Car Seat Headrest: Will Toledo Drives Forward
The guitarist went from releasing solo albums on Bandcamp to signing with Matador and assembling a full band for Teens of Denial.
Even in the Internet Age, a lot of musicians still grapple with the problem of getting their music heard. Not so for Will Toledo, a Seattle-based 23-year-old singer-songwriter and guitarist who, until recently, has operated as a one-man band called Car Seat Headrest. Since 2010, Toledo has released a dozen self-produced albums of precious lo-fi pop on Bandcamp that have made him a hero in the indie-rock world. (Toledo gets added hipster cred for his band moniker, which refers to his early penchant for recording vocals into his computer in the backseat of his parents’ car.)
“People have said things like, ‘I’ve mastered the internet,’ but it’s not like there’s some big secret or mystery to what I’ve been doing,” Toledo says softly. “It’s really not that difficult to put your music out there—anyone can do it. Bandcamp seemed like the easiest way for me at the time; that’s all there is to it. I was learning how to do things as I went along. It made sense to sort of put stuff out as I was learning.”
Toledo took a step into the indie-rock big leagues last year when he signed with Matador Records and released Teens of Style, which contained reworkings of older songs and also featured the contributions of bassist Jacob Bloom and drummer Andrew Katz. This year, Toledo has changed things up even more, recording for the first time in a proper studio with a full band (Katz, guitarist/bassist Ethan Ives) and another producer (Steve Fisk) at the helm. The resulting album, Teens of Denial, takes the guitarist’s introspective tales of post-teen angst and ennui and splashes them onto a widescreen sonic canvas, heightening the emotional wallop of Toledo’s solipsistic lyrical meditations without sacrificing the intimate candor that made his earlier work so appealing.
Toledo is no shredder, but he comes on like a guitar hero—several of them, in fact—all over Teens of Denial. “Fill in the Blank” sounds like Pete Townshend, Kurt Cobain, and Billie Joe Armstrong tumbling down the stairs like three electrified polecats. “Vincent” and “Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)” are fuzzed-out stoner gems (think Fu Manchu duking it out with Sonic Youth), with Toledo reveling in every juicy wave of distortion. And on the epic, 11-minute “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” a multi-layered mini symphony of acoustic and electric guitars, horns and Pink Floydian vocal harmonies, he throttles his 6-string like Springsteen back when he was on a last-chance power drive.
Toledo discusses the guitar stars that fueled his musical aspirations, how he tailored his new songs for the full-band treatment, and what he’d like to improve about his guitar playing.
Pete Townshend sounds like a definite guitar reference point for you. Who else are we talking about? I grew up listening to older music, and, yeah, most of what I liked was guitar focused. The Beatles, the Who … Pete Townshend was definitely an influence on how I played. I remember hearing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and thinking, “Wow, that sounds so huge.” There’s really only five parts on it—drums, bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and organ—but it somehow sounds like a lot more.
I wanted to replicate that kind of sound, but I had no idea how to go about it. I didn’t have a band to work it out with, so I just started recording by myself. I would record part after part and try and make it all as big as possible. I sort of developed this mentality from what I thought other musicians were doing, rather than what they actually were doing.
So Townshend was big. Who else?
Who else was there? Pink Floyd. When I listened to Pink Floyd, I started thinking about getting a Stratocaster—I liked David Gilmour’s playing a lot. That was sort of the foundation, and then I started listening to the modern punk stuff like Nirvana and Green Day. By the time I was learning to play guitar, when I was 12 or 13, Nirvana was a major influence on me.
Did you take lessons or are you pretty much all self-taught?
I taught myself. I got my first shitty child’s acoustic guitar, and my uncle taught me how to play a C chord. I quickly forgot it, but from there I picked up the beginner’s books and started teaching myself. I learned to play by ear or with tab. A lot of it was simply by listening to records and trying to figure out how they made the sounds on the guitar.
After operating solo for six years, Car Seat Headrest is now a band. But is it a “band” band, with people having a say in decisions? Will they collaborate?
Hmm … This new record is the first one I recorded with a real band, and I think we’re going to continue doing so for a little bit. Right now, the four-person lineup is cool. Creatively, I’m the leader, and pretty much everything that we’ve recorded so far has been mine. Maybe in the future it will be more collaborative stuff.
There’s a beautiful intimacy to your earlier records, kind of in the tradition of a lot of Prince albums and some of the work McCartney did on his own. Do you notice that? As a listener, you really feel like you’re with one guy in a room … or in the back seat of a car.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I think that makes sense. Things do sound more personal or intimate when you do them by yourself. It’s kind of inescapable. Plus, when you mix on headphones, which I was doing on those earlier records, you kind of make them for people who are going to be listening to them in the same environment. They’re on headphones in a solitary space, in their bedrooms, basically. I think the music reflects that.
Do you have any secrets to getting a good guitar sound when recording into a laptop?
I never really recorded mic-and-amp until we were doing this record in the studio; I was always doing it direct input. The best way to go when you’re recording on a laptop is to cut out the middleman and just plug in directly. If you do use an amp, try to go through a preamp setting. You probably won’t get into trouble that way. For the majority of my recording career, I’ve been recording the guitar as basic as possible to the computer. I’d put the amp effects on afterwards.
When you were in writing mode, did you tweak the songs a little bit knowing that you were going to record with a band?
The songs were different from the start. I wanted more guitar-based stuff, and I wanted the songs to be simpler. I thought that would be easier to record in a studio and much easier to play the songs live. So I changed my writing process for it: I was sitting alone with the guitar a lot more, whereas before I would be working with stuff on the computer. I guess I was doing it more old-school. I spent about a year just doing that until I had the pieces for an album. By the time we went into the studio, I had everything planned out and then we’d practice everything as a band. It wasn’t such a difficult process, really.
Let’s talk about your guitars. You mainly play a Tele, right?
Yeah, my main guitar is a Telecaster. I think it’s Mexican-made; it was a gift. I did buy a guitar recently, a $100 Mini Squier. I’ve been using that for practice. I like the smaller size of it. It makes it kind of fun to play, and it makes me feel big in comparison. I’ve never had much of a taste for big, heavy guitars because they weigh down my neck. The Tele is a lot more solid in that respect, and I do like it for that reason. Practicing with a small guitar is like sitting at a toy piano.
Have you done any mods to the Tele?
No, it’s pretty much as it was when I got it, minus a bit of repair work. I tend to keep things pretty simple with my guitars.
Will Toledo’s main axe is this early ’90s Telecaster, but he sometimes writes on a Squier Mini Strat for fun because it doesn’t weigh him down as much. Photo by Debi Del Grande
Do you have a main acoustic that you use?
I’ve got a Yamaha steel-string acoustic—the same one I’ve had since 8th grade. I’ve recorded most of my acoustic parts with that guitar. I also have a nylon-string Yamaha. It sounds pretty good. I’ve been practicing my picking style more on that. I’m growing fond of the softer sound.
What about effects?
When we were recording Teens of Denial, I didn’t use too much, other than distortion. We had reverb from the Twin Reverb we were using, so yeah, it was pretty much a Boss Turbo Distortion. That pedal keeps breaking, unfortunately. I’ve been through a lot of distortion pedals in the last year. I wish I had better luck with them. I like the Boss sound, so I’m trying to stick with it, but it’s proven difficult.
Do you use Twin Reverbs live?
When we have the ability to leave from Seattle and take all of our gear with us, we take Fender Cyber Twins. I’ve been using a Cyber Twin since I got to Seattle. It’s good; it’s basically a computer because it has all these different settings on it. It’s very similar to how I was used to recording, with all the different settings being immediately available to me. Our other guitarist uses a Marshall amp. He likes the darker tone on that.
You get a great, unadulterated guitar sound on “Fill in the Blank.” It’s crunchy and dry, almost British sounding. It kind of reminds me of early ’70s Free.
Free? I’ve never heard of them. That’s funny, because when I wrote that song, I was thinking of Guided by Voices. That poppy kind of riff is definitely Guided by Voices, but there’s a repeating chord progression in the song that, sound-wise, reminds me of early Green Day. It’s kind of an untouched guitar sound.
How did you get that guitar sound? What’s going on there?
It was a pretty simple process. It was my Boss Distortion with the Tele guitar. I used a Fender amp, but I can’t remember what it was. So it was one guitar and that amp. It was one of Steve Fisk’s amps—I think he said that Jimmy Page used it in the early days. It blows up a lot without having to turn it up much. We recorded it relatively quietly and just kind of boosted it in the mix.
Was it a Supro?
Yes! Yeah, that was … I think.
You mentioned Pete Townshend before, and to my ears, parts of “Vincent” recall his playing on “I Can See for Miles.” There’s a lot of reckless attitude and joy at the racket you’re making.
I think there is definitely some overlap and flavor there. Not just in the way he plays, but in the way he arranges songs. Now that I think of it, there’s definitely some inspiration from stuff like “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” I really like the sound that he got out of his guitars, and I know I was trying to get that vibe in my early days of recording. Performance-wise, he’s an influence, too. He’s just this great condensed nugget of guitar pop.
In a lot of your songs, you seem to favor trebly, droney riffs on the top strings. Do you just play around numerous iterations of a pattern until it feels right?
I do like those kinds of riffs. Definitely. It seems like riffs are good in the higher register—you can put cool rhythms underneath them. There does seem to be a limitless array of possibilities to how you can play riffs on the top strings. Whenever I write a riff in a lower register, it tends to be a chord, like the one for “Destroyed by Hippie Powers,” which is just E on the low string and then an E barre chord that sort of gets pushed sharp a little.
I like the cool noise solo you do in that song. It’s very Neil Young.
Neil Young is an influence, but I wasn’t thinking of him there. “The Ending of Dramamine” has a very minimal intro, and Neil Young was sort of the guide for that. On “Hippie Powers,” I was actually thinking more about Pavement. There’s that noisy bridge between the two verses—just lots of distortion, like a cacophony—and you have a little bit of melody in there. So you’ve got Pavement and Neil Young.
Talk to me more about your process for guitar orchestration, particularly on something like “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” which is an epic blend of acoustic and electric guitars. You’ve got horns on there, too. It’s pretty grand.
I was listening to lots of stuff that was heavily orchestrated. I don’t know that so much of it was really guitar oriented. It was stuff like Brian Wilson, stuff that put me in a mental state, and I was trying to replicate ideas that put me back in that place. It’s sort of an imploring state of mind—that’s the feeling I get from certain artists like Brian Wilson. Interestingly, it seems that there’s a lot less on the Beach Boys’ tracks than I originally thought. I’ve gotten better at listening to things and picking them apart.
Are there any areas on the guitar that you would like to improve upon?
Oh, sure. I’m not a great soloist, so I’d like to get better at that. I never really learned the scales, so sometimes I’ll be halfway through a riff, or I'll be improvising, and I’ll have no idea where to go and I'll just peter out pretty pathetically.
You’d like to become a better finisher?
Right. I want to be able to finish musical sentences.
That’s great! Yeah. I could do that. No problem.
For most live shows, Car Seat Headrest is a four-piece group, with Seth Dalby handling bass duties. For this performance from last April, they’re a raucous power trio. Be sure to check out “Vincent” at 7:17, in which Will Toledo combines transfixing single-string lines and slashing power chords for maximum rock glory.