Thundercat is refreshing. That’s not just the album-cover lover in me talking, even though he has produced one of the best album covers of the past decade, the shot that adorns 2017’s Drunk. Head half-submerged in Flying Lotus’s pool, his eyes bloodshot, he looks eerily reminiscent of a more than mildly off-the-wall Miles Davis.
And no, it’s not his choice of collaborators that makes him such a unique prospect either, although it does help that he’s brought together two of soft rock’s biggest champions, Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, and made something beautiful in the process. It’s not even simply that in his downtime he loves to watch his daughter play Starfox 64.
No, what’s most refreshing about Thundercat (AKA Stephen Bruner) is how goddamn playful and down-to-earth the guy is, despite his immense talent. “You just have to have fun with yourself,” said Bruner, chatting to the BRAG the evening before the bass titan is set to play a gig in Paris. “I try to laugh as much as possible about things. It’s already pretty jacked up, the sort of stuff we have to deal with on a daily basis.”
Fittingly, there’s fun spilled all over his latest album, Drunk. 23 tracks long, it’s held together by a sonic intoxication; a pleasantly all-over-the-place palette of bubbly basslines and twinkling synths redolent of classic gaming soundtracks.
Everybody’s reality is different.
When he sings “it’s cool to be a cat” and then drops a medley of meows and farts two minutes into Drunk – or when he reminds us that many of us do everyday shit like comb our beards and “beat our meat’” – he’s reminding us that it’s okay to have a good time; that much of what we experience is contrived, and that we have to escape that contrivance now and then. And let’s face it: when’s the next time you’re gonna hear a man singing about Dragonball Z wrist-slap bracelets and hiding in suicide forests?
“A lot of the time I’m trying to find the line; how things work. Every day is different. The minute you show any signs of difference, all of a sudden you’re the worst! For me, that’s the whole point. I don’t try to separate that feeling at all… I tried to explore that with the album Drunk; that stream of consciousness. I wouldn’t separate myself from the music very much. It’s as silly as singing how you’re not paying your bills! You can find the music in real life very easily. Everybody’s reality is different.”
One would do well not to mistake Bruner’s tomfoolery for the foolish. Not just content with singing about flatulence, felines and getting fucked up, Thundercat is honest and unashamedly self-reflective about his attempts to make sense of life. He makes music to explore his inner world, and although the ideas on Drunk might be relentless and seemingly short-lived, that can be read as a reflection on anyone’s life – after all, our thoughts are brief, our inner voice persistent, and our existence mostly resembles a bit of a noisy mess at any given moment.
“With my songwriting, I spent a lot of time trying to be in and around a good creative environment,” he explains. “There were high points of course – like working with Kendrick [Lamar, rapper] and Kamasi [Washington, jazz musician] and stuff like that – but there’s also the part where I have to sit with myself and spend time going through my mind about how I feel about things. I feel it’s pretty normal but at the same time it’s very difficult sometimes to assimilate that with real life.”
Explorations in sight and sound have played an integral part of Thundercat’s history, no matter where the journey’s taken him. He surrounds himself people with an intuitive musical ability; he grew up alongside Kamasi Washington and rapper Terrace Martin. As a teenager, he landed a minor hit in Germany with boy-band No Curfew, and then later became the bassist for crossover thrash/punk band Suicidal Tendencies.
Over that time, he has honed his skills as a bass player: these days, he has few rivals when it comes to mastery of the instrument. He commands his bass as much he caresses it, and his control and expression transcends the stuffy traditionalist notion of the sideman. This too is a musician who, within the short space of two years, has made significant contributions to the creative architecture of To Pimp A Butterfly, You’re Dead!, Velvet Portraits and The Epic.
‘‘I don’t try to blockade what things could be. I try not to let myself get in the way of myself. There’s so much more we can do with sound… I get excited at the idea of that space. It’s like the unknown, even though we know so much about it, we also don’t really know anything.
“Music is a longing, a stretch, a reach. It mimics the same idea… we have music theory, we have trap music we have all these different theories and sounds that have slowly evolved over time.’
It’s not only Bruner’s music that pushes at boundaries: the man loves his fashion, and his style is hardly what one might refer to as normative. From fake-fur headwear and bright pink neon merchandise, to a custom-made hat that inspired Pharrell Williams, not to mention his penchant for Gucci, Bruner’s creative visual energy has been with him since he was a child.
“A lot of the time I love the challenge of trying to figure things out. It’s embedded in my personality. It’s not just about being able to afford crazy clothes, or runway pieces and stuff like that. It’s about finding yourself in that: ever since I was a kid, fashion was an element of reality for me. When I’d see cartoons like ThunderCats, it was so enthralling, the way it would all visually come together. I started really enjoying Lionel’s aesthetic: his orange skin with red hair and white and circles around the eyes, his blue onesies…
“Fashion is an expression of how you feel at the time, and another artform in itself. The minute you think of fashion and say the word music, there are so many names that come to mind. George Clinton, KISS – it’s such a beautiful world. It’s one of the reasons why I love guys like David Byrne, Miles Davis, David Bowie or Elton John. They’re so out there!”
“I try not to let myself get in the way of myself.”
It bears repeating again that what ties all these disparate elements of Bruner’s personality together is his handle on the irreverent; be it via fart jokes or custom-made Dragonball Z suits, the man spends his life bucking back against the sour pricks who might want to suppress him.
Indeed, his absurdist streak is writ large in every part of his person: his ability to laugh when our times are at their worst, and cry when they’re at their best. Even when Bruner is at his most delicate, as on the muted falsetto, gurgling cosmic-funk and heartbreak of ‘Them Changes’ (one of the best funk tunes in recent years), that sense of play and humour bubbles and trickles from his six-string bass guitar.
“The biggest thing you can do is to be able to laugh at yourself. Life just has a funny way of making things funny. My music comes out the way it comes out. I don’t shy away from that.”
Thundercat plays Sydney City Limits on Saturday February 24 with Grace Jones, The Libertines, Beck, Justice, and so many more.
Read our longform deconstruction of To Pimp A Butterfly, which features contributions from Thundercat, here.