Will Toledo’s latest album as Car Seat Headrest, the just-released Teens of Denial, is, in many ways, his debut. It’s the first collection of new songs the 23-year-old Virginia native has recorded since signing to the vaunted indie label Matador, and the aesthetic he’s curated — hyper-real lyrics, combined with instrumentals that split the difference between Weezer and Modest Mouse’s ’90s records — stands apart from any work he’s done previously.
But Toledo already has a catalog to his name that’s bigger than what many bands accumulate in their entire careers. As a teenager growing up in Leesburg, Virginia, Toledo began writing and recording confessional, lo-fi indie-rock songs, releasing 11 free albums via Bandcamp before signing with Matador and re-recording a selection of old songs for last year’s Teens of Style. “That was like the bunt debut,” Toledo says of Style. “And this is like the swinging debut. Hopefully it’s a home run, but too soon to tell that yet.”
Denial‘s 12 songs run the gamut of Toledo’s stylistic arsenal, which he says was intentional. “I designed it so that it could be listened to as a debut. The main intention was to make songs I could play live, because even though I had a big catalog there wasn’t a lot of stuff that would translate well into playing live.”
Toledo began to form Denial in summer 2014, shortly after he graduated from College of William & Mary and moved to Seattle. He had started composing the album’s songs in 2013 and just needed a band to help him flesh them out. “I had been living in Seattle for about four or five months and hadn’t had much luck in finding a band,” Toledo explains. “So I resorted to Craigslist — which I had not had good experiences with in the past.” Toledo’s last-ditch effort led him to drummer Andrew Katz, who quickly helped assemble the ensemble that recorded Denial.
Ahead of the album’s release, Toledo met with EW at his label’s Manhattan office to chat about how 4chan influenced his music, his favorite Green Day album, and why burritos are the kryptonite of recording sessions.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the emotional inspiration behind these lyrics?
TOLEDO: It was a transitional period — the last year of college. I didn’t really know what I was going to do after that. I knew I wanted to do music; I did not know how I could make that work for me and support myself. I was feeling anxious about that and I was also anxious about the idea of a music career in general. I was at a point where there was some attention [for my music], but not enough to make anything last — and a lot of it was negative. When you get circulated in the online spheres there’s a toxic culture. It wasn’t pleasant to see my name bandied about in that way, so I was frustrated about the whole deal.
Were people just insulting your work?
Yeah, it was nasty, in-fighting culture. The music board of 4chan, I owe them something, because that was the first place where my music started getting circulated a lot. But after a certain point it was getting enough circulation on there that people who didn’t like my music thought that it was being circulated way too much. They started throwing my name up and saying that all the Car Seat Headrest posts were from me, that I was just viral-ing it. It frustrated me, because I’ve never posted on that site in my life. It was this inane thing going on while meanwhile actual success was totally eluding me.
Did that have to do with your move to Seattle?
I didn’t want to stay in Virginia after I graduated. I tried my hand at making it work there with music and I wasn’t able to make anything last. It’s just kind of dire there. There’s no venues really. There’s nowhere to play. I knew that I wanted to move somewhere where music was an option, and Seattle just kind of presented itself as such.
In your lyrics you have these really detailed stories. How much of that is from your personal experiences?
The intent [on Denial] was to make everything very first person, very me. Obviously there’s more metaphorical stuff on the album — I didn’t really sink a cruise ship. But all the stuff that sounds like it’s something that’s happening to the singer is usually something that’s happened to me.
On “Drugs With Friends” you sing, “Drugs are better, drugs are better with friends are better, friends are better with…” Were there any drugs that influenced the album?
I’ve only had one psychedelic experience and it’s described in detail on “Drugs With Friends.”
On that song you say it made you feel like s—.
Right. I’ve always been influenced by psychedelic music and drug-influenced music, so I was looking forward to that when I was younger, getting to experience those things, but it just never worked out. I’ve smoked weed a half dozen times and it’s always made me anxious. [Denial] is a very sober album, which is funny, because it does talk about drugs a lot.
Even on the songs where you’re talking about drugs, it all comes back to your friends and your relationships. You aren’t just talking about rolling up a joint on the table.
Part of my problem in doing these drugs is that it makes me more aware of these social relationships and social boundaries and less comfortable in my own skin, because I become super sensitive to the setting around me.
This album has more bite to it than some of your earlier stuff. Was that a conscious decision?
There were aspects of that there in my earlier work. I grew up listening to stuff like Nirvana and Green Day, who wrote in that style. And it was always something that I wanted to do, make a collection of songs that sounded like that, that were shorter and more accessible without being poppy. I guess that’s rock and roll.
What’s your favorite Green Day album?
American Idiot, I guess. That was the first one I heard and I think it holds up as a solid concept album. Just a lot of good melodies on there.
What were you listening to while making this album?
I was listening to a lot of funk. I was listening to James Brown and that flavor ends up on “Vincent.” I was also just listening to a lot of just albums that I was familiar with that were professionally produced. I spent so long in my own head producing my own stuff and I wanted to really break down what I was hearing on other people’s albums. I would listen to OK Computer and anything pop from the past 20 years to see what the missing element was that we could put into this record. And I discovered that there was no missing element. The closer I listened to anything, the more it sounded like s—, so I stopped worrying about it.
How long were the sessions?
We spent three weeks in the studio in two different studios, then about a month mixing it at [producer] Steve Fisk’s house — which was kind of miserable. I wasn’t used to the working method of you just go at it all day, every day. I had been used to picking [my music] apart whenever I was in the mood and stopping when I was no longer in the mood. It was hardest after lunch because we’d go and get these big burritos at the nearby Mexican place and then we’d just want to die afterward. But instead we had to mix for another five hours. But it was definitely was a memorable experience — and we made a good record.