“It was an expensive mistake,” sings Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo on “The Ballad Of The Costa Concordia,” the 12-minute opus that comes near the end of his 13th record under the Car Seat Headrest moniker. The same song has a verse lifted from Dido’s “White Flag,” whose “Thank You” was famously incorporated into Eminem’s “Stan.” It turns out that this line also applies to the other, less typical sample on Teens Of Denial, the Cars-referencing “Just What I Needed / Not Just What I Needed.”
For months, both Toledo and his label, Matador Records, thought that the Cars sample was cleared for use. As Stereogum pointed out, it’s hardly a sample in the traditional sense: “Just What I Needed / Not Just What I Needed” opens with Toledo playing a palm-muted E-chord and inserting some staccato strikes into the rhythm. It’s meant to play off the familiarity of the mega-hit “Just What I Needed,” as the listener waits for the Cars song to kick in, only to find Toledo darting off in his own direction. And this is just the start: Following the track’s second chorus, Toledo opts for full homage, playing the first verse of “Just What I Needed” with altered lyrics (“It’s not the way you cut your hair / That’s a pretty nice haircut”) and running the song off a cliff just before the Cars’ chorus would have taken off. That is, until a week before the album’s release, when Cars frontman Ric Ocasek objected to his work being used in this manner.
Matador’s official statement, released when the news broke on May 12, claimed “Matador had negotiated for a license in good faith months ago, only to be told last week that the publisher involved was not authorized to complete the license in the United States, and that Ric Ocasek preferred that his work not be included in the song.” In short, Matador had believed the sample to be cleared, but the publishing house didn’t actually have the right to grant that clearance. Ocasek’s objection means that roughly 10,000 LPs and CDs will be destroyed. According to Rusty Clarke, Matador’s head of sales, it’ll end up costing the label in excess of $50,000, and that’s on the low end. Like the song says: It’s an expensive mistake.
“This is definitely an unprecedented situation,” Clarke told The A.V. Club. “We’ve never had to actually recall an album from retail before.” And while the physical loss is huge, as no part of these recalled products are salvageable—which pushes the album’s physical release to July—fans that pre-ordered digital copies were also put out. “We’d had it up for pre-order since March, so it had accrued a fair number of pre-orders at iTunes and Amazon and Google Play,” says Clarke. “We were able to switch out the audio that the artist re-recorded and we had mastered in a 48-hour turnaround, which was kind of amazing… but we had to redeliver it elsewhere. That means that we lost our pre-orders. So that was a little bit sad, too. And, of course, it’s not a great customer experience for those people who had pre-orders. Now they’ll be essentially confused as to why they’re not getting their album delivered.”
That track swap is something that Toledo had been preparing for all along, though he didn’t think he’d be re-working the song a week before its release into the aptly titled “Not What I Needed.” Says Toledo, “I’ve always had a tendency to quote songs and be a bit free with other peoples’ work. I was kind of expecting to encounter some roadblocks and to have to be flexible if there was no other option to change the work. It seems like things had worked out, so I had put it to rest for the time being.”
This backup plan involved cutting the intro and outro but keeping the track’s guts in tact. Now, instead of Ocasek, Toledo is found sampling himself. “It starts this loop of guitars, and then from there it goes into a sample of ‘Something Soon,’ which is a song off the last record that we put out,” says Toledo. “The pieces were already in place, and I just had to see the opportunity to put it in there. What kind of sealed the deal is that it ends up being in the same key as the track that follows it, which is ‘Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales.’”
And while Toledo wasn’t crushed by the outcome—“in a weird way, it was sort of an empowering experience for me”—Matador wasn’t as blasé about it all. “For the label, this was a nightmare situation,” says Toledo. “People were crying; people were not happy about it. To me, it really wasn’t too different from what I had been dealing with. I was the only person in the situation who was used to being 10 days from an album release and not having the album done.”
It’s easy to see why Matador’s reaction was so heightened. Teens Of Denial was designed to put Car Seat Headrest on the map. Though the shuffle in the track list hasn’t affected the critical reception, in a music industry that’s struggling to sell records, a two-month delay on a physical product doesn’t assuage a label’s fears of recouping on its investment in a new artist. And Clarke’s estimate of Matador losing $50,000 is just the American recall. “It could look even more grim,” says Clarke, “because this is also a worldwide release… it’s a substantial cost.” A cost that, when asked, she states the label can’t write off or recoup.
The issue with “Just What I Needed / Not Just What I Needed” is indicative of the fact that, even decades into the conversation, the issue of sampling in music remains muddled. On one side, there’s the belief that artistic works should remain untouched, and on the other there’s proof that samples can help build beautiful, sprawling works of art. And, in this instance, Toledo didn’t even take the Cars’ recording, merely playing off its framework and its pop-culture ubiquity. And while Toledo is taking the recall and destruction of the physical product in stride, it’s the art that he’s most worried about.
“What the conversation revolves around is not the art itself at all, and that’s the only part of it that really seems wrong to me. I don’t think that Ric ever listened to the album or the song, which is the only part that really bothers me. He can do whatever he wants and it’s his right to do so. But I just hope that if I ever get to the point of being where he is, and a situation like this comes along, that my first reaction would still be, ‘Okay, well, what’s the song?’ I would want to listen to it first and see what, artist-to-artist, what’s going on, rather than it be my manager telling me they’re doing something bad, let’s sue them, and saying, ‘Okay, I’m mad now. I have no idea what the situation is, because it’s removed by many people from me, but that seems to be the situation here.’”
Similarly, Toledo’s modus operandi has always been out of step with the way the music industry runs. Having come to prominence by self-releasing records on the artist-friendly streaming service Bandcamp, he’s one of many that have found an audience by working outside of industry norms. “I never held too much importance to a release schedule, or hyping up a particular release date,” says Toledo. “I never really cared so much about hitting a home run on first week sales or anything. It’s more about the long game for me, and making records that don’t need the immediacy of hype in order to sell themselves.”
If he and Matador are lucky, Teens Of Denial will be one of those records. After all, it’s a work that transcends the controversy, and has received a coveted “Best New Music” tag from Pitchfork (and an A from The A.V. Club). And while Toledo maintains that “Not What I Needed” is just as good as its original, controversial counterpart, it lacks the subversive punch of “Just What I Needed / Not Just What I Needed.” In its original form, the song speaks to how our brains become hardwired by both pop music and repetition, resulting in a disconcerting rush when the expected payoff is never delivered. It’s the type of thing that only a sample could accomplish, and though it may only be found in landfills—or, due to an early leak, in the annals of the internet—it’s a track that was evocative, engaging, and totally effective. That’s a hard thing to put a price on.