Life seems pretty damn good for Will Toledo right now. His Seattle-based band, Car Seat Headrest, just opened for its Matador Records labelmate Interpol at Madison Square Garden, and the group has been selling out venues across the country during this tour supporting a brilliant re-recording of Car Seat Headrest’s self-released, DIY-recorded 2011 album Twin Fantasy (the band’s Saturday show at Orpheum in Ybor City is sold-out, too).
Toledo, 26, is also getting to spend a little time at home. It’s where we caught the indie-rock impresario, choking back some old tea and talking for what we think is his first interview since a January 2018 chat with Rolling Stone. Home is also where Toledo has been working on trying out finding new sounds by using plugins on his home recording rig.
“Just trying to get stuff that sounds good in that setting, on headphones or in a studio setting,” he said about the approach towards a follow-up to Car Seat Headrest’s 2016 gem, Teens Of Denial (which CL named as one of our favorite albums from that year). Right now, the band is just kind of sorting through over two years worth of material.
"Some of it is demos that I've cooked up solo, and some of it is stuff that we've hashed out as a unit, so there's just kind of a lot going on right now," Toledo said. "I think that's a good place to be. Narrowing it down rather than building it up from nothing."
He envisions a longer gestation period between Teens and whatever full-length is next, and he’s taking his time as the band switches to a new phase of its existence.
“We've come this far on one phase, I guess. Naked Giants, they've been touring with us for a year, and I think at the end of this year we're gonna split and go our separate ways. I think they wanna go and focus on their own stuff,” Toledo explained.
“When that happens we're gonna reconfigure, basically, everything we've been doing live. I think that we're trying to build up a record that matches that.
Read more about that, his approach to conducting onstage energy and more — including theories on what happened to strays from that $50,000 worth of recalled Teens of Denial — via our Q&A below.
Car Seat Headrest w/Naked Giants, Sat. Feb. 23, 8 p.m. Sold Out. Orpheum, 1915 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City.
Hello, it's Will.
Hello, Will. How are you? You missed all the great hold music since you were second on the conference.
Oh damn. It took me a second to put the access code in.
Those are weird. Brings me back to 15-person conference calls. I'm sure you have to do that for label stuff, etc.
Yeah, that's mostly what I associate it with.
How you doin' today?
Um, alright. You're lucky Mike messaged me to remind me because I had this down for Wednesday for some reason. I'm at home, so it's of no difference to me.
That's great because I had it down for Monday. I didn't call in since I figured it out beforehand, but yeah, we were on totally different opposite sides. Thanks for doing this. I know that you don't do a lot of press, so I was surprised when Shira mentioned that you would be down. It took me by surprise.
Yeah, I'm dipping my toe into it again. I gotta get back into it at some point.
Yeah, it's a strange thing having to make art and then explain it to, often times dozens of, people within a day.
Honestly, I think I like the smaller, local stuff more. Feels more low key.
You're in Seattle, right?
My old music editor, here in Tampa, works at The Stranger now.
OK, that's one of the big ones.
Yeah, so you are talking to the Tampa Bay alt-weekly, and when you get to Tampa, you’ll be a week removed from the Madison Square Garden show. You’ve been candid about wanting to grow your audience. How has the audience changed over the last two years?
Last two years. It's kind of... it's interesting. We've been very lucky since we only started touring regularly in 2016, and pretty much, every time we make a circuit around America, or Europe for that matter, we're playing bigger venues. I think a lot of bands have to grind away in the same size venues for years before they make that advance. We've been very lucky that the audience has been there to meet us, so we've gone from 300 rooms to over 1000 people on average. It's interesting.
I think I still prefer the smaller shows, but my definition of smaller shows is changing all the time. If we're doing tours where the biggest rooms are over 2,000, then I'm glad to have some at an 800 cap, whereas when those were our max, then I would rather be doing the 200 or even 100 rooms. So it's a matter of perspective and getting some practice in those larger rooms.
The difficulty is in finding a place where you're comfortable performing. You can't really perform well unless you feel like you're at home on stage, basically. That's always difficult when you're playing for bigger crowds than ever before. Then you do that a couple times and you start getting used to it. So, yeah, every time we go out on tour it's a process of going through the bigger shows, getting through them and then having that experience so we can get comfortable doing that.
And when you talk about the "we" — you're talking about guitarist Ethan Ives, bassist Seth Dalby and drummer Andrew Katz? I think there's an iteration of the band that is a seven-piece now, and it includes members of opening act Naked Giants, right?
As a four-piece we've been together since 2016, and Naked Giants, it must be more extreme for them. Just our schedule. We've been touring, a whole lot last year, less this year, but there are still some larger runs. I think it's been a real whirlwind for them because they play twice every night when they're with us. They do their own set as Naked Giants and then they're onstage with us. So I can only imagine what that would be like, but I am definitely glad that they have been around for this long.
And staying on the topic of the band — your role in the band has always been as leader, and the guys have always been happy to follow. Has there ever been a time — even now as I imagine you are dipping into the vault of post-Denial music — when you wanted some kind of pushback or collaboration in the studio from your bandmates?
Sometimes I kind of want it more than I get it. Andrew and Seth, especially, they have a very strong session musician mindset, or at least when we get into the studio together they do. It's like, "What did we practice," "What's on the docket" and sometimes I kind of want to get out of that and explore more as a unit. So we were actually in the studio a few weeks ago. We did several extended jams on a few basic ideas that I had, and there were a few good spots and a lot of laidback jams in E.
Haha, right on.
We gotta get used to different modes of creating, I guess. That kind of setting, you have to take it as it comes. Sometimes we'll be in the practice room, and we'll end up coming up with a great jam together. And actually, one of the things we are working on in the studio is something that came from a practice room jam. That doesn't happen every times you go into the practice room. It's just kind of random and based on where everyone's mind is at the time.
And to be clear. This practice room and studio you're talking about is a personal one in Seattle?
Yeah, we have a practice room in Seattle, and we went to Avast! studio in Seattle most recently.
Am I also safe to assume that any of these jams are coming from what I understand to be a bulk of music that you wrote after Denial? Song starts, I guess, is what I would call them.
Yeah. Right now we're just kind of sorting through over two years worth of material, and some of it is demos that I've cooked up solo, and some of it is stuff that we've hashed out as a unit, so there's just kind of a lot going on right now. I think that's a good place to be. Narrowing it down rather than building it up from nothing.
Yeah, I think in the past you've said that you'd like to put an album out every year — not to put dates or expectations on stuff, people get so attached to those.
Yeah, I think there's gonna be a slightly longer gestation period and then, hopefully, I mean what we're working on right now needs to come out. Then, usually, once one thing comes out, it's easier to do the next thing. It's kind of like changing phases. We've come this far on one phase, I guess. Naked Giants, they've been touring with us for a year, and I think at the end of this year we're gonna split and go our separate ways. I think they wanna go and focus on their own stuff. When that happens we're gonna reconfigure, basically, everything we've been doing live. I think that we're trying to build up a record that matches that.
And real quick since we're on that topic of Naked Giants and this unit that you have right now. It's been fun to watch you play without the guitar — have you become comfortable with what to do with your hands when you're onstage?
Um, sometimes. There are certain strategies that I can use. It really is, still, a lot about the comfort level night to night. Sometimes it can still feel real strange and awkward onstage, and sometimes it feels very natural. I think the goal is to have an entire performance when there's energy and motion coming from the frontman who is not just standing, rooted onstag, looking awkward. I have no idea if we've accomplished that. That's the goal.
I was talking to Andrew. I want to put cameras onstage and have a little video monitor at my feet so I can see what the hell is going on. It's really hard for me to visually project into the crowd. I can hear what's going in because it's piped in our ears, but in terms of what it looks like I just have no idea.
Yeah, it's almost like athletes. They have to watch tape afterwards, I guess you want to see it live.
You should do it. That's easy now, right? GoPro, TV monitor.
Yeah, you'd think so. I would never want to do it afterwards. That's just too much exposure every night to the same shit.
Yeah, I mean every show is different, God, who knows what you're thinking at any given time onstage, too.
I do, after a tour, there are videos, and I can see, but by that point I can hardly know what was going on night to night. We've also been doing this TIDAL documentary, and I've been sitting in on the editing for that, and they filmed a performance that we did in San Francisco. So for days and days I was watching different angles of that performance, and that really got to my head, and that's when I really started trying to step up. Being conscious about what the hell I was doing onstage. I think it would be nice to have, in the moment, that visual cue.
It's cool to hear you talk about that because, I mean, emotionally everything someone needs to know is in the music. Discussion about your songs seems to be more intellectual and cerebral, so it'd be nice to talk to you one day and learn that your intellectual analysis of yourself onstage eventually led you to be so free onstage that you had an emotional up there.
You get that technical stuff down, and then something changes onstage.
It's very strange to me because, for me, if I'm super comfortable performing, then I really don't move a lot at all because I'm just completely focused on the music of it. I'm enjoying listening to it, so I'm not moving around a lot trying to get everybody's energy up because I am content with the energy of the music itself. So I kind of have to train myself to not be that way. To be more conscious that I am not just listening to the music. I am onstage for a reason. I'm trying to conduct energy to other people. The way I would experience and enjoy the concert on a personal level is not necessarily what I need to do on the level that I'm performing at.
Do you have, I don't know if I'd call it a freakout moment, but moments where you see the crowd and think about your performance and think to yourself, "How can I do this better?," or do you just go through it and survive it?
I'd say it's a constant process of looking at the crowd. For me, it's actually, a lot of times just listening to the crowd. If I hear them cheering at the right moments, then I know that it's a good energy. For whatever reason I can't look at the audience for extended periods of time and really process it for the moment. So after a show the other members of the band we'll be saying, "Did you see this or that guy in the crowd?" But I've never seen those things. They see way more than I do.
And to move to something that's a little less sexy, I guess, I think you're the perfect person to ask since you're a very good model for indie artists. You got to work out the re-recording of Twin Fantasy with Matador. You knew you always wanted to do that, and obviously the quality of your music and your previous albums have you leverage in that sense, but I always think of artists who see a situation like yours — good label, great team — and want to execute in the same way.
I mean, outside of the Cars debacle, thing, you have the great legal team. You cleared that Dido sample in no time, and you've even talked about being able to make enough money on streaming to support you. Not in a braggadocious way, but to try to help paint the picture.
How'd that happen to you? How'd you know who to be surrounded by? I mean, Shira's been with you for a long time. It's pretty hard to find people, in music, who are good and who will help you.
Yeah, I would agree with that. I think it's just a case of you don't see how many people I work with for one or two things where after that it's like, "This isn't working."
That's very depressing for me because I like to engage with the people that I am working with, basically. Engage on what we're working on. A lot of people have a million reasons not to do the job that they're supposed to do, and I just don't get along with that sort of person regardless of how much I might like them personally, or not. One side of it is, yeah you're gonna find a lot of people who won't do right by you, and you have to be conscious of that try to get yourself into a situation where that's not gonna happen.
I think the other side of it is that it did take a long time for me to get where I am now. When I was starting out I was not focused on the business or the industry side of it at all. I was just making records, and hoping that it would be picked up by a larger audience or by the industry. But I really didn't have the first clue about how to approach that side of it. So I ended up, for the most part, not worrying about it that much and just worrying about what I could control, which was the music itself and trying to make something that was of lasting value. I think that was very important because by the time Matador or anyone else from the music industry took notice, I sort of knew how to do things on my own. I was making a little bit of money off of streaming — not a huge amount, but a few hundred a month or every couple of months.
I think if you work for five years and build a grassroots audience, which is relatively easy to do nowadays — there are a lot of avenues and outlets for distributing your albums without a label or a network or anything — and it's very streamlined, that process of being able to make money from music. There are a lot of different ways that you can do that which don't involve industry people, that don't involve labels or royalties or anything. It's just about the audience that wants to hear your music paying for it, which is awesome. I think there's probably no better time to be an independent musician than right now.
In terms of Twin Fantasy, I mean your music is a reflection of not just the emotional person, but the producer that you are. Now that you have this second version of the album out, that the version of the producer who made the first one is gone. You have this version of yourself in the studio now. What's next for you to learn in terms of being in the studio, being a producer, and making music in that setting?
The next step is moving away from the studio a little bit in terms of the official old school studio set up. What we call "studios" is really designed to be a good home for recording live band material. You have a room for drums. You have a setup for guitars and bass in separate rooms. You kind of record as much as possible at once. So when you're recording songs like that, that's where you want to go.
But there is so much more music than that nowadays. I feel like that studio setup should be in the minority of how recording spaces are setup. I think, for a lot of music, especially stuff that you build up on a computer, all you really need is a computer and a good speaker system. So I've been working a lot more at home recently. Just trying to get stuff that sounds good in that setting, on headphones or in a studio setting.
We learned how to use a studio with Teens of Denial, basically. But I never really liked it. I guess it felt too official to me because it's just all hardware. It's all stuff from the '70s, basically. Some of it hasn't been maintained great. You're just running everything through a relatively complicated system. You can imitate it on a computer and really simplify it and make it something that you can work on anywhere. So I've been focusing a lot more on researching what other producers are doing when they work on a computer. Getting into that side of it. What kind of plugins are common industry standards, taking a few of them and practicing with them until I can get sounds that I like out of those plugins.
And last question: The mythology around $50,000 worth of destroyed Denial vinyl is unfortunate and interesting, people at Matador were crying. How many copies do you know survived?
You know, I don't know. I got, like, a dozen or so, but I gave them to friends, basically. I didn't feel like... I maybe have one, or two. I heard rumors that some other people were keeping them around to basically sell off later. I haven't seen proof of that.
So none of them are in a record store in some random town yet.
No. I'm pretty sure those all got cleared out.
Cool, well thanks for your time. I hope you have a good tour. Have fun playing Madison Square Garden with Interpol. That's rad.
Yeah, it was a pleasure talking to you.