Thundercat the Great
We went to musical wizard's house to talk his bizarre and brilliant new opus, 'Drunk.'
It's quiet at Thundercat's place. The North Hollywood apartment is sparsely appointed, except for the comic book collectibles—those skew Marvel, because Marvel nailed the human halves of stories. There's a Captain America shield, a worn guitar that barely made it home from tour with Erykah Badu, and a 78-inch TV, muted.
"You don't have to engage," Thundercat says, gesturing at the TV while he feels around for a lighter. "You have a means to escape. A lot of the time, people say 'That's what we don't need right now!' and it's like, shut the fuck up. This shit has been terrible." He lights incense and circles a coffee table a few times before finding the right place to set it down. "I'm not saying now is not the time to fight, but you have to have the constitution to wanna fight. You have to do it by staying sane."
The 32-year-old, born Stephen Bruner, has spent the last decade-plus touring, writing, and recording with a litany of music's biggest names: Badu, Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Ty Dolla $ign, et al. But in the past handful of years, he's distinguished himself as an extraordinary solo artist in his own right. Apocalypse, his 2013 sophomore set, was a masterwork of jazz-fusion; The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam, a 16-minute dispatch from 2015, was nearly as sparse as the living room, looking for meaning in gaps and crevices. Now, the virtuoso bassist (and endlessly eccentric lyricist) is poised to break through to his widest audience yet with his third album, Drunk. But for the moment, he's trying to tune that out.
"I try not to look so far into things like that—you'll drive yourself crazy," he says, when I ask about his commercial aspirations for the record. Instead he shows me a small journal in which he's drawn dozens of faces, some of his friends, others of famous musicians (these groups often overlap). The art is so good that if you saw it, your instinct would be to tell the artist to quit his day job—if he didn't have one of the world's greatest day jobs.
In some senses, Thundercat was born into it. His father, Ronald Bruner, drummed for Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, and The Temptations, among others; in 1979, he and his band, Chameleon, put out a "disco fusion" album on Elektra. Ronald and his wife Pam had three sons, each of whom has been nominated for a Grammy: Thundercat's older brother, Ronald Jr., won Best Contemporary Jazz Album as the drummer for The Stanley Clarke Band, while Jameel, the youngest, drummed for The Internet on their Best Urban Contemporary-nominated Ego Death. (The middle child's trophy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, for Kendrick's "These Walls," sits next to an impossibly life-like Deadpool.) Stephen and Ronald Jr. played together for years with Suicidal Tendencies, and have also shared space in the liner notes of Kamasi Washington's The Epic.
Time as a working musician not only honed Thundercat's technical chops, but also steeled him for life as a public figure, with all its attendant anxieties. "I've been hit with beer bottles before," he says. "I've dealt with people talking [during my set] and walking out. That didn't irk me or make me feel weird at all." The only things that give him pause, he says, are how those he writes about might feel when they make the connection. That, and his parents.
"I was moreso scared of my parents than other people," he says, smiling. "I'd be scared of what my parents would think when they heard I wrote "The DMT Song" and wanted to know what DMT was: 'It's a psychedelic drug, mom! It's basically like you died!' he laughs. "That doesn't go over well with your Christian parents."
But it's a hurdle Thundercat cleared. The work he's put into the world—and this has never been truer than it is on Drunk—is deeply affecting. Even though his writing can be cryptic at times (he jokes that songs he writes for his cat, Tron, are often misinterpreted as metaphors for romantic love), there's no obscuring the fact that he deals with some heady, unsettling subject matter. "There's a couple moments on the album that I had a tough time finishing," he admits. "The things I was experiencing at the time were very, very intense."
Drunk is structured as if in fragments, dividing 51 minutes of running time into 23 tracks, often ending a song just as you've found the groove or isolated the theme. "Just because you have a short attention span doesn't mean you're not as smart," he says. The truth is that breaking out of a rigid three-and-a-half-minute framework has had formal benefits, allowing Thundercat's songs to breathe where necessary and to move quickly when that suits the album as a whole. But the format also reflects how we consume information ("Instagram exists, Vine exists"), how most of us work, even how an inner monologue might look if it were written down.
The album starts out light ("When you start drinking, you're usually having fun, right?") but drags you through some haunted places ("And then you end up in jail," Thundercat says, cackling). "Tokyo" is frenetic to the point of confusion; "Where I'm Going" is foreboding in a way that makes you want to email your mom and tell her you're fine. There are quiet missives (the Pharrell-assisted "The Turn Down"), Technicolor bright spots ("Blackkk"), hypnotic grooves ("Jethro"). It's Thundercat's most dynamic work to date, and it's hard to conjure up an album from the last few years that feels simultaneously so wide-ranging and so uniquely personal.
The songs were written and recorded at different periods between, and immediately following the sessions for Apocalypse and Kendrick's To Pimp a Butterfly. Thundercat was one of the chief architects of the latter, and he speaks reverently about Kendrick's months-long, "slow burn" recording process, where different phases and styles have to "stream out of" the rapper before he settles on a final direction. But it can be hard for Bruner to cordon off his life into easily-defined segments, or to retrofit any sort of schedule to his creative process.
"I feel like it interrupts your life," he says. "Some people need it scheduled. But being a musician, being a songwriter, it's interweaved in your day to day." He gestures at the TV, which is playing Legends of Chamberlain Heights, a Comedy Central cartoon created by Carl Jones, the Boondocks executive producer and partner to Badu. "[TV] falls on my ears and eyes differently, I think. The focus is music; part of this is still music to me."
If music interrupts life, sometimes the inverse is true, too. "On some songs you hear me burp or fart, or my phone goes off," Thundercat says. "That's really how it was recorded. I think it's important for people to hear imperfections, to show there's a part of it that's human still." As could be expected for someone steeped in the traditions of jazz and improvisation, he places a high value on instinct. "A lot of the time, your first instinct is right. You get told otherwise. Instinct is everything, regardless of if there's no knowledge behind it, or if there isn't. I try to do straight through without it being too edited." He puts it more simply: "We've been improvising for the last twenty years." On the Pharrell song, "The Turn Down," you can hear rain in the background while Thundercat sings. "It sounds like I'm pushing a button," he says. "But it was just raining."
Maybe that affinity for the spontaneous is why, despite appearances from Pharrell, Kendrick, Wiz Khalifa, the collaboration Thundercat talks about most animatedly is "Show You the Way," the early single that reunites Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald. The genesis was a radio interview where Thundercat was asked who he'd like to take with him if he were stuck at sea. He answered: McDonald and Loggins. "The joke was that they've seen everything," he says, though his admiration for both was, and is, sincere ("They're the epitome of what I feel songwriters should be: if you can't recognize your singer's voice, what the hell are you listening to?").
As it turned out, Loggins has a son who's a Thundercat fan. The famous singer was initially skeptical, unsure if the initial radio comment had been a joke at his expense. But the two quickly bonded over shared musical interests—specifically Mahavishnu Orchestra—and Loggins invited McDonald to the studio session. The two old friends hadn't worked together for two decades; when McDonald showed up at the studio, he and Loggins were dressed in nearly-identical flannel shirts, a moment that Thundercat thankfully immortalized on his iPhone camera roll. "It was like Mel Brooks wrote the moment, man."
From there our conversation drifts: to Marvin Gaye admitting, on "Inner City Blues," that he couldn't pay his taxes; to how much Motown infighting might have spilled into the public sphere if there had been Twitter in the '60s and '70s. We then circle back to today's onslaught of information that never seems to stop. "You're trying to prioritize what's supposed to make sense to you in a time when people are just throwing shit at you," he says. "You're supposed to do all this shit and then still be this creative person and have a perspective that's not too out-to-lunch." So what do you do? "You buy a 78-inch TV, it drowns out everything," he laughs. "You sit here, stare at the screen. That's a joke me and Flying Lotus have: you stare at the screen long enough and shit changes."
Paul Thompson is a writer based in LA and we're not sure the last time he got drunk. Follow him on Twitter.