Will Toledo, the founder and principal songwriter of Car Seat Headrest, sat in his Seattle apartment, looking into his iPhone camera through the eyes of a modified gas mask.
His face wasn’t visible, but somehow he still seemed a little sheepish. Months ago, Toledo made up his mind to wear a costume, including the mask, while promoting his indie-rock band’s first album of new material since 2016, an atypically concise and beat-driven collection of songs called “Making a Door Less Open.”
He’d been thinking about David Bowie, whose shifting alter egos demarcated new phases of his creative life. About ways of ameliorating some of the self-consciousness he still feels onstage. About taking his live shows in a more deliberate and theatrical direction, and encouraging his audience to have fun.
He had not thought of the possibility that a global pandemic would turn protective masks into both a commonplace sight and a potent symbol of all-pervasive, amorphous dread.
“It’s definitely not an ideal environment for presenting art,” Toledo said, putting it mildly.
The mask’s Darth Vaderish quality is relieved by a pair of bright and somewhat googly LED eyes custom-installed by a prop-fabrication studio in Los Angeles, and two floppy ears sewn by a friend of Toledo’s. By request, Toledo wore it for the first half of the interview, which was conducted via FaceTime. But he acknowledged that sticking with this particular conceptual stunt felt a little awkward, given the state of things.
“It was supposed to be sort of an exotic alternative to reality — like a challenge, I guess, to normal life,” Toledo said. “And now it just feels a lot more pointed in a way that I wasn’t planning on and don’t really take any pleasure in.”
He’d thought of “Making a Door Less Open” as a “daily-life album” whose songs the mask would recontextualize; instead it’s the daily-life aspect of the lyrics that now seems strange. The half-rapped “Hollywood,” a dyspeptic interior monologue about riding the bus and staring at posters for bad movies, plays like a snapshot from a now-bygone age of social proximity. The fever metaphors in the single “Can’t Cool Me Down” might have played better, Toledo observed, “outside the context of constantly thinking about sickness.”
Another challenge is that these songs represent some of the most direct and accessible music Toledo has ever made. What’s new here, apart from the rippling synth lines and programmed beats, is the sense of fresh-start possibility and hard-won optimism that infuses nearly every track. Like R.E.M.’s “Green,” Guided by Voices’ “Under the Bushes, Under the Stars” or the White Stripes’ “Elephant,” it’s the sound of an underground band not so much refining itself for mainstream consumption as embracing the pop capabilities it’s always possessed.
Granted, even on the early Car Seat Headrest recordings — the ones Toledo made under his parents’ roof in suburban Virginia and in his dorm room at William & Mary, usually armed with nothing more than a guitar, a USB cable and a laptop — you could hear him honing a Brian Wilson-ish command of lo-fi indie rock’s scruffy sonic palette.
But for Toledo, bedroom recording was a means, not a motive. As soon as he landed a deal with Matador Records, he began growing his sound in ways that indicated just how high his sights were set. The 2015 album “Teens of Style” featured new-and-improved home recordings of 10 songs from his Bandcamp era. The most recent Car Seat Headrest studio album, “Twin Fantasy (Face to Face),” was a maximalist full-band rerecording of his ragged and intimate 2011 LP “Twin Fantasy,” the audio equivalent of a 16-millimeter student film remade in IMAX 3-D.
On tour in support of that record, Car Seat Headrest drafted members of the Seattle power trio Naked Giants, becoming a swaggering seven-piece band with a sound that could fill venues like Madison Square Garden (where Toledo and crew played a triumphant set opening for Interpol in February 2019).
That eagerness about working on a larger scale may be the biggest difference between Toledo and the slew of ’90s indie-rock titans — Pavement, Guided by Voices, Neutral Milk Hotel — to which his music has been compared. Fans of ’90s indie rock often treat technical flaws like tape hiss as the mark of pure art uncompromised by mainstream exigencies, conflating a certain principled amateurism with purity; the demo was also the finished product. Given the chance, Toledo treated his early recordings like demos, made to be improved upon.
The singer and songwriter Lucy Dacus recalled a conversation with Toledo one night when the two were on tour. “He was like, ‘Lucy, what makes a good rock album, today?’ That was a question he wanted to answer. I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t actually care about the history of rock.’ Will, I think, cares a lot about it, and the place he can fill in history,” she said.
She noted that Toledo is shy but also can come across as fearless — a dichotomy well captured by the mask. “The same can be said about the content of his songs,” she said. “He’s talking about having fears and insecurities and making mistakes, but also he’s willing to admit them, so that’s fearless too.”
Listeners who were introduced to Toledo via the music from his bedroom period are still the core of his large, passionate and extremely online fan base. In fan communities like Reddit’s r/CSHFans, the mood appears to be a mix of new-album excitement and concern about where the band is headed. Fan art of Toledo in his costume is already abundant, but one waggish poster has critiqued “Hollywood” by laying its audio track over the video of a car commercial for the 2018 Kia Stinger.
Matador’s founder Chris Lombardi, who signed Toledo less than a week after encountering his Bandcamp page, described him as one of the most self-assured artists he’s worked with.
“Before this album was recorded, he told me he wanted to make an album that had the sonic capability of competing with some of the other new pop or hip-hop acts at the Coachellas of the world, or the Lollapaloozas of the world,” Lombardi said, so “when he was going onstage, he wasn’t being overshadowed by whoever else was playing a more futuristic type of music with a more electronic type of palette — that he would be able to compete against them and win.”
The story of how “Making a Door Less Open” actually came together is convoluted, but like most important Car Seat Headrest stories, it begins at Toledo’s parents’ house. Except in this case the first act involves a guy who is not Will Toledo recording a somewhat deliberately idiotic dubstep-comedy-rap song called “Stoney Bologne” in what was once Toledo’s sister’s childhood bedroom.
The improviser in question was Andrew Katz, a drummer who’d placed a musicians-wanted ad on Craigslist the year after Toledo moved to Seattle, in 2014. Katz became Car Seat Headrest’s drummer, not long before Toledo’s Bandcamp recordings landed the group (which also features Ethan Ives on guitar and Seth Dalby on bass) the Matador deal.
While playing with his previous band, a Seattle indie-EDM outfit called Lost Triibe, Katz — who had been a “total rock guy” for most of his career — learned to produce music using the digital-audio editing program Ableton Live. When he began touring with Car Seat Headrest, he’d make silly improvised music to kill time, occasionally enlisting Toledo and the other members of the band as collaborators.
While waiting for an overseas flight, Toledo and Katz found themselves with 36 hours to kill at Toledo’s parents’ house in Virginia, and created “Stoney Bologne,” which features Katz shouting out Barack Obama and rapping about being pushed into a pool by bullies. Katz wanted to post it online immediately, but Toledo suggested it might make more sense in the context of an entire comedy album, and in 2018 they self-released “1 Trait High,” an LP credited to 1 Trait Danger, a band name Toledo plucked from a French highway sign warning against tailgating. (Trait is his alter ego.)
A second album, “1 Trait World Tour,” followed in 2019. It’s nominally a concept album about life on the indie-rock festival circuit, full of digs at bands like the xx and Mac DeMarco, as well as the gatekeepers at Pitchfork — a high-concept version of the kind of steam-venting trash-talk Toledo had lately become too famous to engage in under his own name.
But when Toledo suggested to Katz that the next Car Seat Headrest album should be a collaboration with 1 Trait Danger, Katz was apprehensive: “I’m thinking to myself, ‘The label’s going to freak out. Andrew Katz is about to ruin Car Seat Headrest.’” Katz said.
“But Will, as always, has his vision and he understands what he wants,” he added.
When he started writing “Making a Door Less Open,” Toledo had been reading “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!,” a sprawling history of modern pop music by the English musician and critic Bob Stanley. Some of the territory was familiar; Toledo had grown up listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys and other music from pop’s ’60s golden age.
“What I learned a lot about was the stuff that preceded that, what it was feeding off of,” Toledo said. “That definitely affected how I was writing — looking at that early rock material, and wanting to do something that had that simplicity, and stripping stuff back to the point where it could have that energy.”
Lombardi said he and his colleagues at Matador found it hard to imagine what a Car Seat Headrest album produced in collaboration with Car Seat Headrest’s “joke EDM project” would sound like: “I kind of jokingly said, ‘Come in and give us a PowerPoint presentation and tell us what’s going on.’”
Toledo responded, Lombardi said, by doing something no Matador artist has ever done.
“He came to New York and he literally gave us a PowerPoint,” Lombardi said. “He went through the story, what the album cover was, what the title was. He played us some songs, and we learned a little bit about the fact that he might be in character for this entire project.”
Lombardi admitted that the idea of the mask was initially a cause for concern at the label, but added: “The artists’ ideas are the always the best ones. Sometimes, as wild as they are, you have to have faith that they’re seeing something you can’t.”
For what it’s worth, after excusing himself from his FaceTime interview to take a bathroom break, Toledo returned without the mask on and finished the conversation as an average-looking guy with a narrow face, shaggy dark hair and a toothy smile.
Toledo turns 28 in August. “I think I’m almost at the point where journalists can’t call me young anymore,” he said. “I hated it while it was happening. Maybe now I’ll miss it.”
He was only 23 when he signed to Matador, and now he’s at an age where artists tend to flame out or begin seeking ways to renegotiate their relationship with public life, their bargain with the world. Over the years, Toledo has struggled publicly with music journalists’ tendency to read his work through an autobiographical lens; in 2018, he called out a Rolling Stone writer on Twitter for an interpretation of “Twin Fantasy” that Toledo called “a weird, gross, inaccurate representation of my personal life.”
Asked if wearing the mask in media appearances was about creating a harder line between himself and the version of Toledo who appears in Car Seat Headrest’s songs, he replied: “That might be a part of it. But I think it’s an attempt to get people to look at me in a different way, especially onstage.”
“I’m not trying to take anything away from people,” he continued. “It’s a connection with the music — I don’t want to slam their fingers in the door, regardless of how they have that connection. But I do want to offer something new, and I think the mask is a way to do that.”