After playing in legendary thrash band Suicidal Tendencies as a teenager and later for everyone from Erykah Badu to Stanley Clarke, Sun-Ra to Snoop Dogg, Stephen Bruner adopted the Thundercat moniker and re-invented himself once again as a solo artist under the tutelage of Flying Lotus. Although the arc of his creative progression appears to be following a steady bend, in conversation it’s apparent that the softly spoken Californian is still finding his own sense of pace. He welcomes what the future holds yet remains cautious about stepping into the spotlight, and it’s a balancing act reflected in his developing sound.
Whilst his debut The Golden Age of Apocalypse served as a tender breakthrough, Apocalypse sees his style bolstered by a marked confidence in his own voice. As his falsetto melts amongst the cosmic display of jazz, hip hop, funk and soul, it becomes clear that this stylistic balance rests on his endearing, fragile delivery, and an open and simple style of storytelling inspired by love, spirituality and the loss of close friend Austin Peralta; the late composer and musician who tragically passed away last year. Speaking to FACT, Thundercat opens up about his journey so far, and how blurring the lines between fantasy and reality is part of self-expression and discovery.
How do you feel the transition from session musician to solo artist has been for you so far?
The writing process is a little different because as a session musician, each artist is looking for things done in a certain way to suit them. They aren’t too fussed about me as an individual. Now that I’m writing for myself people are now obviously focusing on me: my style, how I do things, how I see things. It puts me in a weird position at times because I’m not used to that kind of attention. I’m not used to that pressure but I’m also not finding it a negative experience. People are leaning on me or towards me with more love than before, and that can only be a good thing. I’m not used to being in the spotlight, but I’m definitely getting better.
How do you feel your voice has developed over time? It has a much bigger presence on this album than your last.
It’s definitely becoming more of an organic thing for me. I’m starting to find a pocket for singing and playing bass together at the same time in a way that I don’t know how to before. Although I’ve generally found that it’s easier to play simple things whilst I sing, I’ve actually been working on improvising on bass and singing at the same time. That’s been a really revealing process for me. I think it’ll propel further with where I want to go with my voice and how natural the flow of my live show can become. I feel more connected to both my voice and my instrument through doing that now. They’re becoming something together, something bigger that I’d imagine they could have been before.
What have you learned about your voice since writing and recording your own material?
Well, in terms of singing, I’m really learning about what it means to breathe. It may sound simple to everyone else but it’s a real subtle art. It can be difficult because I’m used to spending so much on my energy on my instrument that I don’t want my singing to suffer, so there’s learning to breathe for sure. It’s almost like trying to create the ability to put different elements of yourself on autopilot in the moment. I’m also becoming more comfortable with singing in the sense of what I can do, rather than focus on what I can’t and have that drag me down, y’know? Exploring, but keeping it positive. There’s a more personal side to me coming out: my mind, my heart, all through my voice. That can be scary sometimes because you might not want people to see that, but I appreciate that that’s inevitable if I’m going to progress.
You’ve worked very closely with Flying Lotus on your two albums, The Golden Age of Apocalypse and Apocalypse. What’s your relationship like in the studio?
Studio time with him is kind of a free-for-all, we just start firing away. It’s like someone shoots a gun in the air and we start running! We can wind up somewhere we never expected to go, turn to look at each other and just say “Haha, dude, that was awesome.” It’s all pretty improvisational and we’re both very open to each others ideas. Structurally we try not to get too hung up on certain things, or spend too much time on a particular chord say – we just try and keep it as flowing and intuitive as possible. We don’t consciously set out to write a bridge or a verse so there’s not necessarily a rhyme or reason to it. Having no set way we’re supposed to go makes it real fun.
One thing that your work so far has got me thinking about is how producers who play instruments style themselves as something in between a producer and a musician. I find that in recent years, there’s been this turn of emphasis towards producers tagging themselves (or being tagged as) “multi-instrumentalists”. What do you think of this?
I think that’s mad corny. It’s just a gimmick to make people seem bigger than they are. I think that even if you do play a bunch of different instruments or claim to “play a bit of everything”, I don’t think you need to or even should tell people that. They should discover that on their own in time because, personally, I find that it takes away the surprise and the joy of a fan discovering that about you as an artist. Nowadays, in a time where everything is so accessible, I don’t think it’s that much of a boast.
It probably meant something more in the 50s or 60s when you heard someone say “Oh, that guy plays everything!” because he probably literally played everything, y’know? But now I think that definition doesn’t mean now what it did back then. To be honest with you, when someone tells me they are a “multi-instrumentalist”, it makes me want to find what they suck at. Oh, you play everything? Cool, let’s hear it. Let’s hear you play five, ten, fifteen different instruments. I bet you can’t dude, because I’ve heard your music and that bass-line you got there? It sounds like a piano.
So do you think the term almost betrays a lack of talent?
Well, no. Having said all that I totally appreciate that it depends on the person. It gives you a lot of understanding and facility to create, but sometimes you can spread yourself too thin and it can dilute whatever it is that you’re trying to do. If you can play different instruments that’s cool, just don’t tell me about it all right away. It loses some of the magic otherwise. Playing an instrument is a craft. It’s an art. It’s cool to be able to connect to different instruments. I mean, look at Austin (Peralta). He could play soprano saxophone, piano, and he was learning how to play drums. He was magical.
Being a musician dedicated to one instrument, how do you feel this “multi-instrumentalist” identity sits with you and how you view your creative process?
I think it had a lot to do with the environment you grow up with. Growing up in LA, everyone is a musician. I remember I would play at church sometimes and my friends would switch instruments. The piano player would jump on drums, the drummer would jump on bass, and I would just sit there and be like, “Okay, I’ll play tambourine”, ha. You can change instruments, that’s awesome dude! Now, go back to the instrument you really know how to play.
I don’t mean it to sound contrived like I made a point super early on only to play one instrument, but I’ve played bass since I was four years old. Having that cultured and cultivated in the environment that I was brought up in has allowed me to be where I’m at right now. I’m a bass player. Straight up. As much as it was a handicap in certain situations, it made me more creative and determined with my writing process. I had to find different things that would go along with me playing bass, I learned how to write from my bass, play chords from my bass. It’s made me who I am.
I’ve read that you’re a big fan of Drake and you’d love to work with him. What is it about him that you’re drawn to?
I just think he’s a cool cat. I would love to sit down with the guy, listen to music that inspires him, inspires me, and work on something together. I remember hearing one of the earlier songs that he did with Trey Songz called ‘Successful’ and thinking “Man, how do you write a song about that?” It’s beautiful. That was like, the perfect song for me. It just spoke to me. Ever since then I’ve just been curious about the dude and how he works.
Have you ever reached out to Drake?
Well, I wouldn’t know how to. I don’t wanna call it a pipe-dream because, y’know, this is LA, but it’s something to be desired.
Something that comes across strongly in your work is your love for cartoons. What it is about cartoons that you’re still drawn to in adulthood, and how do you think it’s reflected in your music?
I love cartoons because it feels as if they have no boundaries when it comes to what you can present to somebody. I’m a visual artist myself – I’ve drawn just as long as I’ve played bass – so whenever I see good animation or a great piece of art like that, I can’t help but stop and pay attention. One of my favourite cartoons was Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie because whilst it spoke to something within pop culture at the time in the form of Street Fighter, there’s also a story with some real truths in there too. I love seeing how an artist can build up the characters. The best kind of cartoons reflect how people see other people, and how people would like others to see them. If you can think it, you can create it. It’s like, warping your reality. That’s where I think I was coming from with the Thundercat persona. When I was a kid I always wanted to be one of the Thundercats, so I was living out this childhood fantasy to become something greater than I am.
One of the most moving moments on Apocalypse is your tribute to Austin Peralta, and I was struck when I read that you found recording the vocals for that track a very difficult and emotional experience. With him in mind, how do you feel about the record now that it’s finished?
It was one of those things that was really difficult to get through. I can see that that translated in the final version of the song. It’s taken me a while to be okay, but I do miss him. I’ve never know anyone like him. He really was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of friend. With the music that was created for this last album, a lot of it was very influenced by how I felt after he passed. He was more than just a friend in the sense that he wasn’t just a home-boy, someone that I could chill with and trust. We shared a lot of the same creative space. I guess it was easy to connect to that and convey in it that track because one thing that I learned from him was “Let it come out”. Just, let it happen. If that’s how you feel, let it be that way. That’s all I felt I could do with that track and I guess the album as a whole really. Let it come out.
Thundercat will be playing at Village Underground in London on 6th October. For tickets and info, head here.