thundercat is the virtuoso behind kendrick lamar's 'to pimp a butterfly'
Thundercat might just be one of modern music’s most talented musicians. We meet the Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus collaborator who started out playing bass in seminal thrash punk band Suicidal Tendencies…
Stephen Bruner - Thundercat - has spent the last decade jumping from one incredible band to the next. There's not many (let's face it, there's not any) other artists who start their career playing bass for punk thrash icons Suicidal Tendencies, then follow that up with a stint in the Erykah Badu band. This time last year you could have found Bruner on tour with Flying Lotus, writing a large chunk of Kendrick Lamar's groundbreaking To Pimp a Butterfly album, or knocking out his own avant-jazz-funk-hop albums for Ninja Tune. For anyone interested in the constantly evolving nexus between jazz, electronica and hip hop, Thundercat's swiftly becoming as ubiquitous as woolly hats and Sun Ra shout outs.
Chilling in a Brixton Academy dressing room before his show with FlyLo, Thundercat is how you'd imagine: eccentric in dress and expansive in manner. He's flexing a sock/sandal combo that's somewhere between ancient ninja and just plain ancient, and a wide brimmed hat that gives him the air of an avuncular farmer. For the conversation that followed, he punctuates sentences with chuckles and guffaws, genuinely amused by the craziness of existence, with an easy going manner that has no doubt encouraged so many to work with him. Plus he likes to drink and go HAM. What's not to like…!
Where have you been so far on this tour with FlyLo?
We've been to Ireland and Scotland.
How was Ireland? It can get pretty crazy out there…
Yeah, I definitely got crazy in Ireland. Of all places, everybody was like, 'You went waaaay too hard last night', and I was like, 'Where were we at? Oh yeah Ireland…' You just gotta roll your eyes at the stereotype. I got blasted in Ireland…
What do you do when you go too hard? Do you terrify everyone?
Yeah, basically (laughs). I terrorize my buddies. Everybody's like, 'You were a different person.'
Happy drunk or angry drunk?
Oh man, it varies. Like, when I think I'm having fun, everyone's like, 'That doesn't seem like fun man', and I'm like 'It's totally fun.' I'm just wired and clearly just screwing up (laughs). Lotus tells me, 'I'm gonna record you one of these days' and I'm like, 'Don't do that - I already know I'm an idiot'.
You used to be in Suicidal Tendencies, how did you start playing with them?
I joined when I just started high school, when I was one year in or something. It started because my elder brother was playing drums, and Robert (Trujillo, later bass player for Metallica) had just left - there was a short period where a guy called Josh Paul was playing bass, and he had left, and my brother suggested me. I went to auditions and to the rehearsals and it felt like I was at home. I was 16, 17. I didn't realize the gravity of what it was gonna be - even though I knew, I didn't know. My moments with (Suicidal Tendencies frontman) Mike Muir kinda showed me the way.
How were the shows? I can imagine they were pretty wild -
Oh hell yeah! They were full on man, I would look at it like, Mel Brooks could have filmed this! The gigs would be like a huge gang fight. I'd try and explain it to my friends and they'd be 'Oh yeah right it's a rock band,' and I'd be like, 'No you don't understand'!
Did you ever get into any fights?
Oh yeah, a couple of bar fights. Cracking people over the head with bottles, all of that…
Have you ever hit anyone with your bass?
Yes actually! One guy got a little too friendly when I was onstage and I was like BAM. Sometimes you don't even realize the gravity of the situation (laughs).
Was that in the Suicidal Tendencies years?
Well I don't think I hit anybody in the face when I was playing with Erykah Badu!
You've worked with so many artists now - what do you consider a good introduction to your work?
Well, I guess looking back, the first group I was in, the Young Jazz Giants, and also Sa-Ra Creative Partner's early work. I wasn't in the pictures, but if you knew you knew. It was before I worked with Erykah Badu.
I really liked the track, Cosmic Ball.
Yeah, I'm playing bass on that - it's funny, even Ty Dollar $ign was on a few of those records. He rarely talks about it because he's blowing up and has become that guy on the radio. Me and him still connect, Ty's a person I really, really appreciate. He would be my spirit animal! He always shows up at the weirdest points, whatever's going on, he's got a bit of helpful advice. One time he showed up when I was with friends who are super fans, and they were all blushing and shit, and he just comes in and plays Mortal Kombat.
With yourself, Flying Lotus, Shabazz Palaces - in the dressing room next door - you prove that there's a lot more nuance to African American cultural life than is presented in the mainstream. Do you sometimes feel frustrated that, say, something like Empire pushes such a limited view of black America?
I feel like everything is a step behind. Technology has allowed stuff to move a bit faster, that shows Empire as almost archaic. You watch it and it's specific to one small miniscule genre of music. You're just happy that you're not in it, that they haven't tried to write some weird eccentric fake Thundercat! We're like having a pocket with the hole in it - you think you've got everything covered and then shit falls out of the hole.
It's hard to gauge in England how things go over in America - has there been controversy over Kendrick saying some of the stuff he's saying? The album is very confrontational.
It's been embraced. It's been the breath of fresh air everyone's needed. You can see people in the light of day when they put themselves on the line like that. And with Kendrick specifically, what he's saying is honed throughout the ages to the point where you can't deny it. It's not fuelling something, the thing that's already there, it's almost like he's trying to put the fire out.
For me listening to it, it kinda washes over me, everything I've felt or experienced being black, the day to day, the fear, the anger, there's never been anything that's pulled on me that strongly. It almost feels like it speaks for you. So people take this album and embrace it, and I feel that the more time progresses the more people will see how important the album really is. It's not just that it's great, it's that this guy is saying everything. Y'know; EVERYTHING. Especially with the things that are going on now - you saw Baltimore, it's fucking pitiful. That album is needed right now. Everybody has their moment when they use their platform to say something, and usually they don't say shit worth a damn. Like, they'll say; 'We gotta stop killing black people!' There's a lot more that needs to go on than that. Even from the first thing Kendrick says, where he's like, 'How do you expect anyone else to respect us when we kill ourselves?' We need to get that shit together first!
The thing that got me from Baltimore, I saw a video of cops throwing rocks at these kids, like, why would you do that? Really, man? And all these kids come out of nowhere, out of their houses and start pelting these cops, and it's like, what the fuck did you expect was gonna happen?
Is it you who plays the King Kunta bassline? It's got that amazing funk sound - were you referencing anything in particular?
I feel like it's a bit of LA history, referencing specific sounds. There's a producer by the name of Mausberg who used to work very closely with DJ Quik. I just ran into DJ Quik in LA and he was like, I see you guys over there… he appreciated that it was a bit of a homage to Mausberg, who passed a little while ago - he was murdered. We'd just been listening to DJ Quik and Mausberg records and were like, 'Man this is crazy old shit, yo, lets try something like that'. I'll tell you about that bassline - I actually played it all on one string. I remember learning the Suicidal Tendencies bassline Possessed to Skate, and how imperative it was to get it right, it's fast and it's rolling, and I tell you, if you fucked that up on stage you were getting a beer thrown at you. The King Kunta bassline has the same feel.
Have you been playing it live?
Nope. I would love to do something with Kendrick live at some point, to get a chance to play some of the record. But you know, you may never see that.
What about tonight, what are you looking forward to playing?
Everything. It's gonna be an intense night, in the right way. I'm going to enjoy tonight, thoroughly. It's even a kind of spur of the moment thing. I just kinda came here. I was at home and Lotus was like 'Hey what are you doing?' And I was like, 'I dunno, picking my nose, cleaning the cat hair up,' and he was like, 'Why don't you come to London tomorrow! Come to Europe!' And I was like, '….OK, this isn't how this normally works, but I'm down..' So this is the grand finale!
Text Ian McQuaid
Photography Paul Phung