New Noise: Car Seat Headrest Is a Bandcamp Cult Hero on to Something Big

Chona Kasinger
Car Seat Headrest

Welcome to New Noise, a shout-out to Refused and a monthly Billboard.com column highlighting up-and-coming alternative and rock artists. When we say "up-and-coming," we don't necessarily mean "brand-new," as this artist already has ten albums to its name. What we do have in store is a weekly shout-out to an artist who's just beginning to enter a bigger stage and spotlight, and whom we hope you, the reader, hear much more from in the future.

Listen to your interns. Car Seat Headrest -- the musical project of one-man-band Will Toledo -- produced 10 Bandcamp albums since 2010 before Matador Records intern Jake Whitener brought his internet cult hero status to label founder Chris Lombardi. Long story short, Toldeo gets to take his home recordings to the masses via the “major” indie that surely released some of his musical reference points. The Virginia native turned Seattleite crafts lo-fi indie rock with lyrics that sound like the inner musings that pass through your head when you’re making music alone in your room, or your parents’ car, hence the band name. Thing is, Toledo is a very witty, self-aware fellow, so the introspection is more like offbeat poetry, set to hooks that deserved to escape the bedroom. 

The Bandcamp page contains Car Seat’s entire discography, though Toledo implores, “Media outlets, please do not link the numbered albums because they’re not very good.” Fair enough, but for his first Matador offering, Toledo still dug into his past. On Oct. 30, Car Seat Headrest released Teens of Style, an 11-song collection featuring re-recorded versions of old Bandcamp standbys. They’re still lo-fi, but Toledo is inching towards the masses, and, given his songwriting chops, it’s a smart move. He’s planning an all-new 2016 LP called Teens of Denial, featuring an outside producer for the first time and a sound he calls “totally different." He’s at a fascinating juncture in his career -- cautious to leave self-production behind, but open to radio play and commercials, enough to justify them with a Mad Men reference. 

For more on what lies ahead for Car Seat Headrest, check out the interview below:



How did Matador find you? 

It was kind of random. (Founder) Chris Lombardi got a recommendation from his intern to listen to my Bandcamp stuff. He fell in love with it, I guess, and he e-mailed me. Then Matador came to my next show.  

When I saw you perform at Mercury Lounge, you slipped a pretty random cover in there… 

We probably did a song that incorporates the Cars’ “Just What I Needed.” We don’t play that song much -- the structure seems a little off to me for whatever reason -- and people think we’ll cover the whole song, and we don’t. But that’s actually going to be on Teens of Denial, with that chunk, if we can get it cleared. 

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Teens are all over your music -- Teens of Style, Teens of Denial, and the song, “Psst, Teenagers, Take Off Your Clothes.”

That comes from this Disney urban legend. At one point in Aladdin, it sounds like Aladdin is saying, “Psst -- teenagers, take off your clothes.” If you go in and watch it on the VHS, at least, there is a voice that comes in as Aladdin is talking and says, “Take off your clothes”… That was just something I found on Snopes.

The other teen stuff was sort of a coincidence. Teens of Denial came from the caption on eBay of the photo of that I’m going to use as the cover of the image. It’s a vintage photo of these two teenagers… and then Teens of Style came after that, so I just paired it up.

On “Strangers” you sing, “When I was a kid I feel in love with Michael Stipe” and mention taking his lyrics out of context because you thought he was singing to you. What's that about? 

I was just listening to R.E.M. a lot as a kid. I was talking about the phenomenon of being super into the lyrics as a kid and you read a lot into every line. When I grew up I realized that R.E.M. has a lot of bullshit lyrics and not everything meant as much as I hoped it would mean. Now I’m kind of experiencing the opposite end of it, where people are starting to read a lot into my lyrics. At the time, that was the first Car Seat Headrest lyric I really liked. Before then, I was just burying everything under distortion, or whatever. So I tried to bring that line out. Now it speaks to me on making my lyrics count and living up to the obligation where, if people are going to be connecting emotionally, you shouldn’t just be bullshitting them.

Many musicians don’t feel that obligation. 

Yeah, I think so, too. And fair enough -- I just think I’m the sort of person who is sensitive to social obligations. 

Was it really different recording Teens of Style for a label after doing so many albums without one?

It wasn’t that different at all. I intentionally went into it with the same process that I used for the album beforehand, How to Leave Town, which in itself was a continuation of my process from before. I’d been debating whether I’d record it in a studio with a producer or continue to do it myself.  I decided to do it myself, because I thought it would be my last opportunity to make an album like that. I knew that with the new album, Teens of Denial, I’d move on and do a studio version, instead of just recording in my home. 

I worked with a few mixers, tentatively, for Teens of Style. Matador was seeing if it could take it in a more pop direction. It was hard to find anyone who got what I was going for. We were getting back mixes that didn’t really live up to the stuff I was doing, which is one of the reasons I self-produced.

Check out the original Bandcamp version of one of Toledo's best songs: 

And then listen to the re-recorded version from Teens of Style, adapted into music video form:

When you talk about a “pop direction” and sounding commercial, what do you mean? 

It was sort of a mental barrier for myself, thinking I couldn’t make something that goes on radio, or that people would sync to commercials. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Teens of Style, because with Teens of Denial, we’re working with a producer and it’s really a step up from there. Teens of Style will be the odd child where it’s well-produced (for me) but it’s going to sound totally different from what I do after it. 

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You mentioned commercials and radio play -- are those things you’re open to?

Yeah. I’ve always been sort of okay with that idea. I grew up watching commercials and listening to the radio, and I was exposed to some music through those channels, that I wouldn’t have otherwise. As a consumer, I was okay with it, so I figured that as I creator I should be, too. If a really scummy product was trying to use it, I’d say no, but I buy stuff and I’m okay with methods that are used to make people buy stuff. We live in a post-Mad Men community.