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Back to College With Will Toledo, The Indie Pop Savant of Car Seat Headrest

Seattle-based singer-songwriter Will Toledo talks about Nirvana, his return to college and his new album ‘Teens of Denial'.

by Tim Scott
07 May 2016, 4:59am

Image: Lee Morgan

Located on a beautiful 1200-acre campus in Williamsburg, Virginia, William & Mary College, is the second-oldest university in the United States. Alumni include former Presidents of the United States Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Monroe, and The Daily Show host Jon Stewart.

A more recent graduate is singer and songwriter Will Toledo, who records as Car Seat Headrest. Later this month Matador records will release Toledo's Teens of Denial, his debut album of self-conscious and introverted lo-fi rock. We should clarify that it will be his debut studio album. Now based in Seattle with a full band, Toledo over the years has uploaded eleven home-recorded albums and close to twelve-hours of Car Seat Headrest music onto Bandcamp.

Toledo started Car Seat Headrest as a solo affair around the time he graduated high school, but it was in college that his bedroom/dorm-room indie rock accelerated thanks to his constant Bandcamp output that slowly developed a devoted fan base.

College life wasn’t always ivy covered for the 23-year-old lo-fi pop savant. A 2010 song was titled “You Have to Go To College” and he spent a lonely freshman year at Virginia Commonwealth University before transferring to William and Mary. In 2015 he told Rolling Stone, “I went to college, which I had been nervous about beforehand, and I stayed nervous there. I didn't get out much. That's what the music reflects — introversion. It was a big deal for me to go away from everything I knew to living with all these strangers."

But at William and Mary he made more friends and became involved in WCWM, the college radio station. He also continued to upload songs onto Bandcamp where his online following became more devoted. One fan worked as an intern at Matador records and passed on some Car Seat Headrest music to their boss, Matador president Chris Lombardi. A phone call was soon made.

Part of the charm in Toledo’s songwriting is the personal and open honesty to his music. These are songs that are able to speak to both record label intern and president.

Toledo recently returned to William and Mary to play as part of WCWM’s 50th birthday celebrations. We had a chat to him about his college return and Teens of Denial.

NOISEY: What was it like returning and playing at your alma mater?
Will Toledo: I guess you could say it has humbling. I hoped it would be a triumphant homecoming and I’d get to see all my friends but it felt just like it did when I was in college. Nobody cares too much. When we were playing as Car Seat Headrest when I was at college people would come to shows but I think it was more for something to do rather than anyone caring too much. I was surprised that we have a bigger following in Virginia than elsewhere but when we went back people were there more for the social aspect of it rather than the concert.

What was your major?
I studied in English and minored in religious studies.

That’s interesting. A lot has been mentioned about your lyrics. Do you think that has to do with what you studied?
I take it as a compliment when people talk about and discuss my lyrics and I take it that some of the lyrics may have something that has come from studying English. Not so much technicalities but just reading great poetry and books. I think some of that stuff inspired me at the time. I’m not sure how much sunk in but some of it shaped the way I write and some of that has stayed with me ever since.

On the new album the 11-minute “Ballad of the Costa Concordia," has more musical ideas than most whole albums. How did that come about?
I wanted to do something that was epic but when I first wrote it I just had the slow ballad formed. It took a while for the second part to form and that’s now my favourite part of the track.

How do the longer songs go in the live setting?
We play them at length. Sometimes we will jam them out even longer. The hardest part is finding a good spot for them in the set list but we don’t shy away from them. It’s nice to have 8 or 9 songs in your set and one that will take up a quarter of the set list.

You are now playing as a full band. Was the band formed in Seattle?
For the most part it was. I met our drummer Andrew online and we met our guitarist Ethan at our first gig. We pracastised together and that was the lineup we recorded Teens of Denial with. Ethan was on bass. We went on spring tour but the first major tour we went on I got in contact with an old bassist I played with in college and he’s been in the band ever since. He’s actually moving out to Seattle next month.

Why did you move to Seattle?
It was for music really. After I graduated I didn’t really know what I wanted to do besides music. So I moved out there knowing it was one of the better places to meet other musicians and it kind of worked out.

Nirvana would have played an influence in your earlier years. Is it odd to be living in a place where they developed?
I don’t think of it in those terms. They were a big influence on me but it wasn’t heavy on my mind when considering moving to the city. I don’t even think that they lived in Seattle proper but further out. But in recording Teens of Denial we did get a bit of that flavour as Steve Fisk had worked with Nirvana and was able to tell some stories about that. We got more ensconced in Seattle history than I was expecting but it's good to know the local culture and history. When we got signed to Matador one of my concerns was that it would be hard to do Seattle shows or get a reaction in Seattle as we went from nobodies to being known on a more national scale. But it's all been good so far.

You got signed to Matador but did Sub Pop come looking?
No, Matador was pretty much the only label that extended their hand. Chris Lombardi [Matador founder] kind of discovered me and no one else in the industry at the time was looking. Once other labels realised that Matador were looking they also became interestd but there was no other label but Matador for me. They are a good label who offered a good deal.

Do you have a favourite Matador artist or release?
I guess Guided By Voices as far as bands go. I don’t think I’d be able to choose a record as there are so many good ones.

'Teens of Denial' is out May 20 on Matador.