By anyone’s standards Thundercat has had a hectic and monumental few years. He has released two albums and a mesmerising recent EP, and contributed on a range of acclaimed projects such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!, and Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner, undoubtedly has his fingerprints all over a lot of your favourite releases of the last couple of years. His electric bass has acted as the basis for rich musical landscapes that are both airy and syrupy at the same time. He has a distinctive tone that can only be him as he has built everything from dense jazz infused tracks to funky psychedelic jams.
Born into a musical family, Thundercat has seemingly had a bass strapped to him all along. He has emerged out of the shadows as a session musician to be a serious artist in his own right. But it wasn’t always destined to be that way. Howl and Echoes chatted to him about his musical beginnings, finding catharsis through music at dark times, and what’s the greatest South Korean horror film ever.
Hey Stephen, how are you doing man?
Hey, I’m okay man, I’m chillin’.
I know I don’t have much time, so I’m just going to get straight into it.
Yeah that’s cool, go ahead.
Your brother was the drummer in Suicidal Tendencies and your dad drummed for people like Diana Ross, what made you gravitate towards the bass?
I was born very anti [laughs]. I’m going to do the opposite of what anyone tells me.
You’re one of those guys.
[Laughs] Yeah a little aggravated, completely aggro. I don’t know actually. It seems every picture I can remember, it was of me playing bass. I can’t honestly say really why I chose it. It’s just I’ve always had a bass for as long as I can remember.
I read that it was Flying Lotus who convinced you to sing, how did that first instance come about?
The first feature I had with Flying Lotus was on Cosmogramma. It was a song where the melody and lyrics just went together well. After having done that, he literally asked me, “have you ever thought of the idea of doing this?” And I was like, no I never have. We were still recording from then on, but I still had it in the back of my mind. I didn’t have to fight for it, it just came naturally to start doing it. Sometimes the songs are funny or whatever, but hopefully [laughs].
That kind of leads me onto my next question – was it hard stepping out of the relative shadows of being a session musician to being at the front and centre as a solo artist, or is that what you always secretly wanted to do?
Oh no, no. I never felt that comfortable. I always enjoyed playing my own instrument. If you don’t like it though you can always find something you enjoy to do. I’ve never not enjoyed playing my bass, it’s just that now something has been added to it. It’s almost like something that’s become an added thing. You know, something that I didn’t know I could do.
Your output, both in quality and quantity, has been impressive over the last few years. When you write something, is it an immediate thing you then take to the studio, or is it a long process?
I feel like it doesn’t necessarily have a rhyme or reason, it changes. Some people have methods, I like watching cartoons while I make music. Then sometimes the lyrics come first, sometimes the music. Sometimes I have lyrics already in my mind, but they may not be a song. Sometimes it’s finding the connection that’s really fun. You see things, like if I’m sitting there staring at my cat, I’m probably going to write about my cat.
In an interview, you said when talking about the intent of some of your music that “your heart will take you some places that your mind won’t.” What do you mean by that?
Mmm [laughs]. It’s like your mind is crowded. It’s clouded a bit. There’s a lot of conflict there, so what’s really on your heart sticks. Those certain songs kind of stick to you, they stick to you through life. Sometimes you have to go through your brain to get to your heart. And sometimes it’s not always the most amazing thing, they’re two different things that don’t always work together.
I want to talk to you about your latest solo release The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam. It sounded a lot darker than your earlier solo material, what contributed to this sound?
I don’t know if it was necessarily so dark. I feel the best way to describe the mini-album was that it was the full stop on the end of a sentence that was made creatively throughout the last few years. You can see from Kendrick’s album to Lotus’ that there is a dark overtone. But at the same time there is a bit of peace that is involved with it too. Stuff isn’t necessarily a bad thing, you know? It’s just a change. It affects you in things that you don’t even realise it affects you in. At the same time, it’s not always that it’s dark.
You said the loss of your friend Austin Peralta helped you connect more with your writer’s side, what do you think it is about that pain and sorrow that unlocked that part of you and makes you want to voice it?
Yeah that’s the thing we’re talking about, you know. It comes from different places. You can tell me words in your mind, but your heart, it kind of sticks on you. There’s things that contain actual life and existence, like dying. From the minute you’re born, you’re going to die. [Laughs] You know, that’s a weird existence. And that starts things like; who you’re with, who you’re spending your time with, or what you’re spending your time doing. Death is probably the strongest one of those. It comes to a point where it translates how it translates.
The same reason as if, let’s say, you have a friend who had a mother or somebody who passed away. The things that they were tolerant of before it happened, at some point they just become intolerant of. Then you start to react in a way that you’re not aware of. Inside of you, it takes a toll in different ways. This record is more a homage to that. The one that sticks to your ribs, you know.
What was the atmosphere like in the studio then when you were making it? I can’t imagine that you were laughing and joking around in between takes.
For the mini-album?
Yeah, for The Beyond.
Well for me, I would wake up in the morning and it would just be me for the most part. I wake up in the morning, make some tea because it’s really hard to get my voice to start in the morning. I have to try and force it by screaming and drinking tea. Then just get some cartoons on. But then you realise your cat has vomited all over the house- choose not to clean it up. Then you start pressing record [laughs]. You press record and you sit there and troll yourself to get it down.
You’re heading to our shores for Laneway Festival at the beginning of February. What are you hoping to bring with your show?
Umm, I have a band. I have a trio. We’re hoping to bring shenanigans.
Oh yeah, what kind of shenanigans?
Make everyone’s life a little more complicated, that’s what I’m hoping to bring [laughs]. I may bring a pumpkin, I may bring a fat person, and I may bring a Chihuahua. You know what I’m saying.
Your track Oh Sheit It’s X is a serious jam. What songs get you up on the dancefloor?
I think everything gets me on the floor. Even if it’s got like a lack of rhythm, I just start dancing to it. You’re just like “yeah!” I think everything is music. I’ll just dance, it’s more fun when you dance drunker though.
Absolutely. I 100% agree with you on that one.
That’s the best kind of dancing. When you don’t know what’s going on, you’re confused [laughs]. You don’t know what you’re going to do next.
In previous interviews you said you liked to watch South Korean films in your downtime, any recommendations?
Oh man, are you a fan of horror?
You can never just put this on somebody, you always have to ask that question first. Because even though… Old Boy, have you seen Old Boy?
Old Boy? No, I haven’t.
See, and that’s why you have to do it. The Old Boy, then you will understand.
Thundercat will be in Australia to perform ay St Jerome’s Laneway Festival:
Mon Feb 1st- Silo Park, New Zealand
Fri Feb 5th- Hart’s Mill, Adelaide
Sat Feb 6th- Brisbane Showgrounds, Brisbane
Sun Feb 7th- Sydney College of Arts, Sydney
Sat Feb 13th- Footscray Community Arts Centre, Melbourne
Sun Feb 14th- Esplanade Park, Perth
You can get tickets and more details here.