Chaz Bear, the mind behind Toro Y Moi, has never felt the need to stay in his lane.
The eclectic multi-disciplinary artist has built a career that spans everything from music to design, fashion to furniture – and becoming one of the most influential musicians of his generation along the way.
After helping to establish the chillwave genre with his 2010 debut, Causers of This, the California-based creator has taken a series of rapid-fire detours through indie rock, psychedelia, techno, hip-hop and more. His last studio album under the Toro Y Moi moniker was 2019’s tour de force, Outer Peace, but Bear certainly hasn’t been idle since then.
We’ve gotten new releases from his house music side project Les Sins, his ambient project, Plum, a Grammy-nominated collaboration with Flume, and instrumental re-releases of his debut album and 2011’s Under The Pines to mark their respective 10-year anniversaries.
Now he’s back with MAHAL, an effortlessly cool collection of tunes that somehow manages to be his most adventurous, most personal, and most relaxed offering to date. Drawn from the Filipino word for ‘love’ (or ‘expensive’, depending on the context), MAHAL marks Toro Y Moi’s first release with his new label, Secretly Group’s Dead Oceans, and his seventh full-length album.
MAHAL’s thematic anchor comes in the form of the Jeepney – an iconic mode of public transport that is as unique to the Philippines as it is ubiquitous throughout the country. Initially, says Bear, the vehicle’s purpose was largely pragmatic – a way to get music out during the pandemic.
“I was like ‘well, we’re not playing in venues anytime soon so what if we just bring the record to the people?’ Bear tells MusicTech. “My thinking was: get a vehicle, take it to the record shops, take it to the coffee shops, pop up some speakers, and be face-to-face or mask-to-mask with fans.”
During the album’s development, the vehicle shifted to become something more symbolic and personal. “The cultural side, bringing in the Filipino elements, that came later,” says Bear. “It was like ‘how do we make this even deeper and more tied to who I am?’
“I’m not romanticising the past; it’s more about bringing the past with us to the future”
“I don’t know if a lot of people know about my Filipino upbringing. They hear the beats and R&B stuff and they just assume it all comes from Black Music, but there are some elements that also seep in which are a bit more World Music. So, I wanted to really hit the nail on the head with this one and flip out some Filipino culture for fans.”
The Jeepney not only graces MAHAL’s cover, and features in the videos for singles The Loop and Postman, it also serves as a sonic touchstone as we traverse the album’s 13 tracks.
“I found the Jeep on eBay for $20,000 and put some money into it. I decided to capture us fixing it, capture it breaking down, and put all of that on the record – the whole trip and journey. It really solidified the record and gave it its own world.”
But it’s not only about world building. The artist also sees the Jeepney as a way to reach out beyond his usual fanbase. “There’s something about being in a vehicle […] car culture is one thing tying a lot of generations together,” he says, “and a big thing I wanted to do with this record was to talk to the older crowds and the generations before me.”
For an artist who initially made his bones in the synth-heavy chillwave scene, reaching out to older crowds may not seem like an obvious choice. But Bear says he sees this as a special moment where the internet and technology are making it easier to communicate across generations, and cultural touchstones are a part of how you open up that dialogue.
“There is something happening where intergenerational culture is missing, and I kind of want to lean into that. Not just be all about the kids but also about those who are in power, those who are above us – I want to talk to them. So, [the Jeepney] was my device, my tool to, like, try to talk to some boomers.”
“…a big thing I wanted to do with this record was to talk to the older crowds and the generations before me.”
Cars aren’t the only thing he’s using to reach out to older listeners. As the album sputters and revs to life, there’s no missing the 60s and 70s influence as we phase back in time to a world of flower power and psychedelia.
Recorded with Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the album’s opening track, The Mission, sets the tone with a fuzzy, analogue groove, while the latest single Deja-Vu raises the ghost of Hendrix with its trippy guitar licks.
“MAHAL is a concept record,” says Bear “It’s channelling something from the past. Outer Peace was very contemporary and in the now. So, to juxtapose that and just go straight back to an era, to recall an era, I feel like it’s a fun trip for the fans.”
While MAHAL wears its musical influences on its sleeve, this is not a nostalgia album. “I’m not just romanticizing the past, it’s more about bringing the past with us to the future,” says Bear.
The album deftly updates its historic influences, filtering them through Bears’ distinctive musical aesthetic. Lyrically, the album touches on a diverse set of highly contemporary themes. Climate, mental health, community, culture, and mortality are all explored with earnestness and understated urgency.
It’s not unusual for artists to use their work as a space for catharsis and confession. But, in talking to Bear, it’s clear that privacy is a highly valued commodity for the artist and that the openness and intimacy heard on MAHAL is part of a process that began relatively recently.
“MAHAL is a concept record… It’s channelling something from the past.”
“If you look at Outer Peace, the Ordinary Pleasure video,” he says, “that was maybe the first video where I let listeners into my world – see the studio, see it in action, see the band, see the collaborators. I’ve never opened up my private life in that way. I don’t do that kind of lifestyle marketing or press.”
Last Year, a frank rumination on the personal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and how Bear dealt with it, is perhaps the clearest example of the direction he’s taking with his songwriting on this album.
“That song is probably one of the more introspective tracks,” he says. “I just wanted to really go there. Not give too much of myself away but make the record substantial in some ways. Really thinking about therapy and how it can get you through a pandemic, or help you learn about yourself. Where I am now, at this point in time, I want [MAHAL] to show a deeper level of my personal life.”
But it’s not all about Bear. The artist makes clear that MAHAL is a result of the support and inspiration he gets from his network. “I don’t think I could get any of this done without my art community, my music community, and my friends. I need people to know this is a communal effort. I’m not doing it all by myself.”
That focus on community can also be heard in the collaborations which have become central to the Toro Y Moi sound in recent years. “The idea to bring in other artists sort of came into the picture around 2016,” says Bear. “And that’s actually when I started working on this record.”
“I don’t think I could get any of this done without my art community, my music community, and my friends. I need people to know this is a communal effort. I’m not doing it all by myself.”
Part of why MAHAL had such a writing and recording process was simply the logistical – “it really just took this long to actually get these musicians on the record” he says. However, if the end result is anything to go by, it was worth the wait.
“Getting Sofie Royer on the record, getting Salami Rose Joe Louis, they were big turning points. To have female vocals on the record brings balance, I feel like there’s a lot of space for that vocal range specifically. So, I kind of got a chance to flex my Gainsbourg, you know? It’s always fun to write drums and bass around female vocals.”
As with many young artists, technology has been a big part of Bear’s career. Online communities were instrumental in his early popularity and he describes himself as “a product of the internet.” But when asked about the role that technology and the internet play in his career nowadays, the answer is mixed.
“At times I don’t feel like [technology] is empowering. It does when I’m on stage in front of a crowd, but in the grand scheme of things I am like ‘how the hell am I gonna stay relevant and keep up with everything? Maybe no one’s really into records anymore, maybe it’s okay to lean into playlist culture, maybe I’m overthinking it’. At the same time, I enjoy that challenge.”
“At times I don’t feel like [technology] is empowering. Maybe no one’s really into records anymore, maybe it’s okay to lean into playlist culture, maybe I’m overthinking it’. At the same time, I enjoy that challenge.”
For an artist who takes pride in the aesthetic quality of his work – be it music, fashion, painting, or design – the answer to an ever-accelerating digital culture is to move at your own beat. Bear has performances lined up in support of the new album, but he’s got no plans to do the kind of extensive touring that some artists tie in with a record release. Instead, he says he’s determined to “space it out” and focus on shorter trips away from home.
Finding that work-life balance hasn’t always been easy, but it’s an essential part of how Bear has been able to sustain a career in music for over 12 years.
“To make it this far is flattering, it’s cool, and it’s insane too,” he says. “It’s always been a learning experience in so many ways; personal life, family life, business life, everything has just spiralled outwards – learning how to control it all, that is the trick.“
MAHAL is the work of an artist with plenty of gas left in the tank. After years making music that skips effortlessly from one genre to the next, there is still a restless creativity to Bear’s output.
“Should I do another electronic record?” he ponders, “Or should I spice it up and not do electronic music? Or should I just spice it up even more and do ambient music?” At this point, Bear says he feels like his eclecticism is baked into Toro Y Moi and he trusts his fans to come along for the ride no matter the twists and turns.
“It doesn’t matter how big or small the music is, the goal is to communicate these moments in time, to link them together, and make it all make sense.”
“I feel like I set it up from the very beginning with my first two singles,” he says. “One was Blessa, which was super electronic, and the other one was Leave Everywhere, which is way more in a Phil Spector, 60s style. So I kind of let fans know from the very beginning that this is going to be a complete umbrella of all the things I like to make.”
Ultimately, whether he’s trying to win new fans or surprise old ones, for Bear it all comes back to the music, the art, and what he has to say.
“I could be playing music for 1,000 people or just playing for my wife. It doesn’t matter how big or small the music is, the goal is to communicate these moments in time, to link them together, and make it all make sense. There is a bigger language being spoken, that universal language that we’re always trying to tap into.”