Thundercat Q&A: Coping With Loss, Surprising Snoop, and the Jazz Roots of Mac Miller
Stephen Bruner, a.k.a. Thundercat, isn’t the man he used to be. Once a renowned bass player with acts ranging from Suicidal Tendencies and Snoop Dogg to Sa-Ra and Erykah Badu, Bruner has slowly but surely stepped into the role of a frontman on his first two solo albums -- “The Golden Age of the Apocalypse” and “Apocalypse” -- the latter of which was released last week on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder records. On “Apocalypse,” Bruner’s most fully realized statement as an artist yet, he’s written songs that walk the line between virtuosity and vulnerability. It’s a funk-drenched, intermittently electronic record that borrows liberally from R&B, jazz and Quincy Jones-era pop. The album was recorded after the death of one of Bruner’s close friends and collaborators, the keyboardist Austin Peralta, and themes of rebuilding after a crisis and confronting mortality are recurrent throughout. We talked to Bruner about dealing with tragedy, his days as an overenthusiastic bass player and what he has in common with Mac Miller.
Thanks for chatting. Congratulations on the new record.
Thank you. I appreciate that. I actually tried to listen to it the other day and I couldn’t get through it.
Really? Why not?
To be honest with you, it just has this weight right now. It sucks that my friend died and a lot of this album was inspired by him.
How do you even begin the process of translating something so horrible into music?
I think it translates for different people in different ways. Creatively, I’m not one to advocate people knowing every little nuance about you sometimes. But I felt comfortable with people seeing me in a bit of a vulnerable state this time around. When Austin died, I felt like that could’ve been me. I was just with him. He died in his sleep. He had walking pneumonia or a form of pneumonia. His body was weak. But you couldn’t tell. You could never tell. [Long pause].
We were around each other almost every day and the guy just disappeared into a whole other realm where I can’t see him anymore. He could be one of the X-men right now for all I know. I don’t know. I was just trying to find some way to show how that really feels.
Tell me about “Heartbreaks and Setbacks,” what was the inspiration behind that song?
That song is definitely about going through things that you don’t feel equipped to deal with. I wrote it to tell people “Hold on. You could be in Iraq. You could be in the Great Depression. You could be a turd going down the toilet.” There’s worse things in life than death.
You’re singing more on this album than you have in the past. What prompted that switch?
It was nothing but a word from Lotus. Lotus was like “I think you should sing a little more on this album.” And I was like “Oh, OK.” I know that sounds silly, but it really was that simple.
Had singing been a roadblock for you? What kept you from singing more before?
I personally didn’t realize people would enjoy my voice, I guess. I’m happy that they do, but I didn’t know what to expect. I was nervous and I still kind of am. I’m not Beyoncé or Trey Songz or anything, so every now and again I feel a little like “Are they listening to me or am I just sounding crazy singing to myself?” I feel like that sometimes.
I played bass my whole life, and when I was called to just play bass, I would be singing in my head. A lot of times when you’re a bass player, you’re just supposed to play nothing. They’ll be like “Just play the record.” Nobody gives a crap about what you have to say. But depending on the person that you’re playing with and how open-minded they are, that determines how far you can go with what you have to say on your instrument. So a lot of the time I would hide that away in my mind. I would still be singing all this stuff while I was playing, just in my head. And it affected what I would do with my fingers, to some degree. I wouldn’t play bass the regular way and sometimes it would freak people out or piss people off and I would get fired. They’d be like, “You’re playing too many notes!”
I remember one time I was on stage with Snoop and he told me to take a solo, and I took a solo. I took a solo like I’d been listening to Jaco Pastorious and Matthew Garrison, and he just kind of sat there and was like “You didn’t have to do all of that.” I didn’t know what he meant. I said “What do you mean ‘All of that?’ You told me to take a solo!” That was one of the funniest things ever. I had a six string, too, so I had gone into Charlie Parker mode [makes rapid-fire scat sounds]. That was probably one of the last gigs I did with him.
Do you consciously make the bass more prominent in your own music?
I feel like I keep it about even. I think the bass is an advantage to have ingeneral, and because I’ve been playing it forever it comes naturally to me. In a way it probably is more prominent because I’m not playing like a traditional jazz bassist with a walking bass line or holding one note. I’m doing different chord progressions and rhythmic things like on a piano.
It seems like you and Flying Lotus worked pretty closely together on this album. Why do you think you two connect so well?
We share a really cool space creatively. It’s kind of like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. They were an amazing duo together. It’s a partnership where we compliment each other creatively so we feel like, ‘Why not work together?” If it’s there, why not exploit it? There were times during recording where we were literally almost speaking telepathically. We would be sitting there working on something and then when things would go silent both of us would start something else, but it would be the same thing at the same time. That can be scary and funny. But he dramatically influenced this record. You can smell it all over. You can hear his sensibility and whatever musicality I have. It’s all there.
Lotus is a very perceptive and understanding cat when it comes to creative thinking. He’s very progressive. And he usually finishes his statements— he ends things with a period, if you know what I mean. He has this ability to see things and go for them. Me, I’m kind of like the opposite. I always have so many unfinished ideas, but Lotus knows how to put a period on my sentence. A lot of times stuff will just keep coming out and I’ll be like “Well how about this, what about this?” And he’s just “Aaaand stop.” He’s a master at that.
Your last LP was “Golden Age of the Apocalypse,” this one is just “Apocalypse.” What’s the fixation with the end of the world?
I just want everybody to die. Let’s hurry up and get it over with. No, I’m just kidding. I’m kind of making fun of myself. It’s like, “You’ve heard ‘The Golden Age of the Apocalypse,’ now comes ‘Apocalypse!’ Next up, ‘After the Apolcalypse!’” So it’s a joke, but I do also take it seriously. It sort of represents the end of an era for me. Not quite adolescence, but a changing of the guard. A lot of things happened in the time frame of making this album in my personal life. From one of my closest friends dying to the emotional changes you witness in relationships. All of that played a factor in the creation of this album. You grow up. Things change. You can’t do the same thing all the time.
It also represents that I was at one point younger and in a learning phase, but now I’m Thundercat -- I can’t deny it anymore. When I did my first solo album, I was kind of like, “What the hell is going on?” But now I get it a little more. It’s like this is where I’m at right now— I’m to worry about myself. I’m singing my songs now, whereas I wasn’t doing that before.
When the world does end, how do you think it will happen?
Well, I was raised Christian, so naturally I believe Jesus is gonna come back and the sun is going to crash into the earth and everything will catch on fire. Butbesides that, I don’t know. People die everyday. A lot of the things that people do, it’s like… we’re not going to be here that long. You just try and do the best that you can, I guess, no matter where you come from. Because at the end of the day, you’re going to die. It doesn’t matter how cute you are or how much money you have, you’re gonna die. You’re gonna die. It’s not to make light of it, but it’s a reality. It’s gonna happen.
So what is after “Apocalypse” the album?
I’m working on another album with Lotus. I’m also working with Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa, and Syd from The Internet. I’m singing, playing bass, and writing for them.
How did you team up with Mac Miller? I think a lot of people were surprised when FlyLo and him got together.
Well, music has no boundaries. The more people get to see that, the more they can connect to how free spirited music can be. You would never know that Mac Miller would be a cat that had an appreciation for such things as a Flying Lotus until you see it. But the funny thing is, in my life as a musician in L.A. I’m kind of all over the place. And I remember I was sitting with Mac one time and he was telling me about how he loves this old jazz club in L.A. called The Baked Potato and that he used to go there all the time. That’s a place that my dad used to take us when we were babies. You would never expect that from someone in the so-called "MTV generation." But he was like, “Oh yeah. My dad used to play and he would take me to The Baked Potato.” I was like “Whoa, you’re one of those type of kids. You’ve been introduced to that spectrum of sound, too.” So it’s funny. You never know what someone is influenced by. But Mac’s mind is there, absolutely.