Interview: Movin’ On Up, Toro Y Moi.

Interview: Movin’ On Up, Toro Y Moi.

Looking fresh and fresh faced, Chazwick Bundick’s moving on up in the world under the guise of Toro Y Moi, and he’s doing so quite literally this afternoon as we meet in the slouchy, leather-skinned fifteenth floor lounge bar of a skyscraping hotel on the hem of Soho. “I shaved yesterday”, he sheepishly proffers on a day sandwiched between scrubbing up and getting down in a sold out Village Underground. The shy and retiring, though in no way repelling, softly-spoken so-called ‘hipster Prince’ (an epithet blog don Bundick has little, to no issue with) is in demand, and so much so that I feel distinctly privileged to have his undivided attention even for our half hour. That today marks the release of his third Toro Y Moi full-length – the itself somewhat distracted Anything In Return – only renders our encounter that bit more memorable. The only way is up in terms of his career, while physically it’s up and up some more – all the way to this vertiginous fifteenth floor.

I’ve needless to say never been up here before, but it’s absolutely stunning – that rooftop where U2 played a shorter than short BBC set a few years back looks like an intensely illumined lily pad that’s but an elongated stride away. “I’m not staying here – we’re just abusing the view!” he quips in a gently self-effacing tone. The sun then recedes behind the horizon, a toy-like London reduced to nothing but a nitty mesh of teeny silhouettes. It’s this sort of tranquil, and irrefutably sightly vista for which his music was made.

Though today’s latest does nothing to dispel Bundick’s fervid zeal for shifting the genres he employs, and more often than not engineers, in order to shape his sound. His every work has a distinct feel which is in turn distinctly different to that which precedes it: “I mean I look up to people like Animal Collective, and The Beach Boys, and other artists who strive to constantly change their sound”, he corroborates nonchalantly. “I think it’s a good thing to do, and a thing that should be done for every album – every one should sound different so that they challenge the listener, as well as the artist.”

It’s maybe only to be expected. After all, a record is not only a documentation of a particular time in (a) person(‘s/s’) li(fe/ves), but also a reflection of its author(s) and as we continually change personally, this must surely be expressed in the discography of any which artist. And Bundick believes himself to “in a way” have a changing perception even of himself, and the creative output of which he is capable as each one goes by: “I mean I could record another album like Underneath The Pine – sure. But I change, and I don’t feel like working strictly within the computer right now.”

Bizarrely, in doing away with the gadgetry he’s adopted a more hypermodern aesthetic as he tempers his musical evolution with slight deviation. Thus it’s intriguing that Anything In Return should begin with a track entitled Harm In Change. I’m assured it’s immoderate analysis on my part (“It’s about my move to California, and stuff”) though it sheds some light on there being a not insubstantial degree of change going on in his life. “I was actually referencing my personal life, and how change is both hard and easy at the same time. It’s about how it can be bittersweet.” As conversation comes around to these more personal facets, he palpably becomes quite cagey. Chazwick is a discernibly insular character, and I can’t but help sense that he’s purposefully played it (or perhaps rather us) that way. He gives little away, and we consequently know comparatively little of him, really.

Though there’s a rather more distinctive identity to the music of Toro Y Moi – an imprint of sorts which is distinctly him. “I mean I would hope there would be, but then again personally? I don’t think that there is… It would be kinda pretentious were I to agree, but I do feel like I kinda have my own thing goin’ on. There’s a balance there. And I mean yeah, there are certain things that I like to do – how I like to sing; how I play – but that’s just natural.” Though an aspect of Bundick’s musical identity – or that which he at least projects through the medium of Toro Y Moi – that has always been unnatural in a way is the name itself. The first, and indeed for self-explanatory motives only time I attempt to pronounce it I founder miserably, losing misplaced cedillas in a feigned Spanish lisp or somewhere along the confounding lines thereof. It’s an issue he’s been bedevilled by for quite some time: “Even my girlfriend hates the name. I came up with it when I was, like, fifteen and then Toro Y Moi [expertly pronounced, of course] got big at which point it didn’t seem a great idea to go changing it. I think it’s at least different, which is good!” It certainly once stood out in the CD racks, and still does in the iTunes library, Bundick confirms.

Though I can’t help but read between multiculturally flavoured lines which may, or most likely may not, exist. It’s a whimsical impulse, but I feel compelled to ask whether a fifteen-year-old Chaz was originally alluding to a damning indictment of a linguistic ignorance applicable to both the UK and the US of A. Inevitably, it’s no such nonsense: “I mean I made the name up so long ago, and at a time when I definitely wasn’t coming at it from that angle. But yeah, now that you mention it? I mean it’s crazy how the name itself is a combination of two ethnic backgrounds in a way, ’cause that’s who I am. I’m biracial, and my music itself is also influenced by everything from French music to, you know, American hip hop and whatever else. So it definitely does say something about how I, personally, am a combination of things.”

It’s true: as with the moniker itself, Bundick is a cross-cultural amalgam; a blend of starkly contrasting ethnicities, as well as consequent influences. It’s what makes both him and his music so tricky to nail down, not least as it complicates his ability to assume a convincing identity – both artistically, as well as genetically. “In a way, but I feel that in others it just allows me to feel a little bit more open to trying other music. Not to sound weird or anything, but if a white guy were to start messing around with reggae music [I resist the urge to delve into discussions of the aptly fishy so-called cod reggae genre and a potent urge it is too, I might add] as opposed to a black guy messing around with, I dunno, house music… No wait – black people invented house music, but anyway. It’s just different. And I kinda feel like I should explore all genres, especially as the tools are all there…”

The tools to which he adverts are of course intangible, and Toro Y Moi is itself a product of the informational era we all inhabit in that it is rather a tangible byproduct of the internet’s revolutionising of the way we subsume our necessary musical requirements. And as such, it was something of a predestined phenomenon when Anything In Return leaked a little bit ahead of its scheduled release on today, of all days. Bundick shrugs off the inquisition in typically pragmatic fashion: “It’s inevitable nowadays, so the only thing you can do is to hope that it creates some buzz. Either it leaks and it doesn’t spread, or it leaks and it spreads which is the better of the two options, usually.”

Kim Dotcom and his abstract kingdom springs to mind. He, like Bundick, is a complex character when it comes to definite identity, current nationalities, and so forth. Though whereas the Megaupload onetime magnate has been shunted about the place like a hypertext link to any which Toro Y Moi record once hosted on a Dotcom domain, Chaz has been settled down somewhere or other American for quite some time. Though does he feel if not proudly, then at least perceptibly American? “Erm… yeah! I guess I’m kinda the epitome of the modern American: my mom grew up in the Philippines, got her green card, and moved to the States to marry a black guy. And that’s my dad! They raised me the American way, so I consider myself an American and I feel very privileged now to be able to do this as a living, and to gain more culture not only through music, but also through just, like, physically seeing stuff. It’s really cool to be doing worldly things.”

It’s an admirable stance, as Bundick with his band in devoted tow vehemently attempt to affront the typical roll in; play on; roll right back out sequencing embraced by many bands you’ll speak to. “We at the very least try to try some native food!” As I arrive, he’s tucking into a pungent Mediterranean platter, though he assures me he’s sampled some of our finer delicacies elsewhere: “I actually like the English breakfast – I never had beans in the morning before, but it was good! Though yeah, when we were in Moscow we went straight from the airport to the venue so the only thing we could do to get some culture in us was to eat something.”

A singularly British experience then, and one by the sounds of it worth repeating. Though a rather more American sensation, and one we can but hope is never to be resuscitated is, or rather was the whole chillwave fad. I’m expecting a wince even at the word, and a little piece of Bundick to die inside midway through my questioning – not least as the term intimates something a little more downtempo than the upbeat, funk-ridden wave Bundick is known to ride – although he says he’s “expecting it.” He’s well versed in it, even and consequently, “it’s not, like, a burden to talk about – it’s just a label which is, or was, used to describe something so it’s totally useful. It’s just that every once in a while a label comes along which sounds really silly. It’s kinda weird, but when I first heard the term ‘twee’ I was more taken aback by that. And I mean if you think about ‘rock’, why is it called ‘rock’?” One of an infinity of inquisitions to which I have no response whatsoever. I look back blankly. Blank, one may say, as a canvas. Or an empty Microsoft Word .doc. And just as with that seemingly not so dreaded chillwave tag, reviews themselves offer the average self-professed journo the opportunity to slap a label on anything and indeed everything. It’s from these that many a first impression is formulated although they’re an element of the industry Bundick opts not to read into, if only to occasionally read at all: “I read, like, the big ones – that being the BBC, or The Guardian, or Pitchfork – but other than that, I don’t get anything out of it. You know, regardless I’mma try to make the music I feel I should be making so really, there’s no real reason for the artist to read the review. It’s either gonna build up your ego, or it’s gonna just make you feel like crap.”

Quite. Though there must, I assume, be some form of disconnect between the artist’s intention (in this case that of Bundick himself) and the journalist’s interpretation in these infrequent cases of critical exposure? “Not really – by the time I get to read the reviews, I’m usually already over all that. Right now, I’m already ready to move on and write a whole new record. My attention to my music is very at that moment – when it’s written is when I enjoy it the most. And it’s just sort of behind me after that. I don’t know whether all artists do that, but…” Which must surely render the return to dustier material in a live context that bit more problematic psychologically, if nothing else? Though perverse as per, “I enjoy that – playing is totally different, especially with the band. I mean it’s different every night, and it’s fun to do every time.”

I suppose the live element is intrinsically linked to a geographical positioning: a miscellany of human of varying origin congregated in one place to appreciate the craft of another from somewhere else altogether. Music itself – and the process of experiencing – is therefore an innately unifying experience in which disparate peoples are brought together by a communal intrigue. And if the somewhat clumsy clumping together of the whole chillwave thing did anything for Bundick, then it was to fortify his consortium in kind with a certain someone. It’s an association which remains intact, although it’s one which now has perhaps more to do with “work ethic” than actual work per se, as he passionately contends that he and Ernest Greene (aka Washed Out) only reached the heady heights at which they’re now at through diligence, and unerring dedication to the cause. “Internet buzz, and the culture of reblogging definitely helped us out, and it’s still crazy how that can happen. So we definitely still feel that same connection, Ernest and I. We’re always calling each other to catch up and see where each of us is at, and so it’s cool to know that we each have someone who’s on a similar path, you know?”

Though the ubiquitous comparison was one I never quite got. And although perhaps hyperbolic, the previously referenced ‘hipster Prince’ parallel is one which, to me, makes that little bit more sense. He too could’ve read said quote, were he more inclined to swot up on himself rather more scrupulously and although not exactly directly emulating His Purpleness in sound, both could be said to share that same uninhibited, and above all freeform approach toward songwriting. “Yeah, I mean that’s, like, super flattering – I don’t know if I should even have my name said in that same sentence! I don’t see that direct a comparison, but to know that Prince was definitely open to doing new things in his combining of rock with R’n’B, well, that’s what I like to do! I like to try to challenge the genre itself.”

And it’s the pulling together of the disparate genres with which Bundick tinkers that’s seemingly his loftiest stumbling block: I just write songs constantly and so I could write, like, a psychedelic track, or a reggae track, or a house track but then that’d be all I’d have. That doesn’t constitute an album.” Cohesion is of course (and quite rightly) crucial: “I definitely feel like albums should have some cohesiveness, or some type of element that’s keeping it together. So that can be the production, or a theme – whether lyrical or musical – but yeah, it definitely varies. But people listen to singles now, and so it’s hard to sell ‘em in on an album. That makes the best thing to do to have all good songs. Or just, like, release all of your songs. For free.”

A modern outlook then, and one which is perhaps at odds with the generic artist’s modern-day proclivity for delving deeper and deeper into the annals of time and attic-incarcerated record collections for inspiration. Maybe it’s symptomatic of the cyclical nature of all art forms? Or perhaps an indication of there momentarily being something of a creative dearth about the place? Attention spans are most certainly diminishing, and America’s blog craze undoubtedly contributes to that. And as more or less a monarch of the blogosphere, if not of the wider web itself Bundick too is in a way culpable. Though he goes the other way: “People are always looking for new music, and I feel like it’s such an as you say ADD world right now, which means that people are always looking towards some new thing. And so in a way, as an artist that’s why you have to keep changing at a similar pace. Because if people are changing their interests that fast, then it’s probably to your benefit to just be ahead of the curve and to change without people necessarily expecting it. So that’s why I’m constantly changing I guess – to keep ahead of the curve I’ve got plotted out in my head. Whatever that is…”

It’s a casual conclusion to our time together, and indeed Anything In Return was met with an acute degree of apathy that given Monday. It’s a lyric from album standout Cola which then fizzes away in my mind: “It’s imperfect; it’s not forever.” Though if Bundick can continue to bend his runs beyond the curve then perhaps the future can be limitless – with or without blog culture, file sharing, and so on. And as he casts a cursory glance back over his past, he bullishly affirms: “I have no regrets – I’m totally happy with all the decisions I’ve made thus far.” And elevated at 120-odd feet over the City of Westminster, who are we to disagree with such resolute conviction?

Anything In Return is out now on Carpark Records.

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