“Dogs are omnipresent in American youth lives”: An Interview with Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest

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Funeral Sounds Investigative Junior Reporter Zackary Kiebach sat down with Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest to talk about dogs. The rest of the interview doesn’t matter because, well, dogs. 

Funeral Sounds: So, first thing I was wondering about: I’ve noticed you have a tendency to write longer songs (e.g. “The Ending of Dramamine” or “Beach Life-In-Death”), what kind of advantage do you think this structure has over a more traditional 3 minute verse-bridge-chorus etc. type of format?

Will Toledo: I don’t know about advantages — a lot of times it’s just what comes out. I’ll have various parts that I want to put in a song, and those parts all take time to develop, so I don’t really have much choice but to make it long if that’s how it’s going to go.

Recently I’ve been trying to write shorter songs again, and that’s been a conscious effort to hone everything down to 3 or 4 minutes — it’s the longer stuff that’s easier for me to form. It just seems harder to express an interesting array of ideas within the traditional format. Lots of musicians can do it — I can’t!

How To Leave Town by Car Seat Headrest

FS: About that — I feel like other musicians in the psych-y end of “lo-fi” (for lack of a better genre descriptor) tend to rely on really brief song formats usually just featuring a sugared-up hook and a catchy chorus. I dunno, I think it’s really cool you bring the same accessibility while taking the time to really explore every side of a song. Do you think that it’s anything in particular about your musical background that makes you write in this way? How did you start out?

WT: I used to do a lot of shorter stuff like that, actually, just recording pieces as I thought of melodies and calling it a day. Most of the writing process happened as I recorded the music – I’d record a piece and then loop it or build off it, and at the end of the session I’d have a song. That was the first year or so of Car Seat Headrest But it was never very satisfying to me. Before CSH I used to write fuller, more calculated songs, so I started going back to that method, while still retaining some fluidity during the recording of it. I guess it’s the mental approach that tends to make the songs long – I never really consider a song ‘done’ before it’s released, I’m always going back and doing more work on it. Even after it’s released I still do more work on it sometimes!

FS: That’s really cool! In terms of the album as a finished product, how do you typically group songs for each album release? Each new release feels really cohesive to me, do they typically have a central pre-planned theme or is it just whatever you find you’ve been working on?

WT: The thematic-ness of it is sort of pre-planned, in that when I’m working on a song, I have an idea of where it will end up, on the next album or elsewhere. HTLT, for example, is a group of songs that I’d set aside while trying to write a different album, which is still upcoming. After I’d recorded “Hey Space Cadet”, I wanted to structure a small separate release around it, so I went back and looked at extra material I had to see what would work. And between that material and new songs I wrote in that period, it ended up not being so small! If I’ve got a good song that doesn’t fit on my next planned release, I’d rather save it and write something else for that album than try and put it on.

Actually, about two days ago I did just write a new song for the explicit purpose of filling out an album, though I had another piece I was considering for the spot I guess you’d call it…filler… I like it though.

FS: Nah that makes sense! Also, could you explain that dog thing on Twin Fantasy and How To Leave Town? It’s cute and I was wondering if it has any kind of story behind it?

WT: Not much of a story, just an aesthetic that seems to work well with the music. I think it’s partially coincidental that the HTLT figure ended up looking like the TF animals, as the artist I worked with draws dudes kinda like that a lot. The ‘dog motif’ seems actually semi-common in the contemporary lo-fi scene, which is funny — I think it means something different for everyone. Dogs are omnipresent in American youth lives.

dogs are omnipresent

FS: I definitely see that! We work with Nouns a lot and they’re pretty into dogs too. I’ve always taken it as some post-ironic internet thing (that sounds pretentious), almost making fun of and reacting to the cat pic-and-vid thing that you find all over Tumblr and Youtube. But dogs are great.

WT: Haha! That’s what it boils down to, right?

FS: Pretty much! Anyways, speaking of other artists in your scene, where do you draw influences from? The one thing I really dig about Car Seat is that I feel like it isn’t as classifiable as a lot of other groups, kind of an amalgamation of surf pop/psych/bedroom music all smulshed into these 12 minute epics (or sometimes really short tracks). Also, before we loose the dog thing here’s a picture of my dog “Meat Loaf” (after the singer), just b/c he’s cute. Do you have any pets?

meat loaf 1

WT: Your dog is cute! My family had a cat growing up, but I haven’t really had the opportunity to have a pet since (dorm room/renting situations, etc). I’m usually drawing either from older artists or from people I’m working with directly. The long tracks are probably the result of a lot of Pink Floyd in my youth. Lately I’ve been more interested in rhythm-driven stuff like James Brown, which I think it starting to show up in my new music. And my other main source is the people with whom I’ve had the opportunity to work with as friends/collaborators. I’ve produced two of my friend Degnan’s albums now (Naked Days) and played with him often, and from that I picked up a whole different style of playing guitar, which I used on the HTLT track “I Want You to Know…” There was another artist in Williamsburg VA, named Will Marsh, that I played with for a semester. He does really excellent, old-school rock stuff. I produced an album for him as well, although I don’t think it will ever see the light of day. But I definitely came away with a lot of inspiration for my own stuff.

How To Leave Town by Car Seat Headrest

FS: Rad! I can hear all that stuff in your music. I also definitely noticed that “I Want You To Know That I’m Awake” had a different vibe to it than some of the other tracks on the record. I was also wondering what you do other than Car Seat Headrest and music stuff?

WT: It’s cool, because there’s not too much! I graduated from the College of William & Mary last May with an English degree, and that summer moved out to Seattle. I’ve been living off savings since then and trying to make things work with music; it looks like it’s actually starting to kick off now. My days right now are mostly dealing with recording, emails, practice, and trying to set up a spring tour. Also shirt shipping.

FS: I’m an English major too! Funky. I’ll probably just keep it to a few more questions — one thing I was wondering, how/when exactly did you notice your music getting attention (at least as much attention as anything in a smaller, DIY scene usually gets)? Was is a gradual process or more of a sudden event?

Here’s Meat Loaf as a puppy, btw:

meatloaf pup

WT: Definitely gradual. There was one period in 2011 when things seemed to jump up a notch; I got mentioned on Forbes.com and was in a couple playlists, and I was like ‘this is it!’ And then it plateaued out and things continued on as they had been. But my bandcamp hits were always on the uprise, I started getting a lot of hits from the /mu/ board on 4chan, and there started being a steady stream of listeners when I checked last.fm. Just lately it seems like there’s been another sudden spike, so I’m honestly not sure where things will go from here.

Cute!

FS: That’s really interesting! As somebody who’s been listening to your tunes for a few years now I hope the move to doing it full-time works out. On another note, do you have any particular song/album that you’re most fond of?

WT: Not really, I’ve got to be flexible and enjoy returning to whatever I’m checking out from my past, for a live performance or whatever.

FS: The reason I like your music so much is because it seems really sincere while what’s “trendy” nowadays seems to be either ironic sentiment or almost commodifying the whole idea of being sad (especially with a lot of emo-revival groups). It’s refreshing and I think it means a lot to a good number of people. Anyways, not sure I have any strict questions left — maybe as someone who studied English Lit a book recommendation or two?

WT: Yeah, I’d like to keep it real, and not revel in the sadness of life, even though it’s a part of it. I think there are a lot of sincere new artists around, but it also takes hard work to be able to convey your messages in a way that’s not just a reflection of current trends. Right now I’m reading a series called History of Civilization by Will Durant, started in the 1930s. Some of it is outdated but he’s an excellent writer, and presents a shitload of information in an easily digestible way. The only fiction I’ve read lately has been some short scifi pieces by James Tiptree Jr, which was the pseudonym of a woman author from the 70s. They’re kind of emotionally brutal, which is cool.

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Zackary Kiebach

About Zackary Kiebach

UC Berkeley English undergrad and intern at McSweeney's. Used to work at a cupcake shop, but now masterminds math-pop confections under Talk, Tired Thanatoid.