Car Seat Headrest's strange new world
Will Toledo picked a convenient time to start wearing a mask. The promotional photos and music videos surrounding Making A Door Less Open, his 12th album as Car Seat Headrest, sees the 27-year-old donning a custom version with LED eye sockets. In the clip for “Martin,” the record’s second single, his ocular screens alternate between blinking eyeballs and lyrical snippets that scroll from left to right like a bodega lotto sign. Without the proper context, an onlooker may very well assume that Toledo’s facial obfuscation is a commentary on the masks many of us are using to quell the spread of COVID-19. In actuality, it is part of an outfit for a character called Trait that he developed over a year ago for an electronic side project with Car Seat bandmate Andrew Katz.
"To adopt [wearing a mask] and suddenly see the culture is totally changed and reads totally differently is frustrating," he tells Entertainment Weekly. "It was not normal to see people wearing masks up until quite recently and I wanted to play off the strangeness of that.”
The mask is just one of a few ways in which Toledo is distancing himself from how people perceive Car Seat Headrest — and in turn him as a person, given that Car Seat songs have always been intimate and vulnerable. His last full-length of new material, 2016’s Teens of Denial, was about being trapped in a cycle of depressed stasis, nihilistic slackerism, and routine debauchery. Though he had signed to Matador Records a year prior on the strength of a rabid fanbase he developed from self-recorded Bandcamp uploads, Denial was the album that truly launched his career, and the one many people first heard him on.
“That was sort of my collegiate angst album, and it was an honest representation of what I was going through at the time,” Toledo says. “But it felt like a lot of people picked up on it as who I wanted to be [or] who I was always going to be. To me, that was one of the most depressed phases of my life. Because it wasn’t something that I wanted.”
Instead of following that project two years later with another batch of fresh material, he re-recorded and reworked an older fan favorite, Twin Fantasy, and chose not to do press — an odd move for an indie artist in today’s landscape. Although Car Seat Headrest hasn’t been a bonafide solo project for many years, Making A Door Less Open is his first explicitly collaborative record with his band. Particularly Katz, whose influence is felt on most of the songs, and whose voice actually appears on the Beastie Boys-esque “Hollywood.”
Between the cryptic Trait get-up, the heavy presence of electronic instrumentation, and Toledo’s lyrical shift from gut-spilling rambles to concise dispatches from various settings and perspectives, Making A Door Less Open feels like a very different Car Seat Headrest.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There are two versions of this album — one for the physical release, which has a different tracklist and songs than the digital release. Tell me about that.
WILL TOLEDO: You have to deliver the vinyl “x” amount of months before the album comes out. And that was really difficult for me as someone who usually puts the finishing touches on the album and drops it the same day or a day later. That’s what I was doing before I signed to Matador, so it was hard to deliver it and then sit for months and months and think about the ways you could’ve done it better.
So I wanted, on this record, to work to the vinyl and deliver it, and then keep it open until we really had to deliver for the streaming version. It kind of went beyond that at the end where after the vinyl, once we were thinking about it in a different light, different ideas for songs came into play and I ended up reworking some, re-writing some, and then remixing other songs. So the physical format and the streaming format are different because they reflect different points in the creative process of the record.
In an artist statement accompanying this new project you said you were listening to more songs and moving away from consuming full albums. Your decision to release two separate versions feels like a challenge to the concept of what an album is, with fans hearing an altered product in each format.
Yeah, that’s kind of what happens already. It’s a different experience when you stream something versus listening to it on vinyl. You’ve gotta flip it over, it sounds different because it’s mastered in a different way. I just wanted to play with that and on the idea of memory as well, where every time you listen to a record maybe it differs a little from how you remember it.
Were there any specific circumstances or experiences that you were directly singing about on this album?
Well, I was getting sick a lot last year. So I guess that was another way that I was prescient. It felt like every couple weeks or every month I was getting laid up again with some new sort of virus or something that was preventing me from being in full health. That kind of influenced my writing of “Can’t Cool Me Down,” which is kind of about an extreme fever state. But I wanted to divine some emotional relief from the state of being ill, which is mostly just very boring and draining. You lose the capacity to enjoy life.
But I tried to look at it from a perspective that could gain some artistic value. I looked at literature. There’s this text called Revelations of Divine Love, which is written by this medieval woman [Julian of Norwich] who almost died from fever and had all these visions that she ascribed to seeing Jesus and going through the death process and then coming back and writing about it. That had this very extreme image of someone who has almost nothing and is about to lose their life, but being in the throes of this extreme religious ecstasy. So that was something that I wanted to tap into with this song. Being on the borderline between life and death, and being in that extreme state. Which is an exaggeration of what I was going through. I was never on my deathbed. But [I was] not 100 percent physically. I think a lot of this album is different physical states. “Weightlifters” is wanting to get out of the lethargy of an aging body, wanting to fine-tune things into a progressive state. And then the rest of the album is a counter against that. It really goes back and forth.
The song “Hollywood” feels like an outlier, musically. Lyrically, is it based on your own experience with fame or is it a story song from someone else’s perspective?
It’s a little bit of a story song. It’s not in my voice so much, which is one reason why I gave it to Andrew [to sing]. But it is about this perspective of powerlessness and I think it’s not someone who actually lives in Hollywood and has direct experience with it. It’s the way most people experience Hollywood, which is in ads and reading articles in the newspaper about horrible people and their crimes finally coming to light.
So you have this paradox of the glamor of the movies and this ugliness, and there’s a lack of understanding on how to react to it because it’s all pushed in your face in a neutral and constant way. And to me that song is a paranoid monologue that’s triggered by these things. There’s not necessarily a lot of reflection going on on the surface of these lyrics, it’s moreso a character piece that has a lot going on under the surface that doesn’t get mentioned. Because it’s about being driven to this state of extreme distraction by this constant saturation of media coming in when you’re not prepared to handle it.
Compared to previous albums, I feel like your lyricism on this album is a little less rambly and also a little more abstract. Was that something you wanted to achieve?
I’ve never really liked English as a language. I think it’s kind of ugly and awkward. But I do have to write in it because it’s the only language I can really speak, so I tried to engage with it more and find people who wrote in English whose prose that I liked and whose poetry I liked, and ways to make the language reflect more vividly the things I was trying to express. I thought if I could step up a level in using English the way I wanted to, I could take it down a notch in terms of how many words I had to use and how rambly it got. So that was the stylistic shift: wanting to learn how to use language better and more precisely. Reading a lot of Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings, and guidebooks on how to write and trying to fall in love with the English language.
Speaking of playing with language, Making A Door Less Open seems like kind of a funny way of saying you’re closing the door.
Yeah that’s what it is. The door to my room was open, I was in with a friend, and I just kind of thought of the phrase, “let’s make the door less open.” I liked it, it was awkward and a strange way to express it. And I guess that kind of fit in with the album as a strange way of looking at something simple and something domestic. It kind of turned the thing on its shoulders.
Making A Door Less Open is out 5/1.