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Car Seat Headrest: the meteoric rise of a Bandcamper

Car Seat Headrest's indie-rock credentials were formed rather aptly in the backseat of a car

Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest at Coachella in April. Photo: Alamy
Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest at Coachella in April. Photo: Alamy

Will Toledo was 18 when he began self-releasing his indie-rock albums on Bandcamp, in 2010. The online music distribution site was then barely two years old but had already begun establishing itself as a place where artists could not only upload, stream and share their work but also offer downloads for a price. Toledo, whose albums then were largely solo affairs, published his music under the name Car Seat Headrest. Much of his recording, particularly the vocal tracks, happened in the back seat of his car, which he would park in different places in his hometown in Virginia, to record. Hence the moniker. Strictly following a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethic, which first became popular among punk and garage musicians years ago, Toledo crafted his songs with low fidelity (lo-fi) fuzzy, reverb-filled music and stream-of-consciousness lyrics sung in slacker style.

Bandcamp is different from other streaming websites such as iTunes, Pandora and Spotify, which are largely listener-focused and adopt algorithms of different kinds to select what music to serve up to users based on their demonstrated past preferences. If iTunes and its ilk are like supermarkets with carefully curated aisles and categorized shelf space, Bandcamp is like a delightfully unorganized farmer’s market. Navigating Bandcamp can be chaotic for musicians and listeners alike, but, like browsing the stalls at an informal street market can be, it’s also fun. Gems can turn up unexpectedly. Sometimes stars can also be born.

Within five years, Toledo, as Car Seat Headrest (CSH), had self-released as many as 11 albums on Bandcamp (posting six of them in a span of 18 months) and while CSH didn’t become an overnight sensation, it got noticed by critics and won a sizeable number of cult-like fans. By then, CSH was a band with other members, although Toledo was its main force, writing the lyrics, composing the music, singing, playing the guitars and keyboards, and, in his enduring DIY style, producing the albums. With no interference from external producers, CSH (read: Toledo) could pretty much do anything it wanted: Play extra-long songs (a rarity in indie rock); and experiment with different styles. The band’s songs, often recorded using GarageBand and similar software, were introspective, personal and intimate, dealing with love, relationship and issues of sexuality.

In 2015, Matador Records took notice of CSH. That year, it released Teens Of Style, CSH’s first album on a label. The 11 songs on Teens Of Style were a compilation of reworked versions of tracks that Toledo had earlier released on Bandcamp, but the album quickly made it to a few of that year’s best picks’ lists, including Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums Of 2015. Teens Of Style was the band’s first exposure to an audience larger than Bandcamp attracted, and it demonstrated Toledo’s talent. CSH’s music evoked the creativity and lyrical ingenuity of older lo-fi bands such as the much acclaimed Pavement, and the highly influential yet low-profile Yo La Tengo, and Teens Of Style showcased that.

Teens Of Style was followed in 2016 by another Matador release, Teens Of Denial, an album that unlike its predecessor, was composed and recorded from scratch. It is also a “concept album" with a central character—the 12 songs are about a high school teenager named Joe and the pain of growing up and facing up to adolescent dilemmas. Stylish and smart, it’s an album that pitchforked CSH as a band capable of creating a big and ambitious soundscape, while at the same time sticking to its lo-fi, indie credentials. Some of the songs are long, with unexpected gear changes and multiple musical hooks—for instance, Vincent, (Joe Gets Kicked Out Of School For Using) Drugs With Friends and The Ballad Of Costa Concordia—and they’re all about teenage angst and related issues, but in the hands of CSH, the lyrics, composition and music are handled with remarkable maturity. By now, CSH, which had relocated to Seattle, was making waves: Four- and five-star reviews by discerning critics had become routine; articles in mainstream publications, including The New Yorker, had helped spread the word; and the bookers of gigs were queuing up to sign the band up for gigs.

In February, Matador released CSH’s latest album, Twin Fantasy (Face To Face). It is a complete reworking of an earlier version that Toledo had released on Bandcamp in 2011. At the time, Toledo didn’t have a band and recorded his vocals using the built-in microphone of his laptop. The sound was raw and imperfect—the music muddy and the vocals obscured. In the new Matador version, re-recorded in a proper studio with other band members, the sound is cleaner, polished and better produced. The central character of the album appears to be an ex-lover, and the songs deal with the effects and aftermath of a broken relationship with him, but also with the dilemmas Toledo may have had to deal with in opening up about his sexuality. On Beach Life-In-Death, an epic song that is nearly 12-and-a-half-minutes long, and whose lyrics refer to things as diverse as 19th century British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and Skype, Toledo sings: “I pretended I was drunk when I came out to my friends/ I never came out to my friends/ We were all on Skype/ And I laughed and changed the subject."

Anyone inclined to mine the huge body of recordings that Toledo has posted on Bandcamp might find it a trove of unpolished gems, some of which are making it to mainstream albums. But they will also likely realize how much more the not-yet-26-year-old may have in store for the future.

The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Vincent’ by Car Seat Headrest from ‘Teens Of Denial’

2. ‘Beach Life-In-Death’ by Car Seat Headrest from ‘Twin Fantasy’

3. ‘Famous Prophets (Stars)’ by Car Seat Headrest from ‘Twin Fantasy’

4. ‘Father, Flesh In Rags’ by Car Seat Headrest from ‘My Back Is Killing Me Baby’ (on Bandcamp)

5. ‘High To Death’ by Car Seat Headrest from ‘Twin Fantasy’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

The writer tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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