At this time next year, Car Seat Headrest won't be an unfamiliar name. Lead by Will Toledo, a recent Seattle transplant by way of Leesburg, VA., Car Seat Headrest fuses fuzzy vocals and earthy synthesizers, all with a heartfelt aftertaste. What The Sound had the opportunity to chat with Toledo as well as his drummer, Andrew Katz, and bassist, Ethan Ives, in Katz's Seattle home. They were eating quesadillas.
What The Sound: Will, how'd you meet the rest of your band? Is it currently just you three?
Will: Right now, it’s just us three. We’re going on tour at the end of the year and we’re going to add a bassist who I played with in college and he’s living in New York right now but he’s going to come down and practice with us before we leave. But for right now, Ethan’s on bass, Andrew is on drums. Andrew, I met through Craigslist, because he was advertising that he was a drummer so I contacted him. Ethan, actually was in the first act on a bill that I played on in Seattle, he was playing acoustic but he was pretty awesome so for a while I was just playing with him solo, and then I added him to the band.
WTS: So, Will, you being from a small town in Virginia... how did you choose to move to the Pacific Northwest, specifically Seattle?
Will: Well, I had some friends there. And specifically one guy who started acting as manager, he lives up here and offered a place to stay. So that’s one reason. I also heard good things about the music scene here, and that has definitely been proven true. There’s just way more of a better music culture here than anywhere in Virginia that I was able to go. As far as the performance venues go, there aren’t a lot of DIY spaces in Virginia, so it’s a lot harder to see good shows there, it’s a lot easier here.
WTS: Were you close to DC?
Will: I was about an hour away from DC. But no one really went to shows there. Then, I went to college in Williamsburg, which was south and that had it’s own budding underground music scene which was because of the college radio station, which I was a part of. So there were a lot of bands circulating in and out of that. But there was really only one DIY space on campus, so there wasn’t a lot of places that you could go as a band.
WTS: Did you study music at college?
Will: No, I studied English and some religious studies. I knew that I didn’t want to do music because I never felt like I was particularly good at any one instrument. I like writing music, but didn’t necessarily want to get heavy into studying composition. So, I figured that English would help with the writing side, and I enjoyed the subject so it was a natural choice.
WTS: Back in Virginia, you were a solo act. Did you ever have any bandmates?
Will: Usually when we performed, I did have a lineup but it changed a lot. In college, there were two main lineups but always shifting a little bit within that. When you’re in college, everybody’s got 1000 other priorities to worry about, so it’s hard to practice enough to be good at what you’re doing.
WTS: So, when you recorded all eleven of your previous albums, it's been just you playing?
Will: Yeah, the recordings were just me. Although I have an album coming out in October, which has some of the other members on it.
WTS: Was How To Leave Town released prior to your move to Seattle?
Will: No, that was sort of triggered by the move. I moved here and then wasn’t really planning on releasing it because I was working on demos for the album that we’re recording now. I finished what I thought was going to be a demo for a song that I thought was going to be on this album called, Hey, Space Cadet! I liked it enough that I sort of wanted to give it a special release with a few other songs. So, I gave myself a month-and-a-half to record the rest and release-- but then I ended up recording nine songs out of that, because I had a lot of demos and rejected stuff because I spent the year trying to write for this album which has gotten more of a cohesive rock n’ roll vibe to it. A lot of the stuff I was writing seemed like it could fit on there. So, when I went to make How To Leave Town, there was a lot of extra material to release.
WTS: Where were you travelling to and from for 832 miles on 1-94 W?
Will: That was the trip from Indianapolis to Bozeman, MT. That was the most unpleasant day- it was a 13 or 14 hour drive with nowhere to stop and nothing to look at.
WTS: When I listen to your music, right away I think of The Strokes (Julian Casablancas), The Virgins (Donald Cummings), Swans (Michael Gira). Have you been compared to any of those musicians in the past? Do you want to be compared to any artist in particular? Or do you just want to be you, yourself, Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest?
Will: Well, I accept that people will need to make comparisons. I’ve heard Julian Casablancas a lot, I haven’t heard The Virgins in the past. Michael Gira is one that I’d definitely be happy to be compared to because he writes great music and has a good work ethic about it too, which I admire.
WTS: One of my personal favorite tracks titled "Homes" from your 2013 album, Nervous Young Man, reminds me of those early Canadian indie rockers like Wolf Parade (Spencer Krug, Dan Boeckner), Win Butler, a little bit of Arcade Fire. Have you gotten any of those comparisons in the past?
Will: Yeah, I think my work from around that time period is more indie rock based. From Twin Fantasy through Nervous Young Man there’s a lot of that I think. And now - not intentionally, because I haven’t found any new bands like that, that I really like - I’ve sort of drifted away from that style, but I’m sure I’ll come back to it eventually.
WTS: Talking about Twin Fantasy, I really like your album artwork and the simplicity of it, and those t-shirts, which I'm trying to buy soon. Who designed that, and where did the design come from?
Will: I actually drew that myself. I slowly developed it and looking back at the margins of my notes in college that year, I can sort of see it starting to develop. I had the idea that that would be the preliminary sketch, and this other artist that I knew would sort of fill it out and color it and do her own take on it. But when she saw it, she thought it looked the best, the way it was. So, it worked out well.
WTS: When songwriting, were there any overarching musical influences that helped shape your lyrics?
Will: Earlier in my career, I think there were more obvious strains of being influenced by Leonard Cohen and Dan Bejar [The New Pornographers, Destroyer] as far as the lyrics and vocals were being conveyed. I went through a Why? stage with Yoni Wolf and Jeff Mangum [Neutral Milk Hotel] was a big influence growing up. Now, I think those are all aspects of how I sing without really being conscious of it.
WTS: I saw recently on one of your social medias that you were recently in the San Juans. What were you doing there?
Will: We were recording a music video.
Andrew: It was awesome, we got to destroy a house with sledgehammers and shit.
WTS: What island did you go to do that?
Will: Bainbridge, it should be up in about a month.
WTS: What song was that for?
Andrew: "Something Soon”
WTS: Will, was that your first time out on the San Juans?
Will: It was. I liked the ferry ride.
WTS: Then, recently you played a show at Chop Suey, was that your first play in Seattle as a band?
Andrew: With this lineup, we’ve probably played three.
Will: Since the band started in Seattle, our first couple of shows were in Bellevue, at Ground Zero. They’ll give anyone a chance to play a show. Then we broke into the city earlier this year, we played at El Corazon, and that was with a different lineup, with Jacob, and then we did Lo-Fi Gallery. About a month later, we played at The Crocodile as an opener for a bigger, country-rock act called Elliott Brood. That was sort of an audition for our booking agent, and we got her, she liked it. Then we went on tour on the East Coast, and we came back, and Chop Suey was the first one we did since we came back.
WTS: How do your songs differentiate when being played in a live set compared to a recorded version?
Andrew: The songs are structured so well that even with three people, they can sound so cool. Like, “Ending of Dramamine” off of How To Leave Town, we start a song set with a lot. And it’s like the most epic build of a song, and people say that, it sounds so awesome. It’s just very simple stuff being played at very specific times that make it so epic.
Will: It’s like that song shares a lot with the recording, but live has a totally different feel because of the set-up, it feels a lot more Neil Young, which I like.
WTS: Would you pair a certain genre with your band? Would that differ between a live set and a recording?
Will: For our albums, it’d be hard to choose an overarching genre to match those. For the live shows, I’d say we are really a punk rock act live. There are some more elements or more finesse to it, but that’s basically it. Our newest album is more-or-less punk rock too.
Andrew: But that’s too vague, when I hear “punk rock”, I don’t think of some of these songs, there’s just so many little bits of other things, it’s so hard to say...
Will: Yeah, so, punk rock.
(ha ha...laughs from all…)
WTS: Who are some bands that you want What The Sound followers to know who you don't think they know?
1. Naked Giants, they opened for us at Chop Suey. They’re like us, a three piece and have a really good live show. They just play rock, and it’s really good.
2. Then, back home there’s a couple artists who I always really enjoy. I’m producing one of their albums right now and it should be out by the end of the summer. It’s an EP. The band is called American Holly. Really good, almost baroque, indie pop, with an edge to it. And if you like Car Seat Headrest, then I think you would definitely like it, because I’m on a lot of it.
3. Then, Naked Days is another Virginia band who I’ve worked with many times. It’s another solo project, and the guy is super talented. He does a lot of indie acoustic stuff, and he writes these minute or 2-minute long songs and has these sparse lyrics which are also very poetic, and convey a whole lot without saying much. I’m really impressed with how he writes.
4. Then, the last Virginia band is another solo endeavor called Gold Connections. That’s rock n’ roll and I was in their band in Williamsburg. I also produced their album which never actually came out, and that was one of my favorite things I’ve ever been involved in because the guy is such a good rock n’ roll songwriter. But he’s now sort of trying to come out and make his work public some more. So he’s going to have some new work soon and I’m excited to see those.
WTS: You self-released all of your albums, and you helped produce many of your friend's albums. Where did you learn the skill to do this? Especially when starting at a young age.
Will: Yeah, just the fact that I grew up in a generation around computers really helped. You start off on Microsoft with the sound recorder, and that’s where I started with making recordings and I’d overdub over it, and do it that way. In middle school, I bought a cheap tape recorder and would record my friends and I a lot and figure out ways to use that and overdub with that. Then in high school, I started using Audacity more, which is just a free recording software. So, I started with all the free equipment and just figuring out songs from listening to other bands then emulating what I heard. Obviously for a long time, it was shitty, but by the end of high school, I had been doing it for years and years and had some idea of what I wanted to do. Especially recording other people’s projects really helped me learn. Rather than me having the knowledge of what I wanted to do, it allowed me to experiment more. I also was trying to find something new when producing my friend’s music that I wouldn’t necessarily find when doing my own stuff. So that’s why I like working with other people, to record music.
WTS: Nice. In addition to that, you mentioned that the music scene wasn't really a thing in your hometown. Had you attended any memorable live performance in high school that had you like "oh shit! I need to pursue what I'm doing"?
Will: No, that’s the thing, that for a long, long time I didn’t really appreciate the live element of music at all. I was sort of frustrated at the expectation that I had to take this solo project and make it a live thing, to make it work. Part of it was never having experienced a really cool concert like that. First, I saw videos of artists who performed live and took it to the next level like James Brown, and then when I came here [Seattle], the average number of shows was much higher and I saw Swans last summer, and that was really an amazing experience. So all of that really drove it home to me that there’s a lot that you can do live that you can’t do on an album, so that’s what I spent the past year exploring- really.
WTS: I see you're wearing a Modest Mouse t-shirt. Your music is similar to some of Isaac Brock's, are they a favorite of yours?
Will: Yeah, I really like their older material. I haven’t really been able to get into the newer stuff yet, but at their best, they’re hard to beat. He just has a really great way of writing lyrics, and the three piece thing. That’s kind of influential, to see how they work it. These days they’re definitely not a three piece band, but in the past they were.
WTS: This future tour of yours, where are you planning on playing?
Will: In 2015, we plan on touring the east side of the Nation. Starting in Indianapolis, making it to the east coast, then circling down to St. Louis. Then a break for Christmas and come back in January and loop around the west side.