Chillwave Memories

Nostalgia works in strange ways. Sometimes vivid memories come flooding back serendipitously, while other fuzzier recollections linger. It can be an intensely personal journey or a public declaration of solidarity. But no matter how you remember, nostalgia is really all about loss.

Berkeley-based artist Toro y Moi (Chaz Bundick) repurposes nostalgia for use in his creative process. His most recent project, What For?, nods to the classic rock icons of the 60s and 70s. In an interview with The Creator Class, Bundick said, “I’m always referencing 90s and 70s type things—and 80s. Those are my favorite decades of art and music. I think that’ll sort of always be present in my art.”

Bundick started borrowing from the past early on in his career. Influenced by 80s retro music, Bundick’s debut LP, Causers of This, has earned its place as one of the canonical works of the “chillwave movement,” along with albums from artists such as Washed Out and Com Truise. Characterized by heavily processed synths and filtered vocals, the style paints electronic dreamscapes that offer ambient refuges from reality. But even though Toro y Moi is often referenced in relation to the chillwave movement, Bundick notes in a Rolling Stone interview that it was never his intention to make distinctly chillwave music.

Perhaps to push back against this categorization, Bundick has operated in many different genres since the chillwave era, moving through a period of creativity largely inspired by R&B and 80s boogie before landing at the classic-rock influenced What For? It’s as if every album and style change is another opportunity for Bundick to scream “don’t put me into a box!”—understandably. Bundick’s reluctance to conform to a specific genre frees him from certain prescriptions of style, making space for a more liberating creative process.

For instance, the feedback-tinged electric and slow-strummed acoustic guitars in “Ratcliff” are in conversation, one giving way as the other comes in. The ringing sounds of an acoustic piano melt perfectly with the guitar breaks, making these parts of the song a welcome respite from the heavier sections. They complement each other while Bundick’s voice floats on top of it all, offering seamless transitions between styles.

Yet as Bundick moves from ambient electronic to indie rock and introduces more lyrics into his work, his words seem to lack the same flavor that his sonic production offers. Bundick emphasizes that his music must be relatable to listeners, but many of his lyrics are so vague that they lack personality. His lines are confusing, almost like placeholders without any real substance—easily forgettable amidst other voices.

For example, though “Lilly” is sonically cohesive, its lyrics lack the same beauty as the instrumentals. A simple drumbeat and bass line layered with string drones provide the backdrop, while Bundick’s vocals move in and out of the mix. The twang of guitars positions the track within the psychedelic feel of the album. But closer inspection of the lyrics reveals emptiness. Bundick sings, “Everyday is like this, no one gets nowhere/Everyone is like this, no one gets nothing/like you, like me.”

Bundick pulls a similar move in one of the weaker tracks on the album, “Spell it Out.” The entire song is riddled with rhetorical questions set to a funky guitar riff. Bundick repeats, “Do you understand what must be done? Don’t make it into something that it’s not.” He ends by whispering, “What’s not happening/What’s happening?” It’s not quite obvious what’s going on lyrically in this piece, and Bundick’s rhetorical moves shed no light on this topic. What really is happening here? It’d be nice if he would answer, or at least clarify, his own question for the listener.

Though the muddled poetics in What For? fail to give listeners a glimpse into Bundick’s mind, his creative process emerges in other ways. A talented visual artist with a B.A. in Graphic Design from the University of South Carolina, Bundick creates all his album covers and is often involved in the production of his music videos. Bundick’s music almost takes on a visual aspect as he blurs the lines between these two mediums.

Bundick told The Creator Class in an interview, “There are no rules when it comes to design or music. There’s just good aesthetic and bad aesthetic.” The artistic thread that ties Bundick’s work together becomes clear when What For? is situated within the context of Toro y Moi’s discography. By working in this sort of post-genre mindset, Toro y Moi fashions an aesthetic that transcends definitions of style and medium.

Even though Toro y Moi ditches heavily manipulated electronics for layers of guitar in What For?, his work never quite seems to shake off the chillwave effect of his earlier productions. Whether you call it chillwave or not, his music continues to give off a relaxed, psychedelic feel. Most of the tracks on What For? seem to be encapsulated in a mist of processed synths, cushy guitars and ethereal vocals that are inviting but not overbearing. Bundick claims his music is genreless; but in the processes of sampling from the past, he has inadvertently created a genre all it’s own—one defined precisely by his sonic fingerprint.

The song that comes closest to breaking this chillwave trend, with a rising and falling narrative arc, is “Empty Nesters.” Recalling the emotionally tinged move-out from the parents’ home, the track swells in triumphant synth riffs that relish in the freedom from the watchful parental eye. The upbeat drums and guitar details give a sense of relaxed motion, like driving with the windows down.

The last track in What For?, “Yeah Right,” summarizes the feel of the entire album. Listening to it brought me back home to high-school summers in Wisconsin when nobody was scrambling to build a résumé over breaks. Back to simpler days when there was no agenda, just my friends and our shenanigans—in short, nostalgia.

At the same time the track has the vibes of the towering forests of Bundick’s northern California home and the foggy beachsides of the Pacific, places absent from my summer memories.

That’s the real strength of Bundick’s music. It’s like a time machine, but even better. It makes you long for simpler days, but it can also bring up fond memories you’ve never even experienced. It taps into the lingering nostalgia that always remains in the back of your head. That universal nostalgia is more powerful than Bundick’s empty lyrics, or claim to defy genre. It’s truly the aesthetic of Toro y Moi that transcends chillwave, indie-rock, R&B or any other genre ascribed to it. And that’s what makes it so powerful.

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