Face to Face With Toro y Moi

Sep 17, 2019    8 min read

The multitalented musician rode the crest of chillwave, then dove headfirst into exploring creativity and the joy of connection

Written by
Andrea Domanick
Photographed by
Mancy Gant

“Wanna go up on the roof?” Chaz Bear asks me with a puckish grin. His gusto catches me off guard. It has been a long day here at Company, the art studio and record label that Bear, otherwise known as experimental music act Toro y Moi, founded in Oakland, California. Last night he was here producing new music till five a.m., only to return hours later for a packed itinerary that includes being photographed, filmed and interviewed by PLAYBOY. As he heads into the last portion (it’s now near sunset), Bear’s energy hasn’t wavered, and he’s eager for me to see more of his world.

Reaching up, he pops a heavy circular access door installed above industrial pipes. A column of light pours in and bathes the rear of Company’s second-floor recording studio. The opening, barely wider than his shoulders, resembles a submarine escape hatch. Passing through it requires some skilled scrambling between a ladder and a metal power box on the wall. Bear ascends, his legs dangling comically before he hoists himself up.

“You coming?” he asks, flashing that same grin. There’s no knowing what lies above. But because Bear is a virtuoso—his creative exploits have positioned him as one of today’s most daring and inspired cross-platform artists—chasing him into the sunset is a welcome pursuit.

A decade has passed since Bear, now 32, breached pop-cultural consciousness as Toro y Moi, a solo project birthed in a dorm room by a South Carolina–raised skater misfit who loved J Dilla and Panda Bear. The hypnagogic pop sound and anxiously lackadaisical disposition of his 2010 debut LP, Causers of This, earned him a cult following and helped usher in a rapidly hyped musical movement called chillwave—a microgenre marked by nostalgia, escapism and glazed resignation. The embrace of chillwave and its theme of youthful abandonment was no doubt bolstered by 2008’s fraught climate of recession and high unemployment.

But chillwave’s star burned hot and fast, eventually cooling in the face of early-2010s hipster malaise. In retrospect, even if Toro y Moi is considered a progenitor of the genre, the association discounts the stylistically omnivorous explorations of his succeeding eight studio albums, two mixtapes and three EPs—releases fueled not by trends but by his love for exploration. Today, Toro y Moi is just one facet of Chaz Bear, an artist whose imagination is central to his holistic identity and whose accomplishments read more like career-test results than a boilerplate biography. He’s Chazwick Bradley Bear, né Bundick—singer, songwriter, producer, graphic designer, painter and album-cover artist; founder of Company Records; DJ and purveyor of dance music as Les Sins; collaborator with Travis Scott, Flying Lotus and Tyler, the Creator (among others); honoree of “Chaz Bundick Day” as bestowed by Berkeley’s mayor; and workaholic by his own admission.

“I noticed that before my work got to where it is now, I was seeking pleasure in the creative process, in the genres I was seeking to re-create,” Bear tells me. “The romance has shifted from the creative part to the enjoyment of people’s expressions.”

That shift is a hallmark of Toro y Moi’s latest, this year’s Outer Peace. The album not only marks Toro y Moi’s sharpest stylistic turn yet—slinky R&B production, electronic dance beats and wide-eyed storytelling—it’s also a thematic examination of Bear himself and his belief that one’s artistic energy and potential are bound to the connections we share with the world around us.

I don’t aspire to take over the industry or anything. I just want to serve who I can within my reach.

Back on Company’s rooftop: “Sometimes, on a clear day without all the fog, you can see the Golden Gate,” Bear says, gesturing in the haze. Contrary to my expectations, the roof—an expanse of tar paper and stucco strewn with bottle caps—is unremarkable. What is remarkable is what surrounds it. The cascading hills of Berkeley and Kensington are to the northeast. A BART train careers by, the grid of residential Oakland beams in the low sun and peaks of construction protrude into the San Francisco skyline.

Surrounded by almost a dozen studios in this industrial arts complex, Company’s patch of roof suggests humility. For Bear, it’s an improvised island of escape from the mental and emotional grind below.

“This is just another normal day here at Company—this kind of thing, these people around,” Bear says about the day’s events. “It’s fine; I love it. But if you’re trying to wrap up a project, you can’t really think here.”

Only recently has Bear come to understand that embracing creative control also means knowing when to relinquish it. “Honestly, I didn’t learn about taking care of myself until, like, three years ago. I didn’t do things for my own emotional enjoyment until I was single again,” he says, referring to his short-lived break from partner Samantha Beardsley. (The two are now married; they both took the “Bear” surname when they wed.) “You have to live through that. I was getting more and more depressed when I was making [2017’s] Boo Boo. My brain wouldn’t stop moving, and I couldn’t get away from the computer. Like, Damn, I gotta design this, I gotta write this up, I gotta tech this thing. I was giving myself all the work and never being like, Okay, maybe you should just sleep in today.”

Living in Portland at the time of Boo Boo’s release, Bear skipped touring the new album—known to be the most lucrative part of a musician’s career—to take up painting and hiking and to travel down to the Bay Area to embed himself in the art scene there. “I never gave myself a support system, and you need that for when you don’t have your person,” he says. “I had to force myself to stop being so introverted and just go make friends, because you’re gonna drive yourself crazy.”

When he moved back to Oakland in 2017, he formally opened Company Records. Ten years after Toro y Moi’s inception, Bear is still DIY, but he’s swapped his dorm room for a label and an incubator. Today, Company includes a print shop, a recording studio, a rehearsal space and a gallery, all of which are accessible to local artists. Providing such resources allows Bear to step out of the spotlight while retaining creative control, but it also means his lone-wolf endeavors have to take a backseat.

Despite (or maybe because of) his penchant for putting in overtime, personal retreats have emerged as an essential part of his creative process. Last year he decamped to a writer’s cabin outside San Francisco to complete Outer Peace. There, amid the solitude, wood paneling and a mounted cow’s skull, he took stock of the work he’d produced while in existential free-fall. “Outer Peace is successful because I got a chance to love every step of the process,” he says. “Before, it was kind of a burden. Now I just got to play creative director.”

Bear’s voice takes on a quiet reverence as he reflects on the building’s surrounding arts community, which inspired Company’s communal approach to making art. “The whole reason I moved back from Portland was because I got grand-fathered into this spot when my friend moved away,” he says a little breathlessly. “It’s all just iconic artists. Just amazing shit.”

Behind us sits a row of studios, the windows of which offer glimpses into the practices of printers, metalworkers, sculptors and painters, many of whom, Bear says, have been tenants since the rent-controlled complex popped up in the 1970s. “These guys are like OG. That’s why I feel so honored to have this space. They’re of that era, the beatniks who moved here,” he says. “That movement influenced this area to become a hub of open minds. You feel more at home here.”

The older generations of artists who’ve endured also recharge Bear, even if he’s aware that the playing field has changed. There has never been a more paradoxical time to be an artist: Hyper-connectivity is at war with cultural disconnection. More money is being exchanged by fewer hands. Corporate power precludes bottom-up innovation, forcing fringe industries to exist on their own terms and to rely on one another for community.

“You have to brand yourself. That’s what it comes down to. It sucks, but it’s no different than being the local real estate guy who’s got his picture on every bench,” Bear says. “If you’re going to give yourself away, why not put it into your work?”

For his part, Bear has come a long way from the milieu that launched his career. No matter his and his veteran neighbors’ aspirations, he recognizes they can control only what they produce. And they recognize that honing their skills, if focused enough, can only lead to beautiful results. “We just want to make things that help us connect,” he says. “If that’s the motive, what it’s going to come down to is that face-to-face interaction is still going to hold value in the future.”

Face-to-face connections are valuable because they can’t be co-opted, of course. Ultimately, they’re reminders of the control we have over the world that surrounds us. It’s not much, but maybe that’s just fine.

“I see myself as a local shop owner. I don’t aspire to take over the industry or anything. I just want to do good and serve who I can within my reach,” he says. “And take it one step at a time. It has sort of been my approach this whole time. It’s just building something in town.”

As we lower ourselves back into the studio, Bear asks me if I’m hungry. “I’m kind of starving,” he says.

We hastily gather our things to get to the restaurants before they close. Bear does a final sweep, locking doors, shutting cabinets, powering down equipment and switching off lights. The complex’s heavy steel doors latch shut behind us with a decisive thud.

“Shit,” Bear says, pivoting. He’s forgotten his keys.

His co-workers left hours ago, so we have to wait for a superintendent to let us in. I wander outside the complex’s communal garden, where the branches of a small tree hang heavy with plums.

He plucks one and hands it to me. The flavor is floral and honey sweet, unusual and familiar. We stand there, feasting on plums and laughing at the absurdity. It’s not what we’d planned, but it’s satisfying just the same.

The Pleasure Issue is out now.

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