Chazwick Bundick was 23 when he signed with D.C.-based Carpark Records. It warranted a mention in Pitchfork's News In Brief: described as a "psychedelic R&B project," the publication anticipated the release of his debut single, "Blessa."
That release was the beginning of an inspired career that's defied categorisation. Bundick's experimented with both sample-based work and live instrumentation, crafting Dilla-esque soundscapes and Wilsonian rock songs with the same trademark ingenuity. He's collaborated with artists such as hip hop innovator Travis Scott, plunderphonics legends The Avalanches, electronica beatsmith Nosaj Thing and electro-funk duo Chromeo, his guest appearances doubling as powerful cosigns. Despite these high-profile assists, Bundick's commercial peak sits at a modest #60 on the Billboard 200, achieved by his sophomore record, 2013's Underneath The Pine.
Bundick is no stranger to critical acclaim, and yet mainstream commercial success seems to allude him. There's an injustice in Toro y Moi's cult following: namely, the fact that such a productive talent should be relegated to a niche. From hip hop collabs to rock n' roll throwbacks, Chaz Bundick has been quietly achieving as one of the decade's most versatile musicians.
In the spirit of celebration, here's a brief guide to Chaz's stellar career.
(It's Not) Chillwave
Despite only singing to a label in 2009, Bundick had been honing his craft under the Toro y Moi moniker since 2002. Originally starting with "a Fostex cassette-tape four-track... an acoustic guitar and [a] Roland keyboard," Bundick became a self-taught producer. It wasn't until college that he bought a laptop, branching into sampling and loop-based composition. He graduated from the University of South Carolina in mid-2009, around the same time that he was signed to Carpark Records.
He begun working on his major label debut, which comprised of "a lot of soft synths and default drum patches." Also key to the album's sound was music software Reason, which Bundick heavily experimented with throughout the recording process. Unknown to Chaz, his debut record would place him at the vanguard of a microgenre immersed in controversy and debate, burdening him with a hard-to-shake label for much of his early career.
Coincidentally, Causers Of This bore similarities to a swathe of electronic records from the same period. Christened "Chillwave" by satire site HipsterRunoff, the microgenre revelled in soft synths and nostalgia-inducing palettes. David Keenan, writing for The Wire in 2009, coined the term "hypnagogic pop," which he defined as “pop music refracted through the memory of a memory.”
"It draws its power from the 1980s pop culture into which many of the genre’s players were born, and which is only now being factored into underground music as a spectral influence. Hypnagogic realms are the ones between waking and sleeping, liminal zones where mis-hearings and hallucinations feed into the formation of dreams."
Despite Keenan's compelling take, "Chillwave" stuck as the formal designation for the movement. Pitchfork would call 2009 the "Summer of Chillwave," a period inundated with lo-fi indie pop propped up on the fetishisation of sunlit beaches. This oversaturation quickly led to the genre's demise, ushered out by the nigh-unanimous rebuke of music publications in mid-2010.
Chillwave was such a fleeting sensation that many believe the genre itself was a fabrication spurred by mislabelling. Indeed, the designation itself proved unpopular with almost everybody: artists assigned the label generally resented it, and HipsterRunoff creator Carles claimed it was "ridiculous that any sort of press took it seriously." Though the genre, fabricated or not, quickly fell out of favour, the niche's biggest artists continued to find successes: Neon Indian, Washed Out and Toro y Moi maintain cult followings well into 2018.
By the time 2011 came around, Chillwave was all but dead. Its foremost cultural impact was the way in which it inspired and influenced the eventual Vaporwave movement, which fused hypnagogic tendencies with eighties mallsoft and an ironic appreciation of the capitalistic excesses underpinning it.
One drawback of chopped-and-screwed sampling were the difficulties that arose when presenting it live. Reminiscing on his first tour, Bundick was upfront about the issue:
"I didn't like it. I wasn't used to being on stage with a laptop and being solo. I got a band as soon as possible. I sort of had to start over. We couldn't really make the songs sound like they did on the album."
His sophomore record, Underneath The Pine, was a solo effort "written with band in mind." It needed to easily translate to a traditional live setup, incorporating compelling basslines and feasible drum parts. Take lead single "New Beat," which is less languid and hypnagogic than tracks included on Causers Of This. It features an easily-identifiable drum kit alongside crisper, more organically instrumental arrangements.
These stylistic evolutions bode well for the newly-assembled Toro y Moi touring band, comprised of fellow USC alumni Jordan Blackmon on guitar, Anthony Ferraro on keys, Patrick Jeffords on bass and Andrew Woodward on drums. Their presence was both a response to Bundick's live difficulties and a force that helped shape his pivot away from soft synths and samples.
His third album, Anything In Return, tastefully fused the sensibilities of his preceding work into a pop-fuelled career highlight. Tracks such as "Cake" display the kind of self-important bombast that Bundick had undercut on his earlier albums. Whilst Causers Of This was steeped in recollection and dreamscapes, Anything In Return showed Bundick embracing the popular appeal of his well-honed sound, taking a step towards R&B/synthpop grandeur. The accompanying music videos were higher concept as well as higher budget, and the basslines throughout were heftier than his audience had come to expect. In many ways, the release stands as Bundick's first overtly confident period.
"So Many Details," the album's standout single, incorporates synthetic sounds whilst remaining largely instrumentally reproducible. The opening drum kit is sampled from Sweet Thursday's "Gilbert Street," a track off their sole 1969 record.
Having seemingly synthesised his stylistic shifts into a cohesive sound, Bundick had reached the peak of his innovative powers. He'd emerged amongst a musical movement, almost immediately (and successfully) broken away from the label ascribed to him and still managed to incorporate his burdensome debut into his overarching sound. The days of hypnagogic pop were gone, and whilst critics debated the nature of its brief existence, Bundick repurposed his initial vision.
Bundick's appetite for dancefloor rhythms had already pushed his sound in new and unexpected directions. In 2014, seemingly tired of flirting with dance music, Bundick adopted the 'Les Sins' moniker and released Michael, a full-length album of sample-heavy, house-infused jams. He lists dancefloor legends "Timbaland, Mr. Oizo, and Daft Punk" as direct inspirations.
A frantic listen, it's a far more experimental record than those issued under his Toro moniker. The music is singular and undoubtedly solo, incorporating unorthodox beats and hypnotic refrains. The sampling within hints at Bundick's growing appreciation of hip hop - album opener "Talk About" builds a refrain from a Nas sample, whilst "Drop" takes percussion from The Winstons' "Amen, Brother," a much-sampled 1967 track that most famously featured on NWA's "Straight Outta Compton."
Having exorcised his more eccentric inclinations, Bundick returned to Toro and started working on a record both unexpected and traditional.
2015's What For? remains an anomaly in Bundick's catalogue. Whilst some saw Causers Of This as indebted to the sun soaked philosophies of Brian Wilson, What For? was more musically analogous to the work of the trailblazing Beach Boy. It's Bundick's attempt at a more traditional strain of indie rock, punctuated with crunchy guitar riffs and uplifting McCartney-esque melodies.
Bundick's nostalgic infatuation with the the eighties was replaced by a new interest in the seventies. Much of What For? takes cues from a distinctly post-Beatles musical landscape, rooting Bundick's new age approach in a more conventional genre. The record made extensive use of Woodward's drumming prowess - whilst Chaz recorded much of the record independent of his touring band, Woodward contributed to five of the ten tracks. Album track "Half Dome" features guitar and backing vocals from Ruban Neilson, lead singer of New Zealand band Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Just four months later, Bundick released a 20-track mixtape of previously unreleased leftovers. Samantha was little more than a DropBox link and a swathe of informal photos, but it featured some of Bundick's most prolific collaborations, including tracks with Washed Out, Nosaj Thing and Kool A.D.
Samantha experimented with hip hop influences, presaging the release of his Travis Scott collaboration, "Flying High," a month later. "Want," featuring former Chillwave pioneer Washed Out, incorporates familiar trap percussion into the pair's ethereal sound. "I hope to be as popular in the hip-hop world as I am in the indie rock world," Bundick told Pigeons and Planes in 2015. An unreleased Tyler The Creator collaboration, "Hey You," offers a glimpse of Chaz's hip hop sensibilities.
Boo Boo & The Mattson 2
Bundick was never one for long musical absences - whilst artists such as Frank Ocean are content with all but vanishing, Bundick's workaholic tendencies kept him on a constant grind. He released a live album, Live From Trona, in late 2016. Bundick's curious live show was recorded without an audience, orchestrated in the middle of the empty Californian desert. It featured a host of his most memorable and impressive hits as well as a new collaboration with Californian jazz duo, The Mattson 2.
The collaboration was not a one time thing. His first release of 2017 was Chaz Bundick Meets The Mattson 2, a suitably titled studio album that finds Bundick indulging his jazz-rock inklings. Though occasionally uneven, the project breathes new life into Bundick's vision by pairing him with a duo who aspire to "the jangle of the sea and the jazz of the surf."
2017's Toro y Moi record, Boo Boo, was their fifth studio album in seven years. Whilst one would expect an artist to eventually buckle under the weight of their own ambitions, Bundick returned with one of Toro's most impressive and singular records to date. Bundick offered cryptic hints as to the meaning behind the album's title, beginning a lengthy statement on the record with a swathe of definitions for "Boo Boo," including "a mistake," "a minor injury," a surprise, an unappreciative jeer and "a person's boyfriend or girlfriend." He was more forthcoming with the emotions and beliefs underpinning the record, candidly reflecting upon his place in the world:
"After 7 years of touring and recording, I found myself becoming self conscious about my position in life as a “famous” person, or at least my version of whatever that is."
Despite his feelings about his relatively newfound fame, Bundick elaborated on the artists and intentions that ran throughout Boo Boo:
"The artists that were influencing what I was making included everyone from Travis Scott to Daft Punk, Frank Ocean to Oneohtrix Point Never, Kashif and Gigi Masin. I recognized that the common thread between these artists was their attention to a feeling of space, or lack thereof. I decided that I wanted to make a Pop record with these ideas in mind. That idea for a record is what eventually became Boo Boo."
In the spirit of Frank Ocean, Boo Boo's release was complemented by a 50-minute visual that doubled as a complete album stream. More dynamic than Ocean's Endless, the visual finds Chaz driving through a slow sunset whilst images and lo-fi video inserts pepper the single take.
Musically, Boo Boo is strangely cohesive. Whilst it's rare to find an album that commits so confidently to a single sonic palette, many of Toro's records have been steeped in singular moods and emotions. Boo Boo revisits the eighties influence that kickstarted Bundick's career, doing away with the hypnogogic ambiguities and doubling down on coherent instrumentation and clear vocals. It's What For? by way of Causers - though it bears a sonic resemblance to his debut, it's steeped in the conventional songwriting of his later work. Take "Girl Like You," one of Toro's most accessible pop songs, or "Labyrinth," a similarly easygoing album track.
Despite his lengthy list of direct inspirations, Boo Boo sounds like a recollection of a period: it's the eighties distilled in a uniquely new-age way, encapsulating a time without emulating any specific sound.
So Many Details
Toro y Moi has come a long way. The outfit has subverted expectations and defied designation, seamlessly delving into synthpop, R&B, indie rock and hip hop. Bundick has expertly toed the line between quality and quantity, becoming one of indie music's most prolific and acclaimed new voices. Despite his well-earned place as an indie darling, Bundick's fascinating sonic evolution is largely underappreciated. He's never appeared on the Triple J Hottest 100, nor has he won any significant awards for his work.
Those aren't the kind of details that would bother Chaz, who, despite his vast catalogue, treats his music as a hobby. Toro y Moi's cult following is all the more impressive when one considers Bundick's lowkey approach to the project, which is both informal and subdued.
In the eight years since embarking on his musical "hobby," Bundick has released six studio albums, two compilations of unreleased tracks, a collaborative record, and a concert film and accompanying live album. What's more, eight years into his prolific and pioneering career, he shows no signs of relenting - and thank god for that.