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Toro y Moi on His Multi-Faceted Project “Mahal”

We speak to the multi-hyphenate about his psych-rock album’s intricate details and making the accompanying short film

Chaz Bear—aka recording artist Toro y Moi—has always been something of a shapeshifter. From the mellow synth-pop in his 2010 debut album, Causers Of This, to the lush and instrumental indie-rock on What For? to the house-inflected, psych-pop of Outer Peace, the multi-hyphenate artist dips into a mélange of genres and sounds, making each one uniquely his own. Mahal, Bear’s seventh studio album, is no exception; it cruises through ’60s and ’70s psych with funky bass lines and woozy melodies to explore and lament capitalism’s mass consumerism. Conceptual and layered, Mahal—which also features a new short film co-starring Eric Andre—is a seemingly chill, groove-laden project but it gets more complex with each listen.

Sonically, the album recalls lounging around or driving down the coast on summer’s hottest days. Breezy and playful, the LP melds car engines with bluesy guitar and hazy synths. It’s a kaleidoscopic, mixed bag that makes sense given Bear’s prolific discography and the musical inspiration for Mahal: Filipino music from the ’70s.

The artist (who is himself Black and Filipino) tells us, “Filipino music and culture is a bit of a melting pot by default; it’s already a mixture of Asian and Hispanic cultures. When it came to music, that was already heavily influenced by The Beatles and other Western music, so Filipino music very much sounds like pop music from America, but the stuff from the ’70s is really cool. It’s very McCartney meets Abba meets corny disco—it’s interesting. It’s good.” This inspiration sees Bear embracing his Filipino heritage more explicitly than in previous works.

Mahal, however, isn’t all lax soundscapes and cruising tunes; rather, the fluid instrumentals act as an ease of entry through which Bear conveys weightier themes lyrically. With sly and sometimes humorous lyrics, he critiques modernity, climate change, the rising alienation enforced by technology and the death of physical media, as in the album’s third track, “Magazine.” In fact, the album’s title, Mahal, translates to both “love” and “expensive” in Tagalog. “I wanted the lyrical content to be like a window into the now. I’m talking about now on top of these songs that sound like that from the past. So I wanted to contemporize the music by doing that,” he continues. “That’s the magic of this record, I think, to find little ways to contemporize these old ideas.”

Juxtaposing the retro refrains using old-school tools with contemporary lyrics helps lend the album a liminal feeling; it’s neither in the past nor present, neither fully immersed in optimism nor existential dread. The project excels at marrying these tensions harmoniously, seeking not to resolve them but to give them space. In “Goes By So Fast,” for instance, Bear notes the constant passing of time and how so much of it can be spent on the wrong things. He sings, “Books to prove you were raised right, educated / Mr Duke, now you’ve come back overrated.” On one hand, the album speaks to wanting to be more present in life and more intentional with how and why time is spent. On the other hand, though, the album gives in to its opposite instinct: to disengage from a world that is often environmentally and politically overwhelming. In “Millenium,” Bear notes that “Time is precious” but also suggests, “Let’s forget the days, the whole millennium” to instead have “one more reckless night with Dom Perignon.”

“There’s all sorts of things hidden in,” Bear says. “I think the biggest one is ‘Deja Vu,’ where I just wanted to paint a bit of pastoral Americana.” Ultimately, though, “Mahal was an experiment and a practice in trying to conjure up past experiences and reconnect with older generations,” he explains. “I wanted to reach more than just my generation with this kind of message. So this record is talking to the older generations, talking to the people in power, the boomers, whoever; I really want them to hear this. The kids already know I got their back.”

The retro references continue with the supporting imagery campaign shot by Chris Maggio and the short film GOES BY SO FAST which was directed by Primary Colors. Most notable among the references is a jeepney (a minibus-style vehicle common in Philippines) that Bear found on eBay. “The idea started with wanting to create, essentially a campaign that wasn’t as reliant on tour,” he says. That led him to thinking about vehicles. “The jeepney kind of found us. I was just like, ‘Man, this has to be it.’ It looks like how the record sounds,” he explains. “It’s from the ’60s and the record is based around that era.”

From there, Bear filled in other details that correspond with the ’60s and ’70s to flesh out the audiovisual world that is Mahal—until, that is, he spotted a Tesla. “I made these interesting thematic choices, like in the album cover there’s a Tesla in the background—that was a conscious decision to leave it,” he explains. “I wanted to show the juxtaposition of having that old gas guzzler next to a Tesla and the different emotions that that conjures up. Sure, we can be electric and we can do all this and be progressive, but is it worth it? Is it breeding bad habits with billionaires? Or we have this gas thing that’s from World War II that’s a reminder that we can turn trauma into hope.”

The film sees Panther, played by Eric Andre, finding Bear (who plays himself) on the side of the road after his Tesla breaks down. Trying to get to his gig, Panther (in true Andre fashion) offers up an unexpected, wild time. Like the album, GOES BY SO FAST is filled with hidden symbols and Easter eggs that reference different tracks and the Mahal world at large, translating the LP through sun-kissed backdrops, trippy interludes and a laidback, humorous car ride.

The film is also shot in San Francisco, a location Bear chose. He tells us, “I really wanted to do something for the Bay Area that was pandemic-proof, where we could just go and bring it to a coffee shop or record store and just play some music, bring the music to the streets. I really wanted to focus more on the Bay Area and the local music scene.”

In capturing Mahal‘s whole multi-faceted project, GOES BY SO FAST conveys what the album looks and sounds like: sitting in the passenger seat of a colorful and kitsch car, navigating the uncontrollable, hectic road ahead—all you can do is hang on and enjoy it.

Images by Chris Maggio, courtesy of Chaz Bear


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