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A Conversation With Car Seat Headrest Frontman Will Toledo

The journey to a record deal, finding motivation as an artist and the makings of a 'classic rock show'.
By Fiona Connor
January 18, 2017
By Fiona Connor
January 18, 2017

As Seattle band Car Seat Headrest get ready to hit the Laneway stage on January 30, lead singer Will Toledo chats candidly with Concrete Playground writer Fiona Connor. He reveals how he grew his passion from a cult following to a record deal, the people who inspired his journey, finding motivation as an artist and why we should check out Car Seat Headrest at Laneway.

Concrete Playground: Can you talk about when you started to get really passionate about music and was there ever a turning point where you decided that you would pursue music full time? 

Will Toledo: It was always there. I grew up playing music and listening to music and it just always seemed like the best option. In terms of a career it started around the end of college when I had no other options, it seemed it had to become my life but even before that it was my life just not in a financial sense.

CP: Are there any artists that you draw inspiration from for your music today? 

WT: I grew up listening to The Beatles and Pink Floyd and Nirvana, and these are all still artists I listen to regularly, probably within the last few days I've listened to all of those artists so it's sort of remained the bedrock in my own musical influence, all those sorts of bands.

CP: What's your main motivation for following your dream and putting yourself out there in an industry that can be competitive and difficult to break through? 

WT: I never made much of an effort to put myself out in the industry, I was just putting it out for myself and for whoever else was interested in discovering it. I uploaded my music to Bandcamp for a number of years without really promoting it at all, but certain people caught on and it became a bit of a cult following for a while. It eventually spread until the point where people from the industry did take notice and that's when my career took off in earnest but I've never made much of an effort to engage with that side of it. I think that my personality really isn't suited towards it and I would prefer to just focus on making music.

CP: Did you find you were able to grow your exposure domestically and internationally from using Bandcamp as a means of putting your music out there? 

WT: That's not really the way it happened for me, I know it's happened for some artists that way where it's gone viral but for me it was more a matter of uploading it there and not a lot of people seeing it but continuing to work on there and slowly growing a fan base of more dedicated people who are listening deeply to the record, and then growing nationally once we had enough of a following to sort of warrant a record deal. That's when things really started taking off and it was more of an old school industry move when that happened, rather than a new-age internet, going viral story.

CP: You were picked up by Matador Records in 2015, how did that feel? Was that always the dream to get picked up by a label and have that acknowledgement from the industry?

WT: That's how I always saw it working out. I could continue putting music out on my own and in another ten years or so be able to financially support myself but I always knew it would be much easier if I had industry support for my music. So when Matador came along it wasn't really a hard decision to say yes to. It felt good because I knew I would be making some more money.

CP: What are some goals that you're working towards now?

WT: I would like to continue to make quality records and goals that I haven't hit yet are just making the sort of records that I wasn't able to make before. You can make a great record for zero dollars or you can make a great record for $50,000. I hope I've made some great records for zero dollars but I would like to start making the sorts of records that cost some money to make and that have that greatness to them when they're finished and that's what I am interested in pursuing.

CP: Has there been a moment so far that stands out to you as one that you really proud of, or an achievement that stands at the forefront of your mind as a something that was great in your career so far? 

WT: I played with Jandek as an outsider musician. We played together in LA and that was very satisfying. That was something that really didn't have too much to do with the success we'd been getting or with the critical acclaim and all that. It was more just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. We played at the venue and the promoter said that this Jandek concert was happening and I said we would love to be a part of that and we were put in contact and it ended up happening. That's a musician that I had been listening to for a number of years and meeting that artist and getting a chance to perform with them was a really a singular experience and that's the sort of thing that I look forward to happening in my life but it's not really the sort of thing you can plan for.

CP: What were some of the factors that made that so memorable? 

WT: It's an anonymous project that's been going on for a number of years since the '70s by this artist named Jandek who has been putting out record after record and they've probably got over 100 by this point— it's very strange and abstract music and they explore a lot of different sounds on different records. It's all about the music, there's no persona behind it or personality, or anyone you can contact behind it, so that's always been very interesting to me especially when Car Seat Headrest was starting, I sort of drew influence from that aesthetic.

CP: Do you ever have days where you struggle as an artist to find inspiration or stay motivated? What do you do to persevere and what is it that keeps you going?

WT: I think everyday I have to figure out what it is that I'm good at that day and it's different every day. Sometimes I will struggle for most of the day say recording vocals and I just won't be getting any good takes and I'll have to give it up but then I'll go off and I'll find some inspiration on lyrics instead or something entirely different. I might just have a good conversation with a friend and I think that's all about I can ask for from a day, to find out one thing that I was good at and do that for a bit that day.

CP: How would you describe Car Seat Headrest's sound? 

WT: I would call it a classical sound, not classical music but classical in a rock sense. We have a four-piece lineup which is two guitarists, bass and drums and we do pretty much what you would expect with those instruments but we just try and do it well and we try and work with the sound man to make it sound very good when we perform. I think we put on a good rock performance when we play and other people seem to agree with that so far.

CP: What I am getting from you is you have little interest in commercial success and fame but purely the essence of creating music and the yearning to feed your soul in terms of making something that you can be proud of that holds longevity and a desire to fulfill that passion just for the passion itself, is that right?

WT: Yeah, I think it would feel rather empty if that wasn't at the heart of it. I like being able to go back to my old albums and listen to them and get some satisfaction out of just having them there and when I'm working on an album in presence tense that's really why I'm trying to put as much effort as I do into my music so that in a year, in five years or ten years I can go back and be happy with what I was doing at the time. So yeah, longterm that's why I am doing it, to be happy with myself.

CP: You're obviously pursuing your passion, do you have any advice for others who have a dream and are yet to pursue their passion? 

WT: I've seen that struggle a lot but I don't know if I've ever really related to it because for me you have to do your thing if you want to do it and don't spend so much time worrying about how to do it, or when to do it, but just make a plan that makes sense.

CP: For anyone heading to Laneway, who may not be familiar with your sound yet, what would be one thing people should know about Car Seat Headrest?

WT: We put on a very good rock show and I think without knowing too much else about us you can come to our show and be pleasantly surprised or at least have a good time without thinking too hard about it. I think a lot of people have come to our shows and had a good time without knowing too much about digging too deep into the music. Even though the music is something that I put a lot of thought into, it's not necessarily something that you have to sit down at home and listen to, it can also be something that you just dance to.

Catch Car Seat Headrest at St. Jerome's Laneway Festival in Albert Park on Monday 30 January.

Published on January 18, 2017 by Fiona Connor
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