He's not an idiot savant, Thundercat just wants to play as meaningfully, fast and loud as he can.
Originality comes few and far between these days, especially in overly saturated music categories where some artists are merely carbon copies of legends from generations prior. The smart ones are those who retain their eccentricities and unique appeal, while taking inspirational cues from the past and melding them into some super visionary new thing that we just can’t help but move to.
Bassist, songwriter, producer and all-around music fiend, Stephen “Thundercat the Amazing” Bruner is one such artist, whose genre-bending blend of black music is going beyond its natural borders. Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, the 27-year old musician began his career as a teen and member of the punk band Suicidal Tendencies, and has since contributed to works by Erykah Badu, J*Davey, Bilal, John Legend, Snoop, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Sa-Ra, Flying Lotus, and just last year, his own solo debut The Golden Age of Apocalypse.
And while Thundercat’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell in some spheres (other than for that ’80s sci-fi cartoon based on intergalactic fighting felines), in the right ones he is well on his way to ranking high on the list of best ever to lick a bass. Picking and plundering through tunes in a highly animated fashion with the accessories to match, Thundercat’s sound is modern playalistic Cadillac funky music at its purest; think Andre 3000 meets Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris (or that self-taught bassist who’s hardly known for being such, Jimi Hendrix). It’s a melange of sounds as opposed to genres, really, but for the layman just getting hip to this type of hybrid music, Thundercat’s style can best be described as neo-soul, psychedelic, punk rock. And that barely accounts for half of his musical influences.
In a special interview after his first solo Coachella performance, Thundercat talked going solo, creating magic, being dubbed “retrofuturistic,” all while shouting out two of L.A.’s brightest stars, Tyler the Creator and Dr. Dre.
Usually members of the band are heard and not seen, but you went bigger. What prompted your move to go solo?
Well, I didn’t really realize I was an artist. [Laughs] I think one of the funniest moments ever was—I’ll give you two funny moments. My dad having to tell me,”Stephen, you’re a star.”
And I was like, ‘Okay.’ [Laughs]
And then I remember one of the other funniest moments, I was out on tour with Erykah [Badu] and we were in Australia. She would always let me be myself and that’s one thing I really appreciate about her. I still love her with all my heart. I remember right before we were going on stage while we were praying, she just snapped. “Oh, I just got it!” She was like, “You’re an artist!”
It was kind of like out of the blue, and I was like, ‘Okay.’ [Laughs] I was like, ‘Alright, sure.’ But what prompted me to actually physically do it was being around my bro Flying Lotus.
You guys are not really related for real right?
We might as well be. [Laughs] Literally, we might as well be. He might as well be the fourth brother. But it was kind of a thing where, while we were working on Cosmogramma [Lotus' third LP], he was listening to all this music that I had and he was like, “How do you feel about putting an album out?”
And I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t care…yeah, sure.’
Just like that…
Just like that. It was like “Okay, let’s do it.” And you know, I’ve been writing music for a long time with lots of different people. Some people would say that I’m just their bass player or something like that, but a lot of times I would write a lot of music too with them; it just translates the way it does. It [going solo] kind of came naturally I guess, because there were already certain elements there.
I kind of find it interesting that you were already armed with a catalog of tunes before you even made your decision to be a solo artist.
Literally, like I would have all these beats and songs and stuff, and it was like I didn’t have a specific purpose for them. Like, ‘Oh, I want to give these to Sting!’ or something like that. It was just that I really enjoyed the act of creating.
So what exactly is your creative process since you are so many different things within the musical realm?
The creative process for me is something that is just very open. I’m not very shut to a lot of things, even if it’s weird and it’s something that I don’t fully understand yet. You know, maybe there’s something there that I just don’t see, so I don’t really become too judgmental of a person’s way they connect to whatever it pertains to what I’m doing. So I kind of naturally project that too. I just let things be. I enjoy the magic of creating with somebody and by myself, like in those random moments.
Like I have a friend who makes fun of the term, I guess it would be “an idiot savant”—I’m not saying I’m an idiot savant, but my friend he has this joke, where he is walking down the street. Then the sky changes colors, and he looks up and it’s inspirational. I feel bad because I think that he’s talking about me, but at the same time I know we’re just joking. But it is just one of those things where I just look for inspiration in everything and I just try to play as meaningful, and fast and loud as I can. [Laughs]
Yeah, you seem to be a person with a very vivid imagination. [Laughs] Tell me more about magic?
It’s about the magic, not the contrived, “What do you have to offer?” Or like, “That sucked!” I hate when people do that. Yeah things aren’t always perfect…. Say you’re working with someone and they don’t have the right rhythm. They can learn; they’re human. Anybody has the ability to learn the right rhythm, you know. Well…not all the time. [Laughs]
Now I’m thinking about art and how the core values of that world are seeping into music.
But that’s how it should be though! Like when did it leave? Like in the ’80s?
Yeah. I feel like to a certain extent it became about the almighty dollar. How are we going to market this as opposed to the actual creative aspects, you know.
Yeah, it became very selfish at one point and I don’t want to blame that on anyone. But when somebody says, “That’s my song” and there’s five people playing on it, but it’s under the umbrella that it’s yours and you’re not giving anyone the proper due, it kind of stunts everything and makes everything contrived. …I know exactly what you’re talking about, and it’s time for that [artistic value returning to music], and you can see evidence of that with the art coming back. Like Tyler [the Creator] came out of nowhere. Everybody was just like, “What is that?!” “What the hell is wrong with this guy?!”
And I was just like, ‘Man, he doesn’t care!’ It was about the magic, that’s what Tyler’s thing was. Still is.
So when someone describes your style as retrofuturistic, does it jive with you? How do you define it?
I define it as good music. I enjoy listening to my album because it’s not just me. Yes, my name is Thundercat, but if you look at the personnel on the album, if I were to tell you about the songs and where they came from, it’s like a memory book for me. Like, “Oh yeah, this was going on when that happened.” It’s something that I look at like, it is my life’s work. Erykah used to tell me to call it that because I wouldn’t say that naturally, but it genuinely is my life’s work. I mean, I don’t want to be one of those guys who only puts one album out.
What do you think people that people mean then when they try to encapsulate what you do under that label?
Well, because everyone needs to have a reference point for something, you know, even when they don’t want to show it. Like when people can tell my influences immediately like George Duke and Stanley Perkins—yeah, it’s good that people can see that, you know. But I don’t really feel bad about it, that’s fine because the truth is, obviously it’s not that old to you. However you relate to it is how you relate to it. So it’s absolutely fine that people call it retrofuturistic. That’s like wearing a jheri curl; it’s one of those things that we used to do because it wasn’t wack at one point. [Laughs] Like that was dope! So depending on how far off you are then you will not understand how that’s still relevant, you know. It’s kind of a joke to people. But no, that was dope. [Laughs]
These things don’t go anywhere, they just get caught up in the wave of the business part of it, just constantly moving forward. Everybody is just like, “Okay, what’s next!?” It’s like, take a second, know that this happened. Like epic things, you know. Like [Dr. Dre's] The Chronic, like that happened.
Right, and we’re still waiting for Detox…
Exactly, but maybe he’ll never do Detox….
But we’ll still wait for it….
Because that was the energy behind what he made; it was amazing. And you can’t remake it. There’s no, “Well, let me try to do the same thing.” You can’t. It was just magic.
But like Stevie Wonder said, “If it’s magic, then why can’t it be everlasting?”