With his baby-faced cheeks, big glasses and geeky wardrobe, Will Toledo hardly looks like a grizzled music veteran who has already produced 12 albums. And yet, he has.
For the last five years, the 23-year-old has released his albums for free on the music-streaming website, Bandcamp, under the moniker, Car Seat Headrest. By making his music gratis, Toledo has built a devoted, cult-like following since the first Car Seat Headrest album came out in 2010. Last year, he signed with stalwart indie label Matador Records, and in October, he put out Teens of Style, a collection of remastered Car Seat Headrest recordings previously posted on Bandcamp.
[jump] Part of Toledo’s appeal is his combination of introspective lyrics with a diverse, lo-fi sonic landscape that recalls some of indie’s most beloved bands—groups like the Magnetic Fields, Guided By Voices and Belle and Sebastian. He embraces the best qualities of those bands—crooning synth ballads, re-appropriated British Invasion pop nuggets, and Smiths-inspired guitar riffs. And while he shares the same penchant for sentimental, vulnerable songwriting, as artists like Conor Oberst and Elliott Smith, his vocals are prominent and confidently-emoted, evoking the stylings of the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas. This disparate combination is how he can sing bleak lyrics like, “I was referring to the present in past tense/It was the only way that I could survive it,” while sounding defiant instead of submissive or broken.
“I’ve always preferred the louder, bolder style of signing,” says Toledo, who added that Casablancas’ similarities to him are mostly coincidental, as he is not a big Strokes listener. “For a while, I was into the really raw vocal stuff, and I was just imitating some of those singers that I admired. Eventually, I just found my own voice a little more.”
Receiving positive feedback from his followers on Bandcamp played a crucial role in affirming Toledo’s decision to pursue his dream of becoming a full-time musician. The results are telling—over the five-years that he’s recorded, his songs have become steadily bolder and more assured, and you can track his progress from record to record.
When Matador offered to sign him, however, he was unsure and worried that by signing, he would lose his Bandcamp fan base.
“Right around the time Matador called, I had reached the point where I was able to scrape out a living through posting music on Bandcamp,” he says. “But. if I kept going, I would have achieved the same circulation in 10 years that I have now. I just wasn’t prepared to last that long, so I chose the next step.”
That next step includes recording music and touring with a full band. Matador is set to release Car Seat Headrest’s upcoming album, Teens of Denial, in either April or May. In the interim, Toledo and his band (guitarist Ethan Ives, bassist Seth Dalby and drummer bass Andrew Katz) are in the midst of a major national tour. They’ll play at the Independent on January 20, marking Car Seat Headrest’s first San Francisco appearance.
“We’ve kind of settled in on the long-haul version of the band, and everyone seems pretty happy,” says Toledo. “I think we’re all looking forward to the future and we’re excited about the opportunity to see where this thing goes.”
Car Seat Headrest plays with Silver Shadows at The Independent on Wednesday, Jan. 20 at 8 pm. More info here.