Fruit Bats’ first new album in five years arrived in May of 2016. In this month’s cover feature, we speak to Eric D. Johnson ahead of his Jan. 14 show at Revolution Hall.
When you take an individual who was born and raised in South Carolina, add a comfortable move to Berkeley, California, a BA in graphic design, and the ability to flawlessly rock transparent round rimmed glasses, you get and idea of Chaz Bundick. Combine that persona with a bedroom laptop project turned bi-continental tour, five full-length albums in five years with EPs on the side, the occasional remix, and a major part in the rise of the chillwave stint; you start to scratch the surface of the artist better known as Toro y Moi.
Though his initial release as Toro y Moi occurred in 2009, he had been producing music under that moniker since 2001. Since then, not only has his discography grown almost exponentially, but the collection of live instruments on his recordings throughout the years has too. Now Toro y Moi is more than a lonely laptop, incorporating guitar, piano, and drums with live performances in mind. After a year of touring alone, he decided it wasn’t for him and added a full band of old friends to his live performances in 2010. As dudes who have known each other for some time, it wasn’t an anxious decision to make. Chaz plays guitar and keyboard himself live, with his other four members taking up bass, drums, backing vocals, and additional guitar and keyboards.
2011 saw the release of the hearty and rather funky Underneath the Pine, which served to further solidify his presence in the indie world and prove his versatility in production techniques. From then on we heard Chaz dabble in a few genres, but whether or not they’re legitimate doesn’t exactly matter as long as people are paying attention. It was his lo-fi bedroom production aesthetic that gave him a running in the charm of the chillwave craze that lasted maybe two years. Even though the concocted genre is a better representation of a lax lifestyle told by polaroid pictures than a pattern of ’80s influenced synth beats, it’s where Toro y Moi earned the ongoing comparisons to bands like Washed Out and Neon Indian.
Without slowing down, in between LPs Toro y Moi came out with his Freaking Out EP (also 2011) that showcased five songs of some electro-funk. A year later, he comes out with June 2009, which were songs literally written and recorded in June 2009 that either didn’t make it onto his 2010 debut album Causers of This or embodied a different vibe entirely. Regardless of the reasons, it’s a good place to realize what Toro y Moi started as a solid break, however short, between brand new material.
As an artist fascinated and disciplined in the art of production with no desire or personality for complacency (or maybe just music ADD), Toro y Moi moved on and produced an album in the indie-electronic realm of sound. 2013’s Anything in Return yielded songs like “Say That” and “Rose Quarz” that reveal touches of deep house and loads of synthesizers. It’s an album that makes it easier to believe that Chaz keeps a strictly electronic side project running successfully along his focal career as Toro y Moi.
Les Sins is an electronic dance music production that Chaz officially announced mid 2010 along the release of a couple singles titled “Lina” and “Youth Gone.” It went the direction that Chaz wouldn’t have been able take without losing fans as Toro y Moi. So the desire to produce distinctly different sounds and genres came in the form of two separate monikers. Les Sins keeps relatively quiet under the shadow and preoccupation of Toro, but the tracks that did get released were far from it. A handful of singles emerged between 2012 and 2014 that introduced UK house beats to funky R&B and hip-hop. He announced an LP for Les Sins along with a small national tour. Michael dropped in 2014 and though not as successful as his main projects, still launched pretty well for what seemed like just a hobby.
All of this played out with no break in stride for Toro y Moi, who steadily released albums year after year. He released his most recent full length, What For?, in the spring of 2015. What feels like his most playful album unfolds as his most psychedelic, but guitar-heavy tracks draw the label of indie rock. It’s an album on which the vocals ring clearer and more predominantly than some of his previous releases.
He’s a musician who would rather be engrossed in the production of his songs than the actual lyrics. Going back to his archive, Anything in Return was the first release after his move to sunny Berkeley, California for his girlfriend’s academic career. The lyrics revolve around themes like patience and moving away with a track that literally speaks to the whole ordeal of studying. The opening track, “Harm in Change,” reads: “It’s only one more day/ ‘til we leave this state/ and I know she thinks I’ve changed my mind.” Chaz’s lyrical influences come from his daily life, and he speaks about them fairly nonchalantly, putting breezy vocals over musing compositions. The directness of his words leaves nothing to the imagination and allows listeners to stay absorbed in what he loves most about music.
But when Chaz isn’t making music for Toro y Moi or Les Sins, he’s making the merchandise for it. He graduated with a degree in graphic design and these days he puts it to use by creating his own album covers, t-shirts, the occasional music video, and is beginning to branch out his talents to other types of agencies. The cover for Underneath the Pine is literally a close up picture of his face with fruit hanging out of his mouth, which he said he edited to look like a drawing. He started playing around with directing for Toro this year with the release of the music video for “Empty Nesters,” which is basically a compilation of short DIY-quality clips of Chaz singing into the camera and messing around on a hilltop with some friends. Again this year, he took his designs a step further when he created the label for a bottle of wine by Frequency Wine Company. And of course the experience of drinking the wine would not be complete without a swanky playlist provided by Chaz himself that includes sounds of The Chi-Lites, The New Birth, and The Persuaders. Maybe if you want even more insight you’ll drink the wine and listen to the playlist while wearing the sunglasses and one of many t-shirts he designed for Toro.
Right now, Toro y Moi is heading out on a fall tour, with a stop at Portland’s Revolution Hall (get tickets here) this month. With each and every one of his albums coming out between the months of January and April (minus the Freaking Out EP), maybe the beginning of 2016 will hold a new release. ELEVEN recently caught up with Chaz to talk about the group of guys behind him, his graphic design projects, and where he does or does not go to for lyrical inspiration.
ELEVEN: In the beginning, Toro y Moi was sort of a bedroom project. Can you talk about how you broke out from that and started to gain traction?
Chaz Bundick: I’m actually in my studio now. It’s just a room–like a bedroom with some gear in it. So it still feels kind of like a start-up. It’s just now I’m touring more, have more listeners. I guess really the main thing I try to keep in mind now is that I know I’m gonna be performing some of these songs live, so I have some of those live aspects in mind. Whether it be a song’s mood, or a song’s composition, a song’s type of instrumentation. That’s kind of the only main difference. I guess I’m always constantly making music and trying to find new things to go forward.
11: So even though Toro y Moi is still all you, what’s it been like reconciling a full band behind you when you’re live?
CB: It’s nice. I mean the guys that are in my band, I’ve been with some of them since third grade, some of them since college. We’ve all played in bands together so it’s not like they’re hired guys or anything. We get along really well and it’s nice to finally be on stage with dudes. But I’ve had these guys with me pretty much since 2010 so it’s kinda been them the whole time too, so it’s nice to have that. I only did one year of touring solo. I knew immediately that I wanted to not just do solo on stage.
11: What For? isn’t nearly as electronic as Anything in Return. What went into that decision when you were producing? Or was it even a conscious one?
CB: Well, somewhat. I kind of like to go back and forth between electronic and non-electronic-type sounds. I kind of just wanted to make it a rock album. I think people would still consider it whatever genre, whether it be electronic, or R&B, or chillwave or whatever. It’s funny, I could probably make like country songs and people would call it electronic. I’m just fascinated to see people’s reception.
11: You also have Les Sins right? Do you see yourself drifting from that style of dance music?
CB: Not necessarily. I definitely can see myself doing another electronic album like that, that’s heavily electronic. I tend to go from pop to electronic but it’s nice to just do electronic music still.
11: You have a BA in graphic design right?
11: How does that play into your career as a musician?
CB: I mean I do all of my merchandise and my album covers. That’s pretty much it. I’m kind of starting to branch out as far as making other types of merch items. You know shirts with my drawings on them. I’m not really diving into it yet.
11: I saw that wine bottle that you designed for Frequency Wine Company.
CB: Yeah, that was just a label. But yeah, that’s an example of things that I’m sort of getting into.
11: The video for “Empty Nesters” was pretty rad. It had some super DIY vibes.
CB: Yeah, I did do it by myself–me and a couple friends. It was just fun cause I really appreciate the song and some of the qualities that it has. If I had more time I would do a lot more things myself.
11: Like what?
CB: Like make more music videos, or do more visual art. That kind of stuff. I mean I’m doing that stuff now; it’s just kind of slow.
11: I saw your Instagram, which is pretty entertaining and kind of random. You’ve said before that you’re always looking for things that most people don’t notice. How does that mentality work its way into your creative process?
CB: That Instagram is kind of just a joke/it’s like my take on sort of “dada photography.” It’s kind of just making fun of art. I don’t know, it’s just fun to look at different things that people write off in their every day travels.
11: What are some of your lyrical influences? Can you talk about your writing process?
CB: I just kind of write about my experiences. I’m not very much influenced by anyone in particular. I’m not too big on lyrics myself when I listen to music. I like lyrics that are kind of straightforward and bland, but not too poetic, and they’re not too predictable. I like Elliot Smith. I like Yo La Tengo’s lyrics. Those are the people I grew up listening to in high school. My music is definitely not representative of that but I don’t look to Kanye West for lyrics. I don’t look to pop music really for lyrics or anything. I look to pop music more for production. I guess I just kind of like that more singer/songwriter background. If anything, you know, The Beatles are a big one.
11: So you have a show coming up in Portland, how do you feel about the Portland scene?
CB: I’m pretty excited. It’s been a while since we’ve played Portland. Yeah it’s gonna be a fun show for sure. »
– Gina Pieracci
Editor’s Note: Since this interview Chaz surprise released a free mixtape entitled Samantha, check that out below: