A musician’s early work often functions as a time capsule — it retroactively serves as evidence of creative and personal growth, with glimpses of vision that find clarity in hindsight. There’s a certain vulnerability in leaving the remnants of one’s evolution out in the open to be rediscovered and consumed, but for Will Toledo, who records with his band as Car Seat Headrest, that early music is also a testament to the distance he’s traveled almost entirely on his own.
“That’s where I started out, and I wouldn’t want to get rid of it. Starting over, I don’t like the idea of that, because I’ve already come so far,” the 24-year-old says. “But I’ve had a lot of people call ‘Teens of Denial’ our debut album, so for some, that’s going to be where the story starts.”
It’s true that 2016’s “Teens of Denial” served as Toledo’s introduction to the vast majority of his increasingly larger audience. Over the course of the past year, the album’s steady success has turned Toledo into a rare rock-and-roll breakout star, turning him from just another anonymous kid uploading his songs online to frontman of a band drawing thousands of fans at massive festivals such as Coachella.
But the true beginnings of Car Seat Headrest actually date to 2010, when Nervous Young Men, Toledo’s original recording moniker, was reborn as Car Seat Headrest. As Toledo’s music became progressively sophisticated, it maintained its raw vitality, and the guitar-driven crunch at the center of his sound managed to feel both familiar and fresh.
Midway through “Vincent,” an eight-minute epic from “Teens of Denial,” he sings “I find it harder to speak when someone else is listening.” Within the context of the song, it’s a mildly ironic lyric about social anxiety, but it also happens to allude to Toledo’s early approach to creating. In search of a bit of privacy, he began recording in his parents’ car (hence the name) around Leesburg, behind the Target and Kohl’s near Battlefield Shopping Center, the parking lot of the church near Loudoun County High School, where he was a student, and outside his own house.
“The struggle for me trying to make music was wanting to do it on my own terms and not feeling like I was being watched while I did it” he recalls. “It’s one thing to show a finished product to somebody, but it’s another thing to have people listening in while I’m making it. It messes with my head space, so I was trying to get away from that.”
Alone in a 2000 Toyota Sienna, with just his laptop and microphone, Toledo created his own lo-fi, retro-style rock, which resulted in a whopping 11 albums he self-released on the music streaming website Bandcamp. Among his prolific output are 2011’s “My Back Is Killing Me Baby” and 2012’s “Monomania,” which, together, make up the majority of the songs he rerecorded for 2015’s “Teens of Style,” which saw him make the leap to stalwart indie label Matador Records. In between, there was “Twin Fantasy,” which was the first hint at Toledo’s scope and ambition evident on future releases. That collection is a far cry from his earliest releases — a series of four numbered albums released in the months before he went to college that were largely improvisational, stream-of-consciousness outings. Never one to waste material, his next release, the meta-titled “Little Pieces of Paper With ‘No’ Written on Them,” was a compilation of outtakes or, in his own words on Bandcamp, “B-sides and rarities and generally just awful s---.”
“Teens of Denial” was written during that often-uncomfortable period between college and “real” adulthood, and the songs speak to the anxieties of that transition. They are also lightened by dark comedic moments, along with thrilling guitar riffs, Toledo’s catchiest hooks to date, and his baritone speak-sing that can also surge to a cathartic yelp. The album was also the first he created in a studio and with his band, made up of guitarist Ethan Ives, drummer Andrew Katz and bassist Seth Dalby, who first played with Toledo during their days at William and Mary.
Toledo says he “lucked out” in terms of the timing of his deal with Matador. He was looking to elevate his craft and make something he could call a landmark album in his catalogue, and a label could provide him the resources to do so. (Although “Teens of Style” was released by Matador, the recording was all done by Toledo.) This might sound surprising coming from someone who was so independent that he recorded alone in a car, but it was always the goal.
“I was always just trying to make that happen. I didn’t have any connections or any way other than the music,” Toledo says. “[For a while,] it never really connected with anyone in the industry, but I always preferred to do it in a studio if I could,” he says. “I was making music for myself and because I wanted to do it, but [getting the recognition] seemed important because to be able to do it for a living, you need to have some measure of success.”
And now Toledo has been widely hailed as a quintessential indie triumph story and hero. The music he’s working on now is a “callback to earlier stuff” that finds him combining his lo-fi laptop sounds with studio sheen. Still, what does future “success” look like when, by most accounts, it’s already been achieved? According to Toledo, not much different than it did to start.
“I think the main thing for me is not having to worry what I’m going to do for money. As far as social and financial success, I feel like the pressure is off at this point, and that’s exactly what I was hoping for. It’s better than I expected,” he admits.
“It’s more image stuff that I have to be wary about,” he says. “Before, I would never have album covers out with my face. I like the idea of visuals, but I like the idea of them being separate. It’s just about not wanting it to feel like I’m running a brand that I don’t want to, and if we do have to be a brand, I’d like control over what the image of the brand is.”
Later he adds, “I was concerned about touring just because it seems like a hard lifestyle — and it is. It’s getting harder, I think, rather than easier. . . . But the shows themselves get easier, and that’s the important part. I want to get to the point where I can feel comfortable onstage.”
On this particular June night, he’s preparing to perform at the 9:30 Club. Growing up about 40 miles away in Leesburg, he’s always known the significance of the venue. He’d considered a headlining spot an indicator the band had “gotten somewhere,” and the fact that the show is a sell-out is further confirmation.
Toledo is present but reserved when chatting before the show, but something awakens in him in while performing. Still clad in black, his eyes all but hidden behind his hair and dark-rimmed glasses, he becomes more alive in the spotlight. Songs like “Fill in the Blank” and “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” swell to their anthemic glory, with Toledo wielding his guitar like a weapon at the center of it all. From a kid in his car to the rock star in front of a sold-out crowd, it’s a perfect story. And Toledo knows it’s a little bit too perfect.
“I guess I’m coming to terms with the fact that what’s talked about isn’t necessarily the music itself,” he says. “It can be hard to talk about the music because it’s an experience, and there’s a focus on the narratives and the people over the music. That’s something I’m going to have to accept,” he says, pledging not to lose focus.
“There’s music that transcends that, and you take it with you and it retains its own value. That’s what I want to make. . . . It has to transcend its particulars — whatever genre it is — and exist on a higher plane somehow.”