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Toro Y Moi’s musical homecoming

For many pop and rock songwriters, the path to commercial viability involves putting together a four- or five-piece band, spending a good deal of money on demo recordings, working to book a string of gigs, and hitting the road. And then: It’s usually a crapshoot, at best.

These days, it isn’t uncommon for that model to be inverted, and Columbia native Chaz Bundick is perhaps as good a case in point as any. He produced his own recordings on a laptop computer, calling his project Toro y Moi, uploaded songs on Myspace and started contacting blogs and other outlets for feedback and exposure. It didn’t take long for Toro y Moi to attract notice, get a record deal, and earn a heap of critical acclaim – all before working as a touring act.

“At first, I was kind of in shock and disbelief,” Bundick admits. “It was crazy – like, ‘Why is this taking off?’ It didn't really make sense to me.”

It’s a humble stance, but Toro y Moi took off on the strength of Bundick’s creative prowess. Fans and critics referred to Toro y Moi’s 2010 debut “Causers of This” as “chillwave” – an accessible blend of indie rock, electronic pop and R&B.

Stylistic inventiveness only gets you so far, though, and Toro y Moi’s work has stuck because the songs are smart, well crafted and sincere. The New York Times has praised Bundick’s “emotional presence,” while numerous reviewers have used the term “hooky” to describe his songs – a slight compliment on the surface, but, to be sure, truly good pop hooks are not easy to come by.

Good songwriting usually grows out of good influences. And though Bundick was born in 1986, he’s inspired by classic sounds dating back to the 1960s, as well as groups from his own youth.

“The Beatles have always been a big (influence)”, he said. “And Modest Mouse, Elliot Smith, the Pixies – they all helped shape my early days. It wasn't until college where I got into more electronic music.”

Bundick grew up in the northeast area of Richland County before attending USC. He attended Ridge View High School, where he was “a pretty average student.”

Bundick wasn’t exactly average – at least not from a demographic standpoint. His mother is Filipino. His father is African-American. Bundick has said that it was difficult figuring out where to fit in socially in the school lunchroom.

But he had his cul de sac neighborhood friends – and music. “It was a pretty typical suburban lifestyle,” he said,

“My parents let me play music as loud as I wanted and have friends over on the weekend. For the most part, during my high school career, I was just a bored kid in the suburbs.”

Life is much different now. Bundick now lives in Berkeley, Calif., and is on the road a lot. He was in Philadelphia at the time of this interview.

Artistically, he’s on the move as well, now performing with a five-piece band and playing guitar. “It’s really nice to have a full band,” he said. “It’s something I've been wanting to do for a while.”

He isn’t worried about defying expectations and labels that once defined his sound. “I guess throughout the years, I have sort of looked at other artists I admire and tried to follow in their footsteps. If you look at Beatles and how much they changed, or Dylan going acoustic to electric…you see what makes an artist interesting and try to imitate it in your own style.”

Bundick looks forward to his May 13 show at the Music Farm, though he acknowledges that coming back home to perform brings an element of pressure. “For the most part, I feel excited to come home. But it’s a little nerve wracking. I have so many friends and family there.”

Record deals and touring, meanwhile, come with inevitable demands. But Bundick has a laidback demeanor and seems to take his success in stride.

Making music, he said, “still feels like a hobby.”

If you go: Toro Y Moi headlines a show Wednesday, May 13, with opener Keath Mead, at Music Farm Columbia, 1022 Senate St., in an all-ages show. Doors open at 8 p.m.; show is at 9 p.m. Tickets, $22-$22; www.musicfarm.com

Baker Maultsby, Special to Go Columbia