Chill Memories: ‘Causers of This’ Instrumentals

Oakland-based producer Toro y Moi releases a vocals-free version of his 2010 debut.

Chaz Bear was two weeks into his first tour as Toro y Moi when he found that his car had been burglarized. Everything was gone.

“My keys, my passport, my bookbag, laptop, gear,” he remembers. “I had to go back home to get money so I could get my debit cards reactivated, so that I could fly to Minneapolis to get a new passport, so that I could play the Canada shows.”

Eventually he met back up with the tour, but one thing was lost forever: on the stolen laptop were all of the sessions and files for Causers of This, Bear’s debut album as Toro y Moi. Miraculously, he had emailed the completed record to his label just a week or so before the tour. Had the album’s schedule been pushed back by even ten days, the recordings might have been lost entirely.

This June, Bear released an instrumental version of Causers, commemorating a full decade of the genre-defying, eternally chill Toro y Moi. 

“I love it,” he says, of the newly released instrumentals. “I listen to my voice all the time, and I’m tired of it. To take my voice out, it feels like I’m listening to it for the first time again.”

Many listeners will feel the same way.

When it was released in 2010, Causers of This was a hit both critically and commercially, though reviews regularly seemed stuck on one word: chillwave. Pitchfork, an early champion of the band, pinpointed the album’s release date at “about six months removed from the summer of chillwave.” The next paragraph began: “the other hump to get over when discussing chillwave…”

For those who weren’t reading music blogs during 2010, chillwave (also known as glo-fi) was a short lived indie rock subgenre known for hushed vocals, dreamlike production, and washy synths — a sort of poolside shoegaze, or (if you will) like John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” on molly. There was a lot of neon. 

Despite what the blogs had to say, Bear tells SF Weekly that chillwave was never really a music genre to begin with.

“It was really more of a lifestyle,” he says. “It was anti-. We weren’t trying to go big, but we thought we’d ride it out. Everyone involved in that scene was low-key against the status quo.”

Now, a decade since that time — which was apparently six months removed from the summer of chillwave (“the winter of vaporwave?”) — it’s clear that Bear’s music was never about a restrictive genre tag. While certainly chill, the thing that always defined Toro y Moi was how it blurred the line between the music producers make, and the music that bands make.

The blur thickens on the Causers of This instrumentals. With no vocals to orient the songs, production and performance become hazy terms themselves. Acoustic instruments bleed into samples, indie rock guitars materialize like apparitions over crackling J-Dilla-style beats, and the whole thing pulses together.

On his Bandcamp page, Bear describes the Causers instrumentals as “a glimpse into [his] early life as a suburban, American POC,” adding, “it is a reaction to what it feels like to lose.”

“There’s other ways to convey emotion besides lyrics,” Bear says. “On this record, the message really is in the music, in the samples, and in the filtering. It’s a melancholy record.”

While a melancholy breeze does waft off Causers of This, the instrumentals come across more moody than despondent (a big mood, some might say). As a record, Causers sounds both sensual and restless, and always partially obscured by a gauzy layer of synths.

Melancholy though it is, the thing that stands out the most about Causers as an instrumental album is its inclusivity. Now we hear more clearly how EDM flows into soul and funk; how indie rock and hip-hop converse with floral psychedelia. Opener “Blessa,” for example, quickly gives way to a beat that sounds caught between Beach House, and backpack hip-hop artist Aesop Rock. Then, in the all-inclusive title track, new jack swing, downtempo, and house all kinda hang out in a hot tub together.

Of all the genre varietals and conflicting scenes brought together on Causers of This, the clearest influence is EDM, a sound Bear had already mostly dropped by the album’s follow-up, 2011’s breezy, soulful Beneath the Pines. The songs on Causers throb, many using tried-and-true dancefloor production techniques, often with tongue at least partially in cheek.

“I remember at the time, it was ironic to listen to the radio if you went to house shows,” Bear says. “EDM was so hated. It was just like a lame thing for bros or whatever. But there were other kids in that scene that weren’t just rage-rage-rage, party-party-party. Chillwave was the reaction to the burnout of that era.”

Since that era’s burnout (and the eventual burnout of chillwave itself), Bear has continued to release music at a relentless pace, putting out at least one album, mixtape, or EP a year since 2010. Last year, he did all three, with Outer Peace in January (a full-length), smartbeats in September (an EP), and Soul Trash in October (a mixtape). Today, he says his mind is mostly on his Oakland-based design studio, Company — though that won’t even remotely slow down the flow of new Toro y Moi material.

“I’m making a lot of dance music right now. And I’m making a lot of ambient music,” he says, pausing only briefly before noting that he’s also working on guitar music. “So look forward to more music this year.”

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