On Grief, Humor, and the Power of the Do-Rag: An Interview With Thundercat

Martin Douglas
photo by Eric Tra
Hear an excerpt of the interview on KEXP's Sound & Vision:

Hyperbole is strongly discouraged when you've spent your life obsessing over music, but is it really that much of a reach to call Thundercat a once in a lifetime talent?

Ever since his breakout collaborations with Flying Lotus a decade ago, the lifelong musician known to the United States Government as Stephen Bruner has been almost as synonymous with the bass guitar as Miles Davis was with the trumpet. In addition to serving as a secret weapon session musician for Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg, an all-star for Southern California punks Suicidal Tendencies, and an essential component for generation-defining works from Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, Bruner has offered up four full-lengths of his own songcraft, including 2017's masterpiece Drunk and his new grief-and-heartbreak-laden opus It Is What It Is, out now on Brainfeeder.

Though the work released under the Thundercat name has largely built its otherworldly reputation on bass clef-shattering jazz, interstellar funk, and deep R&B grooves, there are fragments of dozens of musical styles in Bruner's compositions, including but certainly not limited to hip-hop bounce and the symphonic madness of NES video game soundtracks. It Is What It Is effortlessly glides through and soars over genre constructs, touching on tender R&B ballads featuring the likes of Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B ("Fair Chance"), polyrhythmic and astral jazz ("Interstellar Love"), smooth but complex synth-funk ("Miguel's Happy Dance"), and soulful summer jams featuring an ephemeral lyrical cameo from his cat Tron ("Dragonball Durag"). The songs -- like many Thundercat songs do -- explore friendship and love gained, cherished, and ultimately lost; they split the difference between friendship, heartfelt declaration, and a profound sense of humor. It's an album length statement about the will of circumstance being stronger than that of human nature, about the futility of trying to change the past. Its title says it all.

Hours before a stellar live performance rife with the psychedelic effects of color-splashed visuals and five-minute bass solos, Bruner met me at the KEXP studios for a conversation punctuated by jokes and surveying a number of topics, including growing up in a household of musicians, exploring grief in his work and balancing it out with humor, and which celebrity's choice of sartorial flair via do-rag continues to inspire him. (This interview has been edited and condensed ever so slightly for clarity.)

KEXP: What are your earliest memories of playing the bass? I imagine you coming out of the womb and the doctor slapping your ass and put in a little baby bass in your hand.

Thundercat: Well, it's hard to fully remember the earliest of early, but one thing I remember specifically was practice into the [Teenage Mutant] Ninja Turtles tape. I remember that I used to practice bass on one string because I didn't know how to use all four. I remember being trying to get to the bass line from one string in. And it was just like my dad kind of coming in like, "Steven. That's why there's other strings." I [thought], "Oh, I was like I was wondering when those take a factor into this." It all started with the E string. So that's what I can remember.

Was that [the theme of] Ninja Turtles, the cartoon show?

No, it was the Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze [movie] soundtrack with "Ninja Rap" by Vanilla Ice. I used to practice hella hard to that. I forget the artist, but I remember there's one song on there that actually used to make me get all emotional because the lyrics were, "I hope this world can get it together. If we let things slide, we may lose a feather." It was crazy. And I remember being a kid, being like, "Yooooo." I was like, what is this? But I was playing bass to it.

What is it about music that pulled you into it at such an early age?

Thundercat: Well, I don't know. Music is like an all encompassing thing. You know, it can surround you and consume you. A lot of the time I think that depending on where you come from and how you were raised, it is how you process it. Music was king in my house, other than God. It's one of those things where it's like, for me personally, I feel like I got the message quite early of what it can do and what it was an open door to. I don't know, I feel like I fell in love with music ... I don't know, it's just something about it that it always it always touched home base with me mentally and psychologically and emotionally, I think even spiritually.

It's like the funny thing is, like I always talk about how me and my older brother would fight over the TV, you know? In one respect, it's normal sibling stuff where you just kind of like, "I'll punch you, you don't touch this." Whoever gets to it first. But it was like it wasn't until later that like even when I would talk about it in interviews, my older brother didn't realize I was playing video games, but I was also listening to the music.

I remember we had that moment. He was like, "Man, I didn't know you were listening to it. I thought you were just being a younger brother and being obnoxious." Because he would be listening to Jimmy Cobb and Vinnie Colaiuta. And he would be putting on Zildjian Drum Day tapes. If I started the Sega Genesis, and he had that VHS in his hand, we were getting into a fistfight. But I think it was just I think it was always there. It was always some affinity for frequency and sound to some degree, you know?

So you grew up in a house full of musicians, right? Your dad and your brothers, correct?

Thundercat: And my mom. Everybody in my house is a musician. Still is.

How do you think that affected you as a youngster? Do you even think about it? Or was it just like, "I grew up in a musical household. That's why I am the way I am."

Thundercat: Yeah, I mean, usually when you grow up in a house like that, I don't think you're thinking about it too much. It's just kind of like the nature of the environment. It's like when you see Anderson [.Paak], all his sisters sing and everybody does stuff. It's just any denotation you would want to think of, anything from saying like, "It's in our blood." Or, "My grandma played in church." It's got different degrees to which you experienced that and how serious you take it, I think. I feel like most people across the board have some some experience with this type of thing, but the connection you have to it has to do with how you were raised. And I think that the way I was raised by my parents was definitely different.

So after years of being in a session musician and playing in bands, what made you want to record your own project?

Thundercat: Just being open to the possibilities, I think. It started with me and my cousin Brian Warfield, who is half of this production company called Fisticuffs [which has done work for] Jhene Aiko and Miguel and Yuna. Those are his artists. And it's one of those things where me and him started out together in a multi-school jazz band under the direction of Reggie Andrews. And I remember when he got a car, when he first got a car and he got a -- it was either a Triton or a Trinity Korg, you know, sequencing for keyboards. And he was like, "Yo, we gotta go to the house and mess with the sequencer." He had his MPC and he had the Triton, and he's like, "Yo, let's go mess with this stuff." It's this recording equipment. And that was the first realization of, "Oh, we can record ourselves." So immediately it was exciting.

We would clown and make weird noises because we grew up playing in jazz band, so we were always told to play a certain way. So the minute you get a chance to feel around for yourself, it's kind of like, "Oh, wow." So I think it started immediately with my cousin and we would make beats and and put them on a CD. You know, this is like [the era of] Mac Titanium, which is still to this day, I feel like one of the better computers out of Mac's production line. And we would just have CDs of music and we will roll around, listening to it. And he was like, "Yo, we created this! This is cool, we made our own sound. We can make our own things."

And I think when that happened, it was like an introduction to being able to do more than what I've been doing already. It was ProTools at the time that we were using, so it was kind of like one of those things where and when that happened, it excited me. It wasn't just playing and working with other people and working on records and stuff like that, it was just like it was more like, something new. And that's what excited me. And it still to this day does.

You mentioned in a previous interview that Flying Lotus was the artist who first encouraged you to sing over your own music. And he's the one who produced It Is What It Is alongside you. Could you talk about your creative partnership with Lotus? What's that like?

Thundercat: Oh, it's fun. It's more like life partnership, because our lives just are always in sync in some crazy way, and the music is a byproduct of that. Sometimes you see it in history with different duos like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis or Chad [Hugo] and Pharrell [Williams of the Neptunes], you know, Leon Ware and Marvin Gaye; there's many different iterations of these partnerships.

It does feel a bit from space because it's like you can't explain it a lot of the time. We just kind of laugh at a lot of stuff because it really is like, "Why are we always in full sync with each other even if we're not sitting right next to each other?" Something about the synchronicity translates in the music. And for me personally, it's awesome! It's freaking awesome!

You know, it's always changing [and] evolving, it's like, you know, when one day you sound like this and feel like this, the next day it sounds and feel something completely different. The processing is always there, and [we're] always wanting to try to bend and stretch things.

Your partnership definitely, definitely shows on all of your recordings together, dating back to 2010. So that's cool to hear. So the passing of beloved rapper Mac Miller informed the direction of the album. What is it about Mac that made him so beloved? Out of all of the artists, producers, journalists that I've talked to, no one's ever had a crossword to say about Mac.

Thundercat: Because Mac exuded love and like, not in the business sense. Not in the in the convenience or the, you know, the aesthetically or the immediately gratifying sense. He always was about that life. You know... like we joke about [that phrase], but Mac was really about love. And again, everything from his creative process to how he shared it, what he shared, from that to like how poignant he was, what he presented, he was just always trying to constantly give. And at the same time, he didn't take much. But he always wanted to keep giving and I think that's something rare to see in somebody, something that maybe, again, like the way you're raised, the values that get instilled in you. I think he just had a good understanding of and a good grasp [on hip-hop]. 

Clearly what people can see now, it was bigger than rap. He was very humble, and hilarious. The moment that Mac met my brothers [is something I remember clearly]. He was just always on. He always understood that it was about the art. And his paper trail that he left behind is a worthy find. By the time we get to Swimming and Circles, he didn't leave; he didn't leave any stone unturned. So the body of work is what it is, of course.

But then as the person, he was a sweetheart, man. I would trust my daughter with him; he was Uncle Mac. It was like Lebowski and Walter. You know, we just were always in each other's brains, messing around. He's always knew how to speak to me personally. It always was a reminder, like, oh yeah, onward and upward, you know? And I know that's I think that's what he exuded and that's what people felt. And it was undeniable. And it's unfortunate to see him leave the way he did.

So a lot of your work, It Is What It Is [especially], is rooted in grief. Do you seek music as a way to process that grief?

Thundercat: I think it's inevitable sometimes. You can tell so many stories with the music. You can tell somebody else's story and make up a story. A lot of the time it's still your story. Music can be healing and therapeutic to abrasive and harsh. It could be any and everything, for the most part. And I think as a spectrum for creating sometimes, it's not off the spectrum. It's definitely everything from a coping mechanism to jokes to car crash music to ... yeah, it's all of that. It's all of that in there.

Yeah, and the good thing about your music, the thing that grips me, is the way you combine all of these emotions like grief and friendship and love and kicking bars to someone at the club or whatever. But yeah, going back to the idea of friendship, there's a lot of that on It Is What It Is as well, because you have this stuff about Mac and you have "I Love Louis Cole." Could you tell me a little bit about your friendship with Louis?

Well, the way I've met Louis was through Austin Peralta. And they went to high school together. [Austin] was also a Brainfeeder artist. Another one that passed way too young, in my opinion.

It was a funny instance in which we met, because Austin was really sly. And I remember we had been working on music and hanging out in Austin's, and he says to me at my house, "Maybe we should go check out Louis Cole the night he's playing at the Del Monte Speakeasy." And I was like, "Yeah, sure, whatever," Sitting around making music and playing video games and stuff, it was like, okay. He told me I should bring my bass, just in case we wind up going somewhere else. As I bring my bass, just kind of unknowingly, we go to the gig and I go meet Louis Cole.

We have conversation, and we're all just kind of standing there staring. I'm thinking Louis Cole is about to get up and play, he's like he's got his own set. So then I'm like, "What time do you play?" And he's just like, "Well, what time do you play?" And so basically, Austin just booked us a gig without telling anybody. I could have kicked him in his ass right there. It was hilarious because I feel like Austin also knew that there was no way to get me to just come out the house anyway. It was beautiful. You know, it was a great moment for all of us. And we all just kind of got up and played and jammed. I'm grateful eternally for that moment because it made me and Louis Cole great friends.

Louis continues to inspire me because he's just one of those people that just ... he's built different. Again, [he's] built different and his creative process is specific to him. His sound, the way he plays, it's very sharp-tuned and crafted. It's a beautiful thing to watch. I've seen this guy conduct orchestra to just playing drums and singing. He's a rare breed of musician, you know. I can't praise him enough when it comes to this stuff. Louis Cole is a beast.

So while we're exploring the themes of the album, another theme -- and I feel as though this kind of underrated in your music -- is humor. You have "Dragonball Durag," this super fun song about trying to impress somebody while covered in cat hair. How big is a factor as far as humor in your music goes?

Thundercat: I mean, like we were saying earlier, it's like music is all encompassing. I find humor very important. I'm one of those kids from the Richard Pryor school, so to speak. I pray to God I'm funny. I hope I'm funny. Everything from laughing to keep from crying all the different denotations it has, I think that humor is a important part of life, more than music. You got to be able to laugh even if it hurts.

So thinking about the idea of "Dragonball Durag," I read your thoughts on it in like a press release, and I agree with you that it's like it's like a cape for a superhero. What is it about do-rags that make a black person feel invincible?

Because if you crazy enough to walk out the house with a do-rag, you are literally capable of doing just about anything [laughter]. I was kind of having like a little bit of a cultural moment last night at the show. And I was like showing the squad pictures of cats in do-rags and different ways you tie it and stuff. And I was like, you know, just giving them like this different kind of layout for how the processing is for when you see a cat with a do-rag. It was just one of those things that they were just so blown away that it had this whole theory, the systematic approach to this thing. But the funny thing is it's true. I even found a picture, [I was] way younger. But I was the guy with the do-rag on like even at a younger age, I just always had a do-rag on!

I think at this point it's become a bit of pop culture, like when things start to rise to a degree where everybody can see and feel it. It'll start out black and then turn into everybody's. That's just the way of the world. So it's like those moments like that. I mean, I feel like they don't need explanation. You got the guy that wears a do-rag and then you get the guy that doesn't know what the entire fuck is going on. [laughter] 

So when you used to wear it, did you wear with the cape out? Because me, I used to do the double knot in the back.

Thundercat: Yeah, keep it neat in the back. Like I don't know. I mean when I was younger I had -- I still have a lot of hair. But when I was younger I had a LOT of hair. I think your tying skill comes from, if you're figuring out different ways to tie it, you're already on another level. You realize that there's a game to it. But it's like when I was young, I would just be trying to keep my hair together, you know? So I didn't wake up looking like I just got off a plantation. [laughter] You know, there was that, and then it turned into this. It didn't turn into a full on aesthetic like that until later on in life. You know?

I keep my joint with me. You get tired, you know, "Let me just put my hair up real quick so I can get to this." It is an implicit, imperative part of the wardrobe, I think, you know, because when you bust it out, you never know what's about to happen. You may seek a full on street fight. I mean, I one of my favorite pictures like right now still is David Beckham with Victoria shaking the prince's hand. And he got on a full do-rag. And the way Victoria's looking at him. She just like, "What did I get myself into?" Just like David Beckham knew what he was doing. He had to do-rag like full fledged like, "Yo, I'm keeping these waves there."

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