Music Features

Toy Bastard (Interview)

If you’ve ever seen Car Seat Headrest live, you’ll probably notice great songs like Destroyed by Hippy Powers or Vincent—both played with a jagged intensity that isn’t present on the album versions. That killer guitar work comes thanks to Ethan Ives, who joined the group after they signed to Matador Records in 2015. Ives’ talent is easily apparent in a live setting, where he’ll shred on modern classics from 2016’s Teens of Denial, or sing lead on a variety of covers, from Leonard Cohen’s Seems So Long Ago, Nancy to Pixies’ Motorway to Roswell. While no one doubts his guitar playing, Ives is also a great singer-songwriter. In 2015, briefly before joining CSH, Ives released a folky solo record titled Pizza Face, with highlights like the Bright Eyes-esque Mixed Up, the cutting Your Father and I, and the gentle Did You Ever Want a Pony. His songwriting is oblique and fascinating, but in a different way from Car Seat’s primary songwriter Will Toledo, giving Ives a unique appeal.

Five years after joining Car Seat Headrest, Ives returns with another project that he’s written, produced, and mixed himself. Ives recorded the Toy Bastard album, Life for Cowards, last December with a few friends, but it’s his project through and through. His lyrics are still off-putting and lovely, creating an album where a song could easily be about anything: from unnamed war on Medius Aevum Blues to irresponsible anti-vaxxer parents on the opener, It’s My Child (I’ll Do What I Like). The record is populated with odd song structures, fuzzy and infectious production, and some deeply catchy moments, all of which culminate in the haunting closer, I Am Marked. He shared on the album’s Bandcamp page that “This album has had an incredibly long and pained gestation,” but it feels like that extra time has only led to a more realized final project.

I sat down with Ethan a little while back to discuss the Toy Bastard process, Car Seat Headrest’s new album, and more:

You said in the record’s announcement that you’ve been trying to make this record for nearly five years. How have these songs evolved from 2015 until now?

Well, not all of the songs date back to that period. I think that Candyland is probably the oldest one, and that one was definitely kicking around in 2015. The rest of them didn’t necessarily take that long, but the overall process was super extended. That’s the part I can’t really explain; why it took so long for a collection of things to come together in a finished state. I’m hoping that it's a process where once you get the blockage out of the way, then stuff will come easier. Maybe this album was like clearing the pipes out, so that way I can make stuff quicker in the future, but I honestly don’t know why it was so difficult to get it done. It could just be a writers block thing, or it could be a confidence thing. Like I said, most of the songs aren’t necessarily five years old, but a couple of them date back to demos and things from around then that I kept on my phone as voice memos. But yeah, it’s been a really weird process. I’m hoping that after this one, I’ll have a much easier time with that process in the future, now that I kinda know the ins and outs a little better.

You shared that this record was recorded in a studio with a couple buddies. Do you think you’ll work on music at home, or did you really want this first project to be “studio made"?

I did want it to be as much of a “pro record” as possible, just because it was the first real rock record I’ve ever finished and I wanted to make a really good impression. I wanted it to sound as hi-fi as possible, at least on some of the songs. I did consciously want to use a studio, and in general, I do like tracking in a studio more for group recordings. Having said that, because I wasn’t really experienced at self-producing—and I didn’t know what I was doing a lot of the time—I ended up not getting everything that I needed in the studio and not realizing it until I was in the post-production phase. There was a lot of little bits and bobs of things that I ended up recording at home, just to spackle gaps in the original tracking. I would hear something and go, 'Oh, that should be doubled, why didn’t I double that?,' so there are certain things where I would add extra little tracks. A lot of the keyboards I did at home, a few of the guitar tracks I did at home, some of the vocals too. Actually, I think all of the vocals I did for Medius Aevum [Blues], I did at home. So, despite my best efforts, it did end up being more of a mix-and-match. In the future, I’d probably take that into account, and either be more thorough in the studio, or kind of be more freeform with it and do more stuff at home. That’s something I’m kind of interested to learn, whenever I do the next thing, is how that'll affect how much of the recording will take place in what context.

I wanted to talk about the record’s opener, It’s My Child (I’ll Do What I Like), because while I hate the term topical, the first verse where you talk about “Some fucker you've never heard of, [b]ut at least you've got to give him a try” reminded me of some tastemakers and writers saying that one has to listen to dangerous perspectives right now, and that we have to take them into account. How recent is this song, and where did it come from?

All these songs were pretty much written pre-2020, and listening back, there is some stuff where it’s like, 'Woah, that sounds different now.' But it was definitely about a similar concept. For a certain period of my life, I had anti-vaxxer parents. That’s still something that kind of weighs on me, in terms of like, 'I think I’m still missing some critical vaccinations that I’m not exactly sure of.' Or like, 'I don’t know which ones I have and which ones I don’t.' I still have some stuff I have to figure out, and so, it’s that style of parenting which is very independently minded, almost to the detriment of everybody else. And it’s not just in parenting, but just that attitude in America that’s very “fuck the experts,” and everything. This song is just kind of making a strawman version of that that I can poke fun at. You basically got it, you described pretty much what I was going for. That concept of like, 'You have to listen to everybody’s opinion,' which I think isn’t true.

A couple of these lyrics feel more prominent in 2020. Are there any other lines that stick out to you?

Some of the lyrics were already political, but they just weren’t necessarily referring to stuff in 2020. Medius Aevum [Blues] doesn’t really sound like it, but that song is pretty politically-inspired. It’s still viewing everything from a personal viewpoint, in a narrative sense, but even some of the background effects and atmospheric sounds on that made me think of stuff. I ended up adding in this kinda weird, wailing synth sound, just in the background, that wasn’t really supposed to sound like anything. Well, I guess it was supposed to sound kinda like an air-raid siren, but way in the distance. Over time, I started thinking of it as more of a police siren, and that wasn’t really the sound I was thinking of when I made it, but it just started making me think of that more and more. Not to get all faux-deep about it or anything, but certain things about the record ended up recontextualizing themselves as it was being finished. I mean, mostly lyrics, but sometimes it would be little details like that, where it’s like, 'This makes me feel different then it did before.'

This is the first project where you produced, mixed, and mastered everything. Did that come from wanting to know how to mix and master an album or did you go, 'Well, I don’t want to spend more money on it,' or anything like that. Where did the decision to hunker down and do it on your own come from?

I had actually brought it to a friend initially. My plan was to have my friend mix it for me, and pretty much through no fault of his own, it just didn’t end up really working out. It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing a good job, it was just that I’m kind of the mix client from hell, in the sense that like, 'I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I was also being really picky about it.' I reached a point where I was like, 'I don’t want to subject this guy to having to hear my constant feedback about shit that I’m not able to articulate,' so it’s like, 'Why don’t I just do this myself and save everybody a bunch of hassle.' Like you said, another aspect of it is it’s a skill I would like to have, just in general, because I think it’s a useful thing to know. I was thinking that in the future, it would be nice to be able to do that for other people. I’d like to mix albums for my friends. So, that’s part of why it took so long to release. I turned the album into Ethan’s mixing bootcamp, so that I could bootcamp myself through learning those skills in an environment where there wasn’t a lot of external pressure. It was just my record, so no one was going to be mad at me if it was late. So what would have been maybe a two month post-production process ended up being a five month thing. I chose to kind of slow down the process a lot and take a lot of time with it. In the middle of that, it was like every fucking month there was some new, insane horrible thing that I was having to deal with mentally. Every month this year has been  some insane crisis, that also in turn, slowed down the process a lot. It was often really hard to focus, because it felt like this was the least important thing I could be doing. In the end, I’m really really pleased with how it turned out. I’m glad that I took the time to do that, because now, I feel like I can comfortably mix my own stuff in the future—and that’s kind of one less stumbling block that I have to worry about.

Life for Cowards is a really good sounding record, with blends of bright 12-string acoustic guitars and crunchy, fuzzy electrics. It just sounds handsomely made. I also wanted to talk about how you play the majority of the instruments on this record, but you also worked with a few other friends in the studio. What was the practicing and recording process like in the studio? Was it a quick session or did you have time to play around with them?

Yeah, it was pretty fast in terms of just getting the basic rhythm tracking down. I had a couple of buddies that were in the area, ones that I actually had never played with before; they were actually just people I knew that were musicians, and we all had our kind of respective things in our lives that we had to work around. We had this one window of a week for the recording, where we were like, this is the one week where we are all free, we’ll book time in that one week, and any chance we get before that, we’ll practice it. Over the course of a couple of months, we’d snag a couple of days a week, every week, whenever we could fit it in, and just kind of bang it out as quickly and efficiently as possible. When we tracked, it was like four days, and I think we came back for one day about a month later, just to add one more song because the album ended up coming up a little bit light. Like, 35 minutes for me. I like that length for an album, but anything less than that feels a little Simon and Garfunkel-y. It ended up being four or five days of tracking total. The majority of the time on it ended up being in post-production, which was the opposite of what I had planned to do. I wanted to spend a lot of time in the studio and spend less time mixing, but it ended up kind of being the opposite of that. The songs were pretty straightforward, like, the songs were pretty much formed by that point. There wasn’t a lot of changes going on. It was just kind of snagging all the time we could get to get them as tight as we could.

Last October, you played a show under the Toy Bastard name with Grant and Henry from Naked Giants. Obviously, you know those dudes very well after two years of touring with Car Seat Headrest, so what was that first show like? Do you think we’ll see another Toy Bastard show when the pandemic is over?

That show was awesome. I was just terrified the entire time leading up to that show. I was just in constant fear, and as soon as we did it, it was awesome and it went great and I was super happy about it. I know those guys super well. We kind of understand each other musically, and we don’t have to get out a dry-erase board and explain stuff to each other. We have a rapport where it feels pretty organic. I initially was going to do the whole album with them, but schedule-wise, we were both kind of busy at the time, and I didn’t want to make them split all their time between two different bands, because they had a bunch of Naked Giant's stuff going on at the time. I think they were still finishing their album, and I just didn’t want to put too much hassle on them over it, but I would like to do more Toy Bastard shows. I don’t really have a consistent arrangement with anybody right now, because I’ve just been playing with different people. But that is something that I’d like to pursue now that the material is out there and it’s finished and there’s something to actually play. It’s something I’d like to do.

Did you play the Life for Cowards stuff at the first show? Was there any covers? These are pretty complex songs, and I could imagine being afraid of doing them live.

We pretty much did all of those songs. I think we actually left out Medius Aevum [Blues], because that one was kind of weird and scary to me at the time. I wasn’t sure how to do it live. But yeah, that was part of why I was so scared. Not because Grant and Henry aren’t awesome musicians, they’re better than me, but some of those songs are really complicated. I don’t want to say I didn’t write them with live performance in mind, because I wanted them all to be doable [live], but I wasn’t thinking about shows when I was writing them. Having not played them before, it was pretty intimidating to be like, 'I hope this goes alright.' I hope we’ll make these ten changes and not mess any of them up. Fortunately, the Naked Giants guys are awesome, so it ended up going just fine. Just to add extra time, we did a Frank Black concert to round it out.

Your other band Car Seat Headrest did have a big album out this year, Making a Door Less Open, which is also the first Car Seat album where you sang lead vocals on. You’ve talked about What With You Lately in the past, but the thing I noticed is that you didn’t write that song. How did your lead vocals come about?

That was kind of an interesting process, because we had been in and out of the studio for the last year or so. We did the album in little snatches of time we could get between other things, and even after we were out of the studio, Will and Andrew [Katz, CSH’s drummer] would go over to Andrew’s house and play around with stuff in a home recording environment. There would be days where, because I live real close to Andrew, I would just get called over there to be like, 'Hey, we need you to do this today!' I would bring a couple of things, and we’d just hammer stuff out in kind of an ad-hoc fashion sometimes. One of the days, they asked me over, and were like, 'Hey, we’ve got this song, do you want to learn it really really fast? It’s super easy.' I was like, 'Sure, and so, they taught it to me in about fifteen minutes or something. We did a few versions of it, and it ended up sticking. I’m pretty sure the one that’s on the album is either the second or third try at me doing it. It was interesting, because the way it's presented, it feels kind of like a feature for another member of the band, but it's still a Will song. I think he said that he envisioned it as being another person commenting on, like, I think he described it as a Greek chorus, where it’s someone else commenting on the protagonist of the album from an outside perspective—which I thought was interesting. So yeah, that song was really interesting in the way that it came together, because the fact that I’m singing it has some sort of narrative purpose in relation to the rest of the songs. But the process of it was really funny, because it was a really quick, ad-hoc kind of thing.

What I’ve noticed through seeing the band play live is that you have a very particular style of guitar-playing that takes these songs and gives them a more powerful feel. I felt like on MADLO, despite it being a more electronic record, the particular style came through on the intro to Deadlines (Thoughtful) or the solo on Hymn (Remix). I think it’s interesting that on one of the more experimental Car Seat records, you can also see the personality of the band members coming through.

I’m glad that that’s the case, because having a particular style is something I strive for. I hope that people hear my guitar playing and they go, 'Oh, that’s him doing his thing,' you know? I hope that I have a style is what I’m trying to say. That’s what I’m trying to go for.

Do you think you’re going to use the Toy Bastard moniker again?

I would really hope to, and I would hope to have a much quicker turn around on whatever I want to do next. Hopefully it won’t be like a Radiohead thing where it’s once every seven years I’ll put something out. I definitely have other stuff and other ideas that I want to follow through on. Right now, I already kinda know—if there was another Toy Bastard record—what I think I would want it to be.