x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Rising damp

The budding US musician Toro Y Moi admits the trappings of success caught him unawares and that he sometimes has to fight back tears when singing his own songs.

Chaz Bundwick, who performs under the stage name Toro Y Moi, has developed a signature style that is both cutting-edge and retro-leaning. He describes his coming second album as "a step sideways".
Chaz Bundwick, who performs under the stage name Toro Y Moi, has developed a signature style that is both cutting-edge and retro-leaning. He describes his coming second album as "a step sideways".

Striding boldly on to a stage before a sea of expectant fans is a dream for many aspiring rock stars, whether they front a band or just wield a plastic guitar in front of a PlayStation. When the opportunity to play live actually arises, however, the reality can be very different. "I have to keep myself occupied, to stop myself bawling onstage," admits Toro Y Moi, aka the talented but sensitive Chaz Bundick. "The only time I did cry was at [the American showcase festival] South by Southwest. I'd stripped my set down to just guitar so I didn't have much to think about except the lyrics, and I hadn't played for a long time. So the next thing I know I'm in tears for this one song. It was pretty bad."

Well-informed music lovers outside the US have been clamouring to see Bundick play since last summer, when a few mesmerising tracks emerged and an underground buzz spread far beyond his small, local fanbase. Born in South Carolina to a Filipina mother and African-American father, his varied influences have conjoined in a manner that defies easy categorisation. Hook-laden, R&B-flavoured pop is at its heart, but elaborate and distinctive production techniques have made his name. "I really wanted to create music that's accessible for a lot of people," he says, "but not too run-of-the-mill."

In so doing, Bundick has developed a signature style both cutting-edge and retro-leaning. His breakthrough single Blessa, for example, opens with a complex array of vocal samples and electronic instrumentation, but is as crackly and distorted as an old vinyl record. Many of his slower-moving songs have the compressed, distant, but oddly comforting sound of a cheap plastic cassette tape, which you might think would be unique these days. In fact, that hypnotic, hissy quality led Toro to become entangled in a curious scene last summer, more of which later.

Meeting Bundick, you can appreciate why he tends to bury his compositions beneath this protective wall of murky sound and distracting effects. Short, softly-spoken and hidden behind big glasses and a baseball cap, he seems anything but a natural showman. Indeed, the industry excitement around his exotically-named alter-ego caught the unassuming musician unawares. "I went on my first tour as Toro Y Moi in August 2009, and I was worried out of my mind about what I was going to do," he recalls. "So I went to a guitar centre and said, 'OK, what would I need for a tour?' I bought a couple of pedals, a case for stuff. I was kind of thrown into it."

Things haven't gone entirely to plan since then. The bashful performer met me shortly before his debut London show, the focal point of a European trip that should have taken place in February. US artists enjoying transatlantic interest usually head for Europe at the earliest opportunity, but Bundick marches to the beat of a different drum, and decided to wait five months for festival season. "There was an issue with it not really being feasible, not having enough shows booked to make the money back from the flight and stuff," he admits. "But now things are a little bit more legit, there's a higher demand."

The original tour was to have coincided with the release of his debut album, Causers of This, which also deviated from its original path. In his early interviews Bundick made the uncharacteristically bold announcement that his eagerly-awaited long-player would be a double album, but only one half has appeared thus far, "because touring took over and, I really?" He looks momentarily pained. "That was my first official release and I didn't realise everything that came with it: the press, touring."

Things appear to be back on track. The European tour has gone well, and the singer is pleasantly surprised that people from cities "I know nothing about" remain interested in his not immediately accessible material. Meanwhile, the second album is nearing completion, and is "definitely different", he smiles. "It's a step sideways." Some of that record will hark back to the missing disc of the first Toro album, which was intended to showcase a more traditional aspect of the artist's talents.

Bundick grew up immersed in his father's soul-pop collection - Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire - and was later inspired by the emotive songwriting of American folk-rockers such as Elliott Smith and the Saddle Creek collective. His songs initially followed a similar route. "Seriously, when I first started they weren't that weird-sounding. But then there came a point in my life where I thought, 'I want to be weird!' I got tired of making normal rock stuff and folk stuff. It's fun to weird people out."

His hometown of Columbia is "probably not the best place to start a music career", admits the 23-year-old. "But it's fun to be in a band there, it's not like anyone is doing it to get famous." Hence his sonic experiments evolved at their own pace, as they were only ever intended for the tapes he gave to friends. However, those tracks eventually caught the ear of the Washington label Carpark Records, and as his wilfully unconventional output began to find a wider audience, Bundick was surprised to find himself heading up a whole movement. Along with fellow makers of experimental, vocally-murky rock-pop - Neon Indian, Memory Tapes, Ariel Pink - Toro Y Moi was labelled as "chillwave".

"I think that might have been a fad," he says. "All of those artists are still active, but I haven't really heard the term 'chillwave' in a while. I do think that gave it a lot of momentum, but when what you're doing is your hobby, and you make another song that sounds like that, and people complain, it's like 'I didn't want to make chillwave!' So you've just got to be ahead of the game and make something else that doesn't sound like it."

One slight concern if Bundick does take a more traditional, less complicated musical path in future: his raw lyrical style will be even harder to ignore. The untimely tears at that huge industry showcase occurred because "that song just reminds me of my mom," he recalls, but he has also "freaked out friends and family" with overly frank wordplay. One notable example was a hometown live show where a lyric about everyone he liked having left town offended everyone who still lived there.

"Yeah, I like that one," laughs the author. "The best lyrics are the honest ones. There are some downsides to it but I think you get the best results, internally. I do think about what the song is about while I'm singing it, pretty much every time. It's hard not to. There will be nights where I completely faze it out because I'm too busy working on something, doing stuff with my hands, but most of the time an image pops into my head."

So what did the audience at that important industry event make of his weeping? "I think they kind of got freaked out. Like the other day I saw this guy crying on stage, they were a band from LA, at a festival, and I was just weirded out. Like, is that what it's like if I cry on stage?" Expect no more tears from Toro Y Moi.