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The May 2020 release of Making a Door Less Open broke Car Seat Headrest’s four-year hiatus from releasing new music. It also proved that the band will continue to push the limits of rock. Front man Will Toledo, working with drummer Andrew Katz, incorporated elements from the duo’s side project, 1 Trait Danger, to the album, introducing elements of hip-hop and EDM. Thanks to pandemic delays, the band’s tour to support the release was canceled. Now, nearly two years after the release, Car Seat Headrest has hit the road—again redefining how rock is made and played. Each live show has a “masquerade” theme and asks audiences to show up with open minds in terms of genre, costumery, and just exactly what Car Seat Headrest is all about.
Toledo’s penchant for creating genre-defying music traces back to Leesburg, Virginia, where Car Seat Headrest began—literally—in the back of his parents’ car. In what Toledo has described as a search for privacy, he wrote his first albums in parking lots near Loudoun County High School where he was a student in the mid-aughts.
“When I was growing up, it was this quiet, suburban, almost rural area,” Toledo tells City Paper. “I think having that quietness and having that openness in my environment allowed me to make music that was a little farther removed from the norm … stuff that could take longer to unfold and be denser and more textured.”
In the years since, Toledo took Car Seat Headrest from a solo project to a band (that now consists of himself, Katz, Seth Dalby, and Ethan Ives), graduated from the College of William & Mary, and signed with Matador Records. But his time at the Virginia university, including his involvement in the student radio station WCWM, helped grow his fanbase and his indie rock stardom.
“That was a really formative time, for me and for Car Seat Headrest,” says Toledo. “When you’re brewing something up trying to make some music, you’re sort of looking around at what your scenery is and trying to get influenced from it, get inspiration from it. And [I] remember just those old brick streets of Williamsburg and the old dirt roads.”
From the back of a car to his college dorm room and, now, his home just outside of Seattle, Toledo has continued to cultivate a lo-fi sound that Pitchfork once described as “dense, confounding music that most often captures the giddy thrill of having access to recording equipment, of finally [putting] a sound to the voice in your head.” His lyrics, which he says may be influenced by his time as an English major, often earn praise for encapsulating a relatable angst.
This angst, shining through in 2016’s Teens of Denial, earned more critical praise for Car Seat Headrest and marked a new era of on-label life. For devoted fans, though, the years that followed brought little in the way of new music. Car Seat Headrest was focused on re-recording and re-releasing their 2011 album Twin Fantasy, which Toledo originally produced while at William & Mary. The four-year gap left the frontman plenty of time to brainstorm new music and think about how he next wanted to leave his mark on rock.
Inspired by David Bowie’s 1976 Station to Station, Toledo knew that with Making a Door Less Open he wanted to create something that “was of its time, yet very unique.” He liked that Station to Station tracks were influenced by other 1970s hits and also acted as a collection of short stories. To achieve a similar effect, Toledo started Making a Door by studying the top-streamed tracks on Spotify in 2018 and 2019, breaking down what made the songs work. “I can’t even name you a lot of the songs that I was listening to, because it was just stuff that would show up on the chart,” he recalls. “I feel like I got a crash course in modern production.” He noticed a pattern—the songs that charted well featured “simple rhythms” and consisted mostly of “drums and voice.” Replicating that in his own work, Toledo pivoted from more guitar-heavy sounds to electronic-inspired songs like “Can’t Cool Me Down.”
From there, Toledo also worked to make sure each song on Making a Door Less Open could stand on its own without the context of the broader album. In the past, he says, albums focused on one overarching story, such as a relationship. Almost like folk songs, the goal with his new record was to create an “album full of little moments.” For instance, he wrote “Can’t Cool Me Down” about a time when he was sick and feverish on tour. Demonstrating the independence and versatility of each song, Car Seat Headrest chose to record the lyric video for “There Must Be More Than Blood” with just guitar and vocals.
1 Trait Danger, Toledo’s side project with Katz, has also influenced Car Seat Headrest’s latest music. Starting in 2018 with the release of 1 Trait High, Katz and Toledo formed the comedic outlet as a way to create entirely separate music and have fun. Featuring satirical lyrics and “electronica-meets-rap-meets-rock” style, 1 Trait Danger also began to take on distinctive visual elements. Toledo and Katz became characters, even serving as the basis for two video games. Toledo’s alter ego, Trait, wears a gas mask.
The side project peeked its head through the re-recording of Twin Fantasy, but holds a new role with Making a Door Less Open—the track “Deadlines (Thoughtful)” borrows synths from 1 Trait Danger’s 2018 song, “D R O V E M Y C A R.” Additionally, Trait takes the stage with Car Seat Headrest, performing live in his distinctive mask. Toledo says this character is a “simple” one, a lovable “trickster” calling to mind the masks of ancient and medieval comedy.
“[Trait] is kind of a strange combination of some sort of romantic ’60s singer and weird, amped-up ’90s cartoon energy. But, I feel like someone else could wear the mask too and bring out a different element to him.”
When Car Seat Headrest takes the stage at The Anthem on April 2, it’s Trait who will greet Washington, D.C. Performing as his alter ego, Toledo says helps “break up a few of the expectations of a Car Seat Headrest show, or just a rock show in general, and have it be more open and ambiguous. A rock show is fun, but it’s a different sort of fun when you’re playing into a character and letting yourself do something different than you normally would.”
In fact, Toledo says the band wants the audience to feel free to come as “someone else” for the night too. In this indie rock masquerade, anything can be possible.
Car Seat Headrest plays The Anthem on April 2. theanthemdc.com. $35–$55.