For Toledo, the biggest challenge in working on his latest project wasn’t to move the goalposts forward in terms of how complex an album he could write. Quite the opposite — he had a stated goal of wanting to write shorter songs this time around, which mostly worked out. Most of the band’s new songs hover around the five-minute mark, though the penultimate track, the massive “Ballad Of The Costa Concordia,” stretches well beyond 11 minutes. But extended running times weren’t necessarily a problem in this case, just as long as Toledo determined that every part he wrote for a song actually belonged there.
“I just finished Nervous Young Man, which was my record in 2013, and that was this big long double album that was very ambitious, conceptually, so coming off of that, I was tired of that kind of bloated tendency that I’ve come into at that point,” he says. “I wanted to make a record that had shorter songs that were more self contained, and didn’t rely on the backlog of songs I had already written. That was the goal I started off with. I think I sort of kept to that as I went along. The songs still ended up being longer than I was thinking they’d be. But there’s a sort of conciseness to it that isn’t always there in my work.
“That wasn’t so much just an arbitrary limit as, at this point in my career, I’ve got this dense and long-winded catalog of songs, and it really seems like a need to do stuff that’s short and easily accessible,” he continues. “It was a challenge to get that done, but it felt really important.”
It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Toledo is highly critical of his own work. He describes his songwriting as “an accumulation process,” particularly as it pertains to lyrics, which typically involves putting all of his ideas together on a master sheet of lyrical sketches that he references to sort out the wheat from the chaff. And despite how prolific a songwriter he’s proven to be in the past half-decade, Toledo takes his time with it. That’s partially a result of the high standards he sets, but he also admits that he could stand to ease up on himself from time to time, even if his own strictness results in albums he’s happier with.
“In this emotional state, I wasn’t able to write anything that was super poetic or lyrical,” he says. “It was emotional stuff, obviously. And that isn’t what I like to see come out of myself. So for a long time I was writing stuff and just rejecting it after a second look, and it took a long time before I had drafts of these songs that I was happy with. I think being critical of yourself is essential as an artist. It sucks as a human being sometimes to be so hard on yourself, but I think it does pay off when you have something you’re really satisfied with.”
That isn’t to say that Toledo doesn’t have a sense of humor or whimsy. On last year’s “Times To Die,” he included a winking reference to the label president that helped put his music on a national stage: “Got to have faith in the one above me/ Got to believe that Lombardi loves me.” And on new song “Just What I Needed/ Not Just What I Needed,” the band uses a permutation of the riff from the famous Cars song referenced in its title, only to devote the final 45 seconds of the song to playing a raucous cover of the original. Initially the song was called “There Is A Policeman In All Our Heads, He Must Be Destroyed,” but for copyright reasons had to be changed.
That turned out not to be enough for Ric Ocasek, who ultimately wouldn’t grant permission for use of his song, and as a result all physical copies of the album were recalled and eventually destroyed. This ended up costing Matador Records $50,000, though they’re still releasing a new version of the album on vinyl and CD with no remaining elements of “Just What I Needed.” When the recall was announced, Toledo said on Facebook, “Life happens and sometimes not in ideal ways.” Yet the saga of the song had already brought challenges, even before the costly recall.
“I think I was writing the song — my own song — and I had just heard The Cars song recently and just started playing it, on top of the other song. It fit, so I didn’t really question it too much,” Toledo says. “It’s a lot easier to do that when you’re unsigned and don’t have a very big following. You can get away with that.
“It’s the era of compromise for me, I guess.”
This is, indeed, a new era for Car Seat Headrest, which began in 2014 when Toledo pulled up stakes from his home in Leesburg, Virginia and relocated all the way across the country in Seattle. For Toledo, staying put after graduating from college wasn’t an option, both because of its lack of musical outlets and the inevitable need to grow and move on. “It’s always kind of awkward staying in a college town when you graduate and suddenly you’re the oldest person there,” he says.
A lot has changed in just two years. Toledo is now the leader of a full-time band, rather than a solo home recording project. Car Seat Headrest has a new home, a new label and, for that matter, an actual recording budget. But the biggest change for Toledo is a personal one. After years of working on his own artistic development, he’s grown far more confident in his own abilities and comfortable in his own skin. This young man, it would appear, is no longer quite so nervous.
“I think putting music out is what helped me change,” he says. “I was able to look at what I was doing and change it in a way that was shaping me into the person I wanted to be, and also sharing it with the world and people around me. That helped me come out of the shell that I had been in and see the world. I’ve already experienced and done a lot more at 23 than I had expected to. And I definitely am grateful for that.”
This article has been amended from its original version.