Wallflower: Interview w/ Chaz Bundick of Toro Y Moi
Chaz Bundick is truly an enigma. There are very few independent alternative artists on the indie scene that can bust awkward wallflower dance moves in their abstract Super 8 music videos, replete with Scooby Doo references, while getting groupie love from the likes of BET sister station Centric. To get an idea of his shapeshifting sound, imagine Shuggie Otis, Todd Rundgren, and David Byrne channeled through the crunchy, lo-fi guitar amps and TR-808 drum machine of a 25-year-old one-man band. Since 2009, Bundick has released an impressively bountiful stream of music under the moniker of Toro Y Moi. Earlier this year, his sophomore album Underneath The Pine was his first to make an impression on the Billboard charts (#186 pop, #50 Rock, #24 Independent, #4 Heatseekers). His latest EP Freaking Out, which features a solo rendition of the 1985 Cherrelle & Alexander O’Neal R&B classic duet “Saturday Love,” upped the ante with a decidedly dance approach, nodding to pioneering 80s electro producer Arthur Baker and French house kings Daft Punk.
In the midst of the seeming non-sequiturs of Bundick’s musical endeavors is a method, though. It wouldn’t be beyond reason to think that the madness that comes with it is of the mad-genius kind. During an afternoon walking the streets of bohemian Brooklyn, we delved into the mind of the demure Bundick to find out how he holds it all together.
Okayplayer: Considering the type of music you’re producing, it threw a lot people off to find out that you’re from Columbia, South Carolina. Kind of similar to the reaction when people found out that Mars Volta was from El Paso.
Chaz Bundick: Columbia is a small college town. We always have a huge turnaround of young kids. College towns are always into new music. The college radio station there really helped me open up to a lot of things. Other than that, it’s like any other college town: dead in the summertime and crazy during the school year.
OKP: Whats the scene like in Columbia?
CB: There’s a handful of bands out there that have a lot of motivation and potential…like Chemical Peel, which is more like Riot Grrl kind of punk. There’s bands like Coma Cinema that are similar to early Modest Mouse, only with darker and more personal songs. There’s a lot of good stuff. The South is opening up to more electronic music, partially because of what mainstream music is doing.
OKP: Stylistically, your body of work has been a bit schizophrenic. Listening to it chronologically, it sounds like you’ve gone through quite a few metamorphoses.
CB: I’m still into all those albums and still make songs in those genres. I don’t think I’m going to stop making all those songs. I just feel like those types of songs should just be on their own albums with each other. I wouldn’t want to put all those different types of songs on one album. I’m constantly switching sides, going back and forth between things.
OKP: Is that going to be a recurring theme throughout your career?
CB: Possibly. I wouldn’t want to do two of the same type of albums in a row, just because I might get bored. I’m so ADD. When I was doing Underneath The Pine, I would go back and work on the electronic stuff when I got bored with it.
OKP: So your workflow involves juggling several projects at once?
CB: Yeah. It’s just a matter of time before I have a number of songs that work together. Then I’m like, “I should do something with this.” As for Sides Of Chaz, that was just some weird improvisational go-for-it stuff. If you listen to Paul McCartney’s album McCartney II had a weird new wave vibe to it. You wouldn’t think that he had that weird side to him. It’s nice to be weird every once in a while.
OKP: What was the thought process behind the creation of Underneath The Pine?
CB: I was thinking about the live set up. It was hard for us to play the Causers Of This material live, because it was all made on a laptop. It wasn’t made with a live band in mind. I didn’t even think it was going to get this big. I was just working on a laptop, thinking it was going to be fun. Playing it live wasn’t exactly fulfilling. I wanted something more. I felt like the live show was suffering because of the songs.
OKP: How has the shift in sound affected your live show?
CB: With the new set of songs, [the live show] is really where we want it. It’s more upbeat. I really wanted it to be more upbeat. A lot of the stuff on Causers Of This is around 95-100 bpm. It’s good head-bobbing music, but the newer stuff is more upbeat. It’s better in a live environment.
OKP: You create a lot of digital music, but there’s an undeniable analog aesthetic about you…
CB: I still record on cassette tapes when I’m at home. I’ve had the recorder since I was 15. Hopefully one day those tapes will be transferred by me or someone else.
OKP: Is that how you achieved the sound on Sides Of Chaz?
CB: Yeah. Everything was just going through a guitar amp.
OKP: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that the Beach Boys influenced your style. What other artists have had an influence on you?
CB: A lot of the Stones Throw stuff. I think Stones Throw realizes that music is constantly evolving. That’s just the next phase of music. With all of those newer artists, you can tell that they’re influenced by Dilla, Madlib, and the artists from the early roster. I love Jonti’s stuff.
OKP: Freaking Out seems like your paean to dance music, with maybe just a dash of freestyle?
CB: I got into dance music around 17 or 18. The first real dance thing I got into was the first Digitalism album. They’re from Germany. Then I got into Daft Punk. I started old house tracks. I think that’s a great genre for a live setting. It’s fun to play house.
OKP: Did you discover “Saturday Love” on Freaking Out through the recent Cherrelle & Alexander O’Neal Unsung episode?
CB: (laughs) We were at a record shop in Australia last February. I’d never heard that song before. I already had a couple of Cherrelle albums, but then I heard this one at the shop. I was like, “How did this slip by me?” So I decided to cover it. I like to cover songs to sort of practice and sort of do my homework in a way. If I’m doing an 80s boogie type of song, I try to figure out the methods of it. So doing covers is sort of like me doing my first draft essay before doing the final draft.
OKP: Boogie was a pretty dominant subgenre of R&B in the early 80s. Who were some of the artists that came up in your travels that helped you gain an understanding of the music?
CB: (laughs) The internet. Just searching the internet and getting lost. There wasn’t really anyone in specific though. But I really like Bobby Nunn. Also a lot of the Rick James protégés. That production is really nice, because it’s so tight and dry.
OKP: You play all the instruments on your albums. Is that the result of some kind of control freak issue?
CB: It’s just me on the recordings. Maybe one day, I’ll do some stuff with other musicians in the studio but right now, it’s just me. It’s not really a control freak thing. Just me just doing my hobby, making music at my house. I just like to make music whenever I can. But it’s usually when I’m by myself. Especially now since we’re always on tour. But when I’m home, I just like to make music.
OKP: In February, your song “Still Sound” was used in a Black History Month TV promo spot on Centric. How did that happen?
CB: They just emailed me. I definitely believe in promoting black culture. I thought it was a good cause and was willing to let them use my song for the promo. They emailed me and I just said, “Sure.” I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like a lot of middlemen.