Photo by Chona Kasinger
With his thick-rimmed glasses and sheepish demeanor, Will Toledo is much more Clark Kent than Superman. Sure, the 23-year-old songwriter behind Car Seat Headrest may be taller than most of the people he stands next to, but he has yet to find the particular swagger that’s so often apparent in rock stars of his stature.
Don’t blame the good folks at Matador Records, who have done everything they can to position Toledo as the heir apparent to Stephen Malkmus, Robert Pollard, and other titans of guitar-based indie rock. Last October, the label released Teens of Style, a collection of songs hand-selected from Toledo’s 11 Bandcamp albums and re-recorded as his proper solo debut. It was meant to register as a sonic boom on the rock-music landscape, but its frequent lightning flashes of brilliance only signified something bigger to come.
That something bigger has now arrived in the form of Teens of Denial, Car Seat Headrest’s second proper studio album and the first to feature an all-new collection of songs. “It’s sort of a unique situation,” Toledo explained when we caught up with him in Los Angeles, before a headlining show at the Natural History Museum of all places. While their names are similar, Style and Denial aren’t exactly sibling albums. Toledo describes Denial, out via Matador on May 20th, as the most ambitious thing he’s ever done, and early singles like the sprawling “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” might be the closest indie rock has come to perfection since Pavement bit the dust.
Rousing choruses, cut-to-the-heart lyricism, superfluous alter-egos — Teens of Denial pretty much nails every single ingredient that goes into a great rock record. And standing at the center of it all is the quiet, contemplative Toledo, who might just be the indie rock Superman we’ve been waiting for all these years. After chatting with the guy in person, here are five reasons why the glasses aren’t fooling us.
He Writes Angsty Rock Songs that Won’t Be Embarrassing 10 Years from Now
Toledo may be a few years removed from his teens, but he isn’t trying to hide the fact that teen angst still dominates his songwriting. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” approaches that well-worn topic from a different perspective — or rather, several different perspectives at once. Toledo knew he wanted to write a song about that vague, listless, depressing feeling that settles in on the way home from the party, but he also wanted to reach beyond that, toward some kind of cosmic truth. He had just finished watching the documentary Blackfish and felt equally depressed about its depiction of captive killer whales, so he thought, “Why not conflate both forms of depression?”.
“Yeah, that was a thing where two separate, unrelated ideas came together,” he explains. “After the movie, I just had this idea for what became the bridge and the lyrics in the bridge. I think the killer whales is a perfect image that takes you away from the immediate action and draws out a contrast and comparison between the two ideas. And you know, you go from a car at night to a tank or an ocean.” The result is an odd kind of poetry, which looks silly on paper but really does find a new, mature way to approach the theme of teen angst.
It’s funny, Toledo observes, how the angsty music one listens to as a teen can be painful to revisit as an adult. He’s doing everything he can to fulfill the noble mission of writing honest, angst-ridden music that will actually stand the test of time. “I’m kind of impressed with my tastes as a kid,” he says. “As far as angsty music, I was into Nirvana, which still holds up, and Green Day, which I think in comparison to a lot of other pop-punk bands, they do hold up. American Idiot is still a pretty impressive concept album.
“But I think it’s totally a valid goal to aspire to: Having the sort of album where it can be something that maybe adults will smile a little bit about the kids listening to it, but the kids listening to it can grow up and look back on it and say, ‘That was a good album.’”
His Covers Hardly Sound Like Covers At All
One of the most delightful moments on Teens of Denial comes in a song called “There Is a Policeman in All Our Heads, He Must Be Destroyed”. The song starts off sounding like a straightforward cover of The Cars’ “Just What I Needed”, but Toledo superimposes his own vocal melody on the intro, and soon the “cover” becomes a new song entirely. It’s not until the song’s outro that he returns to the Cars song that inspired him, at which point it catches the listener off-guard. It’s a weird and delightful experience, and none other like it comes to mind.
Except for the fact that Toledo has been pulling off this trick for a while now. He brings up one of his earlier tracks, “The Gun Song”, which appears on his 2013 Bandcamp album Nervous Young Man. “My idea is that it would be a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Down by the River’, but that it would be extremely long and it would only go into that song at the very end of it. So that was the idea, that I would sort of showcase my own songwriting material in what was supposed to be a cover.”
Elsewhere, Toledo teases a cover of Dido (“The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”) and name-drops R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe (Teens of Style’s “Strangers”), proving that he sees himself as part of a bigger rock tradition. The ways he manages to fold himself into that tradition, however, are entirely novel.
He Blends Pavement’s Sense of Playfulness…
Any rock band on Matador is going to have to contend with the inevitable Pavement comparisons, but Car Seat Headrest shares one important thing in common with Malkmus and Co.: a palpable sense of playfulness. Teens of Denial may be Toledo’s most serious statement as an artist to date, but he stresses that he never means to take himself too seriously. “It was very important for me to make this album playful,” he says, “because so much of it it is on subject matter than can just be so boring and unengaging and mundane. If you write straightforward lyrics that say, ‘I’m sad and I hate my life and I hate college and I don’t know what I’m going to do after that,’ very few people who aren’t in that state can enjoy it.”
That playfulness comes across in a lot of different ways, whether it’s lyrical (“I’m so sick of ‘Fill in the Blank’”) or musical (the aforementioned Cars “cover”). But in all cases, it’s a massive part of what makes Teens of Denial fun, which should be a mandatory requirement for a great rock record.
… with Kendrick Lamar’s Lyrical Precision
Another mandatory requirement? Thoughtful lyrics that jump out of the song and off the page. When it came time to writing some of these lyrics, Toledo turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 hip-hop classic, To Pimp a Butterfly. “There aren’t a lot of albums these days that are really lyrically on-point all the way through,” he says. “That’s one of the major things I look for in an album, so it’s hard to find contemporary stuff that I’m really into.
“Obviously, when I checked out [To Pimp a Butterfly] all the way through, I was just like, ‘Wow.’ It gave me a lot of energy and I finally felt like, ‘OK, here’s something that I can sort of still have way out of my reach and be trying to grasp for.’” One of the last things Toledo did on Teens of Denial was to write the lyrics to the back half of the sweeping “Ballad of the Costa Concordia”. His stream-of-consciousness delivery in that song is largely based on the hours he spent listening to and internalizing Kendrick’s raps, which makes him one rock star who openly acknowledges — and even emulates! — hip-hop’s lyrical supremacy.
His Songs are Jaded, Ironic, and Triumphantly Earnest
Lots of folks would take one look at Toledo and be quick to write him off as a hipster. The songs don’t always help his case in this regard, stuffed as they are with irony and wry cynicism. But anyone who sits down with Car Seat Headrest for a while comes to find that one of the band’s dominant traits is earnestness. Even the ideas that seem silly on the surface (ahem, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”) end up as rousing, tear-jerking anthems that tug on all the right heartstrings.
This is perhaps the most important — and least talked about — aspect of great rock music: the sentimentality that flirts with cheesiness, the absolute conviction that a song can change the world, or at least somebody’s world, for even just a little while. Teens of Denial, on its surface, is the product of a prototypical millennial mindset. “You have no right to be depressed/ You haven’t tried hard enough to like it,” Toledo sings on opener “Fill in the Blank”, a song whose lyrics practically overflow with snark. But undermining those lyrics is a rock beat that straight-up grooves and a squealing guitar melody that wants to be heard over an arena’s loudspeakers.
In Car Seat Headrest, Toledo comes across like an asshole, a narcissist, and an insecure hipster who can’t help taking shots at the world around him. Which is only to say that he comes across as a complete person, uninterested in hiding his uglier parts behind the distortion. “I think part of being an artist is remaining vulnerable to human opinion,” he reflects. “You always want to hide away the immaturity with yourself, and I guess for me this is a way of refusing myself that luxury.”
Will Toledo isn’t perfect. But he’s loud, honest, and painfully aware of his place in the world. For that reason, he might just be the indie rock hero — and Teens of Denial the indie rock album — we’ve been waiting for.