Yes, that’s Will Toledo underneath the mask. Do not be alarmed. The Car Seat Headrest frontman isn’t here to lure you toward the Dark Side or incite a biochemical warfare rave (at least not exactly).
After moving to Seattle in 2014 and releasing three acclaimed albums through venerable indie label Matador Records, the former Bandcamp prodigy has been hailed as one of the last decade’s great indie rock songwriters. A prolific artist with volumes of pre-indie-fame music online, Toledo’s scruffy guitar-driven songs and highly literate lyricism won over critics and fans alike, earning Car Seat a rabid following.
As the band’s popularity surged, playing to larger and larger crowds, the Virginia-raised singer/guitarist wanted to shake things up, sonically and visually, this time around.
“I was interested in pursuing the theatrical side of doing a live show,” Toledo says of the hazmat-esque get-up, made a little eerier by its pandemic debut. “Because as you start going to bigger venues, you naturally lose the feel of a rock show, which to me is a smaller, more intimate feel. … Once you go beyond that to the bigger rooms … you kinda have to bring something new to it. And for me, that was toning up the theatrical presentation of it.”
Ah, remember rock shows?
Hometown fans will have to wait a while to see Toledo — who otherwise has the demeanor of one of your more laid-back, intellectual college friends — in new-look concert mode after his midsummer Paramount Theatre date was canceled, along with the rest of his tour. (A version of the mask that he can sing through is still being worked on.) But at least they’ll get their first full glimpse of Car Seat Headrest’s aural makeover when the quartet’s new electro-charged album “Making a Door Less Open” arrives May 1.
The new direction isn’t quite Dylan-goes-electric shocking, as veteran guitar bands increasingly dabble with synthesizers and electronic production. However, the we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment comes early in the album (“MADLO” for shorthand) with the slick dance beat and the synthed-out whirs and glitches on opener “Weightlifters.”
“You want something that people won’t expect to start it off,” Toledo says of the song, one of the first designed specifically for this record. “It had this energy to it as well that I thought would kick off sort of a new era, a new phase of the band.”
The new visual presentation and palette-expanding sound stem in part from Car Seat’s comedic electronic dance music side project 1 Trait Danger, spearheaded by drummer Andrew Katz. During downtime on tour, Katz (formerly of local act Lost Triibe) would work on satirical synth tunes, enlisting Toledo, Ethan Ives (guitar/vocals) and Seth Dalby (bass). Sample lyric from a particularly funny raver-goof banger: “There’s a hookah in the back of my dad’s SUV.”
Initially, 1 Trait Danger was the working title of the new Car Seat record — Trait being the name of Toledo’s masked alter ego. Liking what he heard, Toledo eventually became “invested in the idea of using those sounds with Car Seat Headrest.”
“It’s always been hand in hand with rock music,” Toledo says of his connection with dance music. “I mean, a band like Queen, they made a lot of stuff that splits that borderline — ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’ There’s definitely been a history of disco versus rock, but coming up in the era where that’s already history, you see there’s not such a distance between the two.”
In his own listening habits, Toledo often takes more of a historical approach to music, considering himself more of a “digger” than someone with a “finger on the pulse of the music scene.” (The day we spoke, Toledo was coming off a Chopin-inspired binge sparked by a classical-music series he’s reading.) Last year he got hooked on music journalist Bob Stanley’s “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!,” a book on the modern history of pop music.
“Obviously pop, the genre, is based around the individual song as a unit rather than the record,” Toledo says. “So, I was experiencing music a lot in that way, just song by song, which affected how I was writing.”
The song-by-song approach that marks Car Seat’s restless new album is another shift for Toledo, coming off “Teens of Denial” and a meticulous reconstruction of his early-days “Twin Fantasy” LP — albums containing their own narrative arcs. “I’ve done a lot of records that felt like they had some sort of definitive statement to it,” Toledo says. “But I was interested in not doing that again. As an artist, I would rather not have all of my output follow the same rules and the same structure.”
More a move of functionality than artistic decision (at least initially), Toledo and Katz mixed together pieces from full-band studio sessions and tracks built entirely on a home computer until they were satisfied. The band’s releasing the album with slightly different tracklists on vinyl, CD and streaming services. The streaming version contains two alternate versions of the song “Deadlines” and a remixed “Hymn” that sounds like it was filtered through a disorienting 8-bit video game stuck on fast forward.
But for all its digitized sounds and pop ambitions, “MADLO” still feels like a rock record at its core, between songs like amphitheater-ready standout “There Must Be More Than Blood” and guitar-pop ditty “Martin,” which opens with a sprightly Nirvana-gone-indie-pop riff.
A number of musicians have delayed album releases, since touring is on pause during the pandemic. But Toledo wasn’t interested in holding “MADLO” up. “I wanted to stay with our commitment,” he says. “I’ve put out a lot of records already, because I was done basically, and I figured I’d just have the same mentality about it, even if people are not necessarily in the same state of being able to process art or music. You might as well put it out and just see what happens.”