Car Seat Headrest on making an album about normal life before normal life completely changed

Car Seat Headrest on making an album about normal life before normal life completely changed

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When Will Toledo started making music it was in the back of his parents’ van in Bellevue, Va., and the only audience members he had were the car seat headrests. Things have changed rather dramatically for Will. He signed to Matador. He released “Teens of Denial.” He became indie famous. He sells out huge rooms. So what happens to an artist who shelled out DIY album after DIY album, and suddenly has thousands of fans looking at him on stage, expecting him to do something? That’s a big part of the question he tries to answer in his new album, “Making a Door Less Open.”

Toledo breaks that question down, talks about writing an album about normal life in a time that feels like life is too normal, and also may never be normal again, riding the bus in Seattle, the Grateful Dead and plenty more.

(We should say that we had this conversation before the death of George Floyd.)

I feel like this album is really about daily life and what that experience is for you. And it’s like, it doesn’t get more daily than this. 

Yeah, I guess so. I mean to me the record is really, I guess kind of specific to sort of the period I was writing it in. Really, life for me as it existed then. And a lot of that, like riding the bus around Seattle, that’s not a thing anymore. I assume that it will be at some point in the future, but it’s kind of a specific portrait to me and when I was writing it, I kind of assumed that it would exist in the same way. But it’s sort of like premiering a painting of a place that’s not quite there anymore or you know, the landscape has changed. It’s something that still exists in people’s minds at least, but it’s just a little strange context for putting this record out. 

What was that daily life that you were describing in the record then?

Well I live outside of Seattle, so I would be kind of busing in and out a lot and it would just be a lot of different stuff, between practicing with the band. We would be putting together the record at Andrew’s place a lot, Andrew, our drummer. So I’d be driving around, I’d take my whole computer set up with my iMac and my audio interface and load everything into the car and take it over to Andrew’s, because he had a slightly better speaker system than I did. And it was just nice to get a second set of ears on it. So there was a lot of that. I spent a fair amount of time last year editing this documentary that we put out. That was in the city too, I was doing editing for that. There was just a lot of commuting and obviously we’d be going out and doing shows too. My life was just kind of a real patchwork at the time of time spent at my place and time spent traveling around Seattle and time spent traveling around the world. 

Why did you choose Seattle? 

I had a couple of friends here and I had lived in Virginia all my life and I could see it was not really the place to be if you want to make music. And I had plenty of friends in high school who made great music and in college as well, but there just never was sort of an infrastructure there for keeping musicians around and active. What music was there kind of existed in spite of that. So I wanted to get out of that environment and there were a few cities that got talked about in the context of being music cities, but I never really wanted to go to New York. So Seattle seemed like the major one for me to try and put roots in. 

I’m not really a city person. I mean, I live outside of Seattle, so I don’t have to deal with that energy a hundred percent of the time. The city is a lot more laid back, I think, than L.A. or New York. But I just don’t really have the constitution for it, it’s just a lot of people when you’re in the city. 

What is more of your constitution then? 

I live in Bellevue, which is a little bit of a suburban outcropping. I liked that energy. I grew up in the suburbs and it’s what I’m used to. Bellevue is a little closer to a city than where I grew up. I went to college in Williamsburg, Virginia, which I really liked. That was a really just strange town because it had a colonial portion to it. Where you could see reenactors and was, in theory, preserved from a couple hundred years ago. But it was just a kind of a sleepy little town and the college was one of the main things there. And I really enjoyed that as well. But I think I would have felt a little uncomfortable staying there after I graduated. You don’t want to be the ex-college guy just hanging around on campus.

How has life changed from releasing album after album after album, to taking your time and releasing an album now that you have a bigger audience and doing big tours? 

The albums that I’ve been making kind of reflect that change where, to me the songs kind have a different sort of integrity to them where it’s something that I need to be able to play night-to-night and not get tired of. And it’s just sort of a strange balance where sometimes what works on the record, you get tired of really quickly when you’re playing it live every night. But sometimes it’s a great starting point and you can just kind of do something a little different every night and keep it fresh.

What’s one of the things you got tired of doing? 

We were touring on Twin Fantasy the past couple of years and it seemed like there was a lot of material on that where, as a record I feel it’s solid, but live it just wasn’t working and especially the longer songs. There are a couple songs on that record and there was one song that’s about 16 minutes long and I don’t think we ever played the whole thing, but even cutting it in half, it’s just hard to keep that energy on stage and feel comfortable going with it. So I kind of recalibrated while writing this new record and tried to keep things short so that they could be extended on stage rather than starting with long material and having to try and shrink it down into something manageable. 

That is so interesting. That’s such an interesting way for me to be able to think about that and see that because I liked the long songs on the record and that makes sense that you would leave space for you to expand on instead of feeling like you always have to be expansive. 

It was definitely a change in the conception of how I was thinking about it, because I grew up just listening to records, I wasn’t really someone who went to live shows or got the appeal of it. So I was attracted to longer works as sort of the peak of what a record could do if you had a certain span of time to make this music and you had one song that was taking out a big chunk of that that was really a wide canvas that you could work on. My conception of it kind of changed in a functional way where you wanted to be working on a manageable canvas that had a certain energy to it that was not just the album as an endpoint and then you were just kind of trying to imitate that every night. I wanted to take this energy on the album as a starting point for what we were going to work off of. 

That really makes me understand the live show and the record more. You were making so many records, but then I guess you weren’t performing them as much and now it’s kind of like you’re performing is flipped because you’re performing more than you are making records. And before you were making records more than you were performing, is that accurate to say? 

Yeah, that’s accurate. I was barely performing at all between 2010 and 2014. Just out of necessity. I had lineups in college, but everybody had schoolwork, everybody had priorities, and it was just hard to get shows booked in Virginia. So my focus was really on making records and I just did that as a musical outlet. But now, at least up until 2020, the past five years have been about touring and figuring out how to make a set night tonight. And it’s just a very different but really rewarding experience. And to me the two are totally connected now. If I had to never play live again, I don’t know what I would do with my music because it’s really an inseparable part of it now.

And encountering the music industry day to day, has that changed the way that you have looked at the artists in your life and their musical paths? 

I’m always looking at different artists, everyday looking at different art to just kind of see what people do. As my course has changed, I’ve looked at different artists to see what they do. And people like Neil Young who I’ve been listening to for a while, but the whole arc of his career speaks to me a lot more now. He was just always trying to engage with music, I think on that direct, live level. And constantly stripping back, stripping down to get at the energy that he wanted and that could translate into a good life show. And that’s definitely really inspiring to me. It’s looking more at what artists do between albums or in addition to the records that leads me to figure out how I fill my own time.

Is that how the mask came to be on this album? 

Yeah, I mean that was just looking at being on stage and thinking about ways of changing my appearance. What I could do on stage that would be more interesting than just literally being up there and playing guitar and singing. When I see someone just playing guitar and singing, they really have to be charismatic and engaged to really interest me. And I guess I feel like, I don’t know if I always convey that on stage. I’m really focused on just performing and sounding okay. So I don’t know if our energy is always good in that sense. So it was something that I wanted to look at and consciously change for this record. So I started thinking of masks and costumes and ways to change that and just sort of landed on the idea of a gas mask. The current live show is delayed indefinitely but the plan is to bring that out and put it center stage and see if it can be something that the audience engages with, see if it makes the live show make more sense. 

I have been listening to a ton of live albums since quarantine and one thing that connects all of them is that intentionality. Is thinking, “Hey, I’m on stage. What can I do about this to make it better?”

Yeah, absolutely. I think that was what kind of changed my mind on live shows, was seeing bands like that where it was immediate. It wasn’t just, we had the song and we were playing it on stage. The song was almost backgrounded in favor of just this energy of an immediate connection between the performers and the audience. And that could be something like James Brown or Otis Redding where they’re just sort of riffing on the song and extending it into something that’s just more of an ecstatic expression. Or it could be something like Swans, who I saw live in 2013 or 2014. And really sort of the same concept where they’re just riffing on these ideas and stretching them out. But in a much heavier, more, I guess, post-industrial way maybe. But just taking these Sonics and pushing them to an extreme where it’s less about the listening experience and more about the visceral experience of being there. 

Totally. I just watched a documentary about the Grateful Dead too, and it’s like I had disdain for that band for a long time. I was like, “I don’t get this.” But then, what you just said about that visceral experience is what the whole thing is about. 

Yeah, exactly. I kind of had the same experience recently with Grateful Dead. I didn’t really know. I hadn’t heard songs that I liked, but then I started hearing a few and sort of looked more into the band and yeah, I mean their legacy comes directly from the fact that people could have that experience with their live show. And I think the disdain that that sort of certain strain of pop culture has for the Grateful Dead. It just has to do with the fact that it’s sort of a less contemporary model. Where it’s all about the live show. That’s just where music comes from. It comes from people and you can look down on people who are doing that, but they’re offering a special sort of experience that a lot of “cooler artists.” They can’t offer that because they just haven’t committed to being that as a live artist. 

I read somewhere that you were listening to Dion and the Belmonts. 

I mean I still am, it’s a CD that’s in my car and that was something I was spending a lot driving to and from Seattle. And that helped a lot too. I had sort of a piece of the music written, but I wasn’t sure how to take it, how to develop it. And I was just listening over and over to these Dion songs and there was an immediacy to them. There was a power that did not feel dated. It felt as immediate as live performance and listening to it, I felt like it was sort of the minimalism of the arrangement that caused that. Where it’s all just about the vocals and there’s just this minimal rhythm going on underneath it. Maybe some strings or guitars, but really Dion emphasized in favor of just that vocal performance. And he was just such a good vocalist that what appealed at the time, it was still what appeals now. He was just a good singer and could deliver these lines in a way that made them feel meaningful. With this minimalism of arrangement, there were also a lot of complicated song structures. You just have hook after hook and you wouldn’t really be able to tell what’s the chorus. What to call the verse or the chorus or the bridge. It was just kind of one after another and that inspired me and I went home and tried to write a version of “Martin” that was in that style, and that stuck, and that kind of became the final version. It doesn’t really stay in any one place for too long. It’s just going here and there and writing on the vocals until the end. 

The kind of play between minimalism, I don’t think that I would have described your music as minimal before, certainly not lyrically. That’s an interesting turn. 

I don’t know if I succeeded in being minimal this record either. It was just a point of inspiration for me. It was sort of looking at my older work as well. The first Car Seat Headrest stuff was fairly minimal because I was just putting it together pretty quickly. Which is really sonic experiments, what I could put together on the computer and in an hour or two hours. There were some interesting results there. But I had sort of moved away from that and had these more elaborate arrangements and sort of dense songs. And I wanted to kind of go back and revisit that for a minute and sort of look at what I could do if the songs were kind of more considered and more fleshed out, but sort of keeping this minimalism in mind. Stuff like “Can’t Cool Me Down” and “Martin” they’re both very driven by the drums and by just the sort of propulsiveness of the track, rather than a lot of melodic elements. And that is a shift from how I was working. But I’m really, even in those songs, the amount of time I spent on it, there ends up being a lot going on in both songs. It’s just maybe a bit more subtle than I had been working in before. 

Yeah, I feel like it works, because on the album, the “trying to be minimal but not super succeeding” I think ends up with a pretty good mix. 

I mean that was the hope. And obviously the end goal is to just make something unique and I think that this album does do that. It kind of balances the two extremes and just has a sort of unique texture as a result. 

Do you have a favorite Dion and the Belmonts song?

I really like the song “Love Came to Me.” I guess that would be my favorite, but there are a lot of good ones. 

What do you like about that song? 

It’s just a really good example of what Dion can do. He just really rides out the vocal and makes it feel like it’s not preplanned. It’s not structured. It’s just something that he is saying to you and it’s just really beautiful. You know it feels like a walk in the park. It feels like just a casual encounter that turns into something beautiful. 

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