By: Kyle Petersen; Photos by: Bree Burchfield
More than most, Toro y Moi is a musical act that reinvents itself with every album cycle. Since the pre-Causers of This days when Chaz Bundick (Chaz Bear?) played shows half behind a DIY laptop and keyboard combination as a chillwave progenitor to the almost-jammy guitar pop of 2015’s What For?, the Toro y Moi project has constantly tested its own boundaries, trying on various permutations of dance-centric indie rock, funk and pop as if flipping through an exceptionally-curated record collection.
Bundick, a Columbia native who led the sharp indie rock quartet The Heist & the Accomplice in his college days at USC, adapted his live band to each of the singular aesthetic visions of his recordings each time he flipped the dial, adding drummer Andy Woodward and bassist Patrick Jeffords and then, later on, guitarist Jordan Blackmon and then keyboardist Anthony Ferraro to the proceedings. That core nucleus carried him far, even through the beats-oriented pop of 2013’s Anything in Return, but at a certain point it felt like the touring version of the band stood resolutely apart from the studio creations, and that Bundick was pretty fine with that.
Then came last year’s Boo Boo, a moody pop affair that showed traces of The Weeknd-style R&B and the grimy grandeur of some of Toro’s hip-hop production on the side. As ambient and inscrutable as that album could get, it was among the most consciously pop the project had yet leaned. Too, it was difficult to imagine the live band translating many of these songs to the stage. That Bundick didn’t tour on the effort seemed right and would ultimately prove prescient.
This Columbia show was the final date on the first string of non-DJ sets Toro y Moi had played since Boo Boo and comes in conjunction with the release of an advance single, “Freelance,” ahead of a full-length in early 2019. And it’s clear we’re getting a very different Toro experience going forward. Now performing without Blackmon and with Jeffords on synths as much as bass, Bundick is stepping fully into the frontman role, often drifting decisively away from the keys to roam the stage and lean into the considerable power of his vocal hooks rather than laying low in the groove. It’s a move he could have made at arguably any point in his career thus far, but it fits the new material particularly well, placing him in the lineage of artists like Frank Ocean and Sampha whose auteur styles and left-field melding of pop and R&B manage to command large audiences.
Venturing through much of Boo Boo and new material from the forthcoming album amid a smattering of older tunes that fit the new direction, Bundick was as confident as a performer as I can ever remember seeing him. Even amid the most sweaty, dancefloor-ready vamps of the past, there’s always been something fundamentally bedroom producer about him, that felt like a masterful musician reimagining the music swimming around in his brain while saddled in front of the computer screen.
And that’s probably still who he is at heart but, for the first time, it’s possible to imagine that quiet, bespectacled oddball from around the way as the most unlikely thing of all—not just a nationally renowned indie artist, but a genuine pop star.
This might be some hell of a new record.