Toro Y Moi Faces the Frontier: Inside 'Live from Trona'

In their new, full-length live video 'Live from Trona,' Chazwick Bundick and his band took themselves to the Californian desert, in search of something grand and American.
August 5, 2016, 2:00pm

Photo by Jordan Blackmon

There’s a moment during Live From Trona, the new full-length Toro y Moi live video, in which the band’s auteur, Chazwick Bundick, smiles a broad smile towards a camera that’s crept up behind him. It’s in the middle of “Buffalo,” a quietly grooving and expansive track from last year’s What For, a little over eight minutes into the hour-long set; the desert stretches out behind him and his tour bus sits in the middle-ground. Bundick is enjoying himself. He’s briefly been caught off-guard.

This moment, in which Bundick briefly breaks the fourth wall out of a combination of surprise and joy, is the result of a one-day shoot in the middle of the desert, racing against the sunset. His first live video after four studio albums as Toro y Moi, Live From Trona was a spontaneous idea, hatched by Bundick and director Harry Israelson after a performance at Coachella in 2014. The idea was simple: land in the desert, film a full set, give his uncanny mesh of indie and R ’n’ B a dramatic visual treatment, then roll out.

Soon enough, Vimeo had stumped up the cash for the project, and Bundick found himself and his band halfway between San Francisco and Death Valley.

Outside of that one flash of a smile, for the remainder of Live From Trona, as he rolls through a selection of his back catalog as part of a six-piece band, he’s pretty much the consummate performer, despite the obvious limits to the format. There’s no live audience in the desert, no screaming fans to feed off or respond to. There was just Iseaelson, bobbing his head behind the camera, and a crew who, Bundick says, “for the most part… just thought we were shooting a commercial or something.”

Today, in Dream Downtown’s plush lobby in the West Village, Bundick is leaning forward on a velvet couch, dressed in the same casual shorts and t-shirt that he wears onstage, his hands pressed into each other. He’s tapping back into a filming process that, at the time, was entirely new to him. “I’m not performing to anyone,” he says, “and I've never performed to a camera, but every once in a while I'll see a camera come in front of me and I'm like 'Oh yeah, I should smile.’”

Noisey: So how did the project come about?
Chazwick Bundick: I guess around March 2015 is when Harry and I first started talking about it because we were playing Coachella and thinking about playing in the desert. [Pink Floyd's 1972 live album] Live at Pompeii sort of came to mind. After we figured it out, Harry [Israelson, director] pretty much just took it from there. He got the logistics. The only thing I really did was more just the art direction, figuring out how we're going to get a cohesive vibe.

Seems like it must be difficult first of all being an art director and a performer at the same time. But also the preparation that goes into something like that. Playing a live set you can make a mistake, but it's tougher without an audience. Is there that pressure?
There still was that pressure, even though it wasn't live live. We were racing the sun for the sunset shots, so we only got one chance to play all the songs. I think our limit was like, "OK, guys, we're not playing these tracks more than twice. Luckily we were playing to a bpm, so if we messed up we could just Frankenstein something together if it was an emergency, but for the most part, we pretty much did the whole set all the way through in an hour or so. Then it took around five hours to set up the set; took another two or three hours to get the sound set up. And then everything was actually recorded right there on site. So it was just crazy because all this time and energy went into this little thing and then the band and I just had to go and do our thing for an hour.

So a lot of the art direction came after in the editing process?
Yeah, we knew that we wanted the stage to be white, stuff like that. Harry got an idea to make these mirror monoliths. That was a thing. Small things, too. I was helping the band pick out clothing, colors or whatever. Even small props on stage. I remember our guitarist Jordan was just being meticulous about stuff on stage and I was just like, "No, leave it. Leave your coffee, leave your camera. It looks like we're settling in." That kinda stuff.

I wanna talk about Trona. It's creepy as hell. Why there?
We knew we wanted a natural landform. It's a pretty popular spot, apparently. They film space movies out there, car commercials and stuff. I'd never heard of that spot before we filmed there, but it was so beautiful.

The desert is such an archetype of the rock video, big sweeping landscapes and all.
I think the desert's got this vibe where... Well, in the states mainly, the desert's out west. There's this Americana vibe where you're just searching for something. I feel like that's what the desert represents, this soul searching setting, as opposed to the beach or the mountains. But the fact that it's in California's even cooler because people don't really think of America as exotic. They think of it as though you have Yosemite and all of our pretty epic national parks, but they're just bigger versions of what we already have everywhere else. But the desert is just something of its own.

Screenshot from Live From Trona

You have a particular attachment to California and you could say that your music has a Californian attitude to it a lot of the time. What is it about the state that draws people in?
I think again it ties into that searching sort of theme. California just totally represents that search for life, that drive, in a symbolic way. Technology can help us do that anywhere now. You can live anywhere, you don't have to have that. But having that around you, that surrounding, is just another encouragement, a reinforcement of that mindset. To me, when I moved to California, that was the first time I'd left South Carolina ever. So it really does have that sort of meaning to me. I guess just coincidentally. I mean, I was so close to moving to New York City or Chicago or something. California's got a lot of freedom with it. I was living in Berkeley, I was in the Bay. And the Bay is so magical. They weather is perfect all the time. You've got the water 45 minutes away, mountains two hours away. It's such a shock to be there from the East Coast.

In much the same way, is Live From Trona all about trying to drag people out of their comfort zone, bring them to a new experience?
That's the main purpose of music. It's to give you an experience. Whether it be a different experience of a song you've heard before or a new experience of something you've never heard before. As long as it's something new... that's the best part about live music. It's never going to be exactly the same, unless you're seeing a DJ. But still, even if you saw a DJ, his set could be different, or should be different at least. The experience, even with technology, it's different, but I appreciate the fact that there are people in companies out there trying to make the experience different with technology, because that's the way it's going, whether we like it or not. I feel like artists should do their best to balance contemporary with classic. Curate colaborations a bit more, don't say yes to everything.

I want to go back to this idea of there being something inherently American in this video and in the Californian ideal. You've said in the past that, right now, there's not a great deal of "Americanism" in American music.
Yeah. I'm even guilty of it too. My biggest influences are French and British bands. It could be seen as a trendy thing, but also there's something to be said about that music that they have certain grooves. I think that music right now is very groovy, it's very hip-hop heavy. Hip hop is on top right now. That's because the drums are the highest in the mix out of all the genres of music right now. That's what's happening to every other kind of music. Tame Impala, they're rock, but the drums are high up in the mix, it's all about the groove now. I think that my drums are on the top of the mix. I think that's just where music is. Americana, going back to that, especially in the 60s and 70s there was just a big movement in saying something. That's why we have people like Vic Mensa, Tyler, Kanye, Chance: they're saying stuff. I think hip-hop's on top right now, because that's the only place where things are being said.

So when you say that the drums are on top in your music, that's it's the same in hip-hop, is that a conscious reaction that you've had where you intentionally overlay thing to keep in line with the contemporary, or is it something that just happens by osmosis?
It's both. You notice what's happening, but not trending. I'm never going to use trap beats in my music, but I do notice that the beats are high in the mix, that people are getting more ambient in the background. That's what I mean, noticing the nuances more than the actual... more than just ripping it off. I always felt like the best rock bands, they always were just being influenced by all kinds of music. The Beatles were taking from country and blues. They took all of their favorite parts from all of the genres and just made them their thing. I feel like that's what most musicians do, and should continue to do, is just take their favorite parts. Right now, where we are in music, it's really crazy how hip-hop heavy everything is. It's a new pheonomenon. But I'm into it. It sounds really good when the drums are on top.

Screenshot from Live From Trona

You focus on each instrument individually, you're quite meticulous. Writing solo, how do you mesh that as a solo artist, leading a band?
Again, it's as simple as hearing something in a hotel to hearing something in a cab. "That's a cool thing!" Next thing you know you're working in the studio. I personally always start with drums, so whether it be electronic or hip-hop sounding, or I just record something on a drum loop. That usually tells you where the song is going to go first, before anything. And then, after the drums, it's usually chords. So I feel like... I'm sure you can notice too, R 'n' B has a certain chord structure and chord limitation. Same for pop music, it has a certain amount of major and minor chords. You're not going to hear jazzy chords on Katy Perry's music—if you did that could be tight—but artists like her, and these big popstars, it's just the chords. It's hard to be like "I want to take these drums, those chords." It just sort of comes out. But I don't have any method to choosing what sort of influences there are. Sometimes it comes out sounding like something off of Burger Records, it sounds super 60s. Sometimes it just comes off really contemporary and I'm not into it or something. Usually, once the record comes into its final phase, and i get an idea of where the record should be as opposed to where it is, that's usually when I'm like "these drums should be more 80s." It's fine tuning.

As a band leader, particularly in the context of ...Trona, what's it like having to control a group of musicians, literally orchestrating that?
It's hard. Fortunately, I have a really great band. I just teach them the parts, then we just keep practicing. Ever since I've been playing with the band, I've just been practicing constraint over when to let go of certain things, or when to hold on to certain elements that really stand out as a good trademark for that song. Once I teach them the root notes and the beats, I sort of let them do their thing, everyone just sort of fills in the gaps together. That's the best part, too, about the live aspect. It shouldn't be exactly like the record. But for me, I found the challenge, especially for some of the electronic stuff, some of that just doesn't translate live. It's just not made to be live.
So what do you do in that situation?

So when you were chopping up the video for Live From Trona, you had the opportunity for the first time to really look at a live set you've done and then... you had to hear tiny mistakes that probably only you could hear, and you had to say "that's staying..."
Yeah! Totally had to do that with notes I was singing and playing. I'm like "Well, it is live and we only gave ourselves two tries." But it's cool to hear those things. It's a live record. We just caught the moment. That's nice, to keep mistakes like that, to give it character. Nothing's perfect. And if it's perfect, it's going to get boring. We could have gone back and fixed all the bad notes or wrong keys, but my favorite thing about live shows is how the band modifies them, changes the sounds or extends them. So that was one of my favorite parts, was that we got to elongate some of the songs and jam.

Did you learn stuff from it that you can take forward to live performance?
Totally, yeah. We're actually bringing our conga player on tour with us in the fall. We're pretty much going to pull out some of the same tricks that we pulled out in the movie. So it was a total learning experience. I don't think me or the guys knew it would turn out to sound like this, but it sounds really cool. I'm really into it. It sounds fresh and new. I feel as though live, tracked music is just not popular anymore, unfortunately. But I think that eventually we're going to come round.

Live From Trona is out today. You can buy and stream it over on Vimeo.

Alex Robert Ross drove through Trona once, really early in the morning. It was creepy and pretty and he'd like to go back. Follow him on Twitter.