When Will Toledo was 19, he wrote a song called "Fuck Merge Records" after trying and failing to submit his music to the North Carolina label. "The chorus was 'No unsolicited demos, no unsolicited demos,'" the 23-year-old singer-songwriter, better known as Car Seat Headrest, says with a sheepish grin. "Obviously, I have a greater appreciation of why that's a policy now, but I was just a kid at the time."
Toledo (the last name is a pseudonym) is sitting in the downtown New York offices of another indie powerhouse, Matador Records, which signed him earlier this year. The label released his excellent LP Teens of Style in October to rave reviews; a follow-up, Teens of Denial, is already on the books for 2016. To anyone who's a few years older than him, Toledo might seem like something of a child prodigy — he has a boyish look, with shaggy dark hair falling nearly into his oversized eyeglasses, and he talks like the relatively recent college grad that he is. But of course that's not quite how it feels for the singer himself, who spent years as an undergrad in Virginia furtively recording songs on a laptop whenever his roommates were out of his dorm room, then uploading the results to Bandcamp and waiting. "It was just sort of explosions in the dark," he says. "I was always hoping that the stars would align and I would get on board with a label, but nothing really connected."
Car Seat Headrest started a few years earlier, around the time he graduated high school in Leesburg, Virginia, an hour outside of Washington, D.C. "There was zero music scene locally," Toledo says. He started his first bands with friends from his high school's marching band, where he played trombone, and absorbed a steady diet of classic indie rock, from Guided by Voices and Pavement to New Pornographers. Later, he began recording solo material using "super-basic equipment" at his parents' home or in their car as a way of coping with the stress of leaving high school. "Everyone was drifting off into their own sphere, and I didn't really have anything I felt I could drift off into," he says. "I had never really wanted to go to college. It was more something I was expected to do."
In the end, he matriculated at Virginia Commonwealth University, located in busy Richmond. "I went to college, which I had been nervous about beforehand, and I stayed nervous there," he says laconically. "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."
His lonely freshman year at VCU coincided with a spurt of creativity. In March 2011, Toledo self-released a strong album on Bandcamp called My Back Is Killing Me Baby, several of whose choicest songs he went back and re-recorded this year for Teens of Style. The anxious anthem "Something Soon," written while he was in the process of transferring to a new school, is about his desire to get the hell out of town: "I was stressed out," he says. "I had already done the going-to-a-new-college thing once, and I didn't want to deal with it again." (The version of the song on Bandcamp has a sparse electro backing, which he says is because the input cord he used for his guitar was broken at the time.)
"I didn't get out much. That's what the music reflects — introversion." —Will Toledo
By the time he released his next Bandcamp album, November 2011's Twin Fantasy, Toledo had transferred to the College of William & Mary, 52 miles and a world away. "It's a much more quiet and peaceful town, and the people are more chill," he says. He got involved with the college radio station and made more friends. At the same time, his music began to pick up more steam online, gradually attracting a devoted cult of Web-savvy young fans.
Those fans ended up transforming his career. About a year after graduating from William & Mary and moving to Seattle, where he found new bandmates, Toledo got an email from Matador co-founder Chris Lombardi expressing interest in Car Seat Headrest. "He heard about it from his intern," Toledo says. "He said he was going to come out to our next concert, which we were not prepared for. But I guess we played okay."
Toledo went on to cherrypick his best Bandcamp songs for Teens of Style, which he produced himself, creating a stunning showcase for all the ways his music has evolved in a short space of time. Case in point: On 2012's Bandcamp release Monomania, he reworked the old fragment "Fuck Merge Records" into a song called "Times to Die." "I changed 'No unsolicited demos' to 'And when they took him to the temple/Oh, then they fed him to the devils,'" he says. "So it became less lame protest and more personal struggle, which I liked." When he revisited the song for Teens of Style, "Times to Die" blossomed even further, into a Brian Wilson–style teenage symphony with a fuzzed-out Robert Pollard kick. It also gained a sly shoutout to Toledo's new label boss: "Got to have faith in the one above me/Got to believe that Lombardi loves me," he sings.
As impressive as Toledo's lo-fi Sixties-pop arrangements are, his strikingly personal lyrics about religion and sexuality can be just as compelling. "When I was a kid, I fell in love with Michael Stipe/I took lyrics out of context/And thought he must be speaking to me," Toledo sings on "Strangers," a yearning highlight on Teens of Style that originally appeared four years ago on My Back Is Killing Me Baby. "That's the first lyric I liked enough not to obscure it behind production," he says. "I'd written plenty of nakedly confessional songs earlier on, but they just seemed like emo vamping. This one actually felt like good poetry. The most valuable thing I can offer as a writer is a glimpse into my own identity."