Best Music of 2016

Rookie of the Year: Car Seat Headrest

on December 15, 2016, 12:00am

The world folded in this year, origami-like, fading into a flurry of conflict and chaos. Reality untied, unzipped, unstrapped, and a sense of toxic fear seeped into our psyche. While the demented rhythms of life on the Internet were blindingly loud, Will Toledo has a pretty simple response: “Right now I’m just trying to do what seems important,” the Car Seat Headrest frontman shrugs. 2016 was a year full of larger than life pains, of political insanity and tragic deaths. The proposed solutions were often surreal and extreme as well, the public looking to god-like figures for escape and relief. We need our spirits lifted; we need to question what is important. But rather than act as a rock god, a mythic muse, or a social warrior, Toledo did the dirty work of personal exploration on his rise to prominence, confronting the intricate feelings we all face and airing it all out for global catharsis.

In these wobbly days, people are looking for music to stimulate them, to enlighten them, or even to sober them up. Others are looking for something to reflect their fight, something tear-jerking or nutty or sickly sweet or simply to add another perspective. These practical categories are built within our bones, in order to find the keys to solve our infinite deluge of questions. Through it all, Toledo has proven headstrong and personal at a moment when we all felt we didn’t know how.

Car Seat Headrest // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

That deeply genuine emotion resides in both his songs and his life in general, one aspect why he has become the poster child of a new generation of BandCamp-based indie rockers. He cracks open his mind and offers it to the listener, whatever may come out. “I think there are some people who react differently to the music and feel that it’s either condescending or just pandering to the public,” Toledo says in the sort of soft-spoken but decisive voice you might expect from the author of the thoughtful, intricate, bold Teens of Denial. “But that’s definitely a fine balance to maintain, trying to express things without feeling like you’re forcing your views onto someone.”

The fact that those views are so intensely personal are a product of the current environment and the social anxiety that can make such a conflict-driven world particularly difficult to navigate. But we all have to do just that, and Toledo’s open expression acts as an inspiring and powerful vessel. “In this social climate, it seems important to be active in it, at least a little bit,” he says. “If there’s any time period when people should be coming down to earth and taking a good look at what’s going on, it’s right now.”

From the response that he’s received for Teens of Denial — and the close to a dozen other records that new listeners discovered had been uploaded on his Bandcamp over the last few years — most people latched onto just how important his explorative songs were, both for Toledo’s personal growth and their own. He’s morphed and shape-shifted in the past year, an almost Hulk-like transition; in fact, Toledo feels he’s become a new musician. “I definitely think the kind of personality surrounding Teens of Denial and the sort of phase I went through is markedly over,” he says. Even if he will never be rid of the social anxiety, existential questions, and the like that fueled the record, it’s as if the process of writing and producing the songs was an exorcism, a purification process his spirit needed to bend through, break under, and rebuild in spite of.

To do this, Toledo writes from what he calls a more “solipsistic angle,” a way to convey tremendous feelings through the individual perspective. “I think it’s just an easier angle to start a song with ‘I feel this’ or ‘I feel that,’ and then you just expand it from there,” he says. “It’s harder to start a scene from scratch than it is to start from emotions when you’re working in music.” Toledo is a passionate supplicant, urging away from succumbing to human frailty. Take, for example, the unburdened, iridescent song of the year “Drunk Drivers/ Killer Whales”, in which drunk drivers aren’t just drunk drivers, but an entire society who cannot think, see, or move in a straight line because their thoughts are so pockmarked and inebriated from depression and anxiety. Or “Something Soon” from 2015’s Teens of Style, on which he sings, “My head is my head is my head is my head is my head is my head is.” It repeats, over and over again, with care and concern, in the hopes that perhaps something might shift this time around. Toledo delivers these clawing feelings in such a way that the listener swells in confidence, deep in their bones, the raw emotion allowing them to sink inside before you even realize what they are. “I want to romanticize my headfuck,” he wonders, his words chasing after a swirling choral harmony.

car seat headrest

In typical Car Seat Headrest fashion, Toledo is already in the process of recording the follow-up to that breakthrough record, with a backlog of material ready to go after that. Toledo and his band have holed up in Chicago with producer Adam K. Stillson, spending two weeks in the studio, sleeping in the same building in order to keep the creative process flowing. “I just want to be doing art and doing it well for as long as I can, and I have to be adaptable in that way,” Toledo says, explaining his proclivity for being open to whenever creativity strikes. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s happened this year that I would never have expected to happen. I just want to keep my options open.” In that way, the songwriter seems to be a constant blur of whirling motion, driven to perpetually create and think. That drive to chase whatever is important keeps him constantly producing and writing. “If I were to just take a break for a while, I’m not really sure what I would do,” he laughs. “Hopefully later on in life I can relax a little bit, take some vacations, but right now it’s really just time for me to keep pushing myself. I’d like to make all sort of different types of art, but right now I am a musician, and it would behoove me to make another album after the last one … and that’s what I’m doing.”

Recently, Toledo has spoken in multiple outlets about his appreciation of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, going so far in a Talkhouse piece as to describe Kanye as “the Everyman, the archetypal protagonist of the Christian morality play.” Toledo, in a sense, must see a commonality between this new Kanye and himself, a willingness to lay out every messy thought process gobbled up and up for grabs for public consumption. “I like trying to be open about things, especially with the indie music scene,” he offers, eagerly. “I feel like there’s a lot of the mysterious artist archetype, where you have the music and not much else in terms of public statements or personality. That’s frustrating to me as an artist because it ends up not feeling like a community.” And it’s that drive for communion and community that has felt especially important in 2016.

Toledo’s own community has seen a lot of changes recently, as well. He went from being a solo act recording bedroom indie rock and putting together his own BandCamp page to leading a Matador-signed band, playing late-night TV gigs, and touring extensively across the world. With that growth has come plenty of opportunity to over-complicate a process in which Toledo had excelled. Retaining his individual strength could be problematic with all those new demands and responsibilities, but he’s ready to face the challenge and continue his community-focused approach. “I’m getting plenty of advice,” he says, pausing to laugh a little. “I’m trying to ignore it as much as I can. I’m really more interested in working with people who are closer to my level, both in terms of age and station, and trying to build stuff up from the ground rather than taking too much more from the top of the industry. From here on out, I would like to try and divide from that as much as possible, and try to do my own thing, without blowing it, basically.” Toledo likes to keep a close eye on who he’s working with, making sure they share his push for addressing important issues. That means, in part, working lean, keeping the clutter to a minimum. Toledo manages a lot of the band’s work himself, only hiring a business manager “so they can do our taxes and pay us.”

While some may see social media as a necessary evil, and others as a tool for self-promotion, Toledo sees it as yet another continuation of both his drive for community and the opportunity to address life’s important issues. As one element, he keeps an active Tumblr page, tackling everything from his own anxiety to musical obsessions to political opinions — the latter a topic that he’s unafraid to address. And, as much frustration as he feels with the current political sphere, he sees it as an opportunity to speak powerfully and use the pedestal he’s arrived at. “Art doesn’t come from a place of peace; it comes from a place of unrest, and a lot of great art gets produced in times of stress,” he explains. “That’s just because you’re driven more towards that, that is more important.”

Car Seat Headrest // Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes

A part of his distaste for the mysterious rock star trope means offering something more of himself, determining what the conversation will be by offering up substantive thoughts. “I’m interested to see how I can approach the next project that will highlight what I like about the music and try and diminish the more negative aspects of public appearance,” he explains. But, like it or not, Toledo is becoming a bit of a rock star himself. In the last year alone, he moved from releasing a massive, critically acclaimed album to touring half the year, all seemingly without taking a breath. But despite all the drastic changes, Toledo still focuses on the things that drive him, the things that stick out as important. “At the heart of it, I still feel like I’m in control of the part that I care about, as far as the music and being allowed to make it do what I want and to be good to me,” he says, simplifying the seemingly complexity without batting an eye.

True to form, Toledo found a way to balance 2016’s symbols of darkness and the potential for true power. “We started covering David Bowie’s ‘Five Years’ recently. That whole album was helpful, because it made me recognize that this isn’t the first time that it’s felt like the end of the world,” he says, equally cognizant of the pain that even Bowie’s name can conjure and the cosmic dark comedy and absurdity of the situation. And yet only Toledo can convey all that in a simple sentence or a single song.

At the end of 2016 and Toledo’s exorcism of its darkness, he’s setting his sights on a new focus for 2017: “Really, all I can say at this point is that it’s about love,” he says reluctantly about his next album, as if not ready to sum up his latest big, important topic. The peculiar thing about Toledo’s music, something which fans relate to because of its indie rock and folk-ified dependency, was precisely what he offered, holding back at first only to unravel, revealing every little idiosyncrasy. His music swells in odd spaces, feels insurgent and intimate, challenging private moments of his life with bundles of precisely chosen words fastened together. Must we sit and listen to a songwriter’s somber telescope because we would hope that there’s resolution at the end of his suffering or because it’s easier to stomach someone else’s pain in order to process our own? Or, maybe, just maybe, pain doesn’t change, just our capacity to withstand it. Knowing our artists are flawed, as Toledo readily admits, allows a sense of comfort in emotional harmony.

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