, he released five full-length albums: “1,” “2,” “3,” “4” and “Little Pieces of Paper With ‘No’ Written On Them.” In just four years, he totaled 11 albums. They are all still available to stream on Car Seat Headrest’s Bandcamp page, albeit with a disclaimer aimed at members of the press: “Media outlets please DO NOT LINK THE NUMBERED ALBUMS BECAUSE THEY’RE NOT VERY GOOD.”

Toledo, who performs at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge on Dec. 4, says he chose to leave the early Car Seat Headrest efforts available online “to show people what it can sound like before an artist really has a handle on their own voice. ... I think it’s interesting on a narrative level, because definitely with every release I tried to grow stronger and make something that was more unique and original to myself.”

The willingness to be vulnerable is an enormous part of Toledo’s appeal. A hard thread of anxiety runs through his songs. Sometimes he explores his fears with humor, other times in raw, almost excruciating detail. The 12-minute-long “Beach Life-In-Death,” from 2011’s “Twin Fantasy,” brushes up obliquely against existential despair — “What should I do? Eat breakfast/ What should I do? Eat lunch” — and plunges into chasms of psychic unease: “Last night I dreamed he was trying to kill you/ I woke up and I was trying to kill you.” On “Times to Die,” which appears on 2012’s “Monomania” and again on “Teens of Style,” Toledo wryly distills the anxieties of 20-somethings on the cusp of adulthood: “All of my friends are getting married/ All of my friends are right with God/ All of my friends are making money/ But art gets what it wants and art gets what it deserves.”

“I was in college at that point,” says Toledo. “I think it was more about ‘all my friends are making money,’ in that they all had their s--- figured out more than I did. And the only thing I really had going for me was my art.”

For the first year of Car Seat Headrest’s life, most of Toledo’s listeners were his friends. But his popularity reached a tipping point in 2011 with “Twin Fantasy,” which was shared widely on the 4Chan music message board. Toledo describes his fans as “young, antisocial, music-loving people.” No doubt they are drawn to the intimacy of his lyrics, which are playful and inviting even as they are preoccupied with suffering. Even uncomfortably intimate themes, like discovering one’s sexuality, are confronted with droll self-deprecation. “I pretended I was drunk when I came out to my friends,” Toledo sings in “Beach Life-in-Death.” “I laughed and changed the subject.”

“I think people like the DIY aspect of [Car Seat Headrest],” says Toledo. “There haven’t been a lot of connections to the music industry until this year. So a lot of people like that feeling, that it is just coming from this individual kid in his bedroom.”

Now that Toledo has been signed to a label and featured in the likes of The New Yorker and Pitchfork, that vision of him holed up alone with his laptop is rapidly dissipating. But Toledo says he doesn’t have any ambivalence about going more mainstream. “I think it’s time,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to do bigger things with a more professional setup, I just didn’t have the resources to do it. I can’t do what I’m doing forever. Even if I stayed true to my DIY roots and continued making all the albums myself, it wouldn’t be so romanticized when I’m 40 years old. It would just be kind of weird.”

Toledo points to The Beatles and the experimental post-punk band Swans as major influences. Lately, he has been enamored with the Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar. “I admire [Lamar’s] ability to structure an entire album,” he says. “It’s a complete work, it’s like reading a book, basically. All the symbolism and imagery is so perfectly tuned, not just within each song, but within the entire concept of the album as a whole.”

The Bandcamp archives of Car Seat Headrest play like a study in songcraft. What begins in roughness and experimentation coalesces, over the course of 11 albums, into an articulate and offbeat pop sensibility. In contrast to Toledo’s earlier work, “Teens of Style” is tighter, not so meandering and strange. The tracks, though still marked by dirty guitar sounds and distorted vocals, are pop songs though-and-through.

“Now I just have the confidence to make bigger songs,” says Toledo. “Before I even started Car Seat Headrest I was kind of making music that was closer to what I make now — although definitely more amateurish and childish — but with Car Seat Headrest it sort of became more insular. I guess I was going through a more insecure time. But when I came out of it I had the skills to make the songs I wanted to make, which is the big, classic rock songs that I grew up on and had always loved.”

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