Interview Toro Y Moi: ‘I’m Not Going To Get Locked Down’

Chaz Bundick on love, faith, dad rock and… pugs.

It’s a bitter January evening, as we head up to the 15th floor of the Saint George’s Hotel on London’s Regent Street, to meet Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick. His third album, ‘Anything In Return’, has been released in the UK that very day, but he seems genuinely oblivious, assuming that it would hit British shelves along with the US the following day. It sets the tone for a conversation that frames the 26-year-old South Carolinian as indifferent to expectation, quietly and confidently blazing a trail that’s all his own.

Chaz is in blithe spirits, but my task is made daunting by a tweet from a few days earlier; “Shouts to interviewers who have the same questions as everyone else.” I’m understandably keen to avoid cliché and we kick off with him guessing what lurks between my blue and green inked lines. “Do you ask anything about how my move to California has influenced my music?” It hadn’t occurred to me, although I do want to find out how life on the west coast is going. “Starting all over, pretty much. I kind of needed that.” His response is telling, providing a clue to a remarkably diverse artistic ethos that has seen his career tread funk, jazz, folk, disco and house, in just three years. “I felt really settled in South Carolina. Very comfortable. And comfortable’s not always the best. You’re more susceptible to mistakes.”

A constant trope in Bundick’s work is the extended conversation with a nameless other, ostensibly his girlfriend, and the first words on the new record are a firm, but caring, admonishment not to let him stand in her way; “Don’t let me hold you down, you could be there now”. How has the relationship’s dynamic changed since deciding to relocate? “We moved out there for her to go to grad school, so I didn’t want to be that person to be like, ‘Don’t go out there’. But I didn’t wanna be like, ‘I’m doing this for you.’ There’s no pressure at all.” It’s all crucial to the intimate microcosms that are brought to life in his songs. His output to date has revolved almost exclusively around an axis of friends, lovers and home, and he remains circumspect on the pressure to make bigger statements. “I’m one of those people - I used to take a back seat on those things, but to an extent those kind of issues do belong in music, and you should be – depending on the kind of music you’re playing and your audience - you should be informing people of new things and of problems. But sometimes it just comes off cheesy – it’s just really hard to do that so I don’t mess with that. Unless you know what you’re talking about, don’t talk about it.”
”I’m not going to do electronic stuff all of the time.”
I ask him about ‘New Loved Ones’, a track from last year’s rarities compilation, ‘June 2009’, that appears to deal with his faith. “It’s a conversation between me and my mom about religion and how I’m kind of falling out of practice. I was raised Catholic and I don’t really practise it anymore. It’s the environment I’m around now. It’s just the way of life. I don’t really find myself being interested in church.” This is far from an angst-ridden attack, and there’s humility in his voice as he contemplates his fading relationship with God and the enduring belief that exists back home. “That’s about as deep as I’d go. I wouldn’t call someone’s faith false.” When it comes to his own views, however, he opens up a little. “I’m a spiritual person. I definitely believe there’s inner spiritualities, that we could all at least turn to that. If you ever experience psychedelics or something, I feel like that’s a similar experience in itself. It at least makes life a little more interesting.”

While he won’t make the cover of Vanity Fair any time soon, his rise to indie fame has been steady and it strikes me that it must be odd to discuss his personal life with someone who he’s never met before. “It’s kind of strange to start talking about yourself in public but it’s something I’m getting used to. I don’t know if I’m gonna always write about my life. I don’t wanna - if I have kids - write about having kids or something.” He laughs. “That’s literally dad rock.”

And what if his quest for relevance falters? What if he found his artistic currency dwindling, would he ever consider moving away from recording? “It’s something I’d be down to do, just to quit music for a year and go to some small town and just work at a café. I’d try that, just to take my mind off things. Get back on that grind.”

While Bundick’s tongue is lodged firmly in cheek, it’s this acute dread of complacency that keeps his sonic arsenal shifting. In a stylistic arc that resembles Scott Walker in reverse, he has moved increasingly towards dance and, most recently, pop, in order to keep things fresh. But what attracts him to a genre that’s sometimes maligned in indie circles? He certainly doesn’t seem to be making a play for the mainstream in the traditional sense. Instead he’s searching for a skewed take that turns in on itself, questioning the concepts of mass popularity and commodity. “I sort of look at pop music as pop art, the way Andy Warhol would take on pop art. You look at that and you step back from it, and you say, ‘OK, who was this intended for and why exactly is this music so shiny and over compressed? And why is it creepily aiming to be perfect sounding? Why are they auto-tuning guitars?’ There’s something to be said for that, and it’s weird. So I wanted to sort of just mess with that, take that perspective and reverse the roles. Most people who are interested in obscure music, indie rock, whatever, we like to challenge our ears. I thought it would be interesting to challenge the listener by throwing what’s obvious at them, which is pop music.”

There is clearly no consideration for a notion that music which simultaneously aims for the head and the feet is disappearing. “I feel like that’s always going to live on, especially with R&B. You can’t escape that genre, it’s so strong on its own. You could just have chords and drums and someone singing and it could be powerful. I don’t think it’s going to fade.”

For someone who stares so intently forward, there’s also deep sense of nostalgia held in every strand of Toro y Moi’s fabric. After all, this is a man who released singles on tape as recently as 2009, and who covered Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal’s 1985 R&B jam ‘Saturday Love’ in all its glory. “For me, nostalgia is sitting down and writing an acoustic jam. It sounds like Weezer’s ‘Butterfly’.” Given that ‘Saturday Love’ was released before he was born, does he ever long for a simpler time? “That connection, always having that innocence is definitely something I don’t want to lose.”
”I just try to find new ways to not get bored.”
While we’re on the topic of reminiscence, I’m also interested in the reasons behind the release of ‘June 2009’, and suggest that it gave his audience a valuable insight into the processes behind Toro y Moi. “In a way I saw it like that. But I also saw it like – when I first put out ‘Causers Of This’, I was like, ‘I’m not going to get locked down’. I was conscious in my head that I don’t want people to think I’m an electronic musician because I’m not. ‘Causers Of This’ just sort of happened. It was me messing around with a computer.” And so you get the ‘bedroom musician’ tag. “Right, and at that time I was writing those June 2009 songs and some of them were electronic and some were traditional sounding. So I started releasing that stuff and then I did ‘Underneath The Pine’ and it was like, well those songs never had a proper home, so I felt like I should release it somehow. But the main intent was to give people a heads up that I’m not going to do electronic stuff all of the time.”

His fears were well placed. Despite two years having passed since ‘Underneath The Pine’, an album which smattered acoustic chic across its sonic canvas, Chaz has been repeatedly cast as a synth-toting bedroom musician. I ask him if it gives him pleasure to try to break free of labels and he grins for a second before his modesty takes the reins. “In a way, yeah, but it’s also just me doing things because I want to. Working on music all the time – I just try to find new ways to not get bored.”

As for where Bundick turns for inspiration; there are unquestionably parallels between himself and Arthur Russell; the restless genre-hopping, the fusion of dance music and love songs, burying tenderness underneath 4/4 beats. “That’s exactly it. He wasn’t afraid to do anything. He would write an acoustic song or a dance track or a noise track or an ambient track and he’s good at it, and he’s confident in it, and that’s all I wanna to try to do. Just have the courage to try a certain type of song and do my best at it.” When I ask what he’s been listening to of late he answers like a flash. “’Odessey and Oracle’. I think I might go towards that direction.” The ratio of success to failure in his experimentation has been so high, it’s hard to envisage any difficulty.

As we move to end on a light-hearted note, I can’t help but bring up another sub-140 character morsel from his Twitter account. “I love dogs. I hate cats.” As a devotee of both species, I’m curious. Why the feline animosity? “We have this discussion all the time on tour. Cats, they could live with or without you.” I suggest that that’s a quality to be admired rather than scorned. “I like that too, but I want a friend. I want a dog. The dog will follow me around and give me some company. If I say, ‘Hey c’mere, let’s hang out,’ he’ll hang out.” A compelling argument, I have to admit. And so we get to the real crux of the interview; what’s Toro y Moi’s favourite dog breed? “I like American Pitbulls, Boston Terriers, French Bulldogs, Pugs. They look like little aliens.” As a dedicated enthusiast of the most extra-terrestrial of mammals, I concur. “We have that Toro y Moi design, with me as a pug. I like pugs.”

And what about celebrating the album’s release on UK shores? “That’s right, I forgot. That’s awesome, I’ll probably have a toast or something.” As he absent-mindedly munches on another crisp and gazes around the hotel lobby it would be easy to forget that Chaz Bundick is pushing the boundaries of pop music. It sounds like sometimes, he forgets it too.

Toro Y Moi’s new album ‘Anything In Return’ is out now via Carpark.

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