Last Thursday, a few hundred people turned out for a free live podcast-recording session with Chaz Bundick of Toro y Moi and Hrishikesh Hirway of the podcast Song Exploder at the newly reopened Swedish American Hall.
Hirway played Bundick’s yet-to-be-released song, “Half Dome”, in its entirety. The two then discussed the more technical elements of the song: structure, use of octaves, fifths, chromatics, phasers, triple tracked vocals, a slick guitar solo by Unknown Mortal Orchestra guitarist Ruban Neilson, and a super-duper distorted bass Bundick bought at a South Carolina Goodwill for $25 that a Berkeley friend recently rebuilt.
But, at the heart of the song–and the new album, What For?–is Bundick’s less technical ambition to capture small, special moments. Bundick said “Half Dome” grew out of a hike he took with his wife a couple summers ago up Yosemite’s precipitous peak. During the recording of the soon-to-be-released album, he had two questions posted on his studio whiteboard: “What happened?” and “How did it make you feel?” “We do Half Dome,” he sings. That’s what happened. And it was scary and tiring, but good. “That wasn’t all so bad,” he sings. “Oh well, I’ll sleep tomorrow.”
Toro y Moi’s new album moves toward guitars, rock, and psychedelia. The shift was prompted by a desire to broaden the lyrical content. R&B and funk, Bundick said, previously provided the backdrop for his songs largely about love. On this album, Bundick wanted to write about more–hikes, for example–and the guitar-scape broadened the possibilities.
Hirway led Bundick and the audience back into the studio–to feel each micro element of Half Dome. The initial acoustic guitar track, when isolated, contains a few “off notes,” Bundick admitted, which are almost inaudible in the final mix. There was also a Rhodes keyboard part layered in that Bundick had forgotten existed.
The magic of the Song Exploder podcast is that Hirway is given access to the stems, or individual tracks that make up a song, from the artist. He isolates them so the audience is able to separately hear each element that ultimately combines to make the final mix. The critique often leveled against digital studio recording–that very little is left to chance, and all can be revised cut, copied, and corrected–did not faze Bundick. Musicians have been cutting and copying since the 80s — technology expands possibilities; it’s about how you use it, he said.
To conclude the session, Hirway played “Half Dome” again in its entirety. All the elements were pulled into relief: the reversed guitar intro, the churning bass solo, the falsetto, and the simple turns of phrase. Though Bundick is obviously a studio savant, he possesses a light, unprecious engineering touch. What proved most rewarding for the audience were the imperfections and surprises borne out by Hirway’s micro-analysis of Bundnick’s lively and loose composition.