Will Toledo, the founder and lead songwriter of Car Seat Headrest, was sitting in his Seattle apartment, looking into his iPhone camera through the eyes of a modified gas mask.
His face was not visible, but somehow he still looked a little sheepish. A few months ago, Toledo decided to wear a costume, including the mask, while promoting the first album of his new indie rock band since 2016, a collection of songs atypically concise and rhythm-oriented entitled ” Making a Door Less Open ”. ”
He was thinking of David Bowie, whose changing alter ego demarcated new phases of his creative life. About ways to improve some of the self-awareness he still feels on stage. About taking live shows in a more deliberate and theatrical direction, and encouraging your audience to have fun.
He hadn’t thought of the possibility that a global pandemic could make protective masks both a mundane sight and a powerful symbol of ubiquitous and amorphous terror.
“It’s certainly not an ideal environment for presenting art,” said Toledo, putting it down gently.
The Darth Vaderish quality of the mask is relieved by a pair of bright, somewhat googly LED eyes custom fitted by an accessory manufacturing studio in Los Angeles, and two flexible ears sewn by a friend from Toledo. Upon request, Toledo wore it for the first half of the interview, which was conducted via FaceTime. But he recognized that sticking to this particular conceptual cascade seemed a little embarrassing, given the state of affairs.
“It was meant to be some sort of exotic alternative to reality – as a challenge, I suppose, to normal life,” said Toledo. “And now I feel much sharper in a way that I never expected and I really take no pleasure in. “
He had thought of “Making a Door Less Open” as an “album of everyday life” whose mask would recontextualize the songs; rather, the everyday aspect of the lyrics now seems strange. The half-rapper “Hollywood”, an inner dyspeptic monologue about getting on the bus and watching posters of bad movies, plays like a snapshot of a bygone era of social proximity. The metaphors of fever in the single “It can’t get me cold” could have played better, said Toledo, “outside the context of constant thinking about the disease.”
Another challenge is that these songs represent some of the most direct and accessible music that Toledo has ever made. What’s new here, aside from the wavy synth lines and programmed rhythms, is the sense of possibility of a fresh start and hard-won optimism that permeates almost every track. Like R.E.M.’s “Green”, “Guided by Voices” “Under the Bushes, Under the Stars” or “Elephant” from the White Stripes, it’s the sound of an underground group that doesn’t refine itself so much for mainstream consumption as it does for embracing the pop capabilities it’s always had.
Granted, even on the earliest recordings of car seat headrests – the ones Toledo made under his parents’ roof in the Virginia suburbs and in his dorm room at William & Mary, usually armed with nothing more than a guitar, a USB cable and a laptop – you could hear him perfecting a Brian Wilson-ish command from the dilapidated sound palette of lo-fi indie rock.
But for Toledo, room registration was a means, not a reason. As soon as he made a deal with Matador Records, he started developing his sound to indicate how high his views were. The 2015 album “Teens of Style” featured new and improved house recordings of 10 songs from its Bandcamp era. Car Seat Headrest’s latest studio album, “Twin Fantasy (Face to Face)”, was a maximalist full-band re-recording of his tattered and intimate 2011 LP “Twin Fantasy”, the audio equivalent of a 16mm student film remade in IMAX 3-D.
On tour in support of this record, Car Seat Headrest recruited members of Seattle’s Naked Giants power trio, becoming a band of seven swaggering members with a sound that could fill places like Madison Square Garden (where Toledo and his team played a triumphant opening for Interpol in February 2019).
This willingness to work on a larger scale could be the biggest difference between Toledo and the flood of indie-rock titans of the 90s – Pavement, Guided by Voices, Neutral Milk Hotel – to which his music has been compared. Fans of 90s indie rock often treat technical flaws like the whistling of the band as the mark of uncompromising pure art with the demands of the mainstream, confusing a certain amateurism of principle with purity; the demo was also the finished product. Given the opportunity, Toledo treated his first recordings as demos, made to be improved.
Singer and songwriter Lucy Dacus recalled a conversation with Toledo one evening when the two were on tour. “It was like,” Lucy, what makes a good rock album today? ” wanted to answer. I was like, “Man, I don’t really care about rock history. “Will, I think, cares a lot about him, and the place he can occupy in history,” she said.
She noted that Toledo is shy but can also appear fearless – a dichotomy well captured by the mask. “The same can be said of the content of her songs,” she said. “He talks about having fears and insecurities and making mistakes, but he is also willing to admit them, so he is also fearless. “
Listeners who were introduced to Toledo via music from his chamber period are still at the heart of his large, passionate and extremely online fan base. In fan communities like r / CSHFans of Reddit, the mood seems to be a mix of excitement from a new album and concern about the direction of the band. Toledo fan art in his costume is already abundant, but a waggish poster criticized “Hollywood” by placing its audio track on the video of a Kia Stinger 2018 ad.
Matador founder Chris Lombardi, who signed Toledo less than a week after meeting his Bandcamp page, described him as one of the most confident artists he has worked with.
“Before the recording of this album, he told me that he wanted to make an album that had the sound capacity to compete with some of the other new pop or hip-hop bands from the Coachellas of the world or the Lollapaloozas of the world.” Lombardi said, so “when he went on stage, he was not overshadowed by anyone playing a more futuristic type of music with a more electronic palette – that he would be able to confront them and win. “
The story of how “Make a door less open” is actually complicated, but like most important stories about car seat head restraints, it begins with Toledo’s parents. Except in this case, the first act involves a guy who is not Will Toledo recording a somewhat deliberately silly dubstep-comedy-rap song called “Stoney Bologna” in what was once the sister’s childhood bedroom. Toledo.
The improviser in question was Andrew Katz, a drummer who placed a wanted ad for musicians on Craigslist the year after Toledo’s move to Seattle in 2014. Katz became the drummer for Car Seat Headrest, shortly before that Toledo’s Bandcamp recordings do not arrive from the group (which also includes Ethan Ives on guitar and Seth Dalby on bass) the Matador affair.
While playing with her previous group, a Seattle indie-EDM outfit called Lost Triibe, Katz – who had been a “total rock guy” for most of his career – learned how to produce music using the program Ableton Live digital audio editing software. When he started touring with Car Seat Headrest, he was making silly improvisational music to kill time, sometimes using Toledo and the other members of the group as collaborators.
While waiting for an overseas flight, Toledo and Katz ended up with 36 hours to kill at Toledo’s parents in Virginia, and created “Stoney Bologna”, which presents Katz shouting Barack Obama and rapping to be pushed into a swimming pool by bullies. Katz wanted to publish it online immediately, but Toledo suggested it might make more sense in the context of an entire comedy album, and in 2018 they self-published “1 Trait High,” an LP credited with 1 Trait Danger, a Toledo group name torn from a French road sign warning against tailgating. (The trait is his alter ego.)
A second album, “1 Trait World Tour”, followed in 2019. It is nominally a concept album on life on the circuit of the independent rock festival, full of excavations in groups like xx and Mac DeMarco, as well as the Pitchfork Gatekeepers – a high-end version of the steam-evoking chat that Toledo had recently become too famous to engage under its own name.
But when Toledo suggested to Katz that the next Car Seat Headrest album be a collaboration with 1 Trait Danger, Katz was worried: “I tell myself:” The label will panic. Andrew Katz is about to ruin the headrest of the car seat. Said Katz.
“But Will, as always, has his vision and he understands what he wants,” he added.
When he started writing “Making a Door Less Open”, Toledo had read “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!,” a sprawling history of modern pop music by English musician and critic Bob Stanley. Part of the territory was familiar; Toledo grew up listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys and other golden pop music from the 60s.
“What I learned a lot was what preceded this, what he was eating,” said Toledo. “It certainly affected the way I wrote – looking at this first rock material, and wanting to do something that had this simplicity, and removing things to the point where it could have that energy. “
Lombardi said that he and his Matador colleagues had trouble imagining what a Car Seat Headrest album produced in collaboration with Car Seat Headrest’s “EDM joke project” would look like: “I sort of said jokingly: ‘Come in and give us a PowerPoint presentation and tell us what’s going on. ”
Toledo responded, said Lombardi, doing something no artist Matador has ever done.
“He came to New York and literally gave us a PowerPoint,” said Lombardi. “It went through history, what was the cover of the album, what was the title. He played us a few songs, and we learned a little bit about the fact that he could be in the character of this whole project. ”
Lombardi admitted that the idea for the mask was initially a concern for the label, but added: “The ideas of the artists are always the best. Sometimes, as wild as they are, you have to have faith that they see something that you cannot see. “
For what it’s worth, after apologizing for his FaceTime interview for a bathroom break, Toledo returned without the mask and ended the conversation as an average-looking guy with a narrow face, shaggy black hair and a toothy smile.
Toledo turns 28 in August. “I think I am almost to the point where journalists can no longer call me young,” he said. “I hated it while it was happening.” Maybe now I will miss it. ”
He was only 23 when he signed with Matador, and now he is at an age when artists tend to ignite or seek ways to renegotiate their relationship with public life, their market with the world. Over the years, Toledo has struggled publicly with the tendency of music journalists to read his work through an autobiographical lens; in 2018 he called a writer Rolling Stone on Twitter for an interpretation of “Twin Fantasy” that Toledo called “a strange, crude and inaccurate representation of my personal life. “
When asked if he wore a mask when making media appearances to create a harder line between him and the version of Toledo that appears in Car Seat Headrest songs, he replied, “It could make it part. But I think it’s an attempt to get people to look at me differently, especially on stage. ”
“I am not trying to take anything away from people,” he said. “It’s a connection to music – I don’t want to snap their fingers in the door, no matter how they have that connection. But I want to offer something new, and I think the mask is a way to do it. “