“I didn’t really feel too comfortable performing before 2014,” says Car Seat Headrest frontman Will Toledo, just two weeks before his band is scheduled to play a dizzying schedule of 10 shows in five days at SXSW. This is a relatively new experience for the Seattle singer-songwriter, whose career began as a humble, home-recorded project of lo-fi indie rock songs.
That all changed when Matador Records discovered the band — which, for half a decade, wasn’t even a band at all. Matador president Chris Lombardi signed Car Seat Headrest after seeing them live in Seattle in 2014, which led to the release of a critically acclaimed compilation of re-recorded archival tracks, Teens Of Style, within a year. Yet it was that album’s follow-up, the band’s proper Matador debut Teens Of Denial, that pushed Toledo to fully embrace the importance of his role onstage.
“The past year has helped a lot,” Toledo says in a phone interview from his home in Seattle. “I wanted songs that I could play with a live band and tour with, and that it would feel right playing them. I had a lot of songs, but there weren’t a lot of songs I had that really translated well to a live environment.
“I was working on these songs when I moved to Seattle when I started playing with Andrew Katz, our drummer, and Ethan Ives as well, who’s our bassist,” he continues. “We hit it off, and playing with these guys, who are really solid musicians, it kind of helped me click in place as a performer. Prior to that it was always such a struggle to keep a song from falling apart midway through, but now it’s not an issue.”
Toledo’s no longer so reluctant to play the frontman, but he’s no stranger to addressing his own discomfort. Ever since he began recording his own demos as a teenager, he’s spent most of his career, and for that matter his adult life, addressing his own unease and growing pains. Before choosing the name Car Seat Headrest, a name he used because his recordings took place in the backseat of a car, he wrote music under the name Nervous Young Men. Keeping with that theme, in 2013, he released a two-hour-long double album titled Nervous Young Man.
On a surface level examination, “nervous young man” is a strong representation of the fuzzy indie rock that Toledo performs with his band — agitated, youthful and loud. But nervousness, and — even more than that — anxiety and angst are central themes that have followed Toledo since he first clicked record on a four-track recorder back in 2008. “You Have To Go To College” from 2010’s 1 concerns the growing pains of finding your direction as an adult, while the 12-minute “Beach-Life-In-Death” from 2011’s Twin Fantasy is an extended meditation on discovering one’s own sexual identity. And on “Times To Die,” from last year’s Teens Of Style, Toledo gauges his place in life by measuring that of his peers: “All of my friends are getting married … all of my friends are making money.”
Toledo, himself — whose real name is Will Barnes — comes across confident and at ease in conversation, and for that matter perfectly comfortable in his candor about the anxieties that he addresses in his music. He clarifies that not everything he writes is autobiographical, his lyric writing sometimes based more in narrative than personal experience. Yet Toledo readily notes that Teens Of Denial, due for May release via Matador Records, is based entirely on his own life experiences.
“Everything on this album is pretty much about me,” he says. “As I was writing, I ended up reflecting on my mental state … which this time around was not so hot. I was having a difficult time, including a difficult time writing. I was rejecting a lot of material I was doing, and it all sort of coalesced in this angry, struggling but conceptually unified album. The making of the album and the completion of the album was the sending off of that mental state.”
Teens Of Denial, Car Seat Headrest’s twelfth album — or sixteenth, if you count his little-heard Nervous Young Men material — is a 70-minute indie rock odyssey chronicling a young person’s emotional tribulations through epic, life-affirming anthems. There can sometimes be a disconnect in the juxtaposition between the sheer joy that beams out of Toledo & Co.’s songs and the lyrical anguish within them. One standout track, “Vincent” (named for Vincent Van Gogh, which the song name checks) is a psychedelic excursion through college party culture and escape through alcohol, Toledo noting in one moment of clarity, “If I’m being honest with myself/ I haven’t been honest with myself.” And leadoff track “Fill In The Blank” finds Toledo directing some tough-talk toward himself, dismissing some very real feelings of unhappiness: “You have no right to be depressed/ You haven’t tried hard enough to like it.”
Now 23 years old, and after some time has passed since Toledo first put pen to paper in documenting his own psychological struggles, he’s able to recognize what he was going through.
“It’s about not being able to take my own angst or anxiety seriously, but still being unable to escape it at the time,” he says. “I recognized it as this sort of teenage phase I was going through, that didn’t really have any bearing on anything I was going through. I was wrapping up my life in college and struggling to move on to the next phase. I was kind of unsure of myself. It was kind of this pointless frustration, because I could recognize why it was, and yet I couldn’t really control my emotional state. I couldn’t force myself into a healthier place, because I wasn’t really taking seriously the mental condition I was in at the time.”
The pain and frustration that Toledo highlights with his songwriting speak to a more universal discomfort that a lot of young people go through. However, his work ethic and level of output is uncommonly high, the sheer volume of his mostly home-recorded work large enough to eclipse the careers of well-seasoned career artists — save for, perhaps, Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard, to whom Toledo has often been compared.
Car Seat Headrest’s music has been a work in progress since Toledo was only 17 years old, and he’s he’s averaged about two albums per year. But even the fuzziest and most insular of his recordings carries a sense of epic grandeur and playful experimentation. His debut album, 1, features 16 tracks, the scope of which span from densely distorted garage rock to sample-heavy pop. Though the ambition behind it isn’t necessarily for anyone’s benefit other than Toledo’s, a statement on the album’s Bandcamp page reads: “I probably would not have been able to make this album if I had thought anyone was going to listen to it.”
The sprawl of Toledo’s recordings has only expanded since then, some of his grandest compositions, such as Nervous Young Man’s “Boxing Day” and “The Gun Song,” running well past 15 minutes apiece. Likewise, Teens Of Denial, Car Seat Headrest’s proper follow-up to Nervous Young Man, is also a substantial piece of music, running a pretty beefy 70 minutes. It’s nearly double the length of Teens Of Style, which proved for most listeners to be an introduction to the band’s music, if not the full breadth of it.