We’ve Got A File On You: Toro y Moi

Chris Maggio

We’ve Got A File On You: Toro y Moi

Chris Maggio

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Chaz Bear is prolific, to say the least. The Oakland-based South Carolina native has an abundance of mixtapes, collaborations, side projects, art shows, and other creative endeavors under his belt. That’s not even counting the work that he’s primarily known for as Toro y Moi, the alias with which he’s about to release his seventh studio album, Mahal. When I ask Bear if his high-quantity output makes it more of an effort to stay connected with other collaborators, he says that everything he does is becoming more intentional.

“Each little hangout, each little show you go to, each coffee you have, everything is time management,” Bear explains via Zoom. “I just try to remember I’m doing this for fun, and I try to keep something fun in there.”

Fun is one of the many driving forces on Mahal, which sees Toro y Moi delving deep into the realm of psych-rock. It’s typical of Bear to switch genres with each album, and it has made for a remarkably interesting career trajectory. There’s the chillwave era of records like 2010’s Causers Of This and 2011’s Underneath The Pine, but there’s also the pure rock of 2015’s What For? and the modern, danceable sounds of his last album, 2019’s Outer Peace.

“I think it’s taking a lot of time for me to build my foundation,” Bear says. “Yes, I like to genre-hop. And it is gonna slow me down, like I’m not going to excel as fast in either lane. But I’m slowly building my way and making my presence known.”

From his 2009 breakout song, “Blessa,” to the time he self-referentially rode a mechanical bull on The Eric Andre Show; from working with the now-arena-rapper Tyler, The Creator on a leaked track to collaborating with Flume and receiving his first Grammy nomination, Bear has seen and done a lot. He recently took the time to look back on his storied career and work his way up to the present day.

Mahal (2022)

How does it feel to be releasing this album right now?

CHAZ BEAR: It feels really good. It’s been a long time coming honestly, just to have worked on this record for about five years and then have the time to wrap it up and finish it during quarantine was all I needed. It was a challenge in a lot of ways, but I’m glad it’s finally making its way to people’s ears.

One of the things that sticks out to me about your music is how you can drastically change your sound from record to record. With Mahal, were there any specific styles you were aiming for?

BEAR: In a way, yes, but no. This record for me is doubling down on my psych-rock sound and really showing my dedication to this concept or this sound. It’s not just a phase to make guitar music or even try to make a masterpiece. To get all the musicians involved and to get all of these different assets, like the Jeep, was a new challenge. Songwriting-wise, musically, it’s a return to form for me. Making a rock song with fun basslines and guitar parts, that’s innate. The challenge for me was the lyrics and just getting out of that introverted, quarantine phase, to reflect the times now but also put myself out there. That’s where the fresh juice is at for this record.

What are you exploring lyrically here?

BEAR: Lots of themes. Themes from content consumption, how we consume, why we consume, and what’s happening to content and the digital era. There’s that window. There’s also this bluesy, Americana thing I wanted to touch on and highlight my Southern aspects, my roots, and elevate the South in a way.

You mentioned that this is a return to form, so how do you imagine Mahal furthering your artistic growth and evolution?

BEAR: I think the biggest shift might not necessarily be in the songwriting. It’s more in the approach and rollout and having these ideas to have a Jeep be in the record, on the cover, and in the videos. But to back up even more, I was looking for a vehicle, not specifically a Jeep. The reason I wanted a vehicle in general is that I wanted a pandemic-proof way of marketing this record. I was like, “OK, if no one’s touring by the time this record’s coming out, I’m just gonna drive it out myself to these record stores and promote it at coffee shops.”

So I stumbled across this Jeepney on eBay coincidentally, and I would bump into it online a couple times over the course of several months, and I would see it’s still there and available. I just took it as a sign that I need to move and act on this thing, being that I’m Filipino. I invested in this thing and did it for the culture and did it for my people and really tried to restore this historic art piece. But, at the same time, the record’s not about that. It’s not about being Filipino. It’s more about being American.

Chris Baggio

I have to say I’m curious to see the alternate universe where you use the Jeepney as a tour bus and come to coffee shops around the country.

BEAR: I think the plan was to get a 2020 Jeep or a 2021 Jeep, something contemporary was the plan, so to see it be this actual thing from the ‘60s was very fitting for the record, so that’s why I had to act.

“Blessa” (2009)

This was your breakthrough track. How do you feel looking back on it?

BEAR: I still love it. I still see why people love it, and I still love listening to that track. There are a lot of elements. There’s a lot of stuff going on there. I Instagrammed this the other day, it was the 15th anniversary of Person Pitch. That was such a landmark record for me, and I feel like Causers was Panda Bear meets Dilla, so that’s what I was trying to achieve there.

Like Person Pitch, Causers Of This ushered in this new era of music and a new subgenre. Since that moment, how have you seen Toro y Moi grow over the past 12 years?

BEAR: For me, Toro is an exploration of genres. I think I just got lucky that my first record happened to be this experimental, electronic record. But my music has always had this pendulum, where it’s electronic then analog. So the music before Causers, which is not really released — I have five albums that are more folky and guitar-based — local fans from Columbia probably have these records. I hope they pop up somewhere. But it was just where I was at that time. I was just exploring genres, and to be where I am now, to explore even deeper psych-rock and even deeper songwriting techniques, that’s where I’m at now. Genre-hopping is kind of my game.

As an outside observer, that’s what I would say, too, especially as someone who listened to Outer Peace a lot. Songs like “Magazine” and “Postman” are a complete shift from that.

BEAR: I feel like it’s becoming less of a taboo thing to have an eclectic output or record. I could see the streaming and playlist culture really allowing listeners to be more accepting of a funk track sitting next to a psych-rock track. It doesn’t really clash as much these days.

That’s how I feel going from “The Loop,” which is almost Chili-Peppers-esque, to “Last Year,” which has a swung jazz beat.

BEAR: If everything’s also sitting in a similar sonic world, that does help I think. There was some intention behind all of those songs, even though they’re slightly different. I wanted them to all hit your ear in the same spot.

I do think the streaming industry has definitely encouraged a kind of genre agnosticism.

BEAR: I’m down with it. It’s a beautiful thing. Again, being biracial and multicultural, I think that’s innate to my approach to things. So to have eclecticism really be accepted and normalized is reassuring.

“Hey You” With Tyler, The Creator (2012)

This was at the tail end of the Odd Future era. How did you and Tyler link up for this track?

BEAR: The internet is funny. I mean that song was a leaked track, by the way. It was done over the internet. I wish the story behind that had more pizazz, but that was just the internet being the internet. We sent tracks over the internet, and then it leaked over the internet. People have talked about releasing it officially, but I think it’s a bit stale at this point.

It’s set to live its life as an unfinished song, just like the leaked Jai Paul demos. They’re unfinished, but that’s the way people have been listening to those songs for a long time.

BEAR: Yeah, I almost feel like these days as a musician, you have to have music that you’re willing to almost sacrifice as leaks. It’s almost like a strategy these days. Then, that wasn’t the plan. It is nice to think, “Oh, this demo, I could probably just upload it to TikTok and see what happens,” as opposed to sitting on it and never letting it see the light of day.

I know you and Tyler also worked together on his record Cherry Bomb. Do you see yourself working with him again in the future?

BEAR: Oh yeah, Tyler’s great. He’s killing it, and I’m a fan of his music, so that helps.

Les Sins’ “Bother” Sampled By Puff Daddy On “Workin'” (2015)

What did you think of being sampled on that song?

BEAR: I was stoked! I was thrilled. That’s a rare thing. For him to actually lay vocals down on it is another plus. It’s all positive. I’m down with sampling, and I think it’s pretty cool. He has a huge camp, and they invited me out to this literal writing camp, and that’s when we made it. I was just thrown into this crash course on how the hip-hop factory works. It was a learning experience. It’s probably one of the most insightful moments of my career to see Puff move that way, and I’m forever thankful because it’s a full-on machine. It’s a crazy operation that he’s running. He’s not actively putting out singles or anything, but he’s still very much making music, and it’s cool to see that he’s passionate about it, too.

What did you learn from that experience at the writing camp?

BEAR: It was maybe the first time I’ve seen the delegation, assigning someone to drums and keys and topline. That model is definitely applicable to other genres, but to see it in hip-hop is a really interesting thing because it’s such a bombastic, audacious genre, especially with the kind of lyricist that Puff is. He’s very much alpha. To see a straight-up alpha-male orchestrate all of this, it’s very interesting and very awesome to see. That’s all I can say, just watching Puff, watching him direct people, watching how he uses his time. It was awesome, a full-on learning experience. So I think if anything, there’s one thing I can take away from that is “delegate jobs.”

What you’re describing sounds very communal, where everyone is working together in a creative spirit. You’re also a collaborative person who has worked with tons of other artists. Do you see that reflected in your own music, too?

BEAR: Yeah, I think it’s something I’m trying to actively implement into my process more. Because I’m such a solo act, I need that stimulus, like someone to tell me “no” or “yes.” Or not even “yes,” but just bobbing their head or laughing when they’re supposed to laugh is all I need. To have that litmus test is really important to me. But, also, the music community in general is very strong for every musician, whether you’re a solo act or a band. It’s good to have that community where you feel like you belong, you feel like you’re going in the right direction. It’s hard, even where I’m at now, literally in the Bay, and where I’m at in my career, it’s still hard to try to maintain these relationships. My problem these days is I’m going too fast for a lot of my friends or a lot of my peers. I’m excelling at a rate that’s not common, so I try to tone it back, which is what I did with Mahal. I just tried to bring up my Bay Area crew, as well.

Riding A Mechanical Bull On The Eric Andre Show (2020)

How did this one even come about?

BEAR: I met Eric when he came out to my art show in 2017, and he was just a supporter and a big fan of Toro. He came to the afterparty, and we danced and chatted. Then he was like, “Keep in touch.” And then it wasn’t until two years later, maybe, he was like, “Hey, I’d love to have you on the show. We’re doing Rapper Warrior Ninja.” I was like, “I’m down, just like whatever you wanna do.” So he called me. I happened to be at the airport at 4AM, and I got a phone call. I was in Indonesia. He was on the West Coast, and I happened to be able to pick up. And I was like, “Yeah, dude, I’m actually at the airport.” We just had a super quick call. He was with his whole writing team, and they had all these note cards on the wall. That conversation just led to the mechanical bull.

It sounds so methodical for something that is ultimately very silly.

BEAR: It’s very much Toro in the sense that it’s meta, and it’s very Eric Andre. They didn’t show it, but he was running around the set with a cattle prod, so all of my screaming was real. There was definitely an element of surprise at the scene.

[Ed: After this interview was conducted, Bear announced he’d collaborated with Eric Andre on a Mahal companion film called Goes By So Fast.]

Collaborating With Nike On Toro y Moi Running Shoes And Other Gear (2020)

How did this come to fruition?

BEAR: I’d been getting into visual art around 2016, and that’s when I started having a couple of shows. I did some shows in LA, in Tokyo, so I was working on that portfolio. It caught [Global Creative Director] Steve Green’s eye. He lives in Portland, and I was living in Portland during this. I would run into people and make a lot of friends in Portland. Steve really saw something in the art and was down to get a collaboration going ASAP.

Which of these designs do you feel most proud of?

BEAR: The shoes are probably the most iconic part of that collab. I designed shoes before, but to have a Nike shoe that’s a little bit more complex and there are more elements involved, was really interesting. They flew me up to Portland, and I was at the HQ on the campus. I got to pick the fabrics, pick the types of prints, and pick what should be reflective. That’s the real design experience I was dreaming of. A lot of collaborations these days happen over email, so it’s hard to get that face-time in and the actual relationship really locked in because it’s over the internet. I was lucky to have that one be face-to-face.

How do you go about balancing your music and your visual art?

BEAR: I think it’s becoming more apparent that with successful, career-based artists and musicians, there’s always a branding element. Most artists aren’t making a living just off of touring and record sales. It’s just not enough sometimes. You have to do more. For me to take all of my branding ideas and marketing strategies to a company studio as Chaz Bear was important to me as an independent artist. I’m lucky that my label isn’t exactly attached to my branding deals. It’s a great motivation to stay independent. It’s that or either market the band more. It could be a Toro x Nike collaboration, but, for me, I don’t think that’s on-brand for Toro. I want Toro to be strictly music and for music-lovers. I don’t want it to be the umbrella company for all of these things.

It’s healthy for Toro’s brand. It preserves the integrity of the brand as an artistic output when it’s understood that the artist that’s involved does have things going on outside of music. But when you can preserve the band as an art project or music project and nothing else, like selling beer or whatever, it’s a lot more fun for everyone when it’s just theirs and not the company’s. It also goes to show that Toro is a project of passion. It’s a passion project. It’s not just to cash in.

Grammy Nomination For Flume Collab “The Difference” (2021)

How does it feel to finally have your first Grammy nomination?

BEAR: It’s flattering. It’s reassuring that music is probably where I should be heading and where I should stay. I think a lot of my fans know this, too, and it’s obvious in the music, that Toro is not the most accessible music. But to have an outlet, like a Flume collaboration or any of my other collaborations musically, I’ve always tried to show that I am an accessible artist. It’s not just about pleasing the nerds and the heads, like it’s also about opening those doors and making nerds the mainstream and making the mainstream nerdy. I look at brands like Brain Dead, who are doing awesome things in their lane of clothing. They’re putting the nerd on. They’re doing collaborations with video games, and that’s their world of nerd. But my world of nerd is gear and music history. I just try to maintain that balance of merging these worlds. Luckily, the internet is doing a lot of that work for us, like I said earlier. So there isn’t too much to be done other than represent.

What was it like working with Flume?

BEAR: Harley’s a fucking boss, man. He’s awesome. I love his tones. I love his sounds, and his palette is so tangible. It was a no-brainer when he asked me to work with him. I’ve been trying to go to the electronic world. I like to make a lot of music in a lot of different types of styles, and to have him be down with what I’m doing is awesome.

The track we made happened so fast. It was pretty much two sessions. He was on the drums, I’m on the keys, and he came up to the Bay to track vocals. That was it. It was a very easy process. I also think I’m at a place in my career and my life, where watching artists like Puff Daddy knock out vocal takes — that was a big learning process for me to get past these studio jitters, like, “I need to go home and write these lyrics. I can’t write these right now.” It’s like, “Fuck that! You just have to write the song right now!” So that’s what “The Difference” was.

I’m sure writing on the spot can push you as a songwriter, too.

BEAR: Exactly. You realize that there is only a finite amount of face-time with an artist. If you’re ever in the same studio, or you’re interviewing someone, it’s like, “That’s it! That’s all you get.” Once the performance is captured, it’s on the internet, and you’re just emailing. Get the lyrics out, and get the first demo performance out. The first session of writing a song, to me, is the groundbreaking thing. You can always make it a little bit more substantial later.

You mentioned that you wanted to dip your toes into the world of electronic music, but you’ve already been doing that with Les Sins.

BEAR: Totally, man. It’s a matter of time. I’d love to play Electric Daisy, you know? I’d love to be on the bill with Calvin Harris or Skrillex. But it’s a matter of time before I can get those songs finished or muster up that confidence to see myself in that position. I never really saw myself in front of a giant stage with flames or something until now. I think I have the beats for 10,000 or 20,000 people to rock.

Maybe instead of doing the jeepney tour, you can have a bunch of pyrotechnics for the Mahal tour.

BEAR: Yeah, it’s coming!

Mahal is out 4/29 on Dead Oceans.

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