Car Seat Headrest exhumes old songs for ‘Teens of Style’

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On the cover of Car Seat Headrest’s first major-label record, “Teens of Style,” a skeletal monster, sharp-toothed and youthful, is playing some sort of elongated brass instrument. Dressed in a muted-pink jacket and hat, with a gold chain dangling between arthritic hands, the creature blows the horn with hunched passion, like some soulful, other-worldly Clarence Clemons.

Car Seat Headrest's album "Teens of Style" (Matador Records) is out now.

Car Seat Headrest’s album “Teens of Style” (Matador Records) is out now.

Equal parts ancient and modern — an exhumed fossil dressed up like a roadie for Fun. — the cover art reflects Car Seat Headrest’s approach to “Teens of Style,” an album comprising older songs, once rough-around-the-edges, now rerecorded in a proper studio and polished as new.

CSH’s only founding member, Will Toledo, 22, says the album art was inspired by an ancient Egyptian poem he found in the non-fiction book “The Story of Civilization,” by Will Durant. Toledo read a few spooky lines of the poem — think dead kings and fallen temples — and his imagination went wild, creating this skeletal, “agent of death”-type figure, dressed like a teenager and blowing a horn.

Over the phone on a recent Monday afternoon, Toledo starts digging around his home in Seattle, Wash., for a copy of the CD, so he can find the exact quote. “I kind of like looking at old stuff that reflects ideas and thoughts that have stayed true in contemporary times,” he says of reading old history books.

“Once I had that [poem] and I knew I wanted to use it, I sort of assembled a few things in the music that would reflect it,” including the album art, says the detail-oriented musician, who had already recorded 11 albums on his laptop before Matador Records discovered and signed him.

The nods to “ancient excavation” peppered throughout the album – the title of the song “Bad Role Models, Old Idols Exhumed,” for example — “tie the theme for the album together, as it is a compilation of older material,” he says.

All but one track on “Teens of Style,” CSH’s eccentric, lo-fi mix-tape opus, were cherry-picked from Toledo’s back catalogue, a dense series of DIY albums he recorded in dorm rooms and in the backseat of his car where only the headrests (nudge nudge) could hear. The albums were all uploaded to music-share website Band Camp, and from there CSH’s audience slowly grew.

Will Toledo, of Car Seat Headrest

Will Toledo

Making his debut studio album a compilation of re-recording’s “was my idea,” Toledo says. “I actually came to [Matador] with the idea when we first met. I’d sort of been thinking about it already before they ever contacted me. I always liked going over older material and improving on it or pushing it closer to what I originally envisioned for it.

“When I first recorded these songs, I was just putting them up on Band Camp to a very small audience,” he continues. “I never really fully intended those to be the end products. I wanted to go into the studio and do them, but I just didn’t have the resources at the time. So the quality of productions suited the size of the operation.”

Cutting an album (or more) per year, Toledo, through music, documented his late teens and early twenties with lucid self-awareness. Riff-heavy, Strokes-like mumbling tracks, such as “Something Soon,” display the songwriter’s gift for intelligent angst, as he mingles allusions to Raymond Carver and James Joyce alongside declarations like, “I want to kick my dad in the shins.”

Going back over those old songs, Toledo “didn’t resist the urge to” rewrite lyrics. “I don’t think it was embarrassment, so much as just feeling like [the lyrics] were incomplete. It was mostly filler lyrics that I rewrote to be more meaningful. Anything that was meaningful the first time around I tried to keep.”

Unlike past albums — where Toledo handled every aspect of the recording process — making “Teens of Style” was an exercise in relinquishing control.

Car Seat Headrest, with openers NE-HI and Mumblr.
Where: Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave., Philadelphia.
When: Dec. 6. Doors: 8 p.m. Show: 9 p.m.
Tickets: $10.
Info: Call (215) 739-9684, or visit JohnnyBrendas.com

“It’s definitely a different way of [recording],” he says of working with a producer and accepting input from the label. “But all the albums I grew up on were group projects. It’s hard to think of a piece of art that really is just a work of one person and one person alone.

“We sort of romanticize the idea of the auteur who can do everything himself, but more and more I’ve come to appreciate the group projects. Because I think you really can do more with a group of people than you can do on your own. So I’ve definitely shifted my mindset from reducing all help to really trying to find the people who can best help me,” he says.

Considering his unorthodox route to a record label — he was pretty much cold-called by Matador cofounder Chris Lombardi, who discovered his music on Band Camp — Toledo is still adjusting to the trappings of professional music making. The bigger the project, the more there is to manage.

As he searches the “Teens of Style” CD for the Egyptian poem, for instance, Toledo realizes something’s not right. “They didn’t put in quite the quote I wanted,” he says, noticing the oversight for the first time. It’s not a big deal, he assures me; only one line in the poem was misquoted. Even so, “that sucks. I should have overseen that a little better.”

Not to worry, though. Toledo will keep getting plenty of practice. After all, Car Seat Headrest’s follow-up record, “Teens of Denial,” is already due out next year.

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