Car Seat Headrest interview: How it’s possible to make it through college and release thirteen albums by age 23
May 11th 2016
Being in your early 20s can be a bit of a tough time. For a lot of people, it means you’re fresh out of uni or finishing off a degree, or you’re just trying trying to figure out what your next step in life is. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with that.
Will Toledo is 23 and unsure of what to do with his life after college, where he’s just finished an English major. He’s also on the verge of releasing his thirteenth album as Car Seat Headrest and heading off on an international tour. You’ve got that going for you too, right?
Will spoke to Emily Mathison about trying to find direction while his friends settled into adulthood, and the progression of his music through his teenage and early adult years. He also snuck in some good news for fans down under, with the possibility of an Australian tour in early 2017.
You graduated from college not too long ago. How did you manage that and still be able to record so many quality albums?
Well, it’s debatable how high quality they were. I put the effort into writing them, but I kind of had a quicker recording process than many others do. It was just a matter of dashing stuff off as quickly as possible, as far as the performances were concerned. Then I’d spend a little longer mixing and arranging everything. But it was always just something that I squeezed in when I had free time.
I majored in English, which is not a particularly difficult major. It came easily to me, so I didn’t have a huge amount of homework and I wasn’t a particularly social person, so I always had some amount of free time on my hands. Usually I would be working on creative projects.
Majoring in English, do you think that has helped with your writing, or has it just always come naturally to you?
I always had a tendency to want to write and do stuff in that area, and I’ve always been a big reader. When I went into English, I learned a lot about how to write and I read a lot of poetry through college, and that all definitely contributed to how I write now. It wasn’t an exact translation of what I learned in class into what I was writing about, but there was some amount of bleed through into my work of what I was writing about.
I think at the moment, though I can get by, I really don’t know what else I can do with an English degree. It was just kind of for the sake of learning more about it when I took the course.
‘Teens of Denial’ is coming out soon. What were the main inspirations behind the album?
In terms of the writing of it, there were a couple things. I wanted to write something with more straightforward rock stuff, because I hadn’t done an album like that under the Car Seat Headrest name, but it was always something I have wanted to do. I had been drifting more and more away from that, so I made a conscious effort to write those sorts of songs.
As far as the lyrical content, I was in my senior year of college, and was trying to make plans for afterwards, and not really making too much headway with that. So I was stuck in college while a lot of my friends had graduated already. So it was an in-between phase for me… it wasn’t a comfortable situation to be in, so I was quite distressed and that showed up in my writing.
I noticed there is a lot more of a rock influence on the album, but there’s also quite a diversity of sounds throughout it. How would you describe the overall sound and feel of it?
I really wanted it to be a straightforward rock’n’roll showcase. I grew up listening to a lot of oldies – older rock music like The Clash, The Beatles and The Who, and then sort of got into newer music like Nirvana and Green Day. So this album is kind of my homage to those bands, trying to create something that sounds like it’s from the 21st century, but that calls back to those older bands.
That was how these songs were written, and we tried to alter the production style to that and just not put a lot of frills on it. I wanted it so sound as live as possible, and that’s how they were all recorded, live in the studio.
You recorded that album with Steve Fisk and it was the first time you worked with a producer. How was that?
Yeah that’s right, it was the first time. Before that it was all me and it was all in home studio situations. It was interesting. We recorded in very small studios and we were the only ones there, so it wasn’t super intimidating. And neither was Steve, he is a very nice guy and made us feel pretty comfortable in a studio environment, so it wasn’t as difficult as a transition as I thought it might be. He was willing to let me take charge as much as I wanted to, as far as dictating the sound of the record and what was going to go where.
Your newer material still holds some similarities to your earlier work. How much do you think your sound has changed and evolved since your first album?
I think it’s changed a lot. The first Car Seat Headrest albums were intentional experiments, and they were created pretty much entirely though loops. I would record basic tracks, but most of the songwriting part of it would take place on the computer as I sort of restructured it and built it into something new. Gradually, as I went on I would write more and more before recording, but that was always part of the process, structuring it on the computer. This was the first album where that didn’t really happen at all. It was all written beforehand and performed live, and we didn’t really re-structure anything afterwards, we just mixed it with a very light touch.
When did you first start producing your own music? Is it something you’ve done since you were younger?
Yeah, I never really thought of myself as a producer. I would just record stuff onto my family computer when I was young. I always knew I was wanting to write songs, and as soon as I had a guitar I was recording myself doing that, and it just gradually just evolved from very basic tracks into more full band arrangements as I realised I could flesh it out as much as I wanted to on my own.
You’re now signed with Matador, did you feel like there was more pressure with this album?
A little bit, but the album was already written when I first met them, so I was able to give them demos on the spot. And I knew that they liked it. Teens of Style, there was actually a lot more pressure there, because it was still self produced and they weren’t so sure that they wanted that to happen. They thought they might want it to be redone in a studio. With this one though, we went into it knowing we were going to be doing it in a studio and while we were in there, it was just about getting the best takes for the tracks, that was the main thing, along with getting the best mixes for each track. We kind of narrowed our vision and didn’t really think of anything beyond that.
You’re working with a full band now. How is that?
It’s really good! We recorded the basic tracks for the album live, so it was the first time where I’d practiced all these songs with a band beforehand. It really helped give these songs more focus. I was lucky enough to find these guys in Seattle who really know what they’re doing and it just so happens that we get along pretty well too. We’re pretty happy with the band at the moment.
I met them both through music. I contacted the drummer online, he had an ad up, and then we both met the guy who is now out guitarist at our first show.
The album is going to be released in May – what are your plans for the rest of the year?
Touring mostly, maybe a little bit of recording towards the end of the year. But for the most part after the album comes out, touring. Right after the album comes out, we’ll be going to Europe, and then the rest of the shows will be around America.
Is this the first tour you have played the new material on?
We played a couple tracks on our tour at the end of last year, just because we already knew them and they were very fun to play. So we started adding them onto the set list, even though no one knew them at the time. As the singles have been released from the new album, we’ve started playing those in our set. By this point, it pretty much all, or around 90% material from Teens of Denial. So we’re excited to finally make it official, but we have been playing a few new songs for a little while.
How are the new songs panning out at the shows?
They’re really good. People really respond to them, and I don’t know if it’s just because they are the more high profile, recent singles and people just expect to hear them. Or there’s also the fact that they’re structured to be fun, live songs and I think that we have put a little extra energy into them because they’re the first songs we have really worked on together as a band.
Do you have any plans to head to Australia for a tour?
I think that’s probably imminent. We are trying to see what our plans are for early next year, around January, and we’re definitely going to go somewhere. Chances are good that it will be Australia. That would be exciting.
Teens Of Denial by Car Seat Headrest is out May 20 through Matador Records / Remote Control.