Thundercat’s third album, Drunk, is an ambitious, sprawling fusion, blending the blue-eyed soul of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins with Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus’s LA jazz. Torii MacAdams talks to the bass virtuoso about yacht rock, Donald Trump and why it’s bullshit to have to say “Black Lives Matter”.
Thundercat is funny. The critically acclaimed bassist, born Stephen Bruner, has been seen out-dueling a robot Hannibal Buress in a bass-playing competition on The Eric Andre Show. When he accepted his Grammy for contributing to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘These Walls’, he was wearing a lightsaber on his hip. He’s collaborated with everyone from Erykah Badu to Suicidal Tendencies and Red Hot Chili Peppers, but he also sings ballads for his cat, who is named Turbo Tron Over 9000 Baby Jesus Sally (or Tron for short).
Bruner’s forthcoming album Drunk has plenty of bright moments that allude to his playful nature, but more often that not, they seem to be a misdirection. When he sings about riding his bike on ‘Jameel’s Space Ride’, his carefree daydreaming (“I want to fly away off into space and into the sun”) is undergirded by the worry that if he leaves his house he’ll get his ass kicked by the police (“Would it be ’cause I’m black?”).
On ‘Tokyo’, a trip to his favorite city, full of flashing pachinko machines and fresh sushi, is actually brought on by a pregnancy scare. “It wasn’t her fault,” he sings. “I’m just kind of psychotic.” There’s less ambiguity to the album’s title track: “Drowning away all of the pain, ‘til I’m totally numb / Sometimes you want to feel alive, but not on someone else’s dime.”
When we speak at 9:30am on a Thursday, Bruner is watching Scooby Doo and Tron is chasing the shadows of a cloudless Los Angeles day. Thundercat is funny; he’s still human, though.
“Yacht rock is a term that’s kind of corny, and it denotes so much less than what the music is”
On Drunk, you have a song with Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald. Would you describe their music as “yacht rock”?
No. I would describe their music as “awesome”, and I feel like “yacht rock” is a term that’s created for a person to connect to it. Just like anything else, people have to compartmentalize things. ‘Yacht rock’ is just another term that’s kind of corny, and it denotes so much less than what the music is.
What is it about Loggins’ and McDonald’s music that appeals to you?
The heart that’s in the music. The music is very fulfilling, and there’s stories to be told from it. You ask questions when you hear Kenny and Michael, and at the same time they answer them. They’re very straightforward with their music.
Though you’ve explored many styles, your music is rooted in jazz. Do you think jazz is capable of expressing the complexities of life in Los Angeles?
Yeah, absolutely, of course. It’s about improvisation – we connect to it, and consider jazz to be the improvisation of every day. You have to make decisions through the course of every day, and understand things and try to make the soundest decision. Jazz is a key part of that.
Do you think young people in Los Angeles are capable of embracing jazz?
Good question. I think that people in LA act like they know everything [laughs] so it’ll take a second. I think that at some point people will take to jazz like they used to. There’s a jazz crowd, but then there’s also people that are being introduced to it again. There’s a learning curve. But I think people in LA can definitely appreciate jazz.
You just put out a song with your brother, Ronald. Your dad is a renowned jazz drummer. Do you plan on doing a whole Bruner family album at some point?
No. Music and family is a very weird thing. If anybody has ever had music in their family, and [everyone in the family] does music, you’d understand a little bit more. It’s not as easy as a Swiss Family Robinson-type thing, full of happy musicians. It’s not The Osmonds. It can be like that sometimes, but I feel like it’s bigger than that. A lot of times it’s not to be messed with. It’s one of those things where you respect each other in the manner that you do, and you have different ways to deal with things that people normally deal with. It’s slightly different.
So you prefer to work with people outside of your family. You find that chemistry easier?
I find working with people very easy. It’s not that I don’t find working with my family very easy, it’s just that everything has its place. Everything is different. Working with people is a different dynamic every time, just like it is working with family. A lot of the time my collaborations are not driven by the fact that I have family that does music.
“You have to laugh to keep from crying as a black man”
Kendrick Lamar appears on the Drunk track ‘Walk On By’. How did the recording process go?
I had recorded the idea, and a lot of the times I bounce things off of Kenny – “Hey, man, check this out” – no matter if there were lyrics or it was just an idea. I sent him the song with the intent of finding out what he’d think or feel about it, and I forget what point it turned into a song that was gonna be on the album, but he added what he felt went to it. He was totally into the idea. He’s always been attuned to the messages I’m conveying. He took to it very quickly, and I appreciated him for that.
It’s just weird, because I don’t expect anyone to do anything like that for me. It was very difficult for me to process the part where he was very open to it. At the same time, I feel like the song tells a story now because he got involved with it.
A lot of Drunk is self-aware and socially aware. Do you feel like you need to have a sense of humor if you’re black and socially aware?
Oh, hell yeah. The shit is fucked up. You’ve gotta laugh to keep from crying, you know? It’s not easy for anybody, to be honest with you. But at the same time, if you’re talking about being black, it’s very difficult. Every day is very difficult. Nobody will understand the feeling of that unless they are that, because the world has its way of dealing with things.
Being black has always been a job of having to prove your worth. There’s a joke I always have when stuff is getting weird: “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?” And sometimes it’ll make somebody laugh, and sometimes it’ll really stick like, “Oh, crap, it really is because I’m black.” I do think you have to laugh to keep from crying as a black man.
That’s a great answer. I know it’s an odd question to hear from a Jewish dude.
You know, the struggle’s real. Having to say “Black Lives Matter” – who the fuck has to do that? It’s fucked up. Nobody has to prove their worth on a consistent basis, but as a black guy you’re always left trying to prove that you’re worth it, that you’re a person. People keep telling you that you’re not, like you’re supposed to take the shit. That’s bullshit, absolute bullshit.
And everyone’s surprised when you’re, like, ‘okay’. They’re like, “Oh, cool, you’re okay!” You know, the steps the person has to go through to be okay sometimes are very difficult and strenuous. Now that you got me thinking about it, it’s not easy. It’s not.
I can identify and have empathy, but I don’t know exactly what to say or do.
I had a really raw moment the other day. My girlfriend is mixed – she’s black and white – and I think she’s experienced more of the white side of life by way of the fact that she’s very pretty. People take to her very kindly. She didn’t grow up with slavery as a base for how things go. She read the story of Emmett Till and it broke her heart. She didn’t understand why anybody would do that. It was just… having to explain to her how the world looks at black dudes. That really moved me, because she didn’t understand it. She didn’t understand why.
And seeing in the news where this – I’m not gonna call her a “lady” – this bitch [Carolyn Bryant, whose false accusations led to Till’s murder] lied on a 14-year-old child. Had him hanged and murdered. You can imagine being 14, and you don’t understand shit when you’re a kid. You’re trying to understand how your dick works, you’re trying to understand what it means to like somebody, you smell weird, you’re developing emotions, and here you are, with the weight of full-on criminality being put on your shoulders, like you already fucked up for responding, for saying “hi”, for knowing how to read. And you get murdered for it. You genuinely get murdered for it.
I don’t think anybody would understand that reality. You have to accept that the cops don’t really fuck with you – it’s part of your nature. And then you seem paranoid, you seem crazy, and it becomes a very funny joke: “Niggas is crazy!” The world will make you crazy. But it’s still our job to put forward and see the better in people.
I don’t hate Donald Trump. I feel like everybody’s scared and wants to survive and be worth something, and know that they left a mark. We’re not gonna do it stepping on each other. It’ll never work. We’re not the first humans to experience these problems, these dilemmas. At the same time, it is our problem now for us to fix, now, in real time. That question kind of struck a chord with me, because every day is difficult.
[The Emmett Till murder] is a fuckin’ stain on our history. And it set the tone for how people thought things were supposed to go. I would hope that a person – when they go home and look at their child, and [know] how important their child is to them, and how important their neighbor’s child is to them – that they would understand. That shit feels like it was my little brother. The worst thing is feeling like nobody values you. Like, thank God I play music. Thank God I have parents that love me enough to stick around because the world doesn’t fuckin’ love you. The laugh to keep from crying thing is a real thing.
Do you feel like being a performer complicates that? Where you’re expected to entertain?
Naw, I think the arts are so much bigger than life. And if it makes a person comfortable to hear music and art–it’s a connotation for so much more. Being that I’m black and an entertainer, it doesn’t feel contrived, like I’m doing something because I’m black. It feels like I’m doing something that I would hope everybody would do: try to be more creative with their time. There’s so many things that you could add to as opposed to take away from.
The stereotypes are either you’re a musician or a sports guy. I fuckin’ hate sports. I hate basketball, I hate football, and I hate the fakeness that it brings about between people. But I also have to acknowledge that it brings people together and becomes a social thing where you can talk to somebody about football or basketball. I’m not really into it.
That black thing is a real thing. I experienced it with my dad growing up. I’ve had ex-girlfriends where she has a complex because she thinks being black isn’t good enough. Always trying to be more of a hoe, or do something over and above to let you know she’s not terrible. I’ve had those moments. I just feel like this isn’t a race. Some people get it, some people don’t.
Shit, man, I didn’t mean to fuck up your morning by asking you about race.
No, no, no – nobody’s ever asked me that question. But the truth is it didn’t fuck my morning up. My high school was built where the ‘65 riots started. I was built for this. I’m not scared or sad about it at all. I’m unapologetically black. I said that on Twitter one time: “Stop apologizing for being black.” Everybody’s looking to discredit the next dude, make him seem like shit – the truth is most people are pieces of shit, but at the same time people are learning. That’s how I look at things: people are growing and learning all the time. You have to learn to not be racist, or not to take it seriously.
Your publicist originally gave me 20 minutes on the phone with you, but I’m glad we could have a substantive conversation. I know it’s not easy to talk about, or what people want to do with their mornings, or when they’re talking to press.
Naw, man, it’s absolutely beautiful. Because in reality, when you look at what’s going on–I learned this from Erykah Badu and Shafiq Husayn and Taz [Arnold] from Sa-Ra–we had a saying that everybody uses and says, and it’s funny seeing how everybody took to it: “Stay woke.” Georgia Anne Muldrow created that saying. “Everybody stay woke.” Erykah had a saying that she would always tell me when I started thinking too much. She would tell me, “Get out of your mind and come out here with the rest of the world.”
If you look at it, what are you really doing at the time when you’re feeling these things? I’m standing here, in my own space, watching Scooby Doo on a big-ass TV, my cat is being the weirdest being on the planet [by] looking for sound, and it’s a beautiful day. Another day to say “hi” and thank God for us being here. I can literally walk outside and say “hi” to people. I can be nice; I can protest; I can withdraw; I can be an artist. The fact that you can do what you want to do is proof that this isn’t that terrible. At the same time, you do have to be aware.
Drunk will be released on February 24 via Brainfeeder
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