Will Toledo on the making of Making A Door Less Open
Matty Pywell
14:52 7th May 2020

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The year is 2010, in a car that is parked either next to a Target store, a church or somewhere else in Virginia, Will Toledo is sat in the back. Equipped with a microphone and a laptop, he is crafting his first work under the moniker of Car Seat Headrest. His first pieces of work would be the numbered albums, mostly improvisational and some tracks done in one take. The numbered albums were just the beginning as over the course of the next four years Will would upload 11 albums to Bandcamp.

Now he’s about to release his 15th album, in a discography that includes a re-master of 2011’s Twin Fantasy and a live album in 2019. Making A Door Less Open will be the first new Car Seat Headrest material in four years, and when looking for influence Will went back to where it all began. “I spent a lot of time at the beginning of this project just listening to totally random stuff I found on Bandcamp,” he tells me. “Just stuff with no listeners and stuff that people put together in their bedrooms.” 

What he found was a wealth of music that did not conform to standard genre conventions. “I think it’s a sort of mechanism that pop culture brings to music, where you think of it as belonging to these distinct genres. I think it’s a lot less clear and people are just picking up elements of different music that they like and try to make something that they like out of it.” Bandcamp has maintained an enduring relevance, as a key platform for launching the careers of artists, Car Seat Headrest included.

Even in the pandemic it has managed to help artists by waiving fees. This will see an influx of revenue for independent artists who are struggling to gain capital, with the opportunity to sell music and merchandise. Even in the age of streaming it perseveres, operating within a unique space in the music industry. “There’s more awareness of it as an outlet. It steps out of the limelight in contrast to streaming services etc. But I think that helps it remain a really important space for people who are just doing their own thing, to have their album hosted somewhere like that.”

After the Bandcamp era, Will went about actively seeking a record label and found one in Matador. The relationship has been everything that he hoped for, “working with them definitely brought us to the level that I hoped we could be on. I’m grateful to Matador for putting me on that level, that means it’s not a struggle each time we put something out.”

The new album has the broadest amount of musical styles we’ve seen from Car Seat Headrest, where they promised a “unique energy" for each song. It achieves that to some effect, welcoming pop, electronic and even EDM elements into the fold of their usual sound. Songs feel like a patchwork, “I just wanted to go back to magpie-like picking out different pieces that I liked and trying to build up unique structures with them.” They took a back to basics approach when producing the new album, Will and Andrew Katz tweaking songs in their bedrooms before heading into the studio.

The man behind Car Seat Headrest has become known for a meticulous production style, endlessly tweaking and tinkering with songs. Part of this was behind the re-release of Twin Fantasy in 2018, where Will would spend days tweaking and altering parts of the songs until they were perfected. It was a labour of love. “I still feel like a newcomer to music in some senses, just because there are so many things that we haven’t tried and so many things we’re just starting to get a hang of.”

Another key strength of Will’s, and a huge advantage for Car Seat Headrest, is his lyricism. Somehow it still feels underrated, but he manages to capture a unique perspective that not many songwriters seem to be able to tap into. Previously describing his albums as “emotional weather patterns”, he manages to take the mundanity of existence and flip it on its head. “I was kind of just going through daily life trying to make or extract something from it that was a little more warped and human than daily life can necessarily feel.”

When basing songs on his own life, which he says is, “as boring as anybody else’s,” he wanted to capture something different, something that would, “remind other people of the more weird and human aspects of being alive.” Previous Car Seat Headrest material has tackled themes such as love, death, sex and substance abuse but with a deeper lens. Exploring and reflecting on loneliness, isolation, faith and much more associated with what makes us human.

Will studied English and Religion at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, which has perhaps influenced some of his Car Seat Headrest work, such as ‘Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)’ that features a lot of theory related to religion. This should not give you the impression that all of the band’s work is deadly serious however, in fact they are prolifically quotable. Take, “last Friday I took acid and mushrooms, I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit, in a stupid looking jacket,” from ‘(Joe gets Kicked Out Of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But says This Isn’t A Problem)’.

Success lies in making the listener connect with a song, giving them something to resonate with. Each track taking a different approach to genre, there is a wider pool of narratives, one song may affect you differently than the others. “‘Can’t Cool Me Down’ has a character who has an extreme mental state, maybe a physical illness. Then ‘Martin’ is more about longing for love or a connection that is more spiritual than real. But it’s all just operating in this context of ‘how do these add up?’ And in some ways, they never add up because that’s kind of what life is like.”

Making A Door Less Open is an album of reflection and one that looks at the choices and desires we encounter over our lives. The two songs ‘Deadlines (Hostile)’ and ‘Deadlines (Thoughtful)’ are at opposing sides of the track list. One gives in to temptation, whilst the other focusses on compassion and the idea of being a better person. “They sort of reflect and refract off of each other, these two different sides of completely random encounters. There’s kind of a musical motif of the other and the fear of making a connection, that is also a sort of temptation and both of those talk about that in different ways.”

What does Making A Door Less Open really represent? “I wanted something that didn’t necessarily convey a specific genre or idea about the album. I prefer albums that are kind of mysterious in the way they present themselves. I feel like there’s a coldness, an alien-ness to some of this album, though it’s juxtaposed with moments of directness and clarity.”

Using the character of Trait for the new album, was important for Will, who is usually directly associated with his work. But he channelled a pioneering influence when it came to character creation within music, “I think about David Bowie doing Ziggy Stardust and when you listen to the songs on the album they still feel personal even though a lot of it is about glamorous stuff.”

Playing with the idea of character is something that Will has been toying with, check out Trait’s origins in Will and drummer Andrew’s satirical side project 1 Trait Danger. During a trend within music, where to gather authenticity and success as an artist, there is an expectation that you would have to be a personality, in order to entice people. “I don’t think that’s it’s the only way to happen, but you have to play with your time to a certain extent. Playing with an alternative personality, that’s a way for me to put a face on it that I enjoy seeing.”

He identifies a genre that he thinks does this quite well, “that’s something that’s more from an EDM world, where it’s just a more colourful way of associating a person with music.” The helmets of Marshmello, Deadmau5 and Daft Punk come to mind. Music is powerful enough on its own however, “if you can express something well through music then that automatically lends authenticity to it and it doesn’t matter so much who’s writing it or where they’re coming from.”

After over a decade of making music, there is already so much for Car Seat Headrest to look back on. The most rewarding experience so far? A performance with a favourite artist of his, Jandek is mentioned. “Everything was totally improvised and no one playing an instrument knew each other. That was an extremely freeing and rewarding experience to have with an audience.” He summarises with, “Car Seat Headrest is more like a life project than anything to me; almost every door that opens up is a branch off of that.”

Making A Door Less Open is out now.

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Photo: Carlos Cruz