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Toro y Moi on Embracing His Filipino Culture With His New Album and Working With Eric Andre

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From a Jeepney tour to a short film, Mahal finds Chaz embracing his roots like never before.

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Toro y Moi.Courtesy of Chris Maggio.

Chaz Bear is a rare breed. Or perhaps more accurately, an endangered species. The 35-year-old singer, songwriter, and visual artist is one of the last surviving elements of the late-aughts indie-blog era. When his breakout single, “Blessa,” arrived in October of 2009, Obama had yet to go gray, Netflix was mailing DVDs, and people were still using musical labels like “Chillwave.” But Bear has outlived those halcyon days and, through his chameleonic output as Toro y Moi, he has evolved into one of the most prolific and polyphonic pop musicians working today. In addition to his own albums, which run the gamut from electronic, ambient, and synthpop to more analog house and funk, Bear has collaborated with everyone from Travis Scott and Tyler the Creator to Blood Orange and Haim.

In April, Bear released his seventh album as Toro y Moi: Mahal—the Tagalog word for “love”— is a winding, psych-rock journey to Manila, Mississippi, and back, exploring Bear’s Filipino and African-American roots. It comes fully equipped with tricked-out Filipino Jeepney, which Bear originally bought as a way to physically interact with fans while touring was still halted, before fully incorporating it as a visual element in the album’s rollout—and even documenting his process fixing it up. There’s also a short film starring Eric Andre, and some of the tightest grooves of Bear’s career. GQ sat down with Bear to discuss the new record, YZY Gap, and why everything is cool now.

You do all the graphics, make all the music, and come up with all the creative concepts around your work. Where did the process begin with Mahal?

The music is always first.

At what point do you decide you need to buy a Filipino Jeepney bus and drive around to fans?

Well, for this campaign specifically, I wanted to think of something that would be able to adapt to these times, with things being canceled on a moment’s notice. The idea was to do a mobile, guerilla-style approach and bring the record, speakers, and a sound system to people. Whether it’s at a coffee shop, record, shop, restaurant, and just do a music pop up type thing. And I just happened to find the Jeepney, so that was kind of a sign that this was the direction we needed to go in.

You found the Jeepney on eBay?

I typed in all kinds of things and, yeah, the jeepney just kind of popped up in there. This Jeepney, in particular, is a 1942 Willys Jeep, and it was left in the Philippines after WWII by the U.S. Army. And in ‘67, they converted the Jeep into a bus for public transit.

And now it’s being used to promote a psych-rock album.

I connected to it because of its story, and the fact that this American thing had gone to the Philippines, and got reappropriated to be this Filipino art piece. And now it’s back in the States where there is another level of life to it.

This album is, in part, an homage to your Filipino heritage, but you’ve said the record is about being American. What aspects of your experience as an American were you thinking about when you were making these songs?

When you grew up in the South, there’s so much trauma there and so much healing that needs to sort of begin. The South is kind of the heart of all of this stuff and trauma in America, too. So I feel like I wanted to just touch on it without alienating anybody and really just sort of tried my best to unite, in a way, with these songs.

In the past, you received some flack for comments you made about perspectives on race dynamics in the States when you tweeted “we’re all a lil racist.” What did you take away from that moment?

That was mistake 101 of talking about race over Twitter and making uneducated statements. But I think I was just trying to relate with everyone at once. I wasn’t even talking about white people. Within the Black Community and Filipino community, I’ve been torn my entire life.

But yeah, it’s been a very interesting journey, trying to get everyone on board on how social media is changing a lot of people’s perspective on what this all is, what kind of system we’re actually in. So yeah, I do feel like I learned a lot from that. But I don’t think that there’s an easy way to say anything about race.

In the years leading up to Mahal, you began rapping more. I imagine as someone who had built a name doing stuff that was distinctly not rap, it might have felt a little vulnerable to try something new. Were you nervous to put that stuff out?

Yeah especially with this little southern twang, psych-rock twist. I really felt like I tapped into something that was new and fresh for me. It’s almost like beat-type poetry over rock songs. But yeah, I wanted to show my black side and show my support and show that I’m doing it for the culture, and encourage people to push it.

In addition to the rapping, you’ve recently begun collaborating more. Previously, your records didn’t typically have any guest features. What motivated the change?

I didn’t really have features on my records until Outer Peace. So that was something for me where I got to learn how to just play producer, and really not have to worry about being on every single track or verse. So that was something I really enjoyed. And I took that with me to this record, to just see a bigger picture, and paint something where—maybe I need a female perspective here, or maybe I need an actual real drummer to play this part. And yeah, it felt good to play producer and not just think of it like, “I have to show what I can do at all times.” And for the overall sake of the project just being, like, “What does this “need?”

Was the idea for it to always be a live-instrument psych-rock album?

Yeah, pretty much. At times, I was like, “Maybe, I’ll just throw on electronic tracks. Maybe it just needs to just be a mixture of things.” And, I don’t know, I felt that it’s more of a statement to stick to this, just this one sound. For this record, and for the time when I was working on this, no one was really going to clubs. So, I wanted to make a record where I was comfortable playing it in a space that was like 100 people to 2,000 people. Outer Peace was such a club record. I just really wanted to make something that would contrast that even more.

As someone who’s released a lot of different types of music over the last 10 years, you don’t really have a sonic fingerprint, like most producers do. Given that, I was curious how you approach playing producer for other artists, and why you think people seek out collaboration with you? How does someone end up working with both Travis Scott and Haim?

It feels like counterculture and mainstream culture are sort of meeting on the internet. It’s like everything all at once is cool. Where I started with Toro was making indie music that was inspired by mainstream music. And for the longest time, I think indie music was like, kind of anti-mainstream, anti-Top 40. I remember when it was not cool to listen to the radio, if you were playing at a house show. The first mainstream act that I was flipping out over within pop and hip-hop was Kanye. In his love for Daft Punk, he was also on that tip of bringing subculture to the mainstream. Even though, you know, Daft Punk was doing very fine without Kanye.

This leveling out of culture has been in the works for almost 10-plus years now. So I kind of feel like when artists work with me, they understand that they’re working with someone who is trying to do the same thing, but from the indie scene.

This kind of leveling has occurred, and it’s sort of meeting you in the middle. Nowadays every artist, especially the less mainstream ones, have to have a certain amount of corporate pragmatism in order to simply sustain their careers. This, I imagine, is why a Sonos, for example, will appear in your Mahal Listening Party Film. As someone who came out of the indie world, did you have any reservations about working this way?

Companies have started to realize the importance of a holistic approach, or something a little bit less abrasive. Because we’re on our screens at all times, these days, advertising doesn’t need to be in your face, and it doesn’t need to even really be an advertisement, it could just be art. So there’s a lot of things at play. There’s definitely some Warhol-type philosophy behind a lot of what I do, where it’s like, “What is pop? What is business? What is art?”

I just got asked to do something for this watch brand. And I’m like, “Can I see this being ironic, or can I see this being authentic?” It’s more just like, “How do I make this me?” Because as an artist, and as a public figure, you have to figure out all these little nuances to be yourself and find the most efficient way to be a brand at the same time.

Toro y Moi.Courtesy of Chris Maggio.

If you had told 2009 hipster Chaz, with his glasses and afro, that in a decade he would be considering working with a watch brand, how would he have reacted?

I think [he would react] very similar to me now, to be honest. My ethos has gotten me to where I am or, I guess, kept me where I am. I think before, I was more worried about originality, which you learn over time is non-existent. It comes down to curation of tastes. I feel like the internet has shown us everything that we can pull from. And now, it’s up to us to decide which subculture we want to be a part of.

In the video for “Magazine,” you’re rocking a YZY GAP round jacket. Did you set your alarm, hop online, and cop that yourself, or do you have a plug?

I’m proudly “No Stylist.” Yeah, I got the email and bought it. I don’t really have too many pieces, but for the things that I like, I’ll just buy it. On the cover of Outer Peace I’m wearing a Bode jacket ‘cause I love Bode.

Something that I personally, found pretty disconcerting about this project and “The Loop” video, in particular, is I learned that someone can be as accomplished a musician and artist as you and also land a crazy kickflip body varial.

I had to whip it out. Because people don’t know that I can skate… I’m slowly opening the curtain a little bit more. I could have started 10 years ago with like, all my skate parts and stuff, but I didn’t see anything in that. I don’t know. Skateboarding has now become an Olympic sport. So like, it’s a different thing now.

So you grew up skating in South Carolina?

Yeah, I grew up skating. And that’s what got me into everything from music, fashion, videography, graphic design…. It all started with skateboarding. And just wanting to be creative and have an outlet.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that skateboarding has become as popular as it has in the era of the influencer economy and this new approach to marketing that we were talking about earlier. Like you said, it marries all these different elements that have become central to how we brand and sell everything.

I mean, yeah, it’s almost safe to say that your modern freelance creative is today’s athlete.We’re witnessing the birth of a new type of culture. It’s not just about the sports and it’s not just about the advertisements, or just the art. It’s about all of these things, at the same time living together. Like, “Who is the most creative person?” That’s such a sick thing to wake up to.

With your skill set and your clear branding and creative know-how, was there ever a world where you wanted to become some kind of creative executive at a company?

I started with music, and I was making flyers for my band and CD covers. And my photography teacher in high school was like, “You know, you should consider majoring in graphic design.” And I ended up doing that. Didn’t think about what kind of job it would lead to. I was just gonna work at a hospital or something and just make stationery. I don’t know!

At that time, you didn’t think that you would be able to upload pictures of your art to the internet and have companies reach out to you, and you’d actually have a choice if you want to work for this company or that company.

As someone who paints, makes music and graphics, and does as many things as you do, how do you figure out what to do each day?

It’s so hard, man. Basically, you have to plan your social life. There are no sporadic hangs. For me, I’m like, “Let’s get dinner at 7 o’clock next Wednesday.” You have to just really go into your artist world sometimes. All of these projects that creatives can have at the same time, it’s all just coming down to how you spend and delegate your time. As much as I get FOMO looking at people’s photos of them at the club or them at some function…

You get FOMO looking at your friend’s photos?

All the time! Especially, if it’s like some local thing here in Oakland or Berkeley. I’m just like, “What? Damn.” But here I am in my studio just cranking away on something. But sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and skip out on fun and just build your world.

Not every indie artist has their own label and studio the way you do with your art studio, Company. What did that emerge from? A desire to bring order to your creative process, or just to have ownership over what you were making?

It started from the most simple thing, where my work life was just taking over my home life. I literally had my studio in my apartment at the time. [My wife], Samantha, wasn’t having it, so I was like, “I’m gonna go find a studio and move it somewhere.” The first four or five years of having this warehouse space were chaos. Shit everywhere. It wasn’t until quarantine, where I was able to organize everything.

It was such a mad hatter-type setting, like a Warholian factory setting for a long time. It was because I had all these ideas at the same time. Literally, the music studio is next to the painting studio. But over quarantine, I moved my music studio out. Now, I’m able to think way better and clearer in each field. I ended up splitting the space with four more artists and now it’s kind of this shared space. Now, I have a private music studio where I’m able to strictly have music sessions. But it took ten years to get to this point.

What made you want to make a short film to accompany the album, and how did Eric Andre get involved?

I met Eric back in 2016. I was just walking down the street in Silver Lake and he saw me. He was sitting at a cafe that I was going to, actually. So we ended up just having a coffee together and exchanged numbers. I invited him to an art show I had, and he came out to that. We really just bonded on being mixed race in the entertainment industry and just trying to figure out.

Harry [Chaz’s frequent collaborator and director] and I, we wrote a film that was designed to reveal the curtain on me a little bit. I wanted to lean into my introvertedness, my elusiveness. I’m aware that this is the persona that I have and I’m aware that I don’t do too much press. So I was down to make fun of myself…And having Eric Andre do it for me was nice..

There’s a common trajectory for some artists where they make their beloved indie gems and then at a certain point they decide to level up, and suddenly they’re on a song with Megan Thee Stallion. Is there a world in which you see yourself wanting to make a similar sort of pivot?

I can see Toro being a household name, yeah. In the same sense as Virgil [Abloh] and Off-White. I see myself in that light, where it is a boutique thing. Toro isn’t on the radio. It’s not in every store. If you know about it, you know about it. It’s sort of been designed that way. And I bring up Off-White specifically because of its connection to Virgil and how he sort of separated himself. He’s like, “No, no, Off-White’s just a thing I do. I’m doing all this other stuff too.”

And the way he carried himself throughout his entire career is so respectable and noble. He was able to code switch so easily and talk to everyone and be a model. Seeing his web talks and web seminars got me more inspired to be more comfortable on screen, doing interviews like this, or even livestreaming on TikTok or Instagram, and just having conversations. Because the conversations need to happen.

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