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.”
The album opens with that Thundercats cartoon sample. It reminded me of those skits you get on a DOOM or Quasimoto record. Do you conceive ‘Thundercat’ as an alias or character – or is ‘Thundercat’ just Stephen Bruner doing a solo project?
“The name Thundercat is definitely just my name, Stephen Bruner. It’s an identification thing to me – it reminds of who I am. When I was younger, I was a simple kid, and that reminds me of a simpler ‘me’. I don’t think of it as I’ll ever change my name, I don’t think of it as ‘Thundercat does stuff like this’. These are options and they’re fun, – it’s nice to think of them – but I’ll always be Thundercat.”
I ask because a lot of your promo and images of your live shows show you in full costume and regalia – you clearly put on a big spectacle in terms of the way you present yourself.
“[Chuckles] It kind of comes natural. With stuff like that, I’ve always been like that, whether anybody’s there or not. I kind of feel like the spotlight’s only just been put on me, but I’ve creeping along the wall with those weird clothes on the whole time. [laughs]”
“I feel like the spotlight’s only just been put on me, but I’ve creeping along the wall with those weird clothes on the whole time.”
As an audience member, it makes it much more interesting to be a ‘fan’ of somebody with a clear visual identity, as well as a sonic one.
“Yeah, I appreciate that.”
The Golden Age Of Apocalypse is quite a restless album. It moves from style to style, the tracks are called things like ‘Walkin’ and ‘Return To The Journey’…when you compose, do you flit from idea to idea, or are you a focussed writer?
“Not very focussed! [laughs] Just very all over the place. It comes where it comes. This album is just a flow that happened. After a while, it became less ethereal and very solid, but the process of getting to it was definitely very just what it was. Fun, and all over the place. Some of that music is not from this time period. Some of the music on that album is from four or five years ago. Different things, different periods and eras in life. From ‘Love’ to ‘Pure Jamboree’, there’s a huge difference.”
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Definitely. On the topic of ‘fun’, I wanted to ask about the ‘Walkin’ video. That must have been a lot of fun to make.
“Oh, that was hilarious. So much fun. I didn’t know who was going to show up, who was going to take it serious. I was nervous about it a bit. But one thing that I counted on in the video was my friend [porn actress and co-star] Havana Ginger. She made me feel very comfortable to just let it happen. She didn’t have a qualm about anything. I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but I’ve known her quite some time, so it came natural to us to hold each other like that, because it’s been a friendship that’s been almost a lifetime. Literally, she made me okay with the fact that we were shooting a video, so she let me be myself – she brought more of me out in the video.
“Shooting it was so much fun. All kinds of people pulling up going, ‘What the heck are you guys doing?’. They’ll be walking down the street and be like ‘Oh snap! They must be shooting something really crazy!’. It was like, ‘No, we’re just having fun’. My brother and Brook from J*DaVeY wrestling on the grass, that was hilarious. We had to cut that scene a few times, and every time it was different. Holly and the Port Family got some very good shots of stuff that was genuinely cool. It kind of came natural to everybody.”
It’s a very breezy and relaxed and enjoyable video – which is interesting, considering that it features children with no faces.
“To me, it kind of resembles being a kid in LA. You never know what the heck is going to happen, but it’s all still like, ‘Cool, man!'”
“You say the word ‘jazz’ and it scares people.”
In a world where so much music – chart or otherwise – is programmed, instrumental virtuosity doesn’t seem to get as much attention as it once did. As somebody whose music is very technically intricate, do you feel that you’re going against the grain?
“No, not at all. It’s one of those things – like you said, it gets put on the backburner. A person with the ability to play has such a stigma on it. You get that thing where you get a person that ‘plays too much’. Even with music like jazz – you say the word ‘jazz’ and it scares people, because these songs are 20 or 30 minutes long, things that you have to pay attention to. But sometimes people can be introduced to things where it doesn’t have to be scary. It doesn’t have to be far off.
“I think that’s one thing people need to see with my music, because I’ve not been known to be a person to be like that on other records. There are records with stuff like that, but you’ve got to look at those things together – you can’t separate them. Once a person can get a chance to understand it from that perspective, then it’s okay. But it does get weird – I remember growing up in life and different people discouraging me from playing fast and crazy and wild, dissonant stuff. They’d be like ‘you’ve got to stop playing all that stuff’. And I’m like ‘Well, I could not play! It’s not a problem’. On my album, it translates how it does. That’s how I’ve always played my whole life.”
It makes me think of another artist, Squarepusher…
“Brainfeeder is the Champion Sound. It’s awesomeness, straight up.”
He’s obviously another person who stands out for being a virtuosic player in an ‘electronic’ context.
“Absolutely. He is amazing. That’s definitely somebody I get a chance to listen to, though I haven’t had a chance to work with him. I would love to. It’s one of those things where it has to become seamless. It comes and goes, it’s part of your artillery – it’s there.”
Quite a few acts in the Brainfeeder crew are incorporating live instrumentation into electronic contexts in a way I haven’t heard in a long time. Lorn’s new record features a double bass, Rebekah Raff and yourself are on Cosmogramma – are you and those sort of people breaking down this division between electronic textures and live instrumentation?
“Yes. It’s probably easier to say: Brainfeeder is the Champion Sound. It’s awesomeness, straight up. I consider it a fertile ground for creativity. Always why I feel comfortable being myself is because of Lotus. His open-mindedness, his ability to conceptualize and see things. He’s a – I don’t want to say ‘magician’ – he’s awesome. The best thing that’s ever happened to me was becoming a Brainfeeder artist.”
“Yeah, because before I’d never really thought about it like that. I mean, everybody in their life thinks, ‘Oh, it would be cool if I was rich and famous and had a bunch of cars’. But I remember how it happened: me and Lotus were sitting at the computer playing music, and he was just like ‘Hey man, why don’t you put an album up?’. And I was just like ‘OKAY!’. And here we are.
Next month, you’re coming over to play alongside Slugabed and Floating Points. Do you enjoy playing on the sort of club bills that many singers and musicians don’t get to play?
“Absolutely, it’s fun when the music can blur the lines. It’s absolutely fine. I’m thankful to God I can do stuff like that.”
Same with the Gilles Peterson Worldwide Awards you played in January – a textbook example of how much dialogue there is across the jazz-electronic-soul spectrum. It’s all collapsing in an exciting way.
“Mmm. To me, it’s about blurring the lines, man. That was one thing I felt with the album – the grey areas. A lot of the time, electric or live, it’s about feel and understanding.”
Are you working on a new record at the moment?
“Absolutely. The process doesn’t stop. There’s new music being created all the time, ideas being thrown about. I’m just trying to keep the window of the mind open and available for things, and change and growth.”
“I’m just trying to keep the window of the mind open and available for things, and change and growth.”
Are you a home studio sort of guy? Do you need to book time to record?
“I’m just one of those guys that floats around. Neither of those are a specific preference. It comes out where it comes out.”
Are you working on tracks that you think, okay, that’ll be great on the next record?
“I’m just trying to keep my same mindset and not be worried about how great something’s going to come out, like ‘Oh, this is going to be massive!’. I’m more like, okay, let me just stay focused and keep writing music. Afterwards you come out of it and think ‘this fits, this doesn’t fit’. That can’t come first. You could write an amazing song that does not need to be heard.”
Are there any collaborations in the work?
“I’d love to in the future. Hopefully I’ll be working with Snoop Dogg, and of course more with Lotus.”
Are you on the new Flying Lotus LP?
Catch Thundercat at Fabric, London, on May 16 for Tiger Beer x Hidden Depths‘ Ninja Tune party.