In mid 2014, six months after moving to Seattle following graduation from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Will Toledo stood at a crossroads. He had been making rock albums since age 16—first in his childhood bedroom and family car, and later in his college dorm room—but he moved out West in hopes of finding some bandmates, recording an album and, if all went well, getting signed by a record label. Things were stalling. “It felt like a long lull period,” he recalls of the early days in Seattle, when he started thinking he’d have to give up music and get a normal job.
Thankfully for Toledo and fans of defiantly catchy indie-rock, venerable indie label Matador Records came calling. “It was definitely fortuitous that Matador stepped up right at that moment,” says Toledo, the 23-year-old lead singer and creative mastermind behind Car Seat Headrest. (The last name is a pseudonym.) “It’s always a shock when everything blooms up at once.”
Last October’s Teens of Style, a compilation of Toledo’s best material culled from years of music released online via Bandcamp, was both Car Seat Headrest’s grand introduction to the larger music world and the spark that immediately gave Toledo serious indie cred and a dedicated legion of fans who arrive en mass each night as he and his three-piece backing band trek across the country. Featuring a whir of buzzy guitars, choirboy harmonies and voluminous, soul-bearing lyrics tossed off with a slack, oft-ironic bent, Car Seat Headrest’s music calls to mind ‘90s indie legends like Guided By Voices and Pavement. When we speak, a few weeks before today’s release of the excellent Teens of Denial, Toledo maintains a level, self-deprecating mindset about how things have played out. “There’s always going to be a reaction against the hype, where there’s people saying, ‘I don’t see what the big deal is.’ I’ve got defense mechanisms in place against that sort of criticism. I can distance myself from it.”
If Toledo has a decidedly mature take on his exploding career, it’s because he’s been preparing for it for nearly a decade. In less than a decade, the musician has released 12 albums. First discovering indie-rock via his older sister, who would drive him to high school in his native Leesburg, Virginia, Toledo was drawn to the genre because, he says, it “had more of what I liked about older music and didn’t feel too poppy or too modern.” He quickly began assembling his own albums, putting them up on Bandcamp and hoping for the best. “At the time they were seeds I was planting,” says the soft-spoken singer, who looks not unlike an English grad student with his floppy hair and thick-frame glasses. “As soon as I had a sufficient setup to record and overdub stuff myself,” he says of his high school efforts, including his first band, Nervous Young Men, and the early days of Car Seat Headrest.
Despite releasing a plethora of music on Bandcamp—albums like 2011’s My Back is Killing Me Baby and Twin Fantasy recorded while a student at William & Mary show Toledo’s songwriting chops coming into focus—the singer always had dreams of getting signed to a record label. At 19 he wrote a now-infamous song entitled “Fuck Merge Records” with a chorus of “No unsolicited demos, no unsolicited demos” after the North Carolina label, home to Arcade Fire, rejected him. Portions of the song were later used on Teens of Style’s “Times To Die,” but Toledo admits, “I definitely wouldn’t write a song like that again. I can appreciate where my mind was at the time—I was just seeing closed doors. I’d always wanted to make a life out of this, but I had no idea how to apply the practical career side out of it.” He’s since understood it was all part of his learning process. “I came to understand that it works in degrees and naturally you start out on the opposite end of where you want to be. It’s less about finding the secret key to unlock the door and more about digging yourself in and applying steady pressure.”
To that end, Toledo now approaches every album as if it’s his most important statement. Teens of Denial, highlighted by the whiplash “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” and another song he refers to as “Drugs With Friends” despite its much longer official title, was his attempt to aim for the fences. “I was really trying to write songs that fired on all pistons and create a coherent album,” he says. “I just wanted it to be strong enough that people were driven to listen to it.”
He need not worry.