When Car Seat Headrest founder and frontman Will Toledo says he's excited about something, you have to take his word for it. Despite releasing a critically acclaimed album, Teens of Denial, that's already making best of 2016 lists (Rolling Stone ranked it No. 4)and a year-capping Nov. 30 performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter makes for one laid-back interview subject. Toledo answers questions with a sober, almost academic, thoughtfulness -- a marked contrast from the sharp flashes of dark, confessional humor and emotionally unfettered singing that, along with the exhilarating sonics of the band's densely layered guitar-and-drum sound, make Teens of Denial, which was released by Matador,the best rock album of the year. "I guess this is going to be a step up, but I don’t really follow late night television," Toledo replies when it's pointed out that an invitation to The Tonight Show is often interpreted as a sign that a musical artist has arrived, so to speak. (The band already appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.) "I'm just going by what Matador tells me."
In addition to the two key late night TV appearances, Car Seat Headrest has played approximately 100 live shows this year, and after a brief respite will travel to Australia and Europe in the new year before returning to the states and hitting the summer festival circuit. The band's electric live shows helped Teens of Denial peak at No. 3 on Billboard's Heatseekers Albums chart in June and, that same month, at No. 16 and No. 22, respectively, on the Alternative Albums and Top Rock Albums charts. As of Nov. 24, the record has 28,000 equivalent album units (of that, 21,000 were in pure album sales), according to Nielsen Music. And though Toledo doesn't see Car Seat Headrest as a singles band, he tells Billboard that a reworking of crowd favorite "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales" will be released as a single.
In a wide-ranging interview, Toledo talks about his love of Leonard Cohen, the common factor between Donald Trump's election and public reaction to Kanye West's recent concert meltdown, Car Seat Headrest's evolution from a solo project to a genuine band, as well as his early popularity among 4chan and Reddit users and their often-negative reactions to his growing success, and the band's next album.
At a concert in Los Angeles following Leonard Cohen’s death, you opened the show with “Field Commander Cohen,” which is not one of his better-known songs. Why that one? I’ve been a Leonard Cohen fan for a long time and have covered a half dozen of his songs or so over the years. That one seemed particularly helpful in terms of understanding the man himself. I’ve always been interested in art that’s directly referential to the artist. And, in a way, “Field Commander Cohen” works as a eulogy. You know, “Field Commander Cohen, he was our most important spy.” And it seemed effective to be used that way and for someone else to be singing it.
Your music doesn’t sound anything like Cohen’s, but your lyrics remind me of his work. Your songs are self-referential, meticulously constructed and often darkly funny in the way that a lot of his songs were. I grew up listening to pop music from the ‘60s and ‘70s like the Beatles and The Who and Pink Floyd. But my first experience connecting with an artist on a more personal level – and coming to see an album as a very personal expression --was Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. And then I came across Leonard Cohen who had been doing this much earlier. He combined the songwriterly aspects of music that I had grown up on with more personal appeal. So, I always vibed with him in that way --and I haven’t come across too many artists since then who really accomplished that in the same way.
Do you have a favorite Cohen album? New Skin for the Old Ceremony is probably the easiest to listen to the whole way through because it was produced very well. But I think that he’s pretty much a track by track guy. You can pull stuff off of any of his albums that’s going to be great.
You also covered David Bowie’s “Five Years” at the end of your L.A. show. Is he an influence? Bowie less so just because I’ve really only gotten into him in the past year. I was just sort of starting to check him out when he died and then I’ve been getting in deeper ever since.
If you talk to pop songwriters right now, they’ll say that, thanks in large part to streaming, this is a business of singles. But Car Seat Headrest is not a singles band. We’re not really a singles band where we have strong tracks and then weaker tracks. Something that I always strive for in my albums is to have very little lightweight material on the album. There are definitely nights where it’ll feel like some songs will get a better reaction, or people will only really be interested in “Drunk Drivers.” And those are not ideal nights for me. I’d just as soon preserve our legacy as not having a clear hit but rather, a steady stream of music that people are engaged with.
Despite not wanting to be a singles artist, you’re very matter-of-fact about your desire for commercial success. I think it’s a silly put-on in a lot of cases. And in other cases, I think it reflects situation where the personality [of the artist] takes precedence over the art itself. I didn’t grow up listening to obscure bands and deep cuts. I grew up listening to pop music and so that’s what I aspire to as a musician. The indie circuit in particular attracts a certain type of artist that has talent but, also, attitude problems. It’s a circuit where artists can basically choose exactly how popular they want to be, and, sometimes, they’ll choose to alienate people rather than try to make it work on a larger level.
Do you have anyone in mind? I don’t want to criticize artists, but I think like maybe someone like Dan Bejar. I really like a lot of his material, but I remember reading [an interview] where he was saying that the first New Pornographers record was shaping up to be a really big deal, so he knew that he didn’t want to be involved in that and started his own thing. It’s like come on, why can’t it be about the music. If it’s good music you shouldn’t throw it away just for the sake of your own reputation. Growing up I saw the romantic figure of the maverick musician who isn’t down to play industry games and will get successful by accident, then spend their careers messing with the heads of the industry and the audience. There was certainly an appeal to that, and then I grew up and started personally encountering artists who had this attitude. And they’re shitty people.
You have expressed admiration for Kanye West and The Life of Pablo. Right before he canceled the rest of his tour, he said some pretty inflammatory stuff about Jay Z, Beyonce and how he had not voted but would have voted for Trump. What do you think of someone like Kanye who is clearly super-talented but can’t help but shoot himself in the knee? That’s a hard case because he’s definitely one of those figures. But I also think that talent ultimately can excuse a lot, and he has not yet started sabotaging his own art in service of his personality. He has always used his public actions to feed his art rather than the other way around. And, you know, TheLife of Pablo was one of my favorite albums this year. I’m actually finishing up a review of it right now for The Talkhouse. I would not want to be producing an album for him, but I can definitely appreciate the work that he puts into his art.
What’s your take on the election of Donald Trump? I think it was just bad communication the whole way through. People were not listening enough to the other side, and this is what we ended up with. I’m frustrated in general, but the whole Kanye thing now is sort of the latest example of that. I think a lot of people are just looking at the headlines and saying, well, I’m not listening to him anymore. But if you actually look at the transcripts of what [Kanye] said, there are a lot of very smart things in there. He’s not necessarily communicating his ideas in the most effective manner, but -- sometimes something bad has to happen in order for you to see what you’re doing wrong and how to do it right -- I’m paraphrasing, but that was one of the thoughts he expressed, and that’s something that I absolutely agree with.
When you played The Bowery Ballroom in October, I was impressed by your stagecraft, especially given your age. I’ve found that a lot of contemporary bands – no matter how good the music is – are dull in concert. I also feel like a lot of bands these days don’t have a particularly compelling live act. I grew up without that particular notion that a live show was essential to making music. I felt if I couldn’t do it well then there was really no point in doing it at all. So for the first four years of Car Seat Headrest there weren’t any live shows other than a couple of local college performances. But a couple of things gradually became apparent -- one is, playing live is necessary if you’re going to make a living off making music these days. Also, I started checking out artists who where doing really special things with their live shows. I saw a Swans concert, which kind of blew my mind at the time. It was very polished but also a very heavy thing that transformed the music far beyond what you heard on the album. I was also watching and listening to James Brown, and saw that he was doing stuff on stage that you couldn’t do on an album.
That’s a good model for a live show. He was stretching out his songs and improvising in an exciting way. It made me realize that you can do interesting things on stage and make it worthwhile and different from the album. So, after college, I spent the next year forming a band and crafting a performance to an extent. We’re still in a fairly basic stage of live performance – there’s not a lot of flash to it – but it’s about working as a unit. We’ve gotten very tight as a unit at this point. It’s exciting to be on stage and playing with these guys. We’re always changing up the set list and how we play the songs to keep ourselves interested.
Do you call any audibles? Sometimes. Set lists are something that definitely change night to night. I’ll wait until I get to the venue before I make one just because certain types of venues are better for certain sorts of songs. Pulling out a long epic piece like “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” doesn’t necessarily work at smaller venues. You want a more theatrical stage for that. So, I figure out what we’re going to play at sound check. But even then, the audience can change things. Usually, for an encore, we’ll wing it and do what we want to do. But this tour in particular we’ve gotten things down to a more exact science. We’re not switching up stuff quite so much just because we’ve got a good sequence of songs going. Sometimes, it’s good to be doing the same thing long enough that you can explore within the song.
There are no real lulls in the show. You tend to play one song into another. I feel like our weak point is audience interaction. I still haven’t gotten over a certain elemental shyness. And it’s definitely hard to come up with things to say on stage. So I think it’s kind of an easy way to cheat and when I can see that one song can lead into another.
Reddit and 4Chan played roles in your success, and yet, as you’ve connected with a larger audience, they’ve also been the source of some very poisonous posts about you. Oh yeah.
Do you read that stuff? Does it affect you? I kind of had to read it back when it was the only thing that was talking about me. I can’t argue that 4chan, in particular, did help during a certain period of my career. [My album] Twin Fantasy certainly got circulated on there a lot. But, you know, it’s a very negative culture. I never felt like I was totally tied to it. I was doing my own thing, and they were on the outside orbit. Eventually, [the popularity of my music] grew to the point where it sort of tipped over into the official music industry.
Fans become possessive of their favorite artists when they grow beyond cult status. I don’t think it’s specific to 4chan or Reddit. Teens of Denial was intended to be a separation from that whole culture because, as I said, it was a very negative one. There were certain factions of people who, I could tell, were latching on to my music for specific reasons that weren’t a part of why I wanted people to be listening to my music. Like, ‘It’s sad and lo-fi.’ I don’t intend to make lo-fi records forever, so, I’m sorry about that, guy. I made Teens of Denial for myself -- a straightforward rock album -- and the reaction was better than I imagined. I thought there might have been more backlash from longtime fans who felt that it didn’t live up to the old work, but the reaction has been kind of overwhelmingly positive. Maybe now there’s a bit of a backlash, but it’s a bit late. We’re already on to the next thing and though it can irritate me momentarily, it’s not something that’s going to affect me.
What is the next thing? Well, for one thing we’re recording as a four piece. We only did one song like that for Teens of Denial. It’s an approach that blends what we did with Teens of Denial, which was a very straightforward studio approach where we record the songs as a whole and then mix them and then it’s done. And combining that with how I’d been recording before then which was more piecemeal --you know, putting things together on the computer. I've got the best of both worlds. We’re very tight as a band and can lay down these great basic tracks for the songs. And then I have a lot of material to mess with on my own and build something on top of that.
Are you listening to your bandmates ideas, or is it a my-way-or-the-highway situation? Well, right now I’ve still got a backlog of me-directed stuff that we’re working through. But at the same time there are definitely ideas being generated by the band, which I would like to work with.
You studied religion in college. Yeah, I minored in it.
You mention God and heaven quite a bit on Teens of Denial. Do you subscribe to any sort of religious or spiritual construct, whether it’s Christianity or Buddhism? I don’t subscribe to any particular religion, but it’s always something that’s interested me, although it’s hard to put a finger on how that applied to my life. In college, it was an academic interest, but anything that you study is hopefully going to be interesting to you in more ways than an academic one. For me, it’s learning how mankind deals with its problems. I think that any religion at its core has fairly good rules to follow about life, and I don’t feel a need to subscribe to one over the other as much as just trying to internalize as much of it as possible.
One of my favorite lines from Teens of Denial is on “Cosmic Hero”: “I will go to heaven / You won’t go to heaven/ I will go to heaven /I won’t see you there.” It’s judgmental in a very funny way. The whole album is an example of improperly internalized religious thought. I think it’s important to note that the ideas expressed on the album represent a thought process. There are impulsive moments of judgment that aren’t necessarily the conclusions that I would want to draw [from that thought process].
In addition to recording your own stuff you’re producing and mixing for other bands. I listened to an interview where you expressed admiration for the Elephant 6 collective. Are you trying to create a similar ad-hoc community of musicians? At this point it would be a little naïve of me to be trying imitate the Elephant 6 model. These are artists I wish success for and hope I can provide a starting point for. Most recently I mixing for a band called Gold Connections. They got signed to Fat Possum this year and will be putting this thing out early next year. I knew the band’s lead guy Will Marsh I knew in college, and I actually played drums in Gold Connections for one semester. We recorded the songs he had at the time, but he didn’t end up putting them out. So I spent most of October remixing them. I did a better job because I had better equipment and more of a legit studio setup. I wasn’t just using headphones. I had nice speakers to work off of.
What type of producer are you? I sort of have a heavy hand in the making of the song. The ideal relationship is kind of the artist has the piece and they sort of don’t know what the whole structure of it is going to be because if I can hear it then I can sort of get cool ideas for what a larger structure for it would be. So I’ve done a lot of work with Whiting Brothers and with Naked Days which is my friend Degnan [Smith] from Virginia.
Would I be correct in thinking that your lyric-writing usually starts with something you’re thinking or feeling about yourself? Teens of Denial is an album that does do that a lot, but that’s not necessarily my favorite way of creating. I think it’s more a case of I’ll see or react to something that’s not necessarily a part of me right away. Or maybe I see a reflection of myself in something and then it grows into something that I can work on. I was never really interested in solely political or social music where the singer is condemning or supporting stuff, and there’s nothing personal to it. But lately I have been interested in the idea of sort of blending the two models where it’s coming from someone personally and it’s also speaking to specific social things. That’s one thing that Kanye is really good at. He addresses current events all the time in his songs –but you never forget who’s singing about them.
I listened to a podcast in which you talked about meeting Adam Driver. Are a lot of celebrities and other musicians reaching out to you? No that’s still a rarity, but I did meet Oscar Isaac at Bowery Ballroom. He popped into the green room. We also got an email from someone who said he was Danger Mouse but it was hard to tell if it was really Danger Mouse. So I just said, I’ll put you on the guest list if you let us know when you’re going to be near a show, and then I never heard anything back. So it might not have been Danger Mouse.