The Meaning of Car Seat Headrest’s “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”

Car Seat Headrest live in 2019. Photo by innocavancy.

When songwriter Will Toledo was first starting out, he used to record vocals in the back seat of his car, and he uploaded the recordings to his Bandcamp page under the name Car Seat Headrest. This was around 2010, and he was a long way off from releasing a hit like “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.”

Toledo was 12 albums into his journey, in the year 2015, when he was picked up by Matador Records. He then started a band and released the 2015 compilation album Teens of Style, which featured choices from his previous recordings.

Teens of Style was well-received, but it wasn’t until they released their next album, 2016’s Teens of Denial, that they became indie sensations. Every art student in the country was listening to that album, and “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” has proven to be the longstanding fan-favorite.

Teens of Denial cover art.

The lyrics compare the reckless behavior that is drunk driving with the behavior of a killer whale in captivity, hence the name of the song. Toledo discussed the meaning of “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” with DIY in 2016:

I was watching the documentary Blackfish, about SeaWorld and specifically about this one killer whale who grew up in captivity and ended up murdering a human. It was such a tragedy because none of this violence had to happen and it was just people not taking responsibility for what they were doing and feeling powerless to stop this machine that ended up in people dying. It just spoke to me and I came up with those two lines.

Will Toledo on the meaning of “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales.”

From those two lines came an epic song that makes an anti-drunk driving song as fun as it possibly can be, as the track features an arrangement that builds from its quiet beginning to moments of catharsis throughout.

In the opening lines, Toledo introduces himself as the drunk driver, whose lover tells him that he needs to get it together, who fumbles with his keys while trying to start the car:

In the back seat of my heart
My love tells me I’m a mess
I couldn’t get the car to start
Left my keys somewhere in the mess

Opening lyrics to “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest.

We can also assume that the mess that he refers to has a double meaning, referring to both his drunken condition and the back seat of his car. The back seat of many teenagers’ vehicles are filled with all sorts of nonsense, where one might lose something like their keys.

Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest, 2016.

The lyrics in the first verse depict Toledo’s introduction to drinking and driving, starting slow and then plateauing and becoming a constant. After one short month, he reckon’s he’s pretty good at it:

It comes and goes in plateaus
One month later I’m a fuckin’ pro
My parents would be proud
Or fall asleep on the floor
Forget what happened in the morning
There are notes in your handwriting
But you can’t make it out

First verse to “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest.

Toledo wakes up in the morning with no recollection of what he did the night before. He does find some notes that he had written, though the handwriting is too sloppy to read. This is a reference to being extremely drunk, and scribbling in a notebook only to find it illegible in the morning.

In the chorus, he owns up to his behavior, and admits that he knows what he’s doing is wrong:

We are not a proud race
It’s not a race at all
We’re just trying, I’m only trying to get home
Drunk drivers, drunk drivers
This is not a good thing
I don’t mean to rationalize
Or try and explain it away
It’s not okay
Drunk drivers, drunk drivers

Chorus to “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest.

Naturally, somebody who has a habit of drinking and driving also likely has a problematic relationship with alcohol. Drinking is known to be a slippery slope, and before you know it your personality has changed, and you’re left feeling empty and emotionless, a shell of who you once were.

Car Seat Headrest live in 2018. Photo by Greg Chow/Shutterstock.

This is precisely what Toledo sings about in the second verse:

It’s too late to articulate it
That empty feeling
You share the same fate as the people you hate
You build yourself up against others’ feelings
And it left you feeling empty as a car coasting downhill
I have become such a negative person
It was all just an act
It was all so easily stripped away

Second verse to “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest.

Although he expresses frustration at reaching this point, and becoming the same as the people who he once hated, negative and using alcohol to cope, he does recognize that there is still time to make a change.

He sings about this in the bridge, just before dropping into another chorus:

But if we learn how to live like this
Maybe we can learn how to start again
Like a child who’s never done wrong
Who hasn’t taken that first step

Bridge to “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest.

Toledo sings of innocence, becoming like a child who has never done wrong. We can assume that he is singing about getting off the alcohol, starting fresh and making a change in his life.

Will Toledo live with Car Seat Headrest in 2016. Photo by Debi Del Grande.

Still, in the third verse we can see that he’ back in the car, preparing to drive drunk yet again. This time, though, the voice in his head comes along, and may just be strong enough to make him change his mind:

Here’s that voice in your head
Givin’ you shit again
But you know he loves you
And he doesn’t mean to cause you pain
Please listen to him
It’s not too late
Turn off the engine
Get out of the car and start to walk

Third verse to “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest.

This voice in his head is the conscience, looking out for his best interests and trying to convince him to get out of the car and walk home.

This is the final verse, and the song ends with a breakdown and a shouted chorus, repeating the title phrase and stressing that “it doesn’t have to be like this”:

It doesn’t have to be like this
It doesn’t have to be like this
It doesn’t have to be like this
Killer whales, killer whales
It doesn’t have to be like this
It doesn’t have to be like this
It doesn’t have to be like this
Killer whales, killer whales

Outro to “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest.

Along with the powerful message of “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” the song is also incredibly catchy, with Toledo’s distant vocals shining in a way that sounds purposely effortless, and the arrangement lending itself to the emotional weight behind the lyrics.

Check out the official lyric video below:

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