These are not the circumstances under which Will Toledo would have predicted releasing a record. ‘Making A Door Less Open’, Car Seat Headrest’s fourth release on Matador Records, comes out on May 1st; it was supposed to be accompanied by a two-month-long summer tour, and presumably promotional appearances and further dates through the rest of the year.
But as the now familiar story goes, that’s all on hold. Toledo and his bandmates (guitarist Ethan Ives, drummer Andrew Katz and bassist Seth Dalby) will be at their homes, as will the erstwhile concert goers. ‘Making A Door Less Open’ will, essentially, fall on a captive audience; but, Toledo explains, that isn’t how it’s best experienced.
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“Music works better when people have different stuff to bounce off of,” he says. “When you’re just focusing on music, there’s a contradictory effect where it has less effect, the more of a vacuum it takes place in. Music that comes out around now might take a little longer to work its effect on people.” But, he adds, having spent the first five years of his career releasing music independently, he’s used to that.
Car Seat Headrest began in 2010 as a solo project for the then 17-year-old Toledo, making songs in his bedroom and uploading them to Bandcamp. “I wanted people to hear it,” he says. “I wanted that larger sense of acclaim that I think anyone who starts uploading music to the internet wants, in the back of their head.” In the years following he moved to Seattle from his hometown of Leesburg, Virginia and loosely assembled a band that would coalesce into today’s lineup, all the while uploading records at a remarkable rate (there are 11 independent releases on his Bandcamp over the course of four years) and amassing a cult audience.
He signed to Matador in 2015 and released ‘Teens of Style’, a collection of cuts from his DIY years, and ‘Teens of Denial’, a full-length of new material, in quick succession; then, in 2018, he dropped a reworking of 2010 fan favourite ‘Twin Fantasy’ to massive acclaim. The ideas that would form ‘Making A Door Less Open’ had been floating around since 2015, but only after ‘Twin Fantasy’ could Toledo find the time to bring it to life.
“I had a bunch of projects in front of me and I could see this on the horizon for some time,” he says. ‘I just had a few pieces, some demos that I thought were interesting, and I wanted to work on them, but it was a long time before I could focus on them completely.”
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Thinking about how to push Car Seat Headrest further creatively is an ‘everyday question’ for Toledo, he says. For ‘Making A Door Less Open’, he thought about the process the band had used for ‘Twin Fantasy’; they would track songs live as a four piece, followed by an intensive round of overdubs and mixing.
For 'Making A Door Less Open', Toledo wanted to bring that to what he calls its ‘logical conclusion’; the band worked on the album in two separate forms, allowing seamless integration of live and synthesised elements. “We would only be in the studio when we needed to track live band stuff, to give ourselves time to play different stuff as a band, just to see how it would come out. But in the meantime we’d be building stuff up on the computer with a mind towards what it’s gonna be like on the album, and to integrate the two together as we went.”
Toledo knew that the record should reflect the way that music is consumed in 2020’s online world. There’s still value in releasing a complete record, he says, but just as often music fans discover and consume music through playlists or individual tracks. “The way I went about it was song by song, trying to make something a little different each time. Something that would be rewarding out of context, that worked as a whole. Then the overall album becomes these pieces, and maybe they reflect off of each other more strangely than if it was just a solid run-through of sounds. More like a collection of poems than a novel.”
He recounts listening to all 18 hours of the ‘OK Computer’ demos that Radiohead released in 2019; that collection became formative to the record’s ongoing creation, as did the band’s 2003 record ‘Hail To the Thief’, which Toledo cites as his favourite.
With there no longer being such thing as a centralised format for consuming music, the band looked at even the record release with a forward-thinking mind – namely, their decision to create three varying versions of the album across formats. Across vinyl, CD and digital, the ordering is changed and tracks are remixed; most notably, on digital, the song ‘Deadlines’ became two songs – the rock-oriented ‘Deadlines (Hostile)’ and the dance-oriented ‘Deadlines (Thoughtful)’ – that borrow elements from the original yet function as two completely different songs.
“It’s trying to lean into the multitudinous ways that people listen to music right now rather than pretend there’s one definitive statement,” says Toledo. “The ways of listening are so varied that I don’t think there really can be a definitive statement with a record.”
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Lyrically too, the record is one that undeniably reflects the modern age. Not with any heavy-handed references to iPhones or social media, nor to modern politics; rather, with its depiction of the creeping anxiety that felt like an intrinsic part of living in 2020 even before we were in the throes of a pandemic. “Even though it is a record about modern society, I tried not to hit too many specific targets, knowing that those targets change. I tried to hit the emotional ups and downs that happen regardless of the specific circumstances. I wanted this record to be a reflection of ordinary life. Take the glamour out of it, and leave these lyrics about normal things, that try to get at the deeper emotions within them.”
Staring at ads on a bus ride, he offers, led to the song ‘Hollywood’ (‘Hollywood makes me wanna puke’). ‘Martin’ sees him ‘High on things that bug me / Morning news and instant coffee’, and anxiety reaches literal fever pitch on ‘Can’t Cool Me Down’: ‘I am dripping with sweat, my hands / I can’t hold anything in my hands’. “It really feels like a punk record to me,” he explains. “A lot of that music comes from this gnawing anxiety or dissatisfaction with life. I wanted to capture that, and make it in that tradition of a punk album.”
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Over the course of Car Seat Headrest’s rise, Toledo has been cast in a role that can be difficult to fill: that of a frontman. With MADLO seeing the band set to play bigger venues than ever before the necessary postponement, Toledo had in the works a new way to inhabit that role. He would take on the character of Trait (a holdover from drummer Andrew Katz’s electronic project 1TraitDanger); he would be clad on-stage in a gas mask and full-body high-vis.
“Me playing in plain clothes as a frontman, I have a problem with it sometimes. In a small room, where it’s an intimate rock show, it’s fine with me. It makes sense to do it that way. [But] the bigger venues you play, it turns into a different sort of show, and it gets more theatrical. I was interested in trying to work with that, and seeing how I can incorporate more theatrical elements into a live show and to our presentation in general.”
He adds: “I used to think that music was just about the record, and that was what I was gonna focus on. But being put in the position where I was asked to tour, I learned to love it, and consider that a lot more working on music. What works live, what works singing in a room with people. Because albums came up as a way to capture that, as secondhand for being there in the room.”
‘Making A Door Less Open’ is Car Seat Headrest’s most ambitious project yet; and, most importantly, it lives up to that ambition, every angle of the album feeling exciting and vital. It’s a necessary re-envisioning of rock music for 2020, and it’s clear that whatever the future of music may look like, Car Seat Headrest will have a place in it.
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'Making A Door Less Open' will be released on May 1st.
Words: Mia Hughes
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