Throughout his charmed career, Thundercat has made a habit of landing on his feet.
26 year old Stephen Bruner comes from musical stock. His father drummed with The Temptations, and his brother Ronald has taken up sticks for the likes of Kenny Garrett and Stanley Clarke. After a brief sojourn in barely pubescent boyband No Curfew, a teenage Bruner was drafted in to play bass for post-hardcore vets Suicidal Tendencies. As a session musician, he went on to muck in with the likes of Snoop Dogg, SA-RA Creative Partners and Erykah Badu. Having raised eyebrows putting finger to fret on Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma, he made his society debut with 2011’s ravishing The Golden Age Of Apocalypse.
Thundercat’s sound is wonderfully glossy, and The Golden Age Of Apocalypse is his laminated calling card. The album is a heady goober of sounds contemporary and vintage. Bruner’s evidently a keen student of musical history: on his cover of George Duke’s ‘For Love (I Come Your Friend)’ in particular, there’s a real sense of deference to past masters. But he’s also a witty interpreter, tracing ingenious throughlines across the canon. Weather Report-era fusion, classic boogie and glitch-hop are brought into productive synthesis across the record. Bruner’s marshmallow vocals provide a constant, but it’s his bass guitar – lithe, antic, remarkably expressive – that always pulls focus.
Bruner will be stopping by Fabric on May 16: Thundercat, Floating Points, Slugabed and Offshore will all be taking over Room 1 . The event is part of the Hidden Depths clubnight series, orchestrated by Black Atlantic in association with Tiger Beer. FACT will be livestreaming sets from each event in the series, and profiling each of the featured labels. More information on the event is available from the Tiger Beer x Hidden Depths Facebook page.With the date on the horizon, Bruner spoke to FACT’s Joseph Morpurgo from his Los Angeles home.
“It just so happens I was just about to do a Tantric masturbation…”
“It just so happens I was just about to do a Tantric masturbation…[laughs]”
Sorry to intrude on that special ritual!
I guess you must be winding down from Coachella now. How did it go?
“It was epic. Coachella was epic, man. It was full of all kinds of twists and turns and surprises and explosions and…deviancies and shenanigans.”
Do any particular shenanigans spring to mind, or is it all just a blur?
“Well, there’s one where I woke up in a pool area. There’s one where I woke up in the lobby of the hotel I was staying at. And then there’s the one where I got kicked out of Snoop’s backstage area! [laughs] There were all kinds of shenanigans.”
How did your shows go down? How were the crowd?
“The response was really good. People were singing the lyrics, it was very exciting. Both weekends were different, and that’s one of the things I was looking forward to – not everything being the same twice. Just the freedom of ‘freedom jazz’. The timing was really good, because it was just when the sun started going down a little bit. It felt good.”
“I got kicked out of Snoop’s backstage area…there were all kinds of shenanigans.”
You’re from a very musical background. How did you end up gravitating towards bass as your instrument? Was it accident, or a deliberate choice when you were younger?
“Well, from what I can remember – and what I can see in pictures or photos – I always had a want to play a stringed instrument. I had pictures when I was a baby and I could walk where I was playing guitar, and pictures where I’d be standing out in the back yard with a toy guitar and a helmet on. As far as I can remember, I just had to play strings. I used to play violin too.”
Have you picked up the violin for any of your recordings, or is that something you’ve confined to your past?
“That was years ago. I did have a violin in my apartment. But I mostly stick to the bass guitar.”
Are you a multi-instrumentalist in terms of your set-up at the moment? Do you play keys?
“No, but I play my bass like it’s a piano sometimes. I try to go for that kind of approach, because that’s what I know. The funny thing growing up with music is that they always make you play piano. A lot of my friends have an ability to write on piano, but for me, the piano has strings! So for me, at the end of the day, it still feels like you’re playing piano.”
When I was leaning piano, my teacher used to instruct me to play it like a trumpet, or like a bass – to use it to mimic other tones. Do you try to extend the capacity of what the bass can do? Play it like it’s a different instrument?
“Yeah, actually, I absolutely do. One thing I love to do is to make the bass into its own locomotive. I like the different aspects of different instruments, I definitely take the time on my bass to try and create those.”
You’ve played and recorded with a whole range of artists before releasing The Golden Age Of Apocalypse. Are there lessons you’ve learned from them which you’ve deliberately applied to your solo career?
“Oh, yeah, of course! All the different things I’ve learned, and what it means to play behind people and with other people, that’s it. One of my good friends [Mars Volta/The Memorials drummer] Thomas Pridgen said it’s one thing to be a sideperson and get paid and everything be done for you, but it’s a whole entire other thing to become an artist. It’s not the same thing.
“There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from the different types of experiences that you experience behind somebody, that help you make a very subtle change over into being your own artist. They are generally two different things entirely.”
“I love to make the bass into its own locomotive.”
The jazz fusion era of the 70s and early 80s feels like a clear influence. That was fascinating to me: it’s not a period you hear evoked very often these days. Are there any albums or artists from that era that are particularly special to you?
“Oh yeah. Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clark, everybody! Tony Williams – those are all my heroes. Miles Davis of course, and George Duke – I did a cover of one of his tunes. All that music is different. Billy Cobham, it’s all the same to me. Jan Hammer, Mahavishnu… tons of people.”
Fusion from that period strikes me as a fitting parallel for what’s going on at the moment in dance music, particularly with the Brainfeeder crew. All these different genres being brought into proximity, all these ‘fusion’ sounds going on – do you think we’re in a similar place to that late 70s experimentalism?
“Absolutely, I can feel that. The freedom’s coming back to the music to a major degree. LA is the West Coast – we’re known for basically being different. N.W.A, that was a big deal, amongst many other things. It’s embedded.
“Things never go anywhere – it just changes. When it comes back and you have the ability to see, you can relate. The ones that don’t get a chance, they don’t know where it comes from: it’s new to them, it’s almost like ‘the first thing’. But it’s just a wheel that’s turning to me.”