Toro y Moi Comes Full Circle With “MAHAL”
I’ve always been a sucker for kismet moments, those instances when you feel like the universe has made an effort to put you there. Something like a passive manifestation, if I may say so myself. It could be mundane, like being able to afford things you couldn’t before or a big revelation—like having the opportunity to interview a long-time musical inspiration.
As I was preparing for the interview with Toro y Moi AKA Chaz Bear, it felt like I was back in 2013 pulling an all-nighter to finish a final paper. But in this case, I was preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I decided to play my go-to Toro y Moi song whenever I write in the wee hours of night: Thanks Vision. It felt all too familiar. Nostalgia suddenly hit me like a wave, and I had to swim through the memories when Toro y Moi’s songs made the soundtrack of my coming-of-age and quarter-life crisis duology. Now that there’s likely a next installment in the works, and in a time when stability seems less attainable than ever, reaching the surface—with MAHAL as the OST—felt like divine providence.
After all, we’re all still constantly finding and expressing ourselves.
MAHAL is Toro y Moi’s seventh studio album. Its cover art screams Pinoy-magazine-from-the-70s with the album title written in bold and all caps. The center image features a historical and popular mode of public transportation for Filipinos: the dyip or jeepney. Meanwhile, an overcast Golden Gate Bridge serves as its backdrop. As a big fan of his music and art—and with the knowledge that he has Pinoy blood running through his veins—the first few questions I asked were related to how embracing his Pinoy roots contributed to the whole conceptualization of the new album.
“It [started] when [my team] found the jeep,” begins Chaz.
He goes on to say that in order to prepare for the promotion of the album, Toro y Moi made sure the marketing campaign was pandemic-friendly, allowing him to somehow get his music to the people. Chaz initially proposed the idea of getting a vehicle that could literally get the music out, but after more discussions and research, he and his team chanced upon a jeepney on eBay. “Oh man, this is a sign!” he exclaims. ”I’m looking for a jeep, and I found a jeepney.”
Passing up on fate was out of the question, so he immediately bought the jeep after noticing that no one else was really trying to bid on it. Everything snowballed after that, but something was still missing.
Jeepneys in the Philippines are privately owned by jeepney operators. What helps them stand out from each other are the designs and unique names emblazoned on all its surfaces. They can be as simple as names like “RAMIL” and “BABYGIRL,” or as proverbial as “TIME IS GOLD” and “GOD LOVES US.” For whatever reason these owners have to mark their jeepneys, one thing’s for sure: the name should be catchy, albeit a little cheesy.
It was the same for Chaz. As he reveals, “The idea for the album came from the jeep because you’re supposed to name your jeep.” Chaz also shares that the first working title for the project happened to be the first track in the album, The Medium. It made sense, at first, because he wanted it to be an experience wherein you’re listening to the songs from a medium, “like you’re in the jeep or something.” But the universe had different plans, and when the vehicle presented itself, there was nothing left to do but give it an identity to solidify its tangible existence.
He adds, “I named the jeep ‘MAHAL,’ and then having that on the cover…that was it.” And what’s beautiful about the Philippine language is that the word ‘mahal’ can mean two things:
mahal (ma-hal), n.
mahal (ma-hal), adj.
A lot of love and resources were poured into MAHAL. But it wouldn’t have happened without the help of fellow Filipino-Americans he collaborated with during the album-making process.
Mike Arcega and Paolo Asuncion of TNT Traysikel were essential in the revival of the MAHAL jeepney, having worked on it for a total of six months just to get it up and running. “They got us the mechanic to get the jeepney running, and guided us on how to approach things because it’s a historic art piece,” notes Chaz. He also adds that it’s not really the type of vehicle that top professional shops would take on to fix because once one part gets fixed, another gets broken. “It’s an unconventional repair because it’s a jeepney, which was made by hand to begin with,” he explains.
Point taken. Jeepneys, after all, symbolize Philippine ingenuity. It was originally a product made out of necessity after World War II; but over the decades, they have become a medium for artists and operators to express their creativity and make a living. Quirky signage boards are one thing, but many of us have encountered jeepneys decorated with wacky art, like a mishmash of Anime characters or a Jesus-led Avengers squad. They come installed with mini Sto. Niño figurines or doggy bobble heads as ornaments on the dashboard. Anything pretty much goes, and with Chaz being an artistic polyglot, the jeepney became his new oyster.
Once the jeepney was operational, Chaz sought out Fil-Am artist Gretchen Carvajal of BRWNGRLZ to bring the cherry on top and add more flavor by creating a custom chain on the windshield, which is highlighted in the Postman and The Loop music videos.
“The main mission with Toro is to explore genres.
I feel like culture can transcend genres,
where you’re able to have different dialects of culture, if you will.”
Followed by its more upbeat and dancier predecessor, Outer Peace (2019), the first few released tracks off MAHAL seemingly pick up where Toro y Moi’s 2015 psych-rock based album, What For? (2015), left off. Only this time, overdubs are minimal to none, guitars are fuzzier, and Chaz’s confidence is at an all-time high. I remember listening to the album around this time exactly six years ago, and what amazed me was how he executed a complete 180-degree turn from his previous electronic record, Anything In Return (2013), to making a totally guitar-driven, psychedelic rock album. He made it clear that he’s more than just an electronic act. With that in mind, the conversation moved on to the creative process for MAHAL—and how it compared to his previous albums in particular.
“The biggest thing was I got the chance to collaborate with other musicians, specifically those from the Bay Area,” shares Chaz . For MAHAL, he wanted to spotlight the Bay Area’s music scene and uplift the community, which is why homegrown acts such as Salami Rose Joe Louis (featured in Magazine) are heard in the new record.
Chaz always makes it a point to try something new in each of his records. In the last few seconds of Postman’s music video, you can see him get out of a Balikbayan Box along an ocean shore. It’s hilarious yet symbolic, being a literal representation of how he doesn’t want to get boxed into one thing. He continues to push boundaries and genres, and exceeds expectations.
Embracing a part of your identity and sharing it to the world is bold, and understanding the conscious intent to explore this in MAHAL was necessary. “The main mission with Toro is to explore genres. I feel like culture can transcend genres, where you’re able to have different dialects of culture, if you will,” he shares. At first, I was caught off guard by his answer, but then it all made sense; Toro y Moi is one of the few acts who can make their genre-fluid music accessible to a wider audience. The beauty of music is in its universality, that it is not created for only select individuals. It makes itself a part of the human experience and is best when it can be shared by groups of people who come bearing different points of view, and come together because of and through it.
Chaz reiterates that he likes to play with genres, saying, “If you try to just blur the lines between those, where does that take you? That’s kind of my mission and my goal for each project.” He likes taking risks in his artistic process, making it more accessible for audiences because, for Toro, he “still considers it as a pop project, so it’s meant to be accessible.”
I’m not one to appreciate “Pinoy baiting” or spending an hour of my day researching celebrities who might be part Filipino. But ever since I discovered that Chaz is half-Filipino, I’ve been on the lookout for hints of him paying homage to his Pinoy roots through his music or art. More so, I wanted to know if he ever made it a point to listen to Pinoy bands as some sort of inspiration for his music. I took the opportunity to ask about this, even joking about whether or not he featured a few local instruments when making the album.
Chaz: I was listening to a lot of the Hotdog [Bongga Ka Day, Manila, Annie Batungbakal] compilations. A lot of those soft 70s tones. It was around that era, that time, where I was tapping into that soft, silkier, smooth production.
Wonder: So it’s like that suave sound. In Filipino, we call that ‘swabe.’
Chaz: SWABE. That’s nice.
I wanted to know more about this particular experience of him listening to Hotdog, and if he ever consulted with his Filipina mother, Divina, about the music scene in the Philippines during her teens. But I didn’t want to sound cliché, and 20 minutes into the interview, I was honestly still starstruck. It was such a surreal and full circle moment for me to sit down and talk to an artist I’ve been listening to since college. As I was basking in that feeling, I asked Chaz about his own full circle moment in making MAHAL. I wanted to know if he had an experience reconnecting with his Pinoy heritage.
He explains, “My first memory of the jeepney was…I didn’t get a chance to ride on it, but my mom just came back from the Philippines, and she brought me a toy jeepney. I was like 10, 12 [years old]. It just sat on my shelf, and I fantasized about riding a jeepney for so long. So to actually get to this point now, it does feel full circle where it’s like, wow, I [get] to be part of the culture.”
And when asked about whether or not MAHAL produced newfound appreciation for his roots, Chaz shares, “Yes, definitely. One of the goals of this record was to talk to an older generation, not just the youth. I did not expect that to happen so effortlessly when I got into the jeep.”
Like all art projects, perception is subjective. Chaz initially thought his project would be simple, but he unintentionally tapped into classic car culture—eventually gathering all the titos who love jeeps. It was also this art project that helped him appear on Mike Arcega’s radar and his Pinoy crew who became like Chaz’s big brothers and consultants for the project.
“There was that aspect where I never really got to connect with a Pinoy generation that wasn’t [made of] my uncles or grandparents,” says Chaz. MAHAL was his opportunity to establish that connection; to get to know a different part of himself better; to expose himself to a generation of Fil-Am artists who have the same goal of expressing their love for their history and ancestry through art; to fulfill the dream of his 10-year-old self; and to, ultimately, reconnect with his past and mold it into an accessible medium, one that everyone can experience.
The opportunity to express and grow into ourselves becomes more apparent when we throw caution to the wind and open doors that are available to us. How the opportunity will present itself depends on our circumstance; for Chaz, what was only supposed to be an art project evolved into a journey of embracing everything that makes him who he is—a culmination of his past and the future he has started to build with MAHAL.
Toro y Moi is scheduled to go on tour by the end of April along with Khruangbin, and he hopes to make it out to Asia this fall. As to playing a show in the Philippines, let’s just say that nothing’s set in stone. But with everything we’ve been through in the past two years, it doesn’t hurt to hope.
Pre-save Toro y Moi’s “MAHAL” here.
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