Thundercat Readies Music Fans for Apocalypse
Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner is the type of bassist that one must experience live. While his onstage persona and overall look are inviting, it’s Bruner’s uninhibited touch on the instrument that resonates. Since working with artists such as Erykah Badu and indie hip-hop group Sa-Ra, he has established himself as a musical force to be reckoned with.
DownBeat caught up with Bruner after his May 5–6 performances with Steven Ellison—better known as producer Flying Lotus—at New York’s Terminal 5 as part of the Red Bull Music Academy series. While discussing his forthcoming July 9 release, Apocalypse (Brainfeeder), Bruner talked about his influences and offered introspective thoughts on the current state and future of jazz.
How did growing up in California impact your overall sound?
There’s so much good air and sunshine in Los Angeles. That kind of turned me into a hippie. I grew up in a very sound musical environment. There’s so much creativity in Los Angeles and so many different outlets for it. It's very fertile ground for art and musicians. I was blessed to have an awesome music teacher, Reggie Andrews, and [supportive] family that I could learn from.
Who were some of the people who inspired you early on?
My older brother, Ronald Bruner Jr., being the master drummer that he is. He beat me into shape a bit and prepared me for the real world of music in a very odd way. My brother used to say that the way to get me to play better musically was to get me mad. So he would start fights with me to get me to play better. My brother was like, ‘You play better when you're angry.’ He was a major influence. My mom was very eccentric and open-minded. She used to make jewelry and would always wear something different. She always had purple or blue hair. And my dad [drummer Ronald Bruner Sr.], being the mastermind behind it all, he, [too], was very different. I got a lot of my dad’s character.
Given your creative freedom as a child, at what point did you narrow your focus to become a bassist?
As far as I could remember, I liked string instruments and I liked melody. It would have been really funny if there were three drummers in the house. It came natural to play the bass. I played violin at one point when I was a child, but even then I still played bass. It hit me the most after hearing Jaco Pastorius. His connection to vibration and melody … It was a surreal experience.
As a bassist, how do you tackle melody in your playing?
Melody is extremely important. A lot of the time, people lose sight of it because certain principles get washed away with technology and the mindset behind that. Melody is almost like the subliminal message. When you’re walking away singing a song, you’re not singing like the rhythm; you’re singing the melody. It’s a principle in music that I think is really important. I try to find melody in everything to some degree.
What has it been like to work with the producer Flying Lotus yet again on Apocalypse?
Ah man, I love it! Lotus and I are always working and always in the mindset to create. That’s my writing partner right there. We’re [like] Batman & Robin or Wolverine & Cyclops. Our personalities as a dynamic are pretty interesting in the creative process. But even more than that, I enjoy the process of being able to create with somebody that I enjoy being around. A lot of the time, you can’t necessarily do that. Just because you’re friends doesn’t mean you’ll share that same chemistry. And with Lotus, we just so happen to have a lot of chemistry creatively. He’s a very open person and likes to be a receptor sometimes. He lets you do what you’re thinking but at the same time he knows how to interject what he wants and what he feels should happen in the right way. You don’t feel overtaken or shut out because this guy’s such an idealist and such a creative guy. We always had this saying—it’s kind of a joke between me and Lotus—“Who cares about whatever else is going on. Just stare at the screen and something is bound to happen.”
Flying Lotus is the grandnephew of the late Alice Coltrane. How much of this factored into your collaborative efforts with him?
That’s part of the reason why he’s so out there. It’s in his blood. He’s destined to be a spaceman, and he wears it very well. You never know where that’s going to show up. It shows very much so in this instance.
What’s in store after Apocalypse?
Well, me and [vocalist] Kimbra have been working quite a bit. I’ve been working with rappers Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa. I’ve also been working with Donald Glover. He’s such a great guy; one of the coolest guys that I’ve met so far in this industry of arts and entertainment. He’s just too cool for his own good. Flying Lotus and I have also been working with Herbie Hancock, and probably a few more jazz musicians to come.
—Shannon J. Effinger