The last time I saw Car Seat Headrest live was January 2014 in a living room in Virginia. There were twelve or fifteen other people in attendance, people drifting listlessly between the dining and living rooms, picking at bowls of nuts and candy, chatting idly. Half the live members of Car Seat Headrest were people I knew from middle school. They and the band they shared the night with alternated songs, sacrificing supremacy, splitting a drummer, switching in old members (there as audience members) to play a stripped down version of “Maud Gone.” It was cozy. Casual. After the show, some other attendees took to belting Taylor Swift covers from the songbook that was perched on the piano.
Since that winter when I last saw them, the band has signed to Matador records, has interviewed with Rolling Stone, and has been heralded by Black Flag’s Henry Rollins as an act to watch out for. Attention has continued to grow after Will Toledo—songwriter, frontman, band mastermind—cast eleven albums into the DIY musical ether that is Bandcamp. Their forthcoming album,Teens of Style, is a careful selection of songs from those old albums, offering new audiences an easy way to begin listening without having to plow through the entire back catalogue (as delightful as the back catalogue is).
October 15th’s show at the Cake Shop was cozy as well, but otherwise entirely different. Car Seat Headrest played the last slot (a decidedly unglamorous 6:15 pm slot on a Thursday night) in a showcase set up by NYCTaper as part of the annual College Music Journal (CMJ) Music Festival, “New York’s live music archivist.”
Yet, despite the less-than-ideal slot, the narrow, dim space of the Cake Shop filled up by the time they took the stage. Will Toledo and his bandmates, Ethan Ives (bass) and Andrew Katz (drums) took the stage—instruments all a matching black. Without any introduction, Katz kicked right into the straightforward rhythm of How To Leave Town (2014) opener, “The Ending of Dramamine.” Ives hammered away at open E eighth notes, deep and booming, for a few seconds until Toledo joined in, noodling away quietly, almost jokingly, at the high frets of his guitar. It was quiet, unimpressive; multiple people were talking over the music.
And then the song exploded. Whereas the recorded song is a burst of electronic arpeggios and shimmering synth pads, the live version was an all-encompassing thrashed-out jam. Ives and Toledo attacked the strings of their instruments with aplomb, Ives, in particular, ran his fingers across his frets like mad. The audience was captivated. Even in the following quiet moments (“Ending of Dramamine” includes a number of rises and falls) everyone remained silent. “Ending of Dramamine” earned every one of its fifteen tumultuous minutes—half of Car Seat Headrest’s set.
The most impressive thing about their live show is just how good Toledo’s recorded songs sound with a three-piece band. He’s selected his bandmates well. Members are not just technically proficient at their instruments but are also able to sing backup vocals at the same time, deftly accommodating live the multi-part harmonies of the recordings.
Furthermore, the band’s live sound is as full as the many-tracked studio songs. All three musicians fill space and pull back in a carefully-rehearsed punk rock sinusoid—each member cutting out or coming in at exactly the right moment. The three-part a cappella harmonies at the end of “Times To Die” were particularly impressive.
Just like that show 22 months ago in Charlottesville, the band closed with “Oh Starving!,” the final track on Teens. It offers a nice reminder that as much as some things change, some things don’t.
Car Seat Headrest might soon be a name on the lips of many, but Toledo is still Toledo; he’s still going to perform 15-minute songs, even at the cost of half his half-hour set; he’s still the same shy, unassuming dude (“We’re Car Seat Headrest,” he said after the first song, adding “Sheila told me to say that.”); as much as they are becoming a bigger deal, it’s comforting to know that the music that thousands of online listeners have come to identify with and love is still being made, is reaching a larger audience. It will be very exciting to see what Toledo does with it.
CAR SEAT HEADREST
BY JEREMY BURKE