Expressing Perfection

– An Interview with Car Seat Headrest –

by tom johnson

One wholly positive aspect of the-internet-age has been the propensity for label’s with the prowess of Matador Records to cast a keen eye over those self-recording, self-releasing, artists who have spent their formative year’s building up a swell of online interest; diluting the risk for the labels to branch out in to somewhat less-dependable, more experimental, tributaries of their more regular flow.

Following the release of the recent Alex G and Porches album’s – both of which fall in to the aforementioned territory – this month sees the release of ‘Teens Of Denial‘, the new record from Will Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest project – his first album-proper with Matador, following last year’s ‘Teens Of Style‘ overview compilation.

With an eleven-album-strong discography already under his belt, the new record feels strikingly fresh, marking the first time that Car Seat Headrest has entered a fully-fledge studio with a fully-fledged band. Taking its dues from the music that Toledo grew up with, the result is a smart, sharp and incredibly dynamic set of songs; a fiery bout of rock and roll that should very well soundtrack each and every road trip the summer sends your way.

With the album released this-coming Friday, GoldFlakePaint spoke to Will about the move to Matador, the record’s creation, and that endless search for perfection. Check it out below.

How have the past few years played out? It’s been a while since your last ‘proper’ record; how did Teens Of Denial fit in to that time?

It was a fairly long period making it (Teens Of Denial). Even though it’s coming out close to the last album, it’s been in the works since 2013, I think. I had just come off the heels of releasing that double album, Nervous Young Man, and most of the songs were pretty long and dense and so I wanted to do something that was the opposite of that and write some straight forward songs; as short as possible. So I spent the rest of that year doing that – and that was also my last year of college – and it took me a while to get used to this method, because I had become more used to writing more self-involved material and working towards a more accessible style was a difficult transition. After a while I had enough material to work with, going in to 2015, and then we recorded that Summer.

And did you know about Matador’s interest at this point?

Well I was finishing the demos right around the time Matador contacted me; so they were mostly done. I knew that I wanted to do them in a studio with slightly better recording quality this time. I’d been thinking of shopping the demos to labels, once I had them complete. But, fortuitously, Matador came in around that time and we came up with the plan of doing Teens Of Style first and then Teens Of Denial right afterwards.

Do you think that leap in to the studio brought about a big change in your work?

It definitely made the record a different one. It was the sort of thing where I’d written it intentionally in that newer style, though. I think the main difference is me going in to the studio and booking set hours for it, as opposed to just working on it continuously. I really had to go in their with the songs more-or-less finished, and with a clear plan. So that was the main difference because for a while I’d just been recording parts of songs as I came up with them. And I think it was definitely a helpful mentality to have. Actually being in the studio wasn’t too much of a leap, it was me and the band doing the tracks together, but other than that there weren’t many people around, so we were able to feel pretty comfortable in that space.

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Did you feel a weight of expectation at all? As you said, you were already wanting to reach more people with this before you’d signed to Matador.

It’s true that I was writing this album sort of intentionally for a higher profile release, but  luckily I had a good amount of time to sit with it, you know? Sometimes I’ll be making stuff for fun, under no assumptions that it would have any kind if profile, but this album was the opposite of that and it was just good luck that I’ve been able to issue it in a way that more people have been exposed to my work than ever before. I think that time takes the pressure off a little, and now I’m working ahead of schedule – I think I’ll have that buffer time again with whatever I do next.

Was it that time allowed for this shift to a more-streamlined style?

Yeah, totally. I mean, even at the time, that album (Nervous Young Man) wasn’t really a favourite for people – I think it was maybe too long and there was also this writing style that I was pursuing on it that was more academic, in some way, like school-of-music stuff. The songs didn’t really feel that personal, they were more exercises in songwriting, and all of those things were things I wanted to change. So they were the two main shifts: I wanted everything to be more accessible, both on a musical level and a personal level.

And do you feel you’ve achieved that, now that the record is finished?

Yeah, definitely. I wouldn’t call it finished until it had those aspects that I wanted. Plans change as you go on, of course, and the average track-length is still longer than your usual pop song, but that’s just my natural tendency to blow songs up – and I allowed myself that because I feel like it still, for the most part, feels like relatively accessible music for me.

What leads the narrative for this record?

It’s all personal experience, for the most part. I write pretty slowly, and build the lyrics up one at a time. So I might get inspiration for one or two lines without any idea of where it goes, and then over time I might start to see a direction for where the song can go. That tends to come from the time I spend building them up, rather than when I first write them. One thing I find satisfying about the creative process is building something coherent from possibly incoherent pieces. The more fictional aspect of it comes from when I’m building; when I’m trying to make something bigger out of whatever it is I’ve written.

To me, the record feels like an ode to loneliness – do you see it in those terms?

Yeah I think, on this album, that’s fairly accurate. I don’t know if it’s loneliness itself, but maybe the inability to connect; there’s definitely other people present on this album, but there’s some issue where they’re not quite breaking through to the central voice, which is mostly me. I think that is one of the core struggles on the album, the struggle to make that connection with the other people here.

You still see yourself as the central character in these songs then? 

Yeah, it’s pretty much personal, but there’s an added layer of distance just because… I would say it’s certainly its own narrative. I guess, I myself have changed since I wrote these songs, and every time I release an album it only conveys the character that I was at the time, and usually I’m a bit different by the time the album comes out. So I don’t want to say it’s me but it’s a depiction of how I was feeling at the time. So it’s not a fictional character, but it’s very much it’s own…thing.

Is it ever a struggle, to expose so much of yourself through your songs?

Yeah, I mean I’ve done that a lot in the past with Car Seat Headrest, but from moving away from that on the previous record I realised how rewarding it actually is. I think that move was a protective move for myself, to expose myself less to an audience, but it just didn’t feel as good as the stuff I was making before, especially when I listened to it from an audience stand-point. When I’m making music I always try and make sure it’s something I would like to listen to myself. So I end up writing pretty personal stuff, but it feels less like a confession and more like something that would resonate with me, if I were hearing it for the first time.

How are you dealing with being much more in the spotlight this time around?

There’s been a lot of focus on Teens Of Denial, people seem to be really excited about it. It’s definitely a new experience to me because I’ve been used to releasing my work to relatively small reception – or no reception at all – so having people pick up on it gradually over time I think allows for a more accurate experience. I don’t want people to come in to it with this state of agitation that we call hype, I want them to able to approach the album based on what it actually is. And right now people seem excited about this album, or at least there’s a lot of energy around it, and that makes it difficult for people to hear it for what it actually is. I think it’ll take some time before that initial buzz dies down and people can start judging, on a wider scale, whether it’s any good or not – and that’s the scale I try and make my albums on. I want to make albums that last a while, and I hope people treat it in that way, and that they’re still getting something from it in five, ten years time.

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How do you secure that kind of longevity?

I guess it comes down to a diligence of the working process; that’s certainly important. I always try and cut away any extraneous fat, or anything in the album that seemed like filler, and that’s been my way for a while. I feel like my time is limited, and the amount of albums I have in me is limited, so I want everything I make to be the perfect expression. It’s really just a matter of approaching it with that mentality, and that’s the best shot you have at making a record that will last.

There’s always going to be varying takes on the work you make, but how do you define Teens Of Denial?

Well it’s a rock album, for a start. It’s sort of conceptual in that way, actually, in that it revisits a lot of older material. Not my own material but the sounds of the past; the sixties, seventies and the nineties. It’s not quite a pastiche but there are certainly elements of older music and that’s something I’ve always wanted to do, because I grew up with that. So I guess it’s something of a homage. Musically, that’s the main thing going on. It’s like an overview of rock and roll. Lyrically, too, it’s a bit of an exploration of typical themes of rock music.

And can you see certain dots that join together; specific influences from the olden days?

Yeah just the other day I was listening to ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ by The Who and it really struck me. I hadn’t heard that song in a while but that there were a lot of those element on Teens Of Denial. The arrangement was what we were going for, on a lot of it, but also the nature of it, as an epic ballad loaded with cynicism. It has this viewpoint to it that’s very removed from rock and roll, in a sense. In the end it’s an anti-revolution song, which is definitely something Teens Of Denial is conceptually working with: meet the new boss, same as the old boss…

So where do you go next? Are you more tied down to a typical album schedule now you have a bigger label behind you?

I can see the appeal to just resting on this album for a while but it’s been a conscious decision to not do that. Obviously this will be my biggest record so far, but I feel like my bigger reputation is of someone who is capable of making more than one good record, and I want it to be established that I’m a working artist and I’m not just releasing one record and then trying to get as much mileage out of it as possible. So it was always the plan that I would dive straight in to the next record, and to release it as close as possible to this one.

Should we expect a record about life on tour then? Do you see yourself going down that route?

Yeah, kind of! Just because I like trying to make conceptual albums that follow structures of typical albums, whether that be a break-up album, or relationship album, or teen angst album. So a tour album is something I’d like to try my hand at, at some point – but that’s on the docket for a future date. I’ve got some material based on that idea already, that can be worked in to something, but at the moment I’m still working on material that emerged before this whole new-label process – and that’s what has to come out of me next.

~

‘Teens Of Denial’ is released on May 20th, via Matador Records

Car Seat Headrest play Primavera Festival this June,

plus Brighton, London, Manchester and Glasgow later that month.

Full details can be found here

Car Seat Headrest on Facebook

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