“The main thing I wanted to do was just stuff I hadn’t tried before,” says Chaz Bundick. He’s talking about What For?, his latest album released under his Toro Y Moi pseudonym. He wanted “to focus more on the live sound and live arrangement” this time around, he says.
As the record’s title, which Bundick describes as both “epithetic” and possessing “a sense of longing” might indicate, What For? is a subtly defiant record, a departure from both the blissed-out electronica of his 2010 debut, Causers of This and the slow-grooving dance of 2013’s Anything in Return. Genetically, the album shares the most with Bundick’s sophomore effort, 2011’s Underneath the Pine, which flirted with elements of psych rock without fully committing in the way that What For? does. With fuzzed-out guitar solos taking the foreground, the album is perhaps Bundick’s most traditional record to date. It’s a return to his songwriting roots, he says.
“For this album, I made a point to sit down and write all the riffs and melodies all at once, just to get the skeleton first,” Bundick says. “That’s something I used to do when I first started playing guitar when I was in high school. I had gotten away from that, both intentionally and kind of accidentally, and that was something I missed.”
The album also featured collaborations with other musicians — a departure from his typically insular recording process. “At times I had some other people come in, which is nice because it’s hard to showcase other musicians on electronic music,” he says. “Electronic music blurs the line between performers. [But] when you’re just using an instrument and a microphone, the personality comes through a lot more.”
Not that Bundick’s ever had difficulty establishing his own musical personality. With the release of his first album, he found himself as one of the de facto founders, along with acts such as Neon Indian and Washed Out, of the chillwave genre, a short-lived subset of synthpop that focused on electronic elements such as sampling and looping. It was a label that seemed to fade out as quickly as it had originated; Bundick himself had practically abandoned the style by the time Underneath the Pine was released the following year. “I felt like it did its thing, and once it became a thing, people stopped caring about it, even the artists [making it],” he says. “I like the fact that I’m associated with it. It’s cool. Not a lot of artists get a chance to be a part of some sort of movement, so I guess in a way I’m super flattered to be considered a part of that.”
“[But] someone asked me if I’m going to go back and make more of it, and I was like, ‘Not intentionally, no,’” he says. Instead, he says, his focus is on forging new ground.
That theme is evident in the lyrics for What For? which often serve as gentle rebukes to complacency. “Did you meet with your advisor?” he sings on lead single “Empty Nesters.” “Do you still draw in the margins? / Bubble letters reading ‘What for?’”
“I really wanted the album to have some meaning and ask some questions,” he says. “People get jaded and people get depressed, and sometimes you have to look past that and see, like, what exactly are we getting certain degrees for? Or what are we doing a job for? It’s those kinds of questions that I’m asking,” he says.
For Bundick, it was moving to California that stirred him out of a sense of complacency. “I think that being in California definitely exposes you — especially coming from South Carolina — to such a different world. Culturally, it forces you to be a little more open-minded. I’ve met, like, 20 different people out here that really have been a big influence on me. It was a bunch of small moments that made me realize I should think differently.”
That’s certainly reflected in Bundick’s music; since his move, he’s been involved with a variety of different projects outside of his main Toro Y Moi project. He collaborated with funk band Chromeo with a verse on last year’s “Come Alive,” and has appeared on tracks with rappers such as Travis Scott and Kool A.D. In August, he released Samantha, a well-received mixtape of hip-hop beats.
There’s also Les Sins, a side project largely focusing on minimal electronica (including deliriously fun single “Bother,” which you might have heard featured in this summer’s iPhone 6 ad campaign). “I wanted to make electronic music and focus on production,” he says of the project. “I didn’t want to have to sing on it or worry about a particular image. That was the whole idea, just to have fun with it and make anything electronic oriented, whether it be hip hop or dance or ambient, whatever. It’s just another path I can go down if I don’t necessarily feel like writing another song.”
The frequency of these side projects and digressions is a clear indicator of Bundick’s creative restlessness, but also displays a certain tirelessness and diligence — a far cry from the Bundick who in 2013 told Rolling Stone that he hoped making music would “stay a hobby” so that he would become jaded and lose inspiration. Now, he says, “it’s definitely a job.”
“It’s definitely still a passion of mine,” he says. “I want to try to keep that passion and still have that drive to make more music and better music. It’s hard, because you see a lot of your favorite artists end up making albums that you’re not into, and you’re wondering why. Is it just because they’re getting comfortable?”
“I feel like, if you’re aware of that at least, that you shouldn’t get too comfortable, then your music won’t necessarily have to suffer,” he adds. “I’m just trying to find that balance.”
Toro Y Moi will perform at Saturn Birmingham on Wednesday, Oct. 14. Astronauts, etc. will open. Doors will open at 8 p.m.; the show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $17. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.