- Text by Niall Flynn
As the driving force behind Car Seat Headrest, Will Toledo’s voice is capable of startling feats. Depending on the mood, he can flip from yelping falsetto to a dry, hungover baritone, blessed with an ability to convey an awful lot in a little. You can’t help but feel the pain behind one of his broken cries; the vulnerability in each trembling murmur.
In conversation, though, he’s a different proposition entirely. The 26-year-old communicates in a drawl that’s slow and sleepy, that kind of delivery that, were it not for the depth and measure of his responses, might indicate indifference. “Hi. Can you hear me?” he asks, answering the phone from his apartment just outside of Seattle, half-sounding an automated greeting. “It’s… good to be talking to you today.”
Despite his age, Toledo (not his real surname) boasts an incredible back catalogue. His latest album, Making A Door Less Open, marks his fourth on Matador, a 2019 live collection notwithstanding. Prior to signing with the label in 2015, he self-released a dozen albums, amassing a devout legion of online fans along the way. As a result, the name Car Seat Headrest is synonymous with DIY, with Toledo a posterboy for the Bandcamp generation. “I think we are still pretty DIY,” he says. “This new record was mainly put together on computers at home, with relatively little studio time in there.”
That said, Making A Door Less Open represents a new chapter for him and the band. Lyrically, it’s more of the sharp wit and cynicism that’s come to characterise his songwriting – exhaustion quickly reveals itself as the record’s thematic anchor – but its overall sound is somewhat beguiling, with Toledo welcoming in a whole new range of textures and electronics from outside of the usual Car Seat Headrest sphere. (In the album’s press release, which he wrote himself, Toledo announced that it contained elements “of EDM, hip hop, futurism, doo-wop, soul, and of course rock and roll.”)
There’s also the introduction of ‘Trait’, Toledo’s gas-mask-wearing alter-ego, who was first dreamt up as part of 1 Trait Danger, a side-project between the frontman and drummer Andrew Katz. In fact, Making A Door Less Open serves as something of a binding of both bands – CSH and 1TD – resulting in an album that Toledo describes as “collaborative”.
“It ended up being a lot of me and Andrew. I like working with the band, but usually I’ll go off and have other ideas and want to do those as well. In this case, those ideas started off on the digital electronic side, and Andrew had experience producing more EDM-style stuff. So it was a natural fit for him and I to take the lead on it. We spent a lot of time at his place working on it. That was sort of the defining sound of the record, I think.”
At what stage did you begin thinking about wearing a mask?
It was kind of one of the first ideas I had for it. It came out of the fact we were touring a lot and I felt it was kind of a drag putting myself on-stage. We’ve had pretty minimal shows in the past – we’ve kind of stepped up our lighting game over the years but in terms of us on-stage, it’s pretty much stayed the same. I was looking for a way to grow that into something a little more special. I do think if people have something to look at, that’s a little different and strange, it becomes more of a memorable experience.
You said that it was also partly a response to the nerves you still feel on-stage. Have those feelings been a constant since you first started performing?
I’ve tried to fight it off the past year and just get more comfortable on-stage, period – whether I’m wearing a mask or not. But it’s also just kind of situational. Generally, if the show we’re doing feels like a big show, it’s less comfortable and I get more nervous. If there’s a good energy, where you know that the crowd’s going to be into it and they’re engaged in a way that’s not staring at you like you’re a cult leader, then I really don’t feel uncomfortable.
As a frontman, I think you sometimes have to tie the audience together if they’re on very different wavelengths initially. That’s something I feel I always struggle with. I just want them to be in-sync already so I can just come in and play music. But I feel the development of a mask and a character around it might help do that in those situations – when you need a little more to go on.
I always find it interesting to learn how many artists view performing live as torture. Is that something you ever find yourself relating to?
It’s not usually torture. But it amplifies the insecurities that are already there. If you’re having a good day, maybe it doesn’t really show up on-stage. If you’re having a bad day, maybe it does. Although actually, sometimes it feels like the inverse is true. I can have a shitty day and just go and channel all that on-stage and feel good about it.
It really just depends night-to-night. In general, you do need to come up with ways and tricks of disassociating yourself, removing yourself from the perspective where it’s a high pressure, high intensity thing. Move it more towards something where you can just click a mode and be there. That’s the basic struggle for anyone performing on-stage.
You’ve amassed an incredible fanbase. But in doing that, you’ve had to surrender a fair amount of privacy. How did you manage that transition?
It kind of happened very slowly. It gave me a chance to come to terms with it, piece by piece. Before we really got on a label and got more mainstream attention, we did have a sort of cult following that, because it was more online-based – more these intense young listeners – it came with an intense scrutiny. There was a period before we got signed where I was really feeling down about that. Because it felt like, in terms of actual success we hadn’t really taken off. But we had in terms of having a lot of eyes on me and the loss of privacy – which wasn’t fun.
Where do you stand on it now?
It’s a conflict for me, because I want to leave my life open to an extent. The artists that I like, I like getting a glimpse into their personal growth, their progression as an artist. So I try to leave the door open on that in my own life, so that a young artist coming up can see exactly how things came together for me – so there’s as little mystery as possible as to how to develop your own work, your own style.
But that does also leave the door open to pull stuff out of your past that you don’t really want there. Embarrassing photos, stuff that doesn’t represent you anymore because it was stuff that happened when you were a teenager, stuff that you wrote when you were a teenager. It’s a drag to have to fight your past self like that, and I feel like I do that a fair amount. But you also just have to keep living and making more stuff. That’s the best defence.
When it comes to people dissecting the content of your songs, does it ever feel like aspects of your personal life are now suddenly up for grabs? I guess, to use an example, the way that [2016 album] Teens Of Denial explores mental health.
In terms of the mental health issues on Teens Of Denial, I felt pretty divorced from that when it was discussed. I think most interesting music comes from extreme emotion, or a certain level of instability. I think if you’re a totally stable person and have no problems, then you’re probably not writing music.
With Teens Of Denial, I was mostly glad not to be in that state anymore. I wrote it during a very depressed and angry phase of my life. Then, by the time we were recording it, I was past that and feeling a lot better. I was able to look back on it and discuss it, feeling a little more objective and distanced.
I guess that’s usually my deal. When I’m writing about something, it’s also a process of divorcing myself from it in a way. Putting in context, putting it in a frame, so that by the time I release it and other people get to listen to it, it’s something I’m comfortable with sharing. Hopefully it still resonates with people on that original emotional level, but to me it feels a little less like my own personal emotions and a little more like a song.
I guess you can bookmark these parts of your life with releases.
I’ve always kind of seen an album as a period on each phase of my life. The stuff that gets represented on it are documents of what I was feeling at the time. Yeah… it does kind of bookmark it in that sense.
With that in mind, how do you think you’ll look back on the period that Making A Door Less Open is documenting?
Not fondly, I don’t think. It was honestly kind of like Teens Of Denial. I don’t think I was quite so angry or depressed, but it just felt like a hollow useless time. I was doing a lot of stuff that I felt wasn’t going anywhere. We were touring [2018 album] Twin Fantasy and it just kind of felt like struggle after struggle.
On top of that, there was a lot of dumb stuff that should be too boring to write music about. I got sick a lot last year. Every time I felt like I was moving forward, I’d catch some sort of bug and be back in bed for a few days. Out of that came ‘Can’t Cool Me Down’. But yeah… I don’t know [laughs].
The emotion of the album comes from difficulties in making the album. It’s difficult every time to wrap my head around what I want and then achieve it. Just pushing the pieces of the album through and not being satisfied, that contributed to it. There were definitely times when we were in the studio where I just felt like everything was going to hell, basically. I felt like there were pieces of the album I really liked, but I couldn’t figure out how to complete it, how to get that last 20 per cent of the way there. But it just kind of slowly filtered into being complete.
I’m kind of yet to feel real closure with this one, just because of the weird way we chose to finish and release it. We printed it to vinyl, kept working on it, put a different version on CD, kept working on it, and now we’ve sent off the final streaming version. But that just happened, so I still don’t feel like the period is quite there in my life. We’ll see if it offers resolution.
Are you one of those people who has to push themselves to the extremes in order to produce creatively?
No, I’m the opposite. When I push myself to being burnt out, I just get burnt out. There actually was a period in the studio where I actually was getting burnt out and getting nowhere, and I ended up having a panic attack and checking myself into the hospital for a night. I skipped the next day of studio and stayed home. I recorded this song called ‘Hymn’ which is on the vinyl – there’s a remix of it elsewhere – but that’s the only piece of this album that came out of a moment of desperation. Usually, I just need clarity of emotion and thought to be able to work.
Both as a writer and a performer, I need to be walking away from the emotion rather than towards it, in order to really see it clearly. You know, as it is with anything that’s big, you need to have distance in order to be able to see what it really is. I think that‘s the way for me.
How do you achieve that distance?
Time, mostly. Thinking it through and processing it through the song. Treating it a little clinically, I guess. Learning.
With that in mind, during what part of the process are you happiest?
I don’t know. I guess right before a project begins. Like with this one, I started in 2015, but I could see that it wasn’t actually going to start for a while. I could kind of just have this space, where I was working on something but not really working on it and not really thinking about it. It was vague sketch work.
Once I really get into it, it feels like a lot more of a drag. But in that initial preparatory period, you can kind of just have those feelings and those ideas and float in it – it’s just your own private world. Then you have to bring it out into the real world. I’m trying to get back into that phase right now: where I’m done with the one thing, and can think about other stuff for a while.
Making A Door Less Open is out now on Matador.
Niall is Huck’s Deputy Editor. Follow him on Twitter.