Chaz Bundick — the electro-pop übermensch behind Toro Y Moi — bought an acoustic guitar last year. He'd had one growing up, a budget-model Yamaha on which he wrote his earliest songs in his bedroom in suburban Columbia, long before he became synonymous with the ephemeral chillwave craze. But when Bundick moved to California in 2011, it didn't come with him.
"It's nice to have an acoustic guitar just to pick up and diddle around on," he says from his home in Berkeley. Bundick, 26, made the move to the West Coast with his longtime girlfriend, who had been accepted into a grad school program in environmental engineering at the University of California-Berkeley. He's waiting on her to bring back lunch when he answers the phone.
It's in California that Bundick, a continent away from his family and friends, wrote and recorded his third Toro Y Moi album, Anything in Return. His 2010 debut, Causers of This, was filled with smeary, night-swimming dance-pop while 2011's Underneath the Pine was a space-age bachelor pad soundtrack. Anything in Return, meanwhile, is a pan-musical pastiche, a genius synthesis of hip-hop, funk, and pop. All the songs are dipped in shimmering layers of synths, but the disc hits like a hip-hop album, the up-tempo tracks underpinned by gently bouncing drums and the ballads by stuttering, damaged beats. "Never Matter" boasts a funky, Prince-ly strut; "Rose Quartz" is an R&B ballad that coasts on gauzy piano chords. "High Living" is a subdued jazz-funk jam that scoots along at a dazed pace, and "Cake" aims for Justin Bieber-ish pop, all towering drums and percolating arpeggios.
Anything in Return's elastic eclecticism is a direct result of Bundick's separation from his Palmetto State support system. "I think I just needed a change of scenery," he says. "That was my life, that was my entire life up to that day. It's nice to see something different and see different stuff."
He adds, "It's not like there wasn't anything there. It's just that there's more here. There are more musicians, there's more music, there are more different kinds of music."
The California influence is felt perhaps even more prominently in Bundick's "Campo," a 7-inch release available only on Toro Y Moi's fall tour. The title-track A-side is a laid-back funk-soul number with a flowing melodic progression redolent of psychedelic California pop, but its grooving bass suggests early '90s G-funk. The B-side, "Outside With You," rolls softly, like morning fog from the San Francisco Bay, with Bundick cooing, "Come down from that mountain/ That makes you think too much." It's a simple track consisting of a gently strummed guitar, a little piano, and a sweet vocal melody.
That stripped-down approach is the mark of another pronounced new influence: his live band. Since Underneath the Pine Bundick has toured with a live band, comprised of friends and bandmates from Columbia. They followed Bundick to California. His rhythm section, bassist Patrick Jeffords and drummer Andy Woodard, lives in Oakland, just a few BART stops away; guitarist Jordan Blackmon lives in Los Angeles. The ensemble recently expanded from a quartet to a quintet, incorporating a second synthesizer player.
"It sounds really good now," he says. "We're relying less on the computer. We're using fewer samplers. It sounds more live."
The live band stokes a fire under Toro Y Moi's cool electronic funk. At the very least, Anything in Return's songs — like the sample-heavy lead single "So Many Details" and "Rose Quartz" — are given a new vivacity, an exciting hint of tension in a live setting. But the album's best moments come when songs are reinvented entirely. The comparatively mellow "High Living" turns into a searing psych-rock jam live. Woodard reinvents the song's robotic pulse as a stone groove, giving the song a newfound urgency. The smooth pull of Jeffords' bass subtly propels the song, with Blackmon's effects-heavy guitar knifing through the mix, the Velcro-like fuzz tones and vibrato adding a cosmic brightness.
"I'm trying to write more solid stuff for the band," Bundick says. But, he adds, "The more stuff I write like that, the more I want to do electronic, beat-oriented music. It's just fun to keep going back and forth between the two."
Who knows, he says, maybe he'll even get some mileage out of that acoustic guitar. "I feel like one day I might make a country album," Bundick laughs. "When I'm, like, maybe 40 or something. When I have some real blues other than, like, girl problems from five years ago."