the making of

How Car Seat Headrest Wrote His Fraught, Least-Favorite New Song, ‘Not What I Needed’

Roskilde Festival 2016 - Day 7
Will Toledo, performing a song he wrote Photo: Andrew Benge/Getty Images

When Vulture recently highlighted the entertainment world’s “busiest creators,” one musician who sprung to mind was Will Toledo, the young architect of indie outfit Car Seat Headrest. Just 24, he’s already released 13 albums, including this year’s Teens of Denial. Considering that rate of output, one would imagine Toledo as the type of musician who can wake up, have an idea for chord changes or lyrics, and finish a new song by bedtime. Turns out, that’s basically the opposite of how he works: Often, tracks will take years to complete, and leave him sick of hearing his own sounds.

“I was working on a bunch of stuff, following a bunch of leads,” he says of writing Teens as a senior at the College of William and Mary. “I knew the flavor I wanted the album to be: a rock-homage record, something young and angsty. I’d work on one song, set it aside, and keep an open mind, because so many of the leads ended up going nowhere.”

One of the album’s standout tracks, “Not What I Needed,” is also Toledo’s least favorite. Originally written with the title “Good People,” it’s inspired by both his disillusionment with the snobby attitude of people who worked at the college’s radio station, and the experience of living in a house where he’d try to sleep in his bedroom while friends of friends partied outside until they passed out.

Having come up with a basic idea for the chord changes and overall vibe, he wrote the first two lyrics: “I have nothing but questions/I need answers, those would fill me up.” And within a month of typing those lyrics into a Google doc — his preferred method of writing ever since he had a laptop die and lost all of his work — he recorded the first demos of the song, including one with just his droll vocals:

Plus another with dirty guitars and percussion. Then, for reasons he can’t explain, Toledo decided to nick the guitar riff and lyrics of the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” for the intro and outro of his own song. The resulting second demo became “Good People (I Don’t Mind You Coming Here and Wasting All My Time).”

“This song took a very long time to come into its final form — probably two years,” he says. “Getting to a point where I was happy with the version of it took at least a year and a half. At one point I was trying to blend in a sample from this compilation of Nigerian music, which didn’t work. I tried all this different stuff and ended up going back to the much simpler version, which had the Cars in the intro and at the end. It’s one of the simpler songs on the record.”

Of the three full demo versions and two partial ones, the next major revision turned into “There’s a Policeman Inside All Our Heads. He Must Be Destroyed,” a title that lasted until Toledo and his band recorded a studio version in June 2015. After 150 minutes of rehearsal, four hours of recording, and another 80 minutes or so of mastering, they had a finished version. Then their label, Matador, learned they’d have to clear the Cars sample with publishers. Calling it a “medley,” they gave it the new title “Just What I Needed/Not Just What I Needed.” That was October 20, 2015.

On May 10 of this year, Toledo and Matador learned that Cars frontman Ric Ocasek refused to allow the sample to be released on the album. That meant that ten days before the release of Teens of Denial, the label had to recall and destroy all the existing CDs and vinyl copies, which they did using a garbage truck’s compactor. Unless you got an advance copy of the album, you won’t hear the Cars-sampling version, as it’s been thoroughly scrubbed from the Internet.

At that point, Toledo had rewritten the song so many times that he considered just dropping it off the album altogether. “I always had my knife to its throat,” he says. But friends and colleagues encouraged him to keep it, so over the course of three hours at his house in Kirkland, Washington, he re-recorded a guitar part from his song “Something Soon” from 2015’s Teens of Style, played it backwards, and sampled it, then cut the Cars sample and spliced the new one in.

For good measure, he added audio of an interview he did for a German radio station, to play over a newly extended outro, and changed the title to “Not What I Needed.” The album was released digitally on May 20, as planned — and Toledo’s still unsure whether all the drama and rewrites made the song any better.

“It’s hard for me to tell,” Toledo says. “Whenever there is a situation like that, people will always say, ‘I wish the first version had come out.’ I think, long-run, I will be happy with it. I’ve avoided listening to it, just so when I come back to it I can maybe hear a little more objectively. Some songs are just problematic.”

Car Seat Headrest are touring North America through November.

How Car Seat Headrest Wrote ‘Not What I Needed’