One of indie-rock’s most talked-about new bands of the year, Car Seat Headrest did not even have copies of its acclaimed new record in stores until last Friday. That’s because the first 50,000 or so copies of the LP had to be destroyed after a legal rift with Ric Ocasek.
“I can’t blame him for wanting to maintain control of his property,” Car Seat Headrest’s driving force Will Toledo said of the Cars frontman. “I just wish it had been easier to contact him in the first place.”
One of those twisty-turvy moments found Toledo channeling a few bars of the Cars’ hit “Just What I Needed” in an original song called “Not What I Needed.” It wasn’t a “sample” in the hip-hop sense, but Car Seat Headrest’s new label Matador Records still needed to (and failed to) get that sort of clearance from Ocasek’s publishing company. Toledo had to re-record the tune without the Cars snippet, and Matador had to re-press the record once he did.
“I thought it was just a fun thing to throw in, something that happened while I was writing the song,” Toledo recounted. “If somebody had told me, ‘You can’t do that,’ I would’ve taken it out, which I did in the end. But that conversation didn’t happen until the very last minute.”
The good news is that the record in question has been available online since May and already stands up as one of the best rock albums of the year.
Titled “Teens of Denial,” it weaves between spazzy, off-kilter, Pavement-style sonic play to more straight-ahead Guided by Voices-style power-pop while Toledo as a singer/songwriter comes across like a manic-depressive version of the Kinks’ Ray Davies or Jonathan Richman.
By the time he moved to Seattle in late 2014, he had already put out a staggering 11 albums under the name Car Seat Headrest, which he posted for free on the DIY music-streaming site Bandcamp. At that point, there was no band, just him.
For the earliest of those albums, Toledo did not have access to recording studios and was uncomfortable about recording his vocal parts at his parents’ house where he could be overheard. So he would set up shop in the back seats of cars, which he would park in a back corner lot of a Target or grocery store when no one else was around.
Hence, the band name. The cars’ headrests were always in front of him as he sang.
“It really was the most private place I could find at the time,” Toledo explained, downplaying the role the unusual setting played in the recordings. “Doing vocals is only about 10 to 20 percent of what goes into making a record, and that’s really all I ever did there.
“Now that I get to work in real studios, I’ll probably never go back. The energy is just so much better — and, not to mention, so is the comfort level.”
As for all those Bandcamp albums, Toledo said simply, “I look at them as Phase One of my career, and I’m definitely in Phase Two now. There’s decent stuff on all of them, but there’s also a lot of stuff I’d be embarrassed to release now, just from a quality standpoint.”
“It took a while for me to have enough material to start demo-ing it,” he recalled. “Part of what Car Seat Headrest had become was something very indulgent, using a lot of different pieces of songs and kind of sticking everything in. I wanted to be more prudent and whittle things down with this record. Which didn’t exactly work with every song.”
The latter quip was directed at “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” an 11½-minute epic in which the giant cruise ship that ran aground off Italy symbolizes the turmoil Toledo felt in his own life as he entered post-college life. Other songs off the record capture a similar anxiousness and angst in a shorter time, including the four-minute leadoff track “Fill in the Blank,” now in steady rotation locally at 89.3 the Current.
“That one was sort of always designed as the opening statement, a rather straightforward pop-rock song to outline the themes on the record,” Toledo said, homing in on the song’s refrain, “You have no right to be depressed.”
“That’s me trying to talk myself out of whatever funk I was in at the time, whatever was making me moody. I felt like I had to snap out of it. There’s a lot of that on the record.”
Having a new band, and — as of last week — a new LP in stores has certainly raised Toledo’s spirits of late and changed his outlook from the solitary existence of earlier albums. “I’ll be happy to shed the persona that’s on this record,” he noted, “and make an entirely different record next time.”
A Cars cover album may be out, though.