Car Seat Headrest
A suburban shut-in turns anxiety into garage gold
Will Toledo is garage rock's most promising young songwriter, but for years music was something he did by himself. He started out recording alone, in bedrooms, dorm rooms and – now somewhat famously – the family Subaru, parking after school with his guitar and laptop outside big-box stores around his hometown of Leesburg, Virginia. He wrote couplets about avoiding the sun, about reading the Book of Job empathetically, about watching too much TV. When he settled on the name Car Seat Headrest, it was in tribute to his mobile confessional booth. Since then, the 23-year-old Toledo has had a dozen-odd releases. But 2016 is sure to be his biggest year: On May 20th, having signed to the indie powerhouse label Matador, he released the exhilarating Teens of Denial, his first LP made in a studio with a producer, and one of the year's best rock albums. The anxiously punchy music combines the melodic charge of anthemic Sixties rock (Toledo is a big Beatles fan) with the low-fi grind of Nineties bands like Guided by Voices. "I spend a lot of time analyzing myself," Toledo says. "I'm not in therapy – except I am, constantly, in my own mind, asking why I am the way I am." The result is a potent paradox: swaggering singalongs, made by a deeply anti-social dude.
When we meet, Toledo is driving an old Toyota Sienna minivan through the unglamorous Seattle suburb of Kirkland, where he's lived since college. He's fresh off a national tour, and Europe is next, but tomorrow night he's booked at a local house show, so he's heading into town to practice with his bandmates. "Kirkland is a pretty unhip place," he says – it's best known as the namesake home of Costco's house brand – but it suits him. "I don't like cities," he says. Toledo says he was bored in suburban Virginia, but "rather than flee to a city to find a creative community, I went online and found a community there."
One of Car Seat Headrest's big themes is miscommunication. "It's a recurring fear of mine," Toledo says. "'Are my mental operations normal, and can I communicate in a normal way to people?'" As a little kid, he says, he was "not that talkative, and would just watch TV and daydream, in my own world." On one Teens of Denial track, "Drugs With Friends," he recounts a college-era acid trip gone wrong: "I did half a tab plus some mushrooms, and when the visual part of the trip kicked in, I tried to explain what I was seeing to my friend, but then I thought, 'How can I possibly explain it?' So I decided instead that I just wouldn't talk for six hours, trying not to freak out."
Between Kirkland and Seattle we pick up Ethan Ives, 22, who plays bass and guitar in Toledo's band. Toledo met him while playing at an all-ages show out here a couple of years ago. Ives has braces and wears a T-shirt emblazoned with cover art from the 1993 video game Doom. At a burrito spot near the Car Seat Headrest rehearsal space, in Capitol Hill, we meet drummer Andrew Katz, whom Toledo enlisted on Craigslist. The three have the warm but slightly stilted rapport of workplace buddies, but when they get to their practice space, they're in sync, bashing out a tremendous noise. Toledo stands weirdly still at his mic stand, then starts to sway his hips, eyes closed – lost, happily, in a private moment. His shaky contentment reminds me of something he told me earlier: "I'm one of those people who struggles sometimes because the world isn't custom-designed to my needs – but that's everyone, right?" Jonah Weiner