Thundercat's Style Is As Funky and Out There As His Music: Exclusive
About 30 minutes into his set at Chicago’s Concord Music Hall, Stephen “Thundercat" Bruner drops both hands from the guitar resting on his chest as his keyboardist and drummer, too, take breaks from their early evening concert. He looks up at the adoring audience who sold out the venue on a frigid Saturday night in the windy city and asks, "You guys feeling good?” Screams, cheers, and applause confirm that they are, in fact, quite well. “That’s tight,” he says. The Los Angeles native is a day removed from releasing his thoughtful, star-studded (Pharrell Williams, Kenny Loggins, Kendrick Lamar) third full-length studio set, Drunk.
Then he locks back into his music—a smooth, velvet-textured amalgam of jazz, soul, Hip-Hop, and funk partnered with lyrical content fit for both talking head social-political programs and inner-city barbershop dialogue. Each song he performs seemingly gets its own 30-second improvisational period before returning back to the realm of familiarity, stirring the crowd into a frenzy. As he’s bathed in green and blue spotlights, Drunk’s “Them Changes” earns the loudest cheers. He also sprinkles bits of Kendrick Lamar’s “Complexion” and "These Walls,” which he assisted in producing for the rapper’s critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly album.
In purple camouflage sweatpants, a black tee under a red lumberjack shirt, Thundercat, 32, was having a chill day in comparison to some of the louder pieces he’s been photographed wearing in the past. Wolf hats with ponchos. Blazers that recall Michael Jackson’s vintage regal vibes. Outfits so heavily stylized and exaggerated that they’d make sense on the characters of the ‘80s cartoon heroes he named himself after. He’s rocked it all. Prior to this show, the eccentric artist sat down with Billboard backstage to talk about what inspired Drunk, why Lamar’s verse on this album is special and his generally flamboyant style.
What journey are you taking this listener on with Drunk?
I’m observing and reporting what my experience as a musician has been 'til now. It’s such a weird thing to be a musician nowadays. If you’re not in a rock band, music doesn’t exist for a musician. You’re just a "session" musician. Nobody tells you that. So you wind up figuring it out. Somewhere between those lines, there’s this existence where you end up drinking. That goes for everyone that I’ve worked with. It’s part of the business. It’s something to talk about. It’s me telling a story from that perspective.
I try not to think too hard about music. I like to see where it goes. I try not to give it a direction. I figure out what it is as it’s forming. I don’t have any goal in mind other than to make the best music I can. I always start with the bass [guitar]. Things get added, but it always starts with the bass.
“Walk On By” has Hall & Oates nods to it musically. Would you say they’ve influenced you?
Hall & Oates is everything. Fuck everything else. [Laughs] If it’s not Hall & Oates, it’s nothing. They’re a titan duo of songwriting. Being able to convey ideas through song, I had to learn that from different places. The best thing is knowing that there’s somebody out there who doesn’t know who they are, just so you can be like, “Sit your ass down and let me play you this.” It’s timeless. They’re a major influence on my songwriting. As a bass player, that’s what comes easy to me—the bass playing. The songwriting, I didn’t fully understand what it meant.
How’d you get comfortable as a vocalist? You essentially didn’t become an active singer until your late 20s.
I’m looking at people like Beyonce and Trey Songz and Jamie Foxx—people that sing like they’ve got chicken all in their throat. I didn’t know where I was supposed to make sense. I would feel around it a bit. I would sing on other people’s albums, their backgrounds. And I’d ask, “Was it cool?” By the time we got to [sophomore album] Apocalypse, it was a weird moment for me. I was like, “I have to sing?” I had references and different things that made me feel comfortable, like, “I know I can do it.” But I didn’t know to what extent I could. I had to deal with people laughing at me. I had to deal with my friends telling me, “You can't sing.”
Of course. I’m not going to name any names, but that was the honest criticism. And I could take it. But it wasn’t going to stop me. There was one time when I was in the studio and I’m recording vocals for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly track, “These Walls”, and a few of my friends had never seen me sing before. I literally had to kick everyone out of the room, because it was weird. Someone told me I had to put Auto-Tune on my voice and I told them, “I am not that guy.” I had to find my comfort zone. Kendrick was comfortable. I usually just sing at home by myself with my bass. It was a process of having to open up.
You have a great working relationship with Kendrick and he’s on “Walk on By.” What’s your favorite part of his verse?
There’s one line where he says, “Immature and retarded is what you call me.” It was one of the things where when he said that, you felt that you understood the inner-workings of what we feel a lot of the time. You have these internal moments where you’re trying to figure it out. And Kendrick always has those moments in his verses where he’s speaking to a guy like me.
On his Unmastered, Untitled album, there’s a line where he asks, “Why you wanna see a good man with a broken heart?” It hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m thinking, “Yeah, why would that be your goal?” I love his ability to connect with that deeper part through music. And when he laid his verse to “Walk on By,” it immediately became this portrait. I was in shock and awe that he could see it.
On “The Turn Down,” you sing about how trashed our world has become in different ways. There’s even a Captain Planet line.
That’s really how I feel. "What’s going on? Why can’t we all just see each other?" There’s a lot of amplified bullshit. Infinite, magnified bullshit. And it’s piling up. "Being Black" is always a thing. Even moving the Black thing to the side, two white people can’t even figure this world out. Nobody wants to make sense of the other. Nobody loves each other. Nobody really cares. Is that how this is supposed to happen?
“Show You The Way” features Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. Today, people still can still easily hear Michael’s husky soul voice and know it's weight. But folks sleep on Kenny’s catalog of classics. Why was it important to have him on it?
Kenny Loggins pours his heart and soul into the music he makes. He’ll take you with him through everything he’s going through, which is not easy. People don’t survive shit like that. We see it all the time. Like a Janis Joplin. Kenny’s still here. My favorite song of his is “Heart to Heart” [featuring and co-written by Michael McDonald]. You can tell he’s talking to someone. It’s too intimate. He takes you to where he’s at. Along with that, the music and the vocals are just jamming. I learned that from Kenny, along with people like Leon Ware. Good lord.
Leon died yesterday and I know that he was someone you knew and worked with. Drunk’s “Tokyo” is inspired by you touring with him in Japan, right?
It’s making me sad just thinking about it. You have these moments where you play in somebody’s band and the person leading is smart enough to show you the bigger picture. Leon Ware took me under his wing, man. He invited me into his life. I was a teenager and he took me to Japan for the first time. It was surreal. It was like playing with Marvin Gaye. I got a chance to see how he created and how his music affected who he made it for. I got a chance to play “I Want You” with Leon. I was 17 and crying on stage.
Up until his death, which is when my album came out, all I could ever talk about was that moment. I can’t even remember what happened yesterday. But I remember every day in Japan with Leon. It was magical. I talked to his son today. I had to tell his family that “I love you guys.” I wish I could have said something to him before he passed. It’s just the way of the world. “Tokyo,” as funny as it seems, was about that experience. It was bigger than life.
To take a turn, your style is super dynamic and out there. Let me show you what comes up when you search Google for "Thundercat" images… What would you say about this guy’s style if you weren’t him?
[Laughs] I would think that he’s just wild as hell. Good god!
Is there any strategy to you getting dressed for a regular day or for stage?
A lot of the time I’m in the moment with stuff. Sometimes to a fault. I'll look at superheroes and comics and stuff and wonder, “why wouldn’t you dress like that if you could?” With fashion, I look at it as a way to express that. I don’t really pull any punches on it; otherwise you get caught up in this nexus of dressing like everyone else. Or finding something that’s a little above the standard. But to dress the way I’m really thinking? I do that.
What are the cartoons you admire for their quality and style-wise?
I’ve got some high standards when it comes to cartoons, man. There’s always Fist of the North Star. That’s one of my favorite all time movies. Quiet as it’s kept, that was the inspiration behind To Pimp a Butterfly from my perspective. And [my work on Flying Lotus’] You’re Dead! And [2015 EP] The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam. I’ve been watching that since I was a child religiously. I can quote the movie verbatim as it’s happening. It’s that amazing.
Style-wise, it's also amazing. I'd watch him and say to myself, “I want to be that guy!” There’s cross-play and character-based dressing up. And there’s a place between higher end fashion and what designers don’t want to admit they pulled inspiration from. You’ll see some shit come out from Gucci and be like, “Man, that’s straight off of Neon Genesis Evangelion.” And I know that. I’m always looking for that connection. I try to find my place in those pieces and try bring that vibe with me onstage. There have been times where I’ll freak my friends out because we’ll go to the store and I’ll go for the weird thing on display and they’ll be like, “You’re not going to do it, are you?” And I’ll be like, “You shouldn’t be here with me.”
Where do you shop?
A lot of my stuff is handmade. Or it’ll come from a boutique and be a one of four pieces.
What’s the oddest thing you’ve worn?
The Native American garb is a very touchy subject and why musicians think they can appropriate culture. So something definitely my Native American headdress. I’m actually part Comanche. That’s in my blood. My family is from Detroit, Michigan and they were there. So just a slight bit off of my generations of Black, there are actually Native Americans. My great grandmother was named Prudence. She had all white hair. I have a picture of her next to her shotgun. Her husband was exiled for murder. He murdered someone because the man raped a woman. He committed an honor killing and was exiled for it. He was a Comanche. That’s why they couldn’t charge him the way they would charge a regular criminal. I never tell people, “I’m part Comanche!”
But that would be the most controversial thing I’ve worn; a Native American headdress. Nobody ever tripped off of me wearing the wolf. But the chief headdress, that’s a thing where people go, “Who do you think you are?” And I try to respect that. Cultural appropriation is corny. Imitation is the biggest form of flattery a lot of the time. People forget that even with the dark past things come from, if it translates into good, you’ve got to be happy for that. Sometimes the timing is too soon.
Do you ever wear clothing to speak about the world’s issues—politics or humanity?
Yeah, man! I’m not very political. It’s nice to make a statement with something like a “Not My President” tee or something like that. It’s a way to identify with other people. But I’ve mostly been identifying with the earth through color tones. The things that you see in the world from that point. I look at animals and think, “Wow, that’s not fair! I just have one color and a bunch of moles.” And you see butterflies or cats and you’re like, “What the hell?” I’m identifying with them.