Car Seat Headrest

A Guide To Car Seat Headrest’s Pre-Fame Bandcamp Era

Most indie upstarts would give their fretting hand for Car Seat Headrest’s origin story: a college-aged kid strums into a laptop in his parents’ 2000 Toyota Sienna, hits it big on Bandcamp, signs a deal with Matador Records, and summarily rocks Madison Square Garden. But for a time, the band’s leader and sole constant member Will Toledo struggled with this narrative, feeling it had eclipsed his songwriting abilities.

“I guess I’m coming to terms with the fact that what’s talked about isn’t necessarily the music itself,” the then-24-year-old told The Washington Post in 2017. “There’s a focus on the narratives and the people over the music. That’s something I’m going to have to accept.” One year later, he released Twin Fantasy, a studio re-recording of a Bandcamp album from 2011, and Metacritic deemed it to have “universal acclaim.”

Today (May 1), the band continues its victory lap by releasing his twelfth album Making A Door Less Open. Sure, the Car Seat-curious can start with their 2015 Matador debut Teens of Style and still be stocked with hours of indie-underdog jams. But Toledo’s back catalogue on Bandcamp, much of which is pay-what-you-want, uniquely shows the whole iceberg of his life’s work, not just the tip poking out of the waves.

As one might expect, Toledo’s early work is murky and sometimes inaccessible; you’ll have to comb through prevalent tape hiss, peaking waveforms, and obfuscated vocals to find the hidden gems. But for those eager to fill in the blank of Toledo’s sometimes-overly-neat story arc, here’s Discogs’ guide to every album that Car Seat Headrest released on Bandcamp prior to their breakthrough.

A Guide to Pre-Fame Car Seat Headrest

On sale for a buck and featuring the headrest-turned-recording-booth as album art, the first Car Seat Headrest album quietly grew out of Toledo’s high school project Nervous Young Men after it failed to launch.

“No one was really going for it,” he admitted in the 2018 documentary I Haven’t Done Sh*t This Year. “So I figured I would kind of turn and do something more anonymous, more experimental, and just post it online and basically not share it with anyone and see if anyone picked up on it.”

The first of four numbered albums that Toledo called “not good material… just kind of raw,” 1 is no easy listen, but it’s less taxing to listen to than one would think; the artist as a young man still had a knack for pacing and variety.

Anyone looking to world-build the Toledoverse would be advised to pick up the first brick: “Cesare the Somnambulist,” which Toledo called “the first Car Seat Headrest song written for Car Seat Headrest.”

And if you can sift through the disembodied screeches (“My Dad Just Passed Out”) and half-baked students’ laments (“You Have to Go to College”) to find them, “Good Sunday” and “Kid War” might get lodged in your head.

“I probably would not have been able to make this album if I had thought anyone was going to listen to it,” Toledo wrote on Bandcamp, and his lack of self-consciousness puts 1 a rung above.

Featuring expanded range yet still lacking a coherent center, 2 is a degree more grating than its predecessor. There are flashes of the artist Toledo would become, like on “The Majestic Hotel,” which suggests the early Beatles fumbling through GarageBand, and the eerie “…Then It Will Be Exactly the Same as Earth,” which sounds like Jandek’s “I’m Ready” or Neil Young’s “Will to Love” channeled through a teenage mind.

But Toledo still hadn’t learned to be easy on the ears, and “Smokezone,” “It’s You, You’re the Asshole Who Made This” and “90” are less songs than dentists drills. With three other numbered albums surrounding it and half a dozen more self-releases to come, it’s tough to imagine reaching for 2 a second time.

3 begins excitingly: an infinitely multi-tracked chorus of Toledos that builds to… not much, just a drum track like Chuck Taylors in a drier. No matter, though: 3 is better than 1 and 2 both and offers a clearer view of Car Seat Headrest’s future.

Throughout, Toledo swings for classic sounds: Teenage Fanclub-style power-pop (“Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fag”), weirdo balladry a la the Beach Boys’ ‘Smiley Smile’ (“Beach Weak”) and Spacemen 3-style drone (“Sun Hot”).

Best of all is “Oh! Starving,” which (despite the title’s nod to the Fabs) resembles a lost cut from The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. Toledo clearly saw things in the tune; he would record and release it twice more for 2012’s Starving While Living and 2015’s Teens of Style.

On the last of his numbered albums, the Toledo we know today (mostly) arrived. Finally, the songs transcended the rough sound: “A Bridge to Never Cross Until There’s No Doubt That He’s Dead” is an earworm of an opener that would fit snugly on Guided by Voices’ tape-recorded 1994 classic Bee Thousand.

Even the less distinct tunes, like “Even The Who Knows” and “The Ghost of Bob Saget” go down easier this time around because of their proximity to better songs (“Not ‘Kidding’ Around,” “Feel Like Daniel Johnston”) and because their low fidelity is dreamy rather than dismal.

Maybe because of stronger songwriting, maybe because a young Toledo seemingly discovered the “normalize” function on his recording software, 4 flows from start to finish.

“B-sides and rarities and generally just awful shit” is how Toledo described this one. (He added a caveat seven years later: “Calm TF down I don’t actually hate this album.”) Call it truth in advertising: Little Pieces of Paper With “No” Written On Them contains 20 stillborn tracks that apparently didn’t fit on 1, 2, 3, and 4.

With the possible exception of “100 Minutes of Solitude,” a promising track from the scrapped Sunburned Shirts EP that was subsumed by this album, Little Pieces of Paper With “No” Written On Them is strictly for the completists in Car Seat Headrest’s fanbase. (Which, given the band’s rabid and occasionally noxious subreddit, certainly exist.)

Featuring five songs (“Sunburned Shirts,” “The Drum,” “Something Soon,” “No Passion” and “Strangers”) that would later be resurrected for Teens of Style, My Back Is Killing Me Baby has sneaky longevity. This is despite the songs being, as Toledo later said, lyrically “incomplete.”

“I consider [it] the first really solid CSH release,” Toledo told Stereogum in 2015. “It’s guitar-heavy and there’s a lot of warmth to it.” Still, “It [has] mostly filler lyrics that I [later] rewrote to be more meaningful,” he admitted to The Montgomery News the same year.

Words aside, My Back Is Killing Me continues to encode the DNA of Car Seat Headrest’s identity; brash guitar bends, lopsided melodies, and Toledo’s vocal croak permeate the album. Although Toledo “never really fully intended those [recordings] to be the end products,” these test-runs stand tall on their own.

A loose concept album about a college relationship, Twin Fantasy “was inspired by real events,” Toledo told Rolling Stone in 2018. “There’s so much layered on top of it… but it definitely deals with events that were important to me at the time and still are.”

Twin Fantasy contains songs that are part of the core Car Seat Headrest canon, like “Beach Life-in-Death,” “Stop Smoking” and “Cute Thing,” but much like My Back Is Killing Me Baby, Still, “I kind of felt that these were demos,” he explained in the same interview. “I felt like I could re-record it better.”

And so he did; determined to nail the album “a pop record” more than a slapdash indie production, he entered Decade Music Studios in Chicago with guitarist Ethan Ives, bassist Seth Dalby, and drummer Andrew Katz and banged out Twin Fantasy with a bigger budget.

Record Collector summed up the new version of Twin Fantasy as “a perfectionist giving a great album the full workout it deserved.” And if you want to hear the original a la carte, it’s still hanging out on Bandcamp.

A Bandcamp commenter sums up Monomania perfectly: “Makes me feel really bad. 10/10.” Inspired by Théodore Géricault’s Monomania of Theft, an entry in his “portraits of the insane” series, Toledo scrapped the album title Portrait of a Lady Man and made an album befitting its namesake’s despondent mood.

Gone is the innocence of 1 or the ebullience of Twin Fantasy; Monomania (not to be confused with the Deerhunter album of the same name) hobbles around with a bitter, wounded heart.

This vibe doesn’t quite fit Car Seat Headrest, but even if it did, Toledo seems to fire his internal editor on Monomania. “Misheard Lyrics” is five and a half minutes long but feels twice that, and “Souls” wanders into an uncomfortable sexual territory for over 10 minutes.

Most distractingly, “Anchorite (Love You Very Much)” is spiral-bound poetry that doesn’t quite fit with the musician’s more clever works: “Yes, I know in your eyes we were never really lovers as such / So I hope that you find someone who loves you very much / And I hope that you find someone you can love just as much.”

This five-song EP is thankfully a less ponderous listen than Monomania, although it shares its lyrical themes of booze and orgasms.

Heading further into the realm of programmed drums and droning organs, Starving While Living comes off less like Car Seat Headrest than one of Bandcamp’s countless other MacBook solo projects.

The EP is notable for a remake of the excellent “Oh! Starving,” which foreshadows his future reexamination of Twin Fantasy.

Named after Toledo’s pre-Car Seat juvenilia project, Nervous Young Man is another odds-and-ends collection like Little Pieces of Paper With “No” Written On Them. “Long, dense, layered songs that no one liked,” Toledo wrote during a 2017 Reddit AMA, a description that mostly holds true.

The Reddit commenters begged to differ, though, in regard to “The Gun Song,” a 16-minute suite that’s inadvertently Toledo’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” his “November Rain,” his “The End.” Perhaps the GarageBand poet said it best: “Hardest part was knowing when a song was finished.”

Toledo’s final pre-fame album (billed as an “EP” despite being over an hour-long) is just as meandering as Nervous Young Man but feels less like a big statement. On the 14-minute opener “The Ending of Dramamine,” he puts on the cruise control, letting the thinly clicking drum tracks and warbling keys do the talking.

Besides two tracks linked by a science fiction conceit (“Beast Monster Thing [Love Isn’t Love Enough]” and “Hey, Space Cadet [Beast Monster Thing In Space]”, How to Leave Town sounds rudderless like Toledo had reached a saturation point for DIY music that seems to have a cursor hovering over it.

A year later, Toledo was signed to the indies, and these Bandcamp albums intended for south of 100 fans were suddenly being consumed en masse. He’d eventually be a draw at Pitchfork Music Festival, cover and be covered by Smash Mouth, and perform on Fallon while abetted by the Roots.

But if Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule proves correct, here’s proof that Toledo spent 10,000 hours in the woodshed before making the scene.

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