Car Seat Headrest, who emerged as 2016’s hottest indie breakthrough band, were a must-see act at last month’s Laneway festival. James Belfield talks to Will Toledo talks about how he's facing fame and the mainstream.
During a highly prolific four years up to 2014, the one-man band of Will Toledo, a bedroom full of instruments and a “recording studio” in his family car (hence the name) earned online cult status through eight full-lengthers, two EPs and two compilation albums.
But although releasing his brand of honest, confessional, slightly obtuse, rough-around-the-edges indie via music platform Bandcamp allowed him to work, in the words of the New Yorker, “unencumbered by expectation, hidden in plain sight”, it didn’t fulfil Toledo’s desire for music to earn him a living.
So, having graduated in English from Virginia’s William and Mary College (the alma mater of both Thomas Jefferson and Daily Show host Jon Stewart), he set about forming a band, writing a band album and heading off on a band tour.
In less than a year, the album Teens of Denial made it to the top of countless best-of-2016 playlists, the band have been booked by high-profile mainstream TV shows such as The Tonight Show and the 24-year-old Toledo regularly faces huge crowds who roar his lyrics back at him in packed venues.
So for someone who admits to a “certain elemental shyness”, how has it felt to step into the glare of the limelight? And how has it felt to take a touring band out of the US and still find fans who sing along to every word?
“Primavera in Porto, Portugal [in June last year], was a very special show – there have only been a few where it’s been that extreme, but that was probably the first where it seemed like it was a dream,” Toledo says. “People would tell me afterwards about people singing along with the show, but I’m usually focused more on my own performance than what’s going on in the crowd. But, yeah, Primavera, and the next time we came back to New York it was like that. And when the audience reaches a certain level of engagement, it stops being just about our performance and starts being a more communal thing.”
What’s also become a communal thing is the commentary surrounding Car Seat Headrest’s success and Toledo’s introduction to the fame game. All of a sudden, someone who’s social media savvy enough to be on the lookout for “anything networky” to repost, and who has spent his whole recording life bounced around message boards and comment sections, is finding his tweets and posts are somehow newsworthy.
There are, of course, the pros: an essay on Kanye West’s Life of Pablo saw the two stars metaphorically rubbing shoulders in the music press. But a vaguely uncomplimentary Tumblr post on singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens late last year had Toledo generating the sort of controversy on which entertainment sites thrive.
“I just have to get used to the idea that anyone cares about my opinions – I’m used to expressing them to a handful of people and not getting a lot of response to it, and that’s what I’m more comfortable with,” he says.
“It seems the world has got a little smaller and the way the national music media writes is more like a small-town gossip column would write. And in this smaller music scene, everything gets amplified and controversies get amplified – I have to stay out of the music industry somehow and out of these echo chambers.
“Kanye has thrown himself headfirst into this sphere and made good art out of it, but he’s also had a very rough year partially because of his commitment to that world. So I have to see the world with a wider lens.”
Despite a whistle-stop breakthrough 12 months, Toledo retains a strong sense of perspective about the lifespan of Car Seat Headrest: he still wants to pursue non-musical ventures such as writing and is keen to “resist the romanticism” of short-lived bands that burn fast and bright.
“I think our band is in a good place where we have a good idea of what the band can be and we can do it for a while and it doesn’t have to be the only thing we do. In a way this is my project, but it’s still a communal activity at this point and there’s not a lot of tension about the direction where we’re going.”