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.