A super-chill recording can be a great mood setter or an ambient accent. But when it comes to presenting that kind of music live, it's time to head into the workshop. Toro y Moi, the musical project of Chaz Bundick, faces those challenges head-on when translating his decidedly laid-back music for his current tour. He's found it best to wholly reconstruct his songs and to synch the mood elements — lights, visuals, etc. — to create an overall atmosphere.
The 26-year-old Bundick writes music that's open to change and interpretation. That's a strength in that it can fit many environments, but a weakness in that it can come across as lightweight. Though he meticulously crafts his tunes, his recent third album, Anything in Return, expands his atmospheric sound by incorporating more R&B, hip-hop, and pop elements. It also encourages a sustained, active listen, with a lot of attention paid to the details — more so than anything he's done in the past. But Bundick has no firm preferences on how a listener might engage with his music; he understands that a lot of times music with this sort of mood becomes background music, a soundtrack for a lifestyle.
That struggle between being perceived as an artist making deliberate choices and a performer entertaining an audience informs his live shows, too. "The thing about getting bigger as a band in popularity is your fan base is going to get bigger, but in a different way," Bundick says. "[At shows] it's not going to be all people that understand all where you're coming from — people who get that you're referencing deep house or French R&B music. So you're going to start seeing people waiting for the hits and the poppy, not just the trippy. But I'm OK with that. It's cool to see a mix of it."
In fact, while Bundick is happy that anyone's listening to his music, he also says he's never really put a lot of thought into who might be, or why. "I'm all for people being interested in my music," he says, laughing at the fact that he has the luxury to seem nonchalant. "I do it because I like to do it, and if people go to shows, that's a bonus. I just have this creative passion to make music and visual art, photography, printed stuff."
The desire to express drives Bundick, and he's eager to do so in a variety of media while he has the chance to take advantage of his artist-of-the-moment status. A graphic designer, Bundick recently designed a skateboard deck for Alien Workshop and a limited-edition shoe for Vans. It's a graphics-heavy design featuring cars hydroplaning and crashing, but it also looks like a kids' shoe. Bundick says he wanted something playful yet dark and with an overall irony that suits his tunes, too, especially Anything in Return.
At first listen it's a mellow and blissed-out collection of funk-influenced atmospherics — a sunny day drive. And while Bundick's gauzy vocal delivery doesn't draw attention to the subject matter, his lyrics deal with relationship woes, relocation woes, and real-world woes.
Despite the personal themes in Anything in Return's lyrics, it's the music that drives his songwriting. Bundick prefers noodling around with a tune until he's found one that inspires him to keep going, then add all the little flourishes that elevate his music a step above generic ambience for the chill-out lounge (or elevator). Words come last.
And unlike many musicians who work in electronics-heavy genres, he's not the sort to keep a bank of tunes or samples that he likes, instead seeking out what he needs while he's in the process of creating a song. "Because I have so many different things going on in my music, I have to try a lot of different things. I have to make sure they all work coherently, and then again even more once I put songs together as an album," he says.
Bundick's penchant for sonic layering is a quality that lends itself to production and remixing of other artists. Though it's not something he prefers, he does the latter for artists as varied as Tegan and Sara, Tyler, the Creator, Cut Copy, and even Billie Holiday. "I don't usually like to do [remixes] unless they're interesting," he says. "I might mess up the original version, then again I could pay my rent. And I don't like to get my music remixed. My ear just doesn't hear it the way it wants to, with all the things in it I think should be there."
That surfeit of elements in each song serves his recordings well, though translating the album experience into a live performance is something that's constantly bedeviled musicians who craft tunes primarily in the bedroom and the studio. Touring with a full Toro y Moi band, Bundick has expanded and altered his music and its presentation. The band comprises two keyboards, a bass, and a full drum kit (with Bundick on keys and vocals).
Everything had to be rewritten from the ground up for the live show. Bundick had no idea how to create many of his songs for a live performance, so he'd start with the rhythm section and build from there with his bandmates. "It was a hard process, since I didn't even know some of the parts to my own songs," he says.
Translating his music into performable tunes for every tour, however, has been a rewarding and eye-opening one for Bundick, particularly for the fuller songs off the new album. "It makes me want to write songs with a band and tour them and then record them," he says. Maybe that's an old-fashioned approach for an act that's setting contemporary trends, but Bundick doesn't want to limit his audience — why should he limit himself?