Photograph by Misha Vladimirskiy/Butchershop Creative
Chaz Bundick is so goddamn chill.
On a Friday morning in January, the figurehead of the popular indie music group Toro y Moi is sipping coffee on a quiet corner in North Berkeley. Bundick has spilled a little liquid onto the saucer, so that his cup splashes into a tan puddle whenever he sets it down. This doesn't seem to bother him.
Bundick rode his bike here from the nearby home he shares with his girlfriend, a doctoral student in environmental engineering at Cal. He was maybe a few minutes late. He speaks quietly and usually softly, and his answers to questions trickle out slowly.
“I think I have to blow my nose,” Bundick blurts suddenly, tacking the announcement onto a question about his experience with school. “I'll be right back.”
This behavior begs an important question about Bundick's personality, as well as his music: Is the guy ever not chill?
This isn't the first time that question's been asked. In 2010, Bundick's serene expression, slight figure, and Lennonesque round eyeglasses came to represent a nascent musical style labeled chillwave. This bedroom-brewed soup of synthesizers, electronic beats, and reverb hazily recalled '80s R&B and pop, and gave that corner of the Internet that discusses music a great deal to champion, decry, and write blog posts about.
Bundick's rise reflected its historical moment perfectly: Here, a graphic arts major who studied piano and guitar as a child, and played in rock bands through high school, started making electronic music only after getting his own laptop. His project dovetailed with a new era of hyperactive discussion of music on the web, so that Bundick didn't even have to try to make a living as a musician to find himself hailed as the next big thing. He simply posted some songs online (for friends, he says), and the bloggers and label heads found him.
Eighties babies found chillwave a nostalgic echo of the music they heard on parents' car stereos growing up, but not everyone deemed it worthwhile. New York Times critic Jon Pareles dismissed chillwave as “annoyingly noncommittal music, backing droopy vocals with impersonal sounds — a hedged, hipster imitation of the pop they're not brash enough to make.” Fans rallied to its defense, with Brandon Soderberg arguing in the Village Voice that “chillwave, unlike most '80s-influenced indie trends as of late, stares the bloated, oblivious decade straight in the eyes, and doesn't shudder when that decade looks back.” Even respected British critic Simon Reynolds championed chillwave's earnest nostalgia in a lengthy essay.
What supporters of chillwave appreciated — and what its critics didn't — was that the genre signaled a new mode of history-obsessed music-making among post-millennial American youth. With the endless archive of YouTube, the original '80s pop songs evoking Generation Y's ever-hazier childhood were no longer lost or relegated to oldies radio. And with the availability of computer production software that turns any laptop into a studio — complete with synthesizers and drum sequencers that can imitate any instrument known to man — the new generation had huge new powers to emulate whatever sounds they wanted. The fact that they chose to emulate the music of their childhood was fascinating — and underscored the point made by Reynolds in his controversial 2011 book Retromania: Instead of the future, our culture at large is now marked by a preoccupation with the recent past.
But while most members of the chillwave class of 2010 continued floating inside their woozy atmospheres, Bundick made it clear that he wasn't going to keep making hypnotic electro-bedroom-pop — or any other single kind of music. Through his output as Toro y Moi and his dance-focused side project, Les Sins, Bundick showed himself to be the rare musician capable of hopping from one musical style and era to the next, convincingly, and with characteristic chillness.
In 2011, Bundick made his biggest hop yet: He moved from his native South Carolina to Berkeley, accompanying his longtime girlfriend as she entered graduate school. It was in Berkeley — away from friends and family, amid the threat of earthquakes and the pressures of his girlfriend's studies — that Bundick wrote and recorded his third album as Toro y Moi. Anything in Return, which came out last month, shortens the cycle of nostalgia from two decades to one: It's the 26-year-old's take on post-millennial hip-hop, pop, and R&B; the Toro y Moi synthesis of producers like Kanye West, J. Dilla, and Just Blaze, plus a little Justin Bieber, too.
Anything in Return is also the finest Toro y Moi album yet. That's partly because this set of songs, more than any of Bundick's other recent output, begins to reveal that its maker — the plainly dressed prince of chillwave, the laconic young lord of the laptop, the bike-riding Berkeley resident and runny-nose announcer — maybe isn't so chill after all.
After moving to Berkeley from Columbia, S.C., Chaz Bundick found himself consumed with fear. The subject of his fright was sensible: To outsiders, California is notorious for its earthquakes. “I was like, 'This is crazy, everyone's predicting this devastating earthquake that's going to kill everyone,'” he recalls. “We felt five in the first two weeks, little tremors. That really hyped me up.”
So in his new, seismically risky home studio, Bundick wrote a song about that fear called “High Living” — a smoky, funky slow-jam whose lyrics read like a plea for survival: “You and me/ Can be what we want to be/ Don't you let/ This come falling down on me,” he moans, reminding us that “the big one's coming.”
“High Living” scoots along at a dazed pace, its towering drumbeat flecked with jazzy guitar and warm electric piano chords. Like a lot of Anything in Return, it sounds subdued — but it's really just subtle. Chillwave may have come to symbolize nostalgia, mellowness, and a preference for boundless summer afternoons, but the feelings in Toro y Moi's music these days are much more tangible. Read the lyrics to the songs on Anything in Return, and you'll find that they're about fear, desire, uncertainty, love, and conflict. In other words, the same subjects that dominate most pop music.
Bundick wanted his third album to sound more direct as well. Before recording last year at Different Fur Studios in San Francisco's Mission District, he sent engineer and producer Patrick Brown a playlist of songs he wanted to emulate. The list included tracks from noted R&B producer The-Dream, Kanye West, and Drake, but also Krautrock legends Can and French troubadour Serge Gainsbourg. “He made a point of saying, 'I want everything to be more clear, I want it to be nicer-sounding than on the laptop,'” Brown says. “He wanted it to hit like a hip-hop album.”
And it did. Despite its heft in the low end, though, other parts of Anything in Return recall the drowsiness that critics blasted in 2010-era chillwave. A large part of that feeling comes from the fact that Bundick is simply a weak singer. He mewls and moans and half-whispers rather than belting anything out, which makes him seem calm about any subject, even fear of death. His vocals on Anything in Return are louder than any on his previous records; they're very smooth, but also very thin. Even when chirping what should be a heated, emotional refrain (“she knows/ I'ma be her boy forever”), he sounds oddly halfhearted.
Bundick may be a pretender to the role of the flirtatious frontman, but he at least knows it. “I don't see myself as that R&B character that the album turned out to be,” he says, calling Anything in Return an “experiment.” “It was just, like, for fun.”
Just for fun? An experiment? Is Bundick admitting that the entire premise of his new album — a year and a half of work so far, plus another year or two touring — was basically a lark?
Well, yes. And that's key to understanding where Bundick is coming from, the source of his inherent chillness: He's not a tortured soul who needs to bleed his feelings out to the world. He is also not nervous or confused, even if he does awkwardly announce his corporeal needs. He's a skilled technician, a professional artist who constantly soaks up sounds and feelings from his surroundings. He's the proverbial kid playing in the sandbox. The sandbox just happens to be a laptop, and what Chaz Bundick is playing with just depends on the style and era of music he's into at the moment.
As Bundick tells it, the chillness of his music isn't really deliberate so much as a consequence of the way he writes: at home, with a computer, making music quickly on his own. There aren't, like, blaring guitar riffs or hammering drum beats to get Bundick amped up. Even while recording final versions of the Anything in Return songs at Different Fur Studios, he played all the instruments himself.
It's back there at Different Fur, on a January evening, where Bundick and his music are at their most un-chill. He's come with his live band to record a performance video for the website Yours Truly. The song they're playing is, appropriately, “High Living.”
And bolstered by the energy of a full band, it turns out to be fucking incredible.
Although the recorded version is one of the best cuts on Anything in Return, its vibe is characteristically mellow — you don't really get a sense that it's about someone being scared out of his mind by the possibility of a natural disaster. During this session at Different Fur, though, Bundick and the band remake “High Living” into a psychedelic jazz-funk jam. With Andy Woodward on a full drum kit and a few percussionists helping out, the groove has a hyperactive backbone, rather than a passive one. Jordan Blackmon's effects-saturated electric guitar sits higher up in the mix, contributing a new, cosmic brightness. Patrick Jeffords' bass is basically driving every other instrument around, underscoring an urgency in the chorus that was only vaguely suggested before.
Bundick is wearing a pointy gray beanie high on his head, which kind of makes him look like a garden gnome. (Fact: He is not tall.) He's playing both a vintage Rhodes electronic piano and a keyboard, and he's straining so much to sing the high notes that it's clear he recorded this song with the help of Auto-Tune.
Even with the limitations of Bundick's voice laid bare, the collective energy in the room animates the music, bringing it closer to how the group sounds in concerts. There's a new vivacity, an exciting hint of tension. It turns out that the robotic energy of pulsing beats can't replace the vibes steaming off a bunch of human musicians playing together in a small room.
Bundick also felt the new magic that went into “High Living” that evening. He brings it up the next day in Berkeley. “After last night I was like, 'Dang, this is so cool, all these people in the studio together,'” he gushes. “That's what I like the most, is trying to capture that one good take … finding that vibe. When you just work in the [computer] program, it takes away that chance of capturing mess-ups, happy mistakes.” (Bundick isn't new to the mysterious alchemy of a live band, or its usefulness in making music that is dynamic and aggressive: He recorded his second Toro y Moi album, the rep-solidifying and very laid-back Underneath the Pine, with a group in the studio.)
Lots of older Toro y Moi material consists of psych-rock experiments and indie pop, music that would never have encouraged overcaffeinated bloggers to label Bundick “chillwave.” But there's something remarkably unflappable about all of his work, about the way he casually steps from one style and period to another, from searing guitars to aquamarine electronic textures, from tambourine '60s pop to glowing '80s nostalgia. Like Ariel Pink, the spiritual father of chillwave, Chaz Bundick is a savant of retromania.
As an artist and a person, Bundick is by all accounts a relaxed and mild-mannered fellow. He will tell you when he has to blow his nose. But he is not remote. “He's very professional, and his inherent mellowness comes across well for that,” Brown says. “But he definitely has his moments of making a dick joke in the middle of the studio.”
Todd Hyman, owner of Carpark Records, Toro y Moi's label, attributes Bundick's calm constitution to his native environs. “He's a pretty laid-back guy — I think growing up in the South usually helps that kind of attitude,” Hyman says. “A lot of artists, they'll have managers and lawyers and you have to go through all these other people. It's not like that with Chaz — I can just call him or e-mail him anytime.”
Bundick gives a similar impression over coffee, though it's clear from the start that he's extremely serious about his music. He's serious about other things, too. Asked if he ever questions his entitlement to explore genres like R&B and hip-hop, where his indie-rock background would've once made him an outsider, Bundick offers a classically post-millenial response. “As long as you know the history of that genre, I think you're entitled to make music,” he says.
Good pop songs convey a strong feeling. Chillness is the opposite of a strong feeling, and for that reason, it's not an interesting enough emotional foundation to sustain a musical career. Chaz Bundick gets this. He is acutely aware of the relaxed character of even Toro y Moi's most earnest songs, and says he plans on countering it on his next album. When asked, jokingly, if he plans on making a psychedelic rock record now that he lives in the Bay Area, he says, in all seriousness and without missing a beat, “Yeah, that's probably next.”
Does Bundick ever get tired of the decidedly relaxed atmospheres of his sound? “That's been on my mind,” he admits. “I want to break out. I recently bought a distortion pedal.”