Toro Y Moi: Going Against the Grain

Music Features Toro y Moi
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It’s only been five years since Chaz Bundick inadvertently helped popularize “chillwave”—a movement defined by hazy synth tones, oceanic samples and bedroom fidelity. But he’s never let that movement define him. “I discovered the idea of making electronic music in 2009, and that sort of stuck for a while,” says the songwriter/producer, who operates under the moniker Toro Y Moi. “That was sort of a side thing—I never really thought of my music as being ‘electronic’ or whatever. It was just a matter of time before I could get back to using different instrumentation.”

Bundick takes pride in his restlessness, exploring unexpected sounds with each album. Following his buzzed-about debut LP, 2010’s Causers of This—which he recorded while studying graphic design at the University of South Carolina—he’s ventured into organic synth-pop and psychedelia (2011’s Underneath the Pine) and elastic R&B-funk (2013’s Anything in Return). Now he’s taken a more dramatic left turn with What For?, an album of guitar-driven pop-rock inspired by ‘70s legends like Todd Rundgren and Big Star.

“It’s not like I just discovered pop music,” he says. And that’s true. Even during the cloudiest moments of Causers of This, Bundick demonstrated a gift for classic vocal hooks and chord changes, typically rendered via sharp verse-chorus patterns. But he’s also a sonic craftsman, always aiming to reinvent himself and explore another new influence. He feels the pressure of that style—the “motivation to impress [him]self.” It keeps him on his toes.

“I think it’s healthy for this type of creative job,” he says. “Everything’s always going to be based on your previous work. Even with graphic design, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that looks good. That’s a cool album cover, poster. But I think I can do better.’ Because there’s a physical element to whatever it is you’re making, it’s easier to reference back and build up from there.”

Bundick wrote and recorded What For? throughout 2014—working a relaxed 9-5 schedule at his Berkley, California home studio, recruiting guest spots from musician pals like Julian Lynch and Unknown Mortal Orchestra frontman Ruban Nielson. (“I used to push myself to one in the morning,” he says, “but I don’t do that anymore.”) The breeziest songs— the radiant sing-along “Empty Nesters,” the nimble dream-pop of “What For?”—feel like an extension of that idyllic studio atmosphere. But Bundick’s creative process was full of brand new challenges, like transposing the fuzzy “Half Dome” from piano to guitar or stitching together the two contrasting sections (one darkly funky, one melodic and psychedelic) of “Lilly.”

“The main shift was not working on a computer at first,” he says. “What I really tried to practice was sitting down with a guitar or piano and writing a melody with the chords at the same time, as opposed to recording all these parts, cutting them up, arranging them, recording vocals—which is what I did with previous stuff. The mindset is pretty much the same, but the approach is what’s different. In all my stuff, I think, ‘What would I like to hear? Like, it would be cool to hear a new version of Weezer or something.’ I come up with little scenarios and then try to execute them somehow.”

Some musicians get offended by cheap comparisons, but Bundick finds them inspiring. When I suggest that the propulsive “Spell It Out” sounds like the Doobie Brothers headlining a psych-rock disco, he laughs, enthusiastically arguing that “there’s really no true version of originality” and that it’s an artist’s job to re-contextualize their influences and make something new with them.

“Oddly, I had Daft Punk in mind,” he says of “Spell It Out.” “I love to look up what other people sample, and that’s what got me into music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. When I first heard sampling, I thought, ‘Man, the stuff other people are sampling is so amazing—I should just make this kind of music. Funk, disco, whatever.’ Ever since Underneath the Pine, I’ve been really into paying homage to the ‘70s and doing my spin on it. People like to call it retro—I don’t mind that. But I was really going for that vibe. This sort of ‘70s, tough song. It’s got a lot of muscle to it. We recorded it recently for a live radio session, and it almost sounded too muscle-y.

“The song is just about what’s relevant right now with society and where we are culturally and socially with politics,” he continues. “I’m not really getting into politics, but what the solution would be as opposed to what we’re fighting about. There are news headlines that definitely could relate to this topic, but it’s mainly talking about how we all need to understand each other, that we’re coming from the same place. No one really wants to hurt anyone, and we all just want to be happy. I was sort of self-conscious about that message because it’s really easy for that message to be cheesy, and that’s what it’s called ‘Spell It Out.’ I was sort of just asking myself, ‘Do I need to spell it out?’ I don’t need to tell you what the answer is because the answer is so obvious.”

It would have been easy for Bundick to keep treading water—or to churn out a variation of the numbing electronica dominating festivals and pop radio in the 21st century. But he’s consciously running in the other direction.

“Electronic music is a fad right now in commercial music, and it’s really strange because the real music fans—we have to suffer through all this crap that the radio’s spitting out, even though they think they’re putting out what’s trendy,” he says. “Unless it’s college radio or NPR or something, all those artists—they’re not making those decisions to go full-electronic. If you listen to country nowadays, it’s horrible! There are 808s in country music. I don’t know what some of those producers are thinking. I think the reason guitars are less present in music nowadays is mainly because of sonics. People have become so accustomed to that big festival sound. Unless it’s just in-your-face, like Nirvana, it’s going to be hard to capture someone’s attention unless there’s that big compressed bass behind it. I think the radio is going for that.”

“Even in indie, no one’s trying to go towards big rock-pop—which is something I wanted to do,” he says, summarizing his uncanny ability to stand out in a crowd. “It’s nice to go against the grain whenever and wherever you can.”