Chaz Bundick biked onto the sidewalk outside a Berkeley coffeehouse, dragging his foot along the pavement to brake. He looked like a typical UC Berkeley undergrad, the quiet kind who hides under drab-colored work clothes and plays in a noisy rock band or has a radio show on KALX. But when Bundick sat down and removed his beanie, revealing his short, Afroed hair and clear, round glasses, he was unmistakably the indie music darling known as Toro Y Moi.
When the Columbia, South Carolina native moved to Berkeley a little more than a year ago, it was the first time he'd ever lived away from home, even after his career blew up in 2009.
"Moving out here and starting over, not knowing anyone and making friends, it's a weird situation, being a familiar person," Bundick said as he shrugged and folded his coffee cup sleeve into triangles. "I don't want to be weird hermit guy. I want to have a friend circle." In an effort to make new friends, he frequents house parties with his longstanding girlfriend, who is studying environmental engineering at Cal, and willingly gives his phone number to people he just meets. Despite being recognized by many Cal students and blog-weaned twentysomethings, Bundick said he still feels like the same kid riding a skateboard back in Columbia: At one point during our meeting, he pulled out a notebook from his back pocket that contained funny self-portraits and drawings of adorable animals — many of them pooping.
It's these contradictions — the adult pressures of being a successful musician and the adolescent struggle to move away from his parents — that inspired the themes in his third studio album, Anything in Return, which will be released January 22 by Carpark Records and will stream on Pitchfork starting January 14. Artistically and emotionally, the album shows the 26-year-old has matured beyond his breakthrough buzz and applied lessons he's learned along the way. Bundick, along with Washed Out and Neon Indian, gained notoriety for a bedroom pop genre called chillwave: ambient, atmospheric, and airy electronic songs, mostly about young love — a kind of Seventies easy listening sound reconfigured for the digital age. Chillwave hit its peak in the summer of 2010, inspiring a slew of copycats, but it gave Bundick a following large enough to support international tours, two full-length albums, seven EPs, and dozens of remixes, and led to high-profile collaborations with artists like Frank Ocean. Still, on Anything in Return, Bundick wanted to show he was more than a "blog band."
"The Internet celebrity thing has gotten out of hand," Bundick said. "I rode out chillwave ... after a lot of people ridiculed it. Now I have to prove myself again."
Bundick ditched the laptop to write and record Anything in Return, playing each instrument in the studio and then working with his touring band to reinterpret the tracks for a live audience. "Having the computer weakens my songwriting skills," he said. "I wanted strong pop songs regardless of the production. Where the record sounds like Michael Jackson, live we went more for Todd Rundgren." The band will tour Europe through the end of January and return to the states for a national tour that includes appearances at the Noise Pop Festival on Friday, March 1, and Saturday, March 2, at The Independent.
Bundick said he still considers Toro Y Moi "a bedroom project," which presents its challenges — namely, making sure his music translates to an offline, real-world experience. For example, "Blessa," which appears on Toro Y Moi's debut album, Causers of This, is one of his most popular songs, but he said it's "boring" when played live, so now he rarely performs it. Also, although the chillwave genre has largely built a following by giving away tracks for free online, Bundick felt it necessary to emphasize the importance of physical releases. Last year, he compiled tracks he had previously released for free into an album titled June 2009. And two months ago, he introduced Anything in Return with listening parties in New York City and San Francisco, weekend-long events curated like art shows at which thirteen of Bundick's drawings were displayed to represent each of the album's thirteen tracks, which played on nearby headphones.
It's all pretty impressive for a guy who had never seriously considered pursuing a career in music, even though it had been his longtime fantasy. Bundick started at a young age, reluctantly learning piano at his mom's insistence and eventually picking up other instruments. He began writing songs by himself under the name Toro Y Moi in high school. In college, he formed an indie rock band with friends based on his love of Sonic Youth, At the Drive-In, Weezer, Pavement, and The Strokes — all the while continuing to make music as a solo artist. When representatives from Carpark heard Bundick's music online and offered him a record deal, it was just before he graduated from the University of South Carolina with plans to work in graphic design. By then, he had discovered his love for Prince and Michael Jackson, influences heard in Toro Y Moi's music and especially in the sexy pop songs on Anything in Return.
Anything in Return stays loyal to the layered, at times fuzzy, beats of early Toro Y Moi, but in every other sense, Bundick avoids anything that could be described as "chill" and cranks up the volume: of his vocals; of the instruments (guitar, bass, piano, drums); and of the overall production, which no longer sounds like he's in an echo-y, lo-fi cavern, but rather sparkles like a vintage mirror disco ball. And there's plenty of disco, in the boogie beats and funky bass lines of "Studies" and in the romantic R&B thrusts of "Never Matter." Fans of Bundick's side project, Les Sins, which he said is inspired by Chicago deep house from the Eighties, will hear it in "Say That," a straight dance track driven by a drum machine beat and clipped female vocal samples. Anything in Return slows down on songs such as "Cola," with its simple, steady rhythm and lonesome piano melody, leaving space for emotional lyrics like I think I'll make it through. Bundick wrote the song about his parents visiting him in Berkeley. "Everyone still wants to impress their parents," he said, adding that it was the first time, as an adult, that he realized how much they had shaped his life.
The move to Berkeley, while at times difficult, has been an easy transition overall, Bundick said, not only because his girlfriend lives here, but also because he's from a college town. He said he's never been tempted to move to San Francisco — it's too fast-paced for him.
"There's something about the culture here," Bundick said. "It's not as competitive and pompous as LA or New York. It's a more humble vibe that fits who I am."