Nine Songs: Car Seat Headrest
“How am I holding up? Oh, you know. The same as everybody else. It’s a weird time to be doing interviews again.”
From his apartment near Seattle, Will Toledo is wrapping up his second day of interviews for his first press campaign in four years. Unsurprisingly, everything from home was not how he was expecting it to go. There is, unquestionably, cause for excitement, in the form of Making A Door Less Open, the genre-spanning new album from his band Car Seat Headrest. But, of course, having spent two years working on MADLO, current events have left Toledo unable to do what he calls “the other side of it – being a human being in different places. But that’s a big question mark right now.”
With a defeated tone, Toledo explains to me how his excitement to finally have the album out in the world has been somewhat tempered. “I’ve already had the Corona conversation about 20 times this week, and it never gets better because none of us can actually do anything about it.” But with the album in the can, he saw no point in putting something he did have control over on hold.
And rightly so. Toledo has already avoided following up his breakthrough album, 2016’s masterful Teens Of Denial, twice. Firstly, there was an equally masterful rerecording of Bandcamp favourite Twin Fantasy, and then a live album documenting that tour. But anyone looking for a sequel to Denial won’t find it in MADLO.
It’s a different kind of Car Seat Headrest album, The ten-minute multi-part epics are, for the most part, in mothballs. Instead, there’s a newfound focus on synthy atmospherics, and concise guitar pop bangers. And for every song that harks back to the Car Seat of old – “There Must Be More Than Blood” could have fit neatly onto 2014’s How To Leave Town – there are some major curveballs. Take the anthemic, butdivisive single “Hollywood”, a withering, knowingly vapid, half-rapped take on the parasitic nature of celeb culture; “Come see my movie! It’s kinda groovy!”. Car Seat has doffed its cap to many bands in the past but, intentionally or not, the track nods to The Dandy Warhols so hard, you don’t know whether to offer it a neck brace or a sync contract for a phone commercial.
But with the vinyl and CD already at the pressing plant, lockdown gave Toledo the chance to full push his deadlines to the limit, only finishing the mix of the digital version of the album at the start of April. Fittingly, he emailed over his final list of song choices some two hours before our interview as well. But having three separate versions of MADLO, he explains, was always on the cards in some way, though the fourth - the live experience - has obviously been delayed a spell.
“With earlier records, I was frustrated at turning the record in and having it just sit there for months before it got pressed to vinyl. So I had the idea this time where we get the album to a place we’re happy with, put it on vinyl, then leave the door open to maybe make changes for the final digital version. That idea sort of expanded into different tracks or alternate versions, so it went beyond the idea of just tweaking the mix, into literally different versions of the album.”
Toledo has long had a fondness for not declaring that any version of his output is definitive, which is mirrored in the Nine Songs he’s chosen to talk about, a selection borne of discographical deep dives, acoustic versions and box-set obscurities.
“There was a lot less easy access to listening to albums in the CD era,” he explains. “You had to pretty much buy it to listen to it, so there was a great allure in an album cover and a list of tracks, and getting a deluxe edition, with all these bonus tracks. It looked like you were getting a lot, which was how I made most of my choices on what I was listening to in those days.”
“My earlier musical upbringing definitely had a lot of behind-the-scenes looks, alternate versions, b-sides and outtakes from artists that I was interested in,” he adds. And when it comes to his own band, Toledo has simply chosen to give listeners the chance to hear his music evolving as he sees fit, constructing his own hypothetical deluxe box set together in real time.
“I had this small circle of friends in middle school who were all trying to be in different iterations of a band together, but a lot of it was just passing music back and forth. One of my friends had the With the Lights Out compilation and I managed to borrow it from him and burn it for myself.
“It’s funny, because Nirvana only had three official studio albums, and then there’s this triple-set compilation with all this material which never saw the light of day. So much of it is really good and shows alternate paths that the band took that never really emerged onto the official records, but it was there. It was an important part of the energy that ended up being on the albums.
“I didn’t know exactly what song to pick, because the experience of listening to that whole collection was important to me. I picked “Mrs Butterworth” because I know there’s a recording of me somewhere from middle school at a band practice saying “I'm gonna open up myself a flea market”, which is a quote from the song.
“Even before getting the album, I remember watching this teaser for it on YouTube playing little snippets from the songs, and I think there’s a little snippet going into the chorus of this song. It had this immediate energy to it, which is what I wanted from the band. So I was excited to get my hands on it and see that there was so much of that energy in this collection, in different ways.
“There’s a lot there that I don’t really know the exact context of, but there’s some mysterious entries that don’t quite match up - is it a live performance or a demo, or what? And I haven’t seen too much documentation on that front, of trying to track down information on the individual songs. But, if you’re gonna write about With the Lights Out, I think it would be better to document it as a historical artefact. Otherwise, you’re either saying it’s good because you like Nirvana, or you’re saying it’s bad because you’re just into the hits.
“I’ve always approached music as an outsider in a way, where it’s something coming in from the outside, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s their biggest hit, or something that relatively few people have heard. It’s like watching that teaser trailer on YouTube, getting a little taste of it, feeling that excitement and wanting more.”
“One of the first albums I got was The Who Sell Out, and it was something that I listened to constantly. I honestly don’t remember why - it was something I asked for, but I had a limited amount of information on artists at the time. I’d certainly heard Who stuff on the radio and maybe I had a greatest hits album, but I think it was something that I saw and liked the cover.
“There was a lot less easy access to listening to albums in the CD era - you had to pretty much buy it to listen to it - so there was a great allure in an album cover and a list of tracks. And getting a deluxe edition with all these bonus tracks, it looks like you’re getting a lot, which was how I made most of my choices on what I was listening to in those days.
“I remember lying in my room Christmas morning, when it was way too early to get up and open presents, listening it on repeat. And I think I remember in the liner notes, Pete Townsend saying this song was supposed to be the ultimate British hit single - “But people didn’t buy it, so I spat on the British record-buyer.” At the time, I just accepted that, ‘It’s here now, so eventually it made its way to the public!’ but now I kind of see the ridiculousness of the statement, where the song itself is so far out from what anyone else was doing at the time.
“I mean, it’s kind of like a Byrds song, but there’s so many weird choices in it, about a hundred guitar overdubs and two drum tracks going in stereo channels that are basically all rolls and fills. And where you think the song is going to end, it changes into a different key where Roger Daltrey isn’t comfortable singing. It’s this weird hybrid that you can really only get when you’ve got so much musical energy and creativity going on that you don’t know what to do with it. I think the whole album reflects that as well.
“That’s why it’s stayed with me and been a huge influence. It’s the sound of people who are young enough that they don’t know what the rules are in the studio and are throwing everything at the song to see what they can make out of it.”
“This was the same experience as The Who, in terms of hearing R.E.M. on the radio and having the same exposure. I wound up getting the album Eponymous, which is the greatest hits of the early I.R.S. days. Again, there was a sense of mystery around those songs. I’m not even sure I realised it was a greatest hits at the time, because it was all presented very simply, with the cover and the mysterious name and the titles on the back. I just had the songs to go on.
“It was an introduction to something mysterious. “Finest Worksong” is maybe not my favourite R.E.M. song, but it encapsulates the strength of the band. It’s a rock song and it’s got a little disco-y flavour with the pseudo-slap bass going on. But at the same time, it’s these set of lyrics that are hard to understand, and I misheard a lot of it for years. I always thought the chorus was “The finest of our workers”, because it was called “Worksong”, but it’s actually just him saying “The finest hoo-oo-uuuur” and really drawing it out.
“That was the sort of thing that appealed to me in music - having these pieces and struggling as a listener to figure out how they went together. The overall effect is that you hear that it’s a good song, but the closer you look, it retains some of its mystery. It doesn’t give you all the answers, so you have to listen to it over and over to try and gain subconscious exposure.
“I kept up with them until the last record. The first album that they put out when I was already a fan was Around The Sun. A lot of people regard that as one of their worst albums, but I have a fondness for it, because it was the one that came out when I was paying attention to them. I considered picking a song from it, but I don’t know if they hold up to that degree. Maybe that’s the last album they did that has that sense of mystery to it though, you have these songs presented in this weird light, where you don’t really grasp everything right away.
“Then they did Accelerate, which is a much more straightforward rock album. I saw them when they toured on that, which felt like a good capstone to my experience listening to them. But I didn’t really keep listening to Accelerate long after it got released and promoted, and when their last album came out, I didn’t really track on that either.”
“It’s funny, going back into the interviewing process I’m getting hit with questions I haven’t had to deal with in a few years. Talking about Teens Of Denial, people are mentioning the elements of mental health or depression and asking how it feels being intimate or open about that. And that question has always taken me by surprise, because that seems like such a basic element of not just the music that I make, but punk rock as well.
“Listening to stuff like Green Day, it’s super obvious and apparent. Pretty much every song they wrote has this highly emotional charge to it. The lyrics to “Uptight” are a lot more intense than anything I’ve ever written, I mean, you’ve got a guy with a gun in his hand talking about wanting to kill himself! But it’s executed in this way where you’ve got two chords and a simple laying out of the scene. That was very influential to me in my middle and high school years, not as a pro-suicide message, but just these simple words and a simple arrangement.
“It’s another song that’s all build and then it climaxes in this joyful peak. Even though it’s about this highly charged negative state, it’s cathartic as a release of emotion. I spent so much time with these Green Day records and the same thing with Nirvana. As an emotional teenager, that formed the core of my music listening experience.
“But making music for myself, it was never even a question in my mind about whether I wanted to do it that way. It just felt totally natural that it would be one of the subjects I would be moving towards. And then we’ll talk about Nine Inch Nails in a bit…”
“Boy… maybe I can’t say too much about this song that hasn’t already been said.
“I remember listening to it on drives going up through Virginia, on flights or family vacations, and it changes your perspective the whole time that you’re listening to it. It’s just really beautiful and special.
“This was a greatest hits experience, on a compilation called Echoes. It was this really nicely put-together product which sequenced songs from different eras together and trimmed longer songs so they could fit on the album, but in a kind of tasteful way. It’s funny, they were making cuts to songs for commercial reasons, but they still ended up being sixteen minutes long.
“Looking at the back of a record cover and seeing that one song is way longer than the others, it feels like there’s this boundless potential energy there. And I’m really curious about what’s going to be on that song. In 27 years, I’ve been disappointed in long songs enough that now maybe I dread them more than I look forward to them, but generally it depends on the artist.
“Pink Floyd is a band who was really able to synthesise stuff out of these jams and loosely-based structures, into a product that felt like something greater than its individual parts. At the core of it, you do have this pop song, with three verses and three choruses. It’s blown up to the level where you’re looking at everything through a microscope, and it’s moving very slowly and majestically. It feels like it can adapt with time into different environments.
“When you’re young, twenty minutes feels like such a long amount of time, but you also have a different sense of time where you think you’re not tasked with doing as much - you get stretches where a day feels like forever because you’re really bored. So when you have that perspective, I think a long song is really inviting. If you’re the kind of kid who likes listening to music, you’d have this huge patch of time, this huge work of music that can go on top of it and really make those minutes worthwhile.
“It was always something that was on the table for me; if I was going to make music, some of my songs should be long. On a creative level, I think that’s still where I’m at. There are songs on MADLO that push 7 or 8 minutes, and there’s even longer songs which were left off, but we might pick them up at a later point. It kind of requires being outside of culture for a little bit, since modern music culture discourages longer music because you have to engage on a more social level.
“That being said, some of my longest songs are also some of my most popular songs, so ultimately there’s room for both. I was less in that mode while making this album, and I left the pieces that fit that mode for a time where I could focus on them more.”
“At that point in my life, I was gravitating towards people who took songwriting seriously, with these weird songs and weird points of view. And at the cusp of high school and college, I got heavily into WHY?.
“I’d been listening to indie music ever since I got exposed to stuff like Neutral Milk Hotel, but WHY? in particular, and Yoni Wolf, who had this whole package deal going on. Every song had these wrought lyrics which were really well-written and had a unique production to it as well. Not lo-fi, not hi-fi, just occupying its own alternative space.
“I think his lyrics really get to their art mode and poetry mode, and they do that sort of thing well. There’s plenty of artists who have a self-loathing streak, who try to write artistically, and it just doesn’t pop off. But I think Yoni Wolf succeeds because he’s a good writer, and he can combine a lot of good images with each other in a way which can suggest what you’re hearing without stating it outright.
“After this album, it felt a lot more song-by-song but Oaklandazulasylum felt like more of a stream of sounds. A lot of it’s very lo-fi, and I was into that at the time. I was just starting out Car Seat Headrest and I was trying to do the same sort of thing, where it’s a collage of sounds that didn’t always make sense, but the whole album added up to something.
“Again, this song is a bit of a random pick, because I like everything he’s done through to Alopecia, basically. But “Cold Lunch” is very simple, just a few lines:
‘It's watching you own shadow on a dirt bike / Get shot in the back under a streetlight / When you arrive at the party it will not be / Without a bullet in your back / Or a poem about death / And of course your Walkman.’
“It really shortly and succinctly paints a picture of this personality, and this shrunken paranoiac world that he’s maybe living in, or maybe it’s just a fiction. But it’s done in this unique and funny way that avoids an obvious punchline that would reduce the song. It’s still got this mystery to it, and that really attracted me to his songwriting.”
“Cate Wurtz, who did the album art for MADLO and has collaborated with us many times in the past, did a comic about this fictional punk rock band. At one point, Cate shows this album cover that was a homage to Songs Of Leonard Cohen and it’s accurate, in a weird way, to classify him as a punk rock artist. Aesthetically, he’s totally different, but on an emotional level he had the same sort of vulnerability that someone like Patti Smith did.
“At that point I was into lyricists who cared about writing, and clearly he was someone who did care. I picked “The Stranger Song” because in looking for artists who cared about writing these wordy, poetic songs, something that occurred to me a lot was ‘There’s a lot of words in here, but do they really add up? Do they mean anything to the person writing it? Is there something simple at the core being conveyed or is it just an attempt to impress by spraying a bunch of lyrics everywhere?’
“And ultimately, with a lot of artists who write in that wordier, artistic style, I feel like there’s nothing at the core. Sometimes they’re explicit about that and they admit that. I kind of think someone like Dan Bejar falls into that camp - he’s writing a lot and maybe doesn’t mean anything. I still think he has a lot of good songs, but I don’t think he’s ever written something like “The Stranger Song”, which sounds elaborate and has all these different metaphors and images going on.
“But then if you listen to it and listen to it and get a sense of who the characters are, it all falls into place as this very simple thing, that plays out just like a short story would. But it does so in a very beautiful and musical way, where if you’re listening to it for the first time, or not tracking all the connections, you get this flow of images with this acoustic guitar that keeps pummelling along like a train track. It’s beautiful if you don’t understand it, which I think is the artistic lyricist’s dream, but it stays beautiful as you stay with it and get more of a sense of what the author’s communicating.
“I saw the feature you guys did with Bejar where he talked about Leonard Cohen - he was saying that Cohen ‘edits and edits and edits and I just do it all at once’, right? I fall more on the track of trying to do it the way Cohen did it. I’ll have little pieces, and if I can’t think of a way of putting them together, they stay disconnected until I find the right way of putting them together. I’m pretty slow and meticulous about what ends up in my lyrics.
“In terms of patience, writing MADLO was like ‘OK, we’re in 2018, and our next album is gonna come out in 2020, so I have that long to finish X amount of songs, right?’ So I can have a song on the table that’s half-finished, and can stay half-finished for months, and it’s not something that bothers me. Now and then I’ll get a prick of ‘This should really be finished’, and I’ll write more for it and then sit with it. Knowing there’s a certain time that it’s going to be released and it’s not in the immediate future, I can have that patience to sit on it and make sure everything’s coming together right.
“But it depends on the song. There are a few on this album that we didn’t add in until the very end of the process, and that was a lot more ‘OK, we gotta hit this and do it right in a short amount of time’ and you get a different energy out of that. If you’re mindful of that, you can hit either mode - where you sit on it for two years or be done with it in two weeks.
“Especially on this record, even though some of the songs are so short, and some of them don’t have a lot of lyrics, those are the ones I spent the most time circulating material, making sure that every lyric that went in place added something to the meaning.
“There’s so many lyrics for each song that got removed and they’re still at the bottom of the page. I have a Google document for each song, and I wedged all the rejected lyrics down lower and lower. Looking through those, I feel this universal relief - ‘I’m glad I didn’t make it all the way to the end of the song with this line still in it, because it feels so much weaker than what ended up being in it.’
“I guess if people don’t like this album, I’ll release all the rejected lyrics, so they can see how much worse it could have been!”
“I added this to the list after an interview yesterday, where I was talking about “Can’t Cool Me Down” and I realised that there’s a bit of Nine Inch Nails at the core of that song. Basically, with anything that’s minimal and minor in some way, I’m looking back at what Trent Reznor did on stuff like The Downward Spiral and The Fragile.
“I was not a goth kid growing up and Nine Inch Nails were basically the darkest stuff that I listened to, but I think that’s because, on top of the obvious lyrical darkness, there’s such an attention to musical detail. In a way, it’s a lot like Pink Floyd, where it’s someone in the studio really taking the time to make something out of these more experimental sounds to be this carefully crafted world.
“Eraser” sounds like nothing else on the planet. It builds and really creates this warmth in a way, even though it’s this frenetic, highly emotionally-tense song. It’s done in an almost classical way of ‘very soft to very loud, then soft again and loud again’. I guess that’s Nirvana too - loud quiet loud - but it’s executed using these different elements, where he was able to take these disparate aesthetic things and make his own world out of it.
“It was outside of anything else that was going on in that era, and it really holds up. He was taking elements of more ‘80s stuff and dance stuff, but really it was just his studio and his world, where he was building everything up. I think if you have someone who’s creatively inspired - and clearly that’s a record that took a lot of patience to put together - that’s the best combination for making music.”
“That was from a time when I was not so into guitar music. I felt a dry spell, where I wasn’t connecting with what I was hearing from bands that had guitars in them, so I was looking elsewhere for the most part. I think Pitchfork did a feature on one of his older records and that got me looking at his stuff. Then after I was digging through his discography, he released this in 2018. It ended up being one of my favourite releases that year.
“During that period, Milton Nascimento was someone who really kept my love for the instrument - and for playing it - alive, because he has this next-level ability to play the guitar and make it sound like a thousand different instruments. It was also inspiring to see him putting out this record as an older artist, and it feeling like it could compare to anything he had done previously. They just put him in front of a microphone. He’s got a great voice, and a great ability to play guitar, and that’s all you needed to make this new album.
“It felt like it was cutting away a lot of baggage that surrounds musical releases and hype right now, where everything has to be conceptual, or about a new phase in an artist’s career. It was just this guy playing songs on guitar - which you’ve heard a thousand times before - but he created this spell with every song on this album. I don’t speak any Portuguese, but I think this song is about losing a brother or being apart geographically from someone you care about, and you feel that in the way it’s presented, even if you don’t understand any part of the lyrics.
“He has a really soulful voice, and it was really inspiring to see someone put a record out like that. It reminds you that music can be super simple and super effective.”