What a difference a couple years makes. in 2014, Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo (not his real name?) was getting ready to graduate college, dealing with the end of his teenage years, and the existential crisis that comes with finishing school and all of the maturation that’s expected to come with doing so. He’d spent the better part of the last decade recording more than ten albums in his mother’s minivan, his only audience the backs of the car’s headrests (get it?), releasing them on Bandcamp and building a small but loyal fanbase. But as he stared down his future post-graduation, he struggled with “the next step,” and found himself burdened with a severe case of writer’s block.
“I was, until recently, a teenager, and a lot of stuff I wrote was in my teens,” Toledo says. “It’s a transitional phase between not being a kid and not being an adult, obviously, but I think that the important thing for me is realizing that there’s no clear start and stop to it. It’s not just that when you turn twenty, you’re not in that phase anymore. There’s no clear step into full maturity, it’s just a gradual sort of accepting of the responsibilities that come with that.”
Fast-forward to 2016 — May 20, to be exact, the day Toledo released Teens of Denial, his second album for Matador Records. It’s the first album of material he hadn’t already written and recorded as a teen and streamed for free (the songs on 2015’s Teens of Style were re-recorded versions of his Bandcamp greatest hits). Comprised of the batch of songs he wrote as he pulled himself out of that spell of writer’s block, you could make the argument that it’s his first album as an adult. As the licensing snafu with The Cars song he sampled on the first version of the album has proved, the stakes are often higher in adulthood. But the effort can also be more rewarding.
Teens of Denial is the culmination of everything he’s learned on Bandcamp, everything he learned in his short time as Matador’s darling new signing, everything he learned in the studio with Seattle guitar rock guru Steve Fisk, who produced it. You can hear the obvious sonic influences of his youth (Pavement, The New Pornographers), but listen a little closer, and you can hear the weariness of a young man that feels old.
In a way, it makes sense; Teens of Denial is the first album of completely new material for Matador, but it’s technically Toledo’s twelfth album. Barely removed from teen-age, the volume of his recorded output is more comparable to that of a wizened industry veteran than a newly signed neophyte. In that way, he’s very much a child of his era, cutting his teeth on the internet, learning (and failing) in public, engaged with his audience throughout the process.
“I was trying different approaches to Car Seat Headrest,” Toledo says of his early Bandcamp output. “It was slow going at first, but I think it was recognizable that more people were checking out the stuff that was more fully baked, more thoughtful. Because the early stuff, there’s a lot of very experimental stuff, just like making noise…but among that stuff there were some clear highlights, and people did respond to that, and I recognized that.”
The idea of an audience as a focus group almost runs counterintuitive to the romantic lonely boy in his mom’s minivan, releasing songs into the void. But that’s the internet for you — a sea of lonely boys and girls, quiet and reserved in person, letting their freak flags fly online, connecting with thousands (or millions!) of strangers around the world, through a computer screen and a Wi-Fi connection. Will Toledo found himself on Bandcamp, and his fans watched him grow, likely growing along with him.
For someone who made music for so much of his life with such immediacy, Toledo doesn’t actually listen to a lot of contemporary music, preferring deep dives into established classics. He says he’s probably listened to more music in the last year or so than he ever has (thanks, Spotify Premium!), and it’s changed his perspective a bit: “The more music you listen to, the less you can kind of demand of each individual song that you listen to,” he says. That being said, he still gravitates to the older stuff. “It just seems easier to me to process the social context of older stuff than when it’s happening in the present moment.” In particular, he’s “less into lo-fi” these days; when we met in Austin during SXSW Music, he told us he was in the midst of a funk phase. “I like listening with an ear to production, rather than just a general vibe,” he says. “I like isolating elements — especially recording Teens of Denial, I started really listening close to other albums to see what does this sound like and how are they creating that sound.”
When recording Teens of Denial, Toledo sought to embrace his graduation from his lo-fi Bandcamp education, and move onto the next phase of his career. Recording with Steve Fisk (Unwound, Beat Happening, Nirvana) at his studio in Seattle, he trusted him to usher the spirit of his minivan recording past into his major indie label future. “We wanted to make it hi-fidelity without being really slick or polished,” Toledo says. “Steve Fisk was a really good fit for that.” As an artist who’s self-produced all his own music up until now, being in the studio with a seasoned pro was more of a learning experience than anything else. Toledo plans to go back to self-producing his own music, but for now, he’s soaking up all he can; and to hear him tell it, you can literally hear it on the album. “I think you can hear the sort of learning curve on the album, as far as the earliest tracks that we recorded versus the last tracks that we recorded,” he says. “I think the last ones do sound better. [The way] it was sequenced, we recorded in two major sessions, and the first session is the first half of the album, and the second half is the second, more or less. So hopefully there’s a pleasurable arc listening to it, and it keeps sounding better and better. And now we can use what we learned on the next album.”
Late last year, when we saw him perform in New York during CMJ Music Marathon, we noted that the hype cycle surrounding his Matador debut Teens of Style was in full swing, with blanket coverage in both indie and mainstream press circles. It wasn’t out of nowhere, but rather a culmination of his years toiling online, given a healthy booster shot of a high-profile signing to a major indie and its publicity apparatus. Hype is fleeting, though, especially during CMJ (remember The Black Kids?), and at the time, we chose to reserve judgement. But it’s clear that Toledo has grown considerably in quite a short time, and we’d be shocked to see him fade into obscurity. It’s always a good sign when your latest record sounds like your best work, and when your influences reach decades into the past, you’ve got a better shot avoiding fleeting fads. “I think there are definitely some people now who think that my best stuff is in the past, but I don’t think that,” he says. “Hopefully when you move onto another scene, or you just are tired of that, you can retain the people who liked you, because they saw something in it that was deeper than the fact that I recorded in the car, that I was a teen with no ambition or whatever.”
In 2016, Will Toledo is clearly not a teen, and clearly not without ambition. His challenge will be to maintain the youthful vulnerability that makes his music so compelling, even as he matures into a successful, learned adult. As he gradually accepts the increased responsibilities of being an adult and having a “real” job, it will be interesting to see him straddle those goals of achieving maturity while embracing youth.
“I think its important to strike a balance between not spending forever in that phase but recognizing that it’s important and it’s gonna take however long it takes before you can deal with regular life,” he says. But as long as it ends up lasting for him, we’re pretty sure he’ll be OK.