Thundercat on Playing With Kendrick Lamar, Manga and Accidental Death

Bassist Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat, who's headlining at the Larimer Lounge on Sunday, September 20,  is one of the most astonishing instrumentalists on the current scene, as well as a songwriter, arranger and vocalist whose powers seem to grow each time he puts fingers to strings.

No wonder the likes of post-EDM heavyweight Flying Lotus and hip-hop wunderkind Kendrick Lamar have asked him to contribute to their recent masterworks, You're Dead and To Pimp a Butterfly, respectively.

Thundercat's latest recording, The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, is an EP rather than a full-length. But in just six tracks and seventeen minutes, Thundercat manages to build on the artistry exhibited on his previous albums, 2011's The Golden Age of Apocalypse and 2013's Apocalypse, via numbers such as "Them Changes" that are an amalgam of soul, jazz, R&B and plenty more that's ultimately uncategorizable in the best possible way.

While the EP is decidedly moody, with lyrics that subtly evoke his disquiet with recent incidents of police brutality, among other topics, Thundercat in conversation is buoyant, quick to laugh and prone to delightfully idiosyncratic tangents. Topics include childhood memories involving his brother, extraordinary drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. (dad Ronald Bruner Sr. is a drummer, too) and saxophonist Kamasi Washington, another member of the Flying Lotus family whose new triple-LP, The Epic, has been turning heads; the impact of To Pimp a Butterfly on everyone from young rappers to veteran emcee DJ Quik; the reasons behind The Beyond's melancholia; the challenge of playing and singing at the same time; his love of Love Wolf and Cub, a Manga touchstone that helped inspire a song of the same name on the EP; and the influence of Herbie Hancock, who plays on "Lone Wolf and Cub" and serves as an example about how to go your own way creatively and ignore the naysayers.

MIchael Roberts: I recently interviewed Kamasi Washington, and he talked about growing up with you and your brother, Ronald.

Thundercat: That had to be torture for him [laughs].

He was really funny about it. He told a story about a birthday party when he was three or four. He had a drum set and Ronald started playing on it – and Ronald was only about eighteen months old. And at first, he was mad because the baby was playing his drums – and then he was mad because the baby was playing drums better than him.

[Laughs] I think that's everybody's conclusion about my brother if you're a drummer. Once you hear him play the drums, it makes you want to quit your job. Pretty intense.

How did you end up playing the bass when you've got both a brother and a father who play the drums?

I don't know. I think it was one of those things where it kind of came naturally. The string affinity kind of thing.... Every picture I can remember from my childhood, I had some form of guitar — or a sword. I had to have a stick in my hand, or a toy guitar, or the Thundercat sword, the ninja sword. It developed the way it did. It wasn't because I wanted to be different, but I'm less inclined to believe that I thought heavily about it. It was more like, "Ah, cool!"

How amazing is it that you and Ronald and Kamasi are still playing together as adults?

It's pretty funny. It's almost like you're rich in a different way. It's nice to sit back having experienced so much life with somebody that you can always, always relate to them. There's always understanding on many levels. Different changing emotions that we've experienced through life together. Girlfriends, anything. It's always been like an adventure with family.

When you guys play together, having done it for so many years, is the communication between you completely off the charts?

Yeah, and that would only come from having played together for so long.

Kamasi also talked to me about you guys playing and recording all the time before you were famous. He remembered how peoples' minds were blown by The Golden Age of the Apocalypse and thinking, "He's been playing like that for years. It's just that everyone else is finally getting a chance to hear him." Do you feel like all that time you put in paid off?

That was never genuinely my intention. I was just trying to be inspired by the music. But it definitely is nice to know it's reached people. It's really trippy for me sometimes. I didn't know what to expect from it. I just feel it was a door I was able to walk through. For the most part, I've made music to contribute. I don't know how it came across when it became my music, what it necessarily meant. But it is a good feeling to be able to play my own music.

You deservedly got a lot of attention for your earlier albums and for playing with Flying Lotus, but it seems like To Pimp a Butterfly has taken everything to a new level. At what point in the process of making it did you realize that it was going to be a really important album?

From the get-go. Right from the start, from the very first session, when Kendrick invited me in, said, "Hey, come play bass on this song." From that to working every day with Sounwave, his producer, and developing a sound. It was something very custom-built for Kendrick. Even theatrically on the album, you can hear these different breaks, and it's like you're inside these sonics. And I realized it was going to be that way from the jump.

Did that change the way you approached the album in any way? Or was it the same as it would have been, because you give your all to every project?

Yeah. Me being involved, I was definitely going to give it 100 percent — whatever the version of that is for me.

Kamasi [who also contributed to Butterfly} told me that everyone in your immediate circle had worked on projects over the years where you were optimistic about how they were going to turn out, but when you heard them afterward, they were sort of compromised. But when he heard To Pimp a Butterfly, it wasn't compromised at all.

Right. That's what I'm saying. It's 100 proof. It was the stretching and bending as far as possible everything that could be explored, and there was no fear of it. There was genuinely no fear of it being weird at all.

No commercial considerations? No thoughts of "We can't do that, because he's on a major label and he's got to sell a lot of albums"?

None of that. It was more inspired by the actual art. There would be moments where I'd sit and go, "What song will they play on the radio?" But the dopest thing about it was seeing the genuine belief that this has got to be 100 percent of what it is and we'll see what happens. And sure enough, people loved it. The funniest thing for me was hearing people gravitate to "King Kunta." It was intense. I was like, "That really rings out to everybody?" And it really did. To see everybody jump up when that song came on, I was like, "Wow." I remember when that song came out, I went to see Martin Lawrence do some stand-up, and literally out of nowhere, I ran into DJ Quik. And DJ Quik was like, "I saw that. I see you over there." To me, the whole relation to DJ Quik is that the song was produced in the style of DJ Quik's friend Mausberg, who passed away a few years ago. So when he was like, "I see you over there tappin' into that. I ain't mad at you," it was like, even DJ Quik feels the power in it. And that was nice to know.

Did you see Butterfly as something that's going to inspire hip-hop artists not only to use more live instrumentation, but to allow musicians to really express themselves in the way you were able to do on the album?

I think there's a balance to it. I think there's a balance to just about everything. It's one of those things where a rapper would have to be daring enough to actually step outside of the box. It's not necessarily something where the musicians would be improvising all the time. But it just opens your mind up a little more to improvisation and things like that. And that's awesome.

Do you think it might lead to another period where hip-hop and jazz work together, the way they did back in the day?

Yeah. It's like two mirrors in front of each other. It's like a ripple of inflections, different shades of the same thing. When you're talking about earlier hip-hop, there were all these jazz samples and jazz loops and stuff like that. And for whatever that afforded, it can afford it to us right now. I think it's definitely a good time for music, because there are all these possibilities. It's like a changing of the guard. Even for me, it's great to see someone like Kamasi able to play and people not be scared of it. People embracing it because they don't understand the difference. It shows a sign of people either being starved for something interesting or a certain level of genuine maturity for people. Like, "This is palatable." But the hard line of it is still jazz, and it's nice to know that there's room for things like that.

How comfortable are you when people refer to you as a jazz musician? Or would you rather not be categorized at all?

I would rather not be categorized. Because that makes things easier for people. When you put a label on something, it makes it easier to put it away on a shelf. Like, "If I'm in a jazz mood, I'll listen to it." And it's totally jazz-inspired, and I'm a jazz musician. But you wouldn't know my work based on that.

That brings us to the new EP, which feels very unified to me, all very much of a piece. Is that why you decided to put out a mini-album as opposed to a full-length — because all these songs fit together so well?

Those are six of maybe 230 songs....

You have over 200 songs that people haven't heard yet?

Oh, there are tons of songs [laughs].

People are going to salivate at the thought of that much music.

Well, man, you know [laughs].

I understand that some of the songs on the EP have been around for a while. Which one is the oldest?

Well, I don't think of any of them as old. They were being created in real time with Flying Lotus's album (You're Dead) and Kendrick's album.

So they don't go back a couple of years?

No, but I do have that music, too (laughs).

There's a melancholy feeling to the overall tone of the EP. Was that conscious? Or did it just come out that way, because of what's been happening in the world lately?

Yeah, what's been going on in the world has an effect. It's like art imitates life. It may sound cliche to say that, but it's true. It's like, what are supposed to do with these funny human moments that are happening right now. The funny, funny human moments.

But not funny ha-ha.

Definitely not. Funny like terrible. Like, wow, this is terrible.

And yet the way you write, the lyrics are broad enough that they go beyond specific events. I can see the songs being meaningful in the past or in the future.

Well, you can only tell your story. But it's not only coming through me. I feel like the EP is a reflection of the same picture. If you base it off of Kendrick and Flying Lotus, it's definitely all one big picture. Again, it's like the mirror thing. Different shades of the same feelings and emotions being expressed.

You were originally known as an instrumental specialist, but the EP is definitely dominated by vocal tracks. Are you feeling more and more confident as time goes by with your singing?

Yeah, absolutely. It's always nice when people are encouraging about it, because coming from L.A., whether you can sing or not is always a touchy subject. People are always expecting so much more vocally. But growing up, listening to the music I listened to, I realized, "You can use your voice, too." You don't have to be Beyonce (laughs). And that's good, because not everyone is Beyonce. I'm happy that my voice kind of plays inside the music I write. But I didn't feel totally comfortable with it at first. I didn't mind singing backgrounds, when it was something that wasn't all that outright — like, "Oh, this is Thundercat!" But after a while, it kind of became necessary in the process.

What's more challenging for you: singing or playing? Does playing come so naturally to you that singing is tougher?

Yeah. And the act of doing both of them together is always tough, depending on the melody or the rhythm that I'm playing on bass, and when I want to improvise on bass. Sometimes when I want to improvise on bass, it's very difficult for that and the vocals to be in the same place. It's like, catching my breath between playing. Sometimes I can do both at the same time, but that comes from being on tour for two weeks or so and working on it and working on it and working on it. And singing and playing live can be difficult. Like in the studio, I would record either the music track first or the vocal first. I don't necessarily do them together. And then I have to translate it to play it live. And take a song like "Without You" [from his second album, Apocalypse], which is full of these changes. Then it's like having to learn my own music, basically. (Laughs.) It's like I'm always whupping my own ass. Like, "What was I trying to do here? What was I expecting of myself?" (Laughs.)

I assume "Lone Wolf and Cub" was inspired by the Manga books, which I love. Was that the case?

Hell, yeah.

What speaks to you most about those stories?

I tend to find the darker parts of stories to be more interesting. So it's like the idea of not really having any options. You face into the wind and you're walking toward it. That spawns out of a really sad tale, too. I feel like I can relate to that sad part of the story.

You pose a lot of universal questions in that song, questions we all face: "Where will you go? What will you do?" How often do you ask yourself those questions?

Every day, man. Every day. It's like a genuine adventure. You don't know if you're going to get shot by the cops or the earth's going to swallow us up or you're going to be able to buy a jet or be the first human on the moon. You don't know what the hell is going on.

Given that, those questions are even more important. Those aren't throwaway questions....

No, they're not. It's like when you're a child, it's easy to dismiss them, because real life doesn't exist to you yet. But then real life kicks in. Like when you were in high school and you thought your problems were like, "Chicks never talk to me." Well, that's not an excuse anymore. And the stakes are so much higher. I mean, you have the ability to create another human, or the ability to do something really stupid. It's like, don't kill yourself on accident! Like, "I wasn't paying attention and I stuck a fork in a socket. And that's it?" "Yeah, that's it. That's literally it." [Laughs.] Nothing? No fireworks? There don't have to be. Like, "I tripped and fell onto a nail and now I'm dead!" [Laughs.]

If people think of things that way, they're not ever going to want to leave their bed.

Yeah. They'll get comfortable with nothing. And then they'll be like, "This is great." And you'll be like, "Is it?"

"Is it?" can be a pretty big question, too.

Right. It can be a genuinely universal question: "Is it?" [Laughs.]

On that track, you play with Herbie Hancock. What about his career do you admire the most?

Are you kidding me? Herbie's career? Everything! There's no stone he didn't turn over. He's been on the front line for a very long time. It's like, he keeps getting called back to war, because clearly he's better. Herbie has been an inspiration at every opportunity I've had in my life. Discovery: he's always been about that. I remember the time I was sitting in the car hearing Fat Albert Rotunda for the first time and having to pull the car over and listen to the album straight through. I remember doing that with my friend. I remember buying the Sunlight album. I remember reading the liner notes: "Tony Williams and Jaco are on one song. And who's [bassist] Byron Miller?" I just wanted to know more about his music at every turn.

There was that period with him during the Headhunters years and all the way through "Rockit" where some critics made it seem like he was a traitor to jazz....

Oh, of course.

...but when you look back, all the choices he made were great choices.

I know. So important.

He ignored all the people who told him how he was supposed to be doing things. That's got to be inspiring.

Yeah, man. Totally. And that's something we were just talking about — putting things in a box. People were like, "Look, he's doing something different! It's not jazz!" Five seconds ago, he was your savior, and now, if he farts too loud, you're like, "No, man." But it all comes from the same place, the music, from him. And you can tell.

Is that something you aspire to do in your own career — to make whatever choices you make based on the music and what's important to you and not listen to outsiders telling you where you should be going?

Yeah. I can only hope that I can make the right choices. I think about that kind of thing every day. Like, "Am I going to make a trap record one day?" (Laughs.) Like, "Am I going to build my career taking pot shots at other rappers?" And the answer to that is, "Hell, no."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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