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Toro y Moi Thaws Out: Chaz Bundick puts a New Fire Under His Cool Electronic Funk 

Wednesday, Feb 27 2013

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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.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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