Oh, the internet. It's the good intention-paved path for some; the yellow-bricked road for others. As a route to success, it's full of ruts, detours and millions of other travelers all trying to reach the same destination. With hard work, luck or both, it can be a journey worth taking. Just ask musician Will Toledo, whose debut studio album Teens of Denial (Matador, May 2016) may be his introductory release, but it's certainly not his first.
At the ripe old age of 23, Toledo has recorded and released 13 albums. That's not a typo. He has released 13 albums. What's more, Toledo has produced 13 albums of innovative, addictive tracks, some of which Rolling Stone described as "impressive" and "yearning."
The man who performs under the moniker Car Seat Headrest was young when he began writing, playing and recording what would evolve into songs The New Yorker called "so well formed, with such a divine lilt and of such sturdy beauty," but he wasn't a toddler. He was just prolific and driven. In May 2010, he self-released the simply titled 1 on his Bandcamp page (carseatheadrest.bandcamp.com). In June, he released 2. In July it was 3, in August it was 4 and Toledo finished off the year in December with Little Pieces Of Paper With "No" Written On Them. Toledo released two albums in 2011, two in 2012, one in 2013 and one in 2014. His music then caught the ear of Matador Records' co-owner Chris Lombardi and, in October 2015, the renowned independent label released Teens of Style, 11 re-recorded Car Seat Headrest tracks. The album was met with a great deal of positive response—but his 2016 follow up,Teens of Denial, added nitro to Toledo's tank.
"The speed at which it jumped from one level to the next is striking," Toledo said. "It was something I'd definitely been working towards for a while. Moving up to it was very slow work—I can count the number of followers I was gaining month-to-month on one hand. Basically, between Teens of Style and Teens of Denial, it completely made that jump."
For a self-described introvert, the kind of attention Car Seat Headrest has received in the last year could be overwhelming or seem misguided—Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Vice's Noisey have all published profiles and/or favorable reviews. Toledo said he isn't "wistful" for the days of recording in the solitude of his bedroom, dorm room or his parents' car—from which he took the name Car Seat Headrest. He appreciates what the rush of awareness has done for his career—even when it has resulted in some odd situations—but he isn't about to veer off course.
"Like the weird stuff that's been happening lately," Toledo said. "Smashmouth tweeted at us that they thought 'Drunk Drivers' [a track on Teens of Denial] was the best song of the year. Warren Buffett just introduced us at Maha Fest. We've been in the headlines a lot more than I was really expecting, but I consider it a good thing. For me, I'm still mainly focused on the music and creating something new."
Staying true to his vision, Toledo is also mindful of the fans who were there from the first and those who've recently found Car Seat Headrest.
"It's a case of different worlds," he said. "There was this grassroots fan base I was building up over the years. Then there was the music industry that wasn't taking notice of it at all. At the time, it didn't seem there was a single person from that world who was tuning in, although since my success, I've heard more and more people claiming to have been longtime fans. No one was making a move in that world. It was all about the smaller, internet circle [where] my music was getting circulated around. It's quite interesting now. Currently, the industry noise is drowning out the smaller voices of the people who've been in it longer. I'm interested to see how they'll end up mixing together or contradicting each other."
With more than 150 songs in his catalog and his ability to freshen up even his oldest work, Toledo has enough good material to do very little and still put out a new album a year for a decade, or release a dense retrospective and then take a few years off. That's an idea Toledo couldn't be less interested in.
"A box set was actually mentioned when I first started talking to Matador, but I shot that down," he said. "I just like to keep each release special for now, which means not dumping all those old albums out on CD but focusing on one-at-a-time stuff."
Though one of Toledo's concerns is getting stuck in an "indie-rock" genre-jam, he is also cognizant that where his career is concerned, he's in control.
"It's mainly up to me whether this fades as fast as hype does sometimes or whether it can turn into something sustainable," he said. "That part of it I'm not so worried about, because I feel like I've got good material left in me. Honestly, I don't think Teens of Denial is my best work. I can do better, and I'm excited to prove myself. I'm more worried about getting stuck in a particular definition that people like: indie-rock revival. ...
"It's kind of a write-off to be satisfied with the definition indie-rock because there are always other places I'd like to go and I really wouldn't want to be pegged down as just an indie-rock artist," he added. "I'd like the potential for social mobility to remain, but I think that's also mainly up to me and what I do on future albums. It's all stuff I need to keep in mind when I'm working on new music. As long as I continue to try and do my best, it can't hurt."