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hat do you do when the internet no longer feels like a realm of play and possibility, but more like an exhausting, 24/7 fire hydrant of hype, depressing news and misinformation?
If you’re Toro y Moi, you log on to eBay, buy a Filipino Jeepney, load it up with your friends and cruise around the Bay Area, from North Oakland to the Golden Gate Bridge. For one, a customized, multicolored bus—brought to the islands by American soldiers during World War II and adapted into public transit—makes eye-catching content for music videos.
But for Oakland singer-songwriter and producer Toro y Moi—real name Chaz Bear—the bus has also become a place to connect one-on-one with other artists, listeners and the local community at large.
Over the past couple of weeks, he’s been driving it to local businesses like Lower Grand Radio and FOB Kitchen, meeting fans and playing songs from his new album, Mahal (out April 29 via Dead Oceans), an oozing psych-rock project that pays homage to his Filipino roots and diasporic fanbase.
“For [the Jeepney] to have this story of this American machine going to the Philippines, being taken apart, remade, brought back to the States, and then shipped to the Bay and purchased by another Filipino-American—I feel like I see myself in it in some ways, being essentially like this multicultural thing,” says Bear, sipping a decaf iced coffee on a sunny, spring morning.
We’re listening to birds chirp under a canopy of leaves in the front yard of Company Record Label and Art Studio, his headquarters in an Oakland neighborhood filled with industrial warehouses. His powder blue Jeepney, decked out with miniature horse sculptures, horns and other ornamental tchotchkes, is parked outside.
“Now that I’ve literally found a vehicle to communicate my appreciation, it feels really good,” he says, chuckling at the accidental pun. “And it’s brought me closer to my Filipino community in the Bay.”
hose personal connections have been creative fuel for Bear lately, after two years of pandemic isolation and too much scrolling. The internet was where Bear first found his tribe. But now, he says, he needs a physical community.
“I made the shift to focus on local communities around 2016, when I started working on this record,” he says. “It’s mainly because it’s been a nightmare since Trump was president, and I think I just found the importance of reaching out to my POC community and subcultural community. [I’m] trying to just sort of find the language, find how to say it and how to speak it.”
Before streaming and social media giants were the cultural forces they are now, Bear got his start in the late Aughts era of taste-making music blogs. He left his native South Carolina for Berkeley, and over the years—after collaborations with influential artists like Tyler, the Creator and Travis Scott—he became a big name capable of commanding crowds of thousands at music festivals like Outside Lands, Afropunk and Coachella (where he just made a guest appearance April 23 during Flume’s set).
But although Bear could easily relocate to Los Angeles or New York for higher-profile opportunities, he’s happy to stay in Oakland, where he operates comfortably outside of the mainstream music industry. The Bay Area’s multiculturalism, alternative subcultures and activism—where artists of color can experiment and be weird—were big draws for him when he arrived here a decade ago and noticed the first two rows at his first show were packed with Filipino teens.
Mahal, a title that means “love” in Tagalog, invites listeners to get lost in its jammy, wah–pedal-laden sound that departs from the tightly produced, perfectionist approach of years past. His visuals for Mahal reflect the change too. The cover of his 2019 album Outer Peace showed Bear sitting on a yoga ball, diligently working away at his laptop (its lead single, “Freelance,” is a digital nomad anthem). But after spending the first year of the pandemic mostly interacting from behind a screen, the mood on Mahal, whose cover shows the Jeepney parked in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, is all about getting out and cutting loose.
“It’s a nice antithesis to the internet and the digital age,” Bear says. The album’s Summer of Love-meets-Summer of Soul sound and aesthetic is on full display in his single “The Loop,” a laid-back funk track where distorted, sprawling guitar solos accompany footage of Bear and friends cruising along the Pacific coast and goofing around.
“Magazine,” another single from Mahal that references environmental destruction and frustration with the modern world, features a duet with Salami Rose Joe Louis, the uncategorizable Bay Area artist (signed to Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label) whose idiosyncratic jazz pop tells sci-fi sagas. “My lyrics are always just going to be a little bit more on the melancholy side, just because that’s what’s interesting to me,” Bear says. “How that feeling never leaves, but every other feeling does.”
The breezy, happy-go-lucky “Millennium” is a collaboration with The Mattson 2, a Los Angeles jazz duo comprised of twin guitarist brothers whose music Bear has released through Company Records.
“We’re used to everything being so polished, and as music consumers we’re so quick to be like, ‘Oh no, that’s off’ because we’re so used to hearing Auto-Tune,” Bear says of his approach, noting that he first experimented with a grittier rock sound on 2015’s What For. “I just try to almost challenge the listener.”
So was the process fun or nerve-wracking for such a meticulous producer? “It’s both. It’s definitely like, ‘OK, this might be a mistake,’ but also, I need to do this.”
ear is gearing up for a tour that kicks off in Ohio on April 29 with kindred spirits Khruangbin, the Texas trio whose soothing psychedelia has been on repeat for many during the stressful past two years. And Mahal is his first release on the label Dead Oceans, where he’s in good company with Khruangbin, Japanese Breakfast, Mitski and Phoebe Bridgers.
“I feel like there’s been a response to the big EDM boom and the whole wave of mainstream rap and electronic [music],” he says. “I do feel like bands are making a comeback, and guitar-based music is alive and well.”
Bear shows me around his workspace inside of Company, which he shares with a few other artists, including business partner Brendan Nakahara. His senior dog, Michael, trails us as he pulls out a few of his abstract paintings of colorful, floral designs. Much like his music, the aesthetic is streamlined yet embraces quirks and subtle imperfections.
It’s no secret that streaming doesn’t earn much these days. Even if you’re an artist like Bear, who boasts over three million monthly listeners on Spotify, you have to find other sources of income. He’s decided not to focus on merch, like a lot of musicians do: “We found ourselves packing T-shirts for two or three weeks and we were like, ‘Man, is this what we want to do?’” he says, adding, “It quickly reminds you of the capitalist game that we’re all a part of.”
Bear and Nakahara operate Company as a client-facing creative studio. They’ve worked on campaigns for big brands like Nike and Vans, but lately they’ve turned their focus to local establishments like Red Bay Coffee, the Black-owned Oakland roaster getting picked up by major retailers.
Over the last few years, Bear has thought a lot about his definition of success. And for him, it’s more about cultivating deeper relationships and using his resources to help grow the local scene rather than constantly chasing bigger-faster-more.
“I want to work with companies in the Bay Area to raise the general interest in the Bay. There is so much to offer here outside of tech,” he says. “It feels good to be here, so I’m going to try to stay.”