The music of Toro Y Moi exists in a module of refined and effortless flow. Outwardly, the R&B, pop, and hiphop strands form a smooth, hook-laden archipelago. Inwardly, the beats and synth-based compounds contain spirulina, an audible form of the blue-green algae high in danceable minerals. Chaz Bundick is the man, mind, and voice of Toro Y Moi. Like his music, there's an illuminated ease to him, a scholarly calm. In January, he released his third full-length album, Anything in Return—52 minutes of lyrical, icy electronic pop and sanctum-funk.
In the first single, "So Many Details," Bundick sings with his higher register, "You send my life into somewhere I can't describe." Then the thickened beat drops out, leaving delayed tubes of keyboards to aerate. The breakdown's image is of Bundick floating through deep space in a terrarium. There are mosses about him, palm trees, and lilacs. Holographic butterflies flap through the warm, damp air. Bundick stands next to a small, pellucid pool, gazing out of a window into the endless black envelope of the cosmos and the void. And he's okay with it all. Bundick spoke while en route from Atlanta, Georgia, to Carrboro, North Carolina. He was not in a terrarium, although he did sound tranquil.
How are you able to effectively incorporate synths into your music? You do it well. How do you approach your sounds?
Really, it's just messing around until I find the right sound. A lot of times, I'll hear something in my head and try to emulate that, whether it be a monophonic or a polyphonic kind of sound. I guess it's intuition. Nothing too calculated [laughs].
Where do you start working on songs?
Usually at home, I start finding sounds. The first song I wrote for the album was "Rose Quartz," and it took a long time to finish because it went through so many stages. It was a process of remixing myself over and over until it got to a space where I liked it. Once I found the vibe for "Rose Quartz," it set the mood for the rest of the album. "So Many Details" was started on tour as a hiphop beat I'd been working on. When I got home, I decided to sing on it, and then it turned into the single. I don't remember what goes through my head when I'm writing, really. I get into a certain zone where I don't remember what's going on.
When you decide to sing, how do you go about writing lyrics or words?
That can be fun or challenging, because I don't want it to sound redundant or cliché or boring. But at the same time, I don't want it to sound so ridiculous. Lyrics are always the last thing I do.
For vocals, are you a one-take wonder? Or are you a Mariah Carey hundred-take kind of singer?
I'll just record it until it's right. Probably five or six takes? I'm not crazy anal about it because you can just fix it digitally.
I've heard stories about Mariah Carey doing an insane amount of takes where one word will be blended together from three separate takes.
It depends on who you are. I'm not trying to have a crazy vocal sound like her, though; I'm more of a just-get-the-idea-out kind of person.
I've heard the word "suave" used to describe your sound. The smoothness. How would you define suave?
I wouldn't call it suave. That's more the critics' touch [laughs]. I'd say it's R&B-influenced pop music. Or R&B pop. Or odd music.
You have training as a graphic designer. How does that affect your music?
Yes, I went to school for graphic design. It doesn't affect the music too much. I don't feel much of a connection between the two. I mean, there's definitely a certain aesthetic I'm attracted to, so that can attract me to certain sounds or certain types of music. When it comes to design, I like things that are tasteful, classic, and timeless. With music, it's the same way. But it's not like I see colors and think of certain genres or notes.
John Stortz did the album artwork. How did you all nail the cover image down?
He's a good friend of mine. We went to college together, and I've been a fan of his art for a long time. I got in touch with him and told him to go for it, to do whatever he wanted. I gave him a couple themes, like having some plant life involved. The aesthetic I wanted was kind of a '70s reference—he understood that, and that's what he turned in, and it was awesome.
Complete a scene for me: You go to a palm reader to have your fortune told. There's a neon "Palm Reader" sign on the window. Inside, she has crystals and buffalo skins all over. You sit on a pillow and show her your hand. What does she see? What's your future?
I don't mess with that stuff; it's too real.
She looks at your life line and freaks out. She says, "You will live forever."
Yeah right [laughs]. What would I want her to say? [Pauses] I think I'd want her to say, "You're going to have a nice life." Or something like that. "With a wife and kids." And "You won't be affected by fame and fortune, because that stuff is stupid."
And "YOU WILL LIVE FOREVER."
Or to about 75 or 85.
The new album is called Anything in Return. Why Anything in Return?
It's about being a good person, not expecting anything in return. Doing things out of a good nature.
You're from Columbia, South Carolina, and moved to Berkley, California. What's the difference?
Columbia is a small college town, and Berkley is a big college town. I like them both. Berkley is a nice change.
Walk me through your synths. What do you play? What's your favorite? What's your effects chain?
I like Dave Smith's stuff, the Prophet and the Tetra. Moog is really good, too. The vintage Rolands are always awesome. I have a lot of pedals I guess—delay pedals, Memory Man, Carbon Copy. I have three Moogerfoogers. And phasers, a couple compressors, an old Akai EQ.
No Junos. That's on the wish list. I don't know if I have the room, though.
What are the favorite Toro Y Moi tour-van activities?
Sleeping and watching The Walking Dead [laughs]. I've been listening to the new My Bloody Valentine. It's really good.
What do you like about the new My Bloody Valentine? What does it encapsulate?
They've been working on it since the '80s or whatever. I think it shows how solid the songs are, that they can stand the test of time, because the songs are good now, in our present context. And if they had come out in the '80s, they would have been good then, too.