Car Seat Headrest’s ‘Teens of Denial’
The universe appears to have been particularly cruel of late. We have been deprived of a number of musical legends in short succession, the sort of talents the world can ill afford to lose. But the fickle musical gods occasionally provide solace, bestowing the gift of genius upon other mortals. It behoves the rest of us to seek out those talented individuals and celebrate their gifts.
Hello my friend, we’ve been waiting for you for a long
We have reason to believe that your soul is just like ours
Did you ever get the feeling you were just a little
Well, here’s our web page, you’ve finally found a home
Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest is one such artist. With the release last week of the superb Teens of Denial on Matador Records, his band is, for all intents and purposes, promoting its debut album. I describe it as a debut with good reason: this is the first album that Toledo has recorded with a dedicated core of musicians. In reality, however, this is the 12th album Toledo has released under the Car Seat Headrest moniker. After many years making music alone on his computer, save for the occasional guest, Toledo has finally turned his solo project into an actual group and the effect on his music has been profound. The budding genius, and I don’t use the term lightly, has managed to achieve all of that by the age of 23.
The development of a band resulted from Toledo’s relocation to Seattle, Washington, from his native state of Virginia after completing a college degree 18 months ago. Shortly after arriving Toledo found a brilliant drummer, Andrew Katz, via an ad he placed on Craigslist. The two of them then recruited bass guitarist Ethan Ives after they performed on the same bill at a local club. Conversation led to collaboration and Car Seat Headrest had now become a classic power trio, much like Hendrix’s Experience or Clapton’s Cream. All they needed was a record deal, which fate, in the guise of Matador’s founder Chris Lombardi, soon delivered.
Lombardi had fallen in love with Toledo’s music after discovering Car Seat Headrest’s Bandcamp page, which was starting to become an internet sensation. After making contact via email, Lombardi flew to Seattle and witnessed one of the new line-up’s first performances. The few punters in the club that night weren’t particularly impressed but Lombardi liked them enough to offer them a contract on the spot. Sometimes the universe can be kind, too.
You won’t see who you want to see there
No one will want to be in your band
You’ll have to learn how to make it on your own
Spend a little time with your own hand
Will Toledo made the first Car Seat Headrest album when he was 17 years old, just as he was beginning his final year of high school. Recording it in his bedroom in Leesburg, Virginia, he did it all on headphones to avoid parental scrutiny. Recording vocals presented a major problem for the introverted teen, but he solved that problem by taking one of his family’s cars to a quiet spot in the local Target supermarket car park. There he was able to sing and scream to his heart’s content, completely unobserved, capturing it all on his laptop. This unique “vocal booth” is what inspired his Bandcamp identity: Car Seat Headrest was a flippant name that reflected the claustrophobic origins of his music. After uploading his first album, a private obsession was born. Over the next three months he posted albums two, three and four, and those were the actual titles: 1, 2, 3 and 4. Even though the internet is a very public place, Toledo never really thought about other people hearing his music and those early albums were never intended for public consumption. It wasn’t until Little Pieces of Paper With “No” Written on Them that Toledo bothered with a conventional album title, but his tongue-in-cheek Bandcamp description of it as “B-sides and rarities and generally just awful shit” indicates that he still wasn’t terribly serious about it.
That changed with the release of My Back is Killing Me Baby, Toledo’s final high school album, and his sixth within the space of a year. His free-ranging musical anarchy had been shaped inexorably by the musical boot camp he’d undertaken and the Car Seat Headrest sound was starting to find its natural shape. Toledo’s production skills had also improved considerably, and My Back is Killing Me Baby sounded like a real album, albeit a lo-fi, extremely uncompromising one. With his schooling complete, Toledo was ready to take on the world. Well, not just yet. First there was the small matter of a college degree.
High school dream teen dies in the hospital
leaves behind a journal and a pair of Air Jordans
lyrics of popular rock ballads
changed to include his name
Toledo grew up listening to The Beatles and The Beach Boys and he has a similar facile gift for melody. Nirvana and Green Day were also crucial, and the energy of punk is ever-present even in the most abstruse electronic excursions of those early Car Seat Headrest albums. Modest Mouse, R.E.M., The Strokes, Leonard Cohen, Why?, Guided by Voices, Animal Collective – all of these artists have played their part in shaping Toledo’s tastes over the years, and in interviews he’s as likely to mention Kendrick Lamar’s latest album in one breath and an obscure Pink Floyd track in the next. There’s a hell of a lot of musical landscape to explore between To Pimp a Butterfly and “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”.
Although music has long been his primary focus, Toledo also has a great love of literature, so it was only natural that he went on to become an English major at college. Raymond Carver and James Joyce are particular favourites, and those writers have also informed his songwriting. His impressionistic lyrics are rich in detail and often employ multiple viewpoints. Encounters with cops, drunken parties, drug abuse and the fallout from all three frequently crop up in his songs, but Toledo disavows the literal truth of what he describes, preferring to fictionalise incidents to reach for a deeper, psychological truth. When I interviewed him recently, Toledo named The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker as a major influence on the songs for Teens of Denial. Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for his nonfiction study of the psychology and philosophy in the works of Freud and Kierkegaard, among others. Toledo also credited Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary series The Century of the Self with a significant role on the album. Punk rock and Kierkegaard? That’s a heady combination. Never fear, there are swear words aplenty and good-humoured descriptions of youthful debauchery to disguise our author’s deeper intent. Above all, Toledo likes his lyrics to be playful, even when he’s recounting events that he found quite traumatic.
Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms
I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit
in a stupid looking jacket
I walked around town, felt like I was in Sodom
There were filthy people seeking comfort for their
It was so obscene
During his three years of college, Toledo managed to release three more albums and an EP, and Car Seat Headrest was gathering a following online. Even though all of the albums could be streamed free on Bandcamp, as they still can be today, he had sold 25,000 album downloads. Now he had his degree, he was ready to pursue his music career in earnest. His ambition was to record his next album in a proper studio, performed by
a proper band, with the songs all written well in advance, as opposed to his usual method of working on the fly, cutting-and-pasting his musical ideas into complete songs over a period of months. It took him another 18 months to achieve his goal, but Teens of Denial was worth all the time and effort.
The album was recorded in Seattle by producer Steve Fisk, who has also worked with Soundgarden, Screaming Trees and The Posies. Every aspect of it is a major leap forward for Car Seat Headrest, and Toledo’s decision to turn his solo project into a living, breathing, sweating band is a felicitous one for music lovers. He has cut back on digital trickery: there are no beat loops, virtual synths or sound effects anywhere, unlike his earlier, more experimental work. Instead, Teens of Denial is built around elegantly simple, interweaving guitar parts and his usual multi-tracked vocals. By simplifying his approach, Toledo has made a much more immediate set of songs that can be performed completely live without any compromise, though the band has recently added a fourth member to enable them to replicate the album’s many guitar overdubs.
As excited as I am by this album, and I really love it, I’m even more excited to ponder where Car Seat Headrest may venture from here. Toledo has already started writing the band’s next album and next time he wants to blend both of his previous styles of writing and recording. If he’s able to add the finesse of his live band to his proven inventiveness in the studio, we might be witnessing the birth of the next Brian Wilson or Stevie Wonder.
Apart from quoting a few lyrics, I haven’t gone into much detail about specific songs on this album nor have I described exactly how they sound. You need to listen to this album a few times for yourself. The various musical influences I listed earlier should help give you some idea of what you’ll hear, though of course Teens of Denial takes from all of them yet sounds like none of them. So what does it sound like? The simplest answer is it’s a cracking record of indie-inspired punk with a pop heart, and vice versa. Great melodies and great lyrics put together with great soul. It’s the truth in 4/4 time.
Whether Will Toledo will one day come to be seen as one of the greats of music is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certainly clear to me: Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest is the best rock album of 2016. There might be seven months to go, but already this is the one to beat. As I said at the beginning, music has lost a few legends lately; but it’s often said that as one door closes, another opens. Will Toledo, step forward. It’s your time now.
VISUAL ART Black White & Restive
Newcastle Art Gallery, until August 7
MUSIC Melbourne International Jazz Festival
Various venues, Melbourne, June 3-12
THEATRE The Literati
SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney, May 27-July 16
Riverside, Parramatta, July 27-30
VISUAL ART George Gittoes: I Witness
Penrith Regional Gallery, Emu Plains, until August 21
Theatre Royal, Hobart, May 31-June 4
THEATRE Double Indemnity
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until July 2
Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney, until June 4
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Auto didact". Subscribe here.